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Some Basic Bushcraft Skills for Backpackers

Silky GOMBOY 240 Pruning Saw
Silky GOMBOY 240 Pruning Saw

My ultralight backpacking friends will roll their eyes in dismay when they hear I’ve started carrying a 9.4 ounce Silky GOMBOY 240 Pruning Saw on my shoulder season and winter hikes. But I believe that the gear you carry on a hike or a backpacking trip should meet your objectives and goals for the specific journey you’re taking, not the other way around.

Hiking during shoulder seasons or off-trail, on long winter hikes above treeline in the mountains, and winter backpacking trips requires a different set of skills and gear than the minimalist ultralight gear you can get away with on the Appalachian Trail during the summer. (See My Gear List Philosophy)

Silky saw blades have a well deserved reputation for being very sharp, and it’s true, they go through wood like butter. Made in Japan, the blade cuts on the pull stroke, not on the push, which requires less energy to saw and gives you more control over the blade.

The Silky GOMBOY 240 I’ve started carrying is nine and a half inches with a blade that opens and locks in place in use. I store mine folded in my pack without a scabbard because the blade locks into the handle. The blades are replaceable when they wear out and come in several grades of sharpness for cutting green wood, soft wood, or hard wood. Silky claims that the hardening process they use to manufacture their blades makes them impossible to sharpen with a file, although I’ve seen people claim that they have. Regardless, the replacement blades, like the saw, are relatively inexpensive and cost about $20.

The Silky GOMBOY 240 will cut a 2-3 inch branch off a tree like butter
The Silky GOMBOY 240 pruning saw will cut a 3 inch branch off a tree like butter

I first became interested in carrying a saw last winter when I learned that my friend Craig carries one in winter so he can cut wood and start a fire in an emergency. A group of us were preparing for a winter Bonds Traverse, one of the longest and most remote hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and reviewing the survival gear that each of us would be carrying in our packs.

Since that hike, I’ve become increasingly interested in carrying a saw on those backpacking trips where I want to do a little bit more camping and hanging out, than just hiking all day. In addition to prepping wood for a shoulder season or winter campfire, since there’s little to do at night after the sun goes down at 4:3o pm, a lightweight saw is an especially good tool to carry in winter when most of the wood on the ground is wet or buried under a layer of snow.

Big Blowdowns like this with lots of branches make an excellent source of ready firewood in winter when wood on the ground is wet or covered in snow.
Big Blowdowns like this with lots of branches make an excellent source of ready firewood in winter when wood on the ground is wet or covered in snow. There’s also an abundance of them in  the forests of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

If you can find a tree that’s been knocked over in a storm (a blow down) and not green, you can quickly trim off its branches with a Silky Saw and generate a fair amount of wood for a fire. If you have a small survival knife, like a Mora Bushcraft Black, you can split the wood you’ve cut into smaller pieces (called battoning, see video demonstration) to make kindling for a fire. All this is a heck of a lot easier than dragging branches through the woods or collecting little sticks for kindling, especially off-trail, in the dark, or when the ground is covered in snow.

While it is possible to collect  wet wood you find on the ground and split it to get at the drier wood in the middle with a survival knife, trimming branches off dead trees is much faster and provides much higher quality fuel. Using a saw like the Silky, is also lighter weight than carrying an axe or hatchet and far easier to control.

Splitting a sawed branch with a survival knife, called battoning, to make kindling
Splitting a sawed branch with a Mora Bushcraft Black (carbon steel) survival knife, called battoning, to make kindling

While I’m admittedly still a relative novice at processing wood with a saw and a knife compared to my bushcrafting friends, I’ve been impressed with how easy it is to learn these basic bushcrafting skills and hunger to learn more. There’s an elegance to bushcraft, that of using the material that nature provides you rather than carrying everything on your back, that should appeal to hikers and backpackers interested in using lighter weight gear in more challenging conditions.

While I am diligent about packing and carrying extra insulation in case one of my companions is injured or I have to spend an unexpected night outdoors in colder weather, I think it’s also important not to underestimate just how wrong things can go when you’re hiking in the mountains. They can go really wrong and no one is going to come looking for you until morning.

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21 comments

  1. Awesome saw. Cuts through wood like butter. Ive used a couple others but the silky is the best.

  2. We usually carry a lightweight backpacking hatchet on our trips in glacier because fires make a big difference in morale and keep the bugs down. These sound cool, thanks for sharing :)

  3. Do I see a hot tent in your future Philip?

    • Unlikely, but it makes these skills make it possible to carry a wood stove in wet weather and still be able to process dry wood (with just a knife). I find that “exciting”.

