Building a shelter from the materials you can find is possible, but time consuming. It also requires having the right tools to work with. Yet, when I look at most people’s bug out bags, I have to wonder if their tool choices are really the best for what they need. There are three basic tools needed for building a shelter:
- A knife
- A hatchet
- A saw
While most people carry a good knife, the tomahawk has largely replaced the hatchet for cutting wood. While the two are similar, a tomahawk is intended for use as a weapon. Therefore, it isn’t as good for cutting wood as an actual hatchet is. But the part where I see the most lacking is in the saws that people choose.
This seems a little odd to me, as shelter is one of the most critical needs for survival; if we can’t maintain our body heat, we are much too likely to succumb to hypothermia. Shelter protects us from rain, wind and helps hold the heat of our fire in, so that it can warm us. But building a shelter takes time and tools. The easiest solution to this problem is carrying a tent, but few people bother putting a tent in their bug out bag. Rather, they count on building some sort of temporary shelter from available materials.
Common Survival or Backpacking Saws
Unless you carry a tent with you, building shelter in the wild usually entails cutting some tree branches, deadfalls or even saplings. A saw is much more efficient for this than a hatchet is, so just having a hatchet isn’t enough. For this reason, most people carry
The Wire Saw
The most common survival saw that people carry a wire saw in their survival kit or bug out bag is the wire saw. I carried one for years, before I decided to look for something better. Have you ever tried cutting a tree branch with a wire saw? The best I can say is that it’s slow going. That is, if you ever manage to cut it.
While the triple wire type of wire saw is rather tough, I really wouldn’t want to try and cut multiple branches with it. Chances are, it would break before you actually managed to build an entire shelter. It’s good for a survival kit, where you have to keep things compact, but I wouldn’t really want to have to build a shelter, especially a long-term shelter with a wire saw.
The Survival Chain Saw
Recently, someone came up with an improvement on the wire saw. They took a section of chain saw chain and put braided nylon strap handles on it. This makes it similar to the wire saw to operate, but the saw itself is quite different.
There is little risk of a survival chain saw breaking when it is being used. If anything were to break, it would probably be the handles. But the chain itself, with its cutting teeth, is the same as used on your average chain saw. That will take a lot of abuse, before there is any chance of a problem.
The problem with using a survival chain saw is that it takes a lot of strength to operate the saw. It takes a pretty good bite out of the wood, and that requires a lot of force. The faster you pull it, the easier it is to use, but you’d better be in good shape if you expect to cut much with this one.
Some Better (But Unusual) Ideas to Consider
To be honest, I’m not real impressed with either of those common answers. So, I started looking farther afield to find something that would make for a better survival saw. I had some certain things in mind that I wanted to find:
- A straight, stiff blade
- A long enough blade for a good stroke
- Large enough teeth to make an aggressive cut
- At least somewhat compact
The Bow Saw
The perfect manual saw for cutting a tree branch is the bow saw. I have one I use for trimming tree branches. It cuts quickly, is lightweight and is easy to use. The only problem is that it won’t fit in my backpack. So, while I might take a bow saw along on a bug out, if I had to abandon my vehicle, I would be abandoning my saw as well.
However, there is another options to consider here. The bow saw consists of two parts; the bow and the blade. The blade itself is very lightweight and more compact than the whole saw. While it can’t be used by itself, it can be used if it a bow is improvised for it. This can be done with a springy tree branch or sapling and a little bit of paracord.
With a bow made out of a tree branch, the bow saw works almost as good as it does with the original bow. The one problem is that the back side of the bow doesn’t naturally come out vertical, like it is on the commercial bow saw. However, if you work with your bow a bit, applying some heat and bending it around a camp pot or smooth rock, you can give it that vertical section to hold onto, making the saw easier and more efficient to use.
Another good option is the combination machete and saw. I probably never would have gone looking for one of these if I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Mexico. There, the machete is still a commonly used tool. While I haven’t seen a machete with a saw blade on the back edge in Mexico, their machetes gave me the idea of looking for one.
Lo and behold, there are several American companies that are manufacturing machetes with saw blades on the back edge. While the saw blade isn’t as good as on a bow saw, the one I bought and tried is rather effective. It’s much easier to work with than a wire saw and much less likely to break. Besides, a machete is a useful tool to have in the wild anyway and it’s not all that heavy.
Folding Pruning Saw
The other options I found was a folding pruning saw. This actually provides a better saw blade, with a