      • I see a box stove in your future, like an emberlit. Flat, light, but takes a little practice assembling with cold hands.

  4. Well said. I find the elegant simplicity of bushcraft techniques to be appealing. The Ray Mears of the world also carry a much deeper understanding of the natural world than do most, and the more I delve into bushcraft, the more active my awareness becomes about what surrounds me—I see the Old Man’s Beard lying in the ground that I once overlooked, dry weeds register as tinder, a long-felled pine grips my attention as a source of fatwood. While not all bushcraft skills are LNT, many are essential for survival scenarios. I’ve batonned wood to get to the dry core for fire starting in adverse conditions when warmth was essential. Bushcraft is, in fact, once reason I always carry a fixed blade knife when backpacking—Moras for extended backcountry treks, more indulgently heavy knives for car camping. Yes, such implements add weight, but knowledge weighs nothing, and sometimes it is knowledge that makes all the difference. Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  5. Depending on the trip and whether I have a goal of some sort in mind, I may carry my original Boy Scout Axe or one of these Saws. Dead pines like this, the Ax tends to bounce off of, so a Saw would be a safer way to go. And Sometimes I bring Rose Pruners especially going cross country instead of a Machete or a big knife.. In your 3rd picture of the downed tree is where I would use it the most! NOT to cut firewood, but to create a shelter of sorts. making sure you do not cut the under branch that is holding up the tree. I would roll that long down piece to the side, then I would cut off as many dead branches as I needed to secure a Tarp over the top of and then secure the Tarp to the ground with small stakes cut from the smaller branches of the downed tree.

  6. Phil, if you have not heard of the upside down fire, check out this video link. It makes life so much easier versus fighting to get enough oxygen to the base of a traditional fire start, and actually works best with some wind present. With wetter upper wood you do need to have a side stash of lighter wood to feed the top if it dies down, but once those coals drop down, you are good to go. Its the way I make all my fires now.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFG52W48kE0

  7. You are starting to sound like Brian Green now haha. His blog is full of awesome bushcraft stuff. Check out the videos that Ray Mears has on his youtube channel, you will learn a lot about sharpening knives in the field, and building shelters, and knife skills. https://www.youtube.com/user/RayMearsBushcraft

    This is a big departure for you from carrying just a tiny Swiss Army knife with a scissors! I actually just got one of those Mora knives for someone as a gift, and I’m getting another one for myself, it is an awesome blade. You can get one for around $12 on Amazon. There is just something fun about processing wood and building fires while out backpacking that I love. Sometimes it is worth it to carry an extra pound.

  8. I certainly respect everyone’s right to use tools such a saws, especially in survival mode, but personally, do not appreciate seeing saw cuts in the wilderness.They can leave quite a signature in all the wrong places, often done by well intentioned folks “practicing” survival skills. If one must saw, please… never forget the LNT mantra.

    • I completely agree. The only exception might be trail samaritans who cut down blow downs blocking a trail, thereby preventing a new trail from being formed as people walk around the tree and encourage trail widening and erosion.

  9. I like what you said, “…the gear you carry on a hike or a backpacking trip should meet your objectives and goals for the specific journey you’re taking, not the other way around.”

    Sometimes people get so hung up on weight they forget to think about what they really need to be safe and enjoy a particular trip.

  10. I’ve carried a cheap ($8 at Walmart) Cooglan folding saw with me for several years and consider it essential gear. Super light and sharp, I use it mainly for cutting dead branches off fallen pines/cedars, which make sweet firewood for my SoloStove since they’re full of pitch and are well seasoned and dry. I also use it occasionally to clear a fallen limb hanging at head level on the trail that’s sure to “clothesline” the next hiker to come along, working hard to “leave no trace.”

  11. What are the LNT principles for processing wood in this way in non-survival situations? Do you cut and baton blow-down branches for a fire at camp under normal circumstances?

    • LNT is only concerned about “observable” impacts in high traffic/high impact areas. So, cutting branches on downed wood is something I wouldn’t do anywhere where it would be seen by other people and “ruin” their experience. I don’t normally cut wood for campfires since I use a backpacking stove, but if i did, I’d probably only do so way up in Northern New Hampshire (where there is NO ONE except moose) and I wanted to grill fish that I’d caught.

  12. I’ve been using the 15″ Little Buck from the cottage company QiWiz. It’s nearly twic as expensive, but it’s less than 4 ounces and is a wonderful saw

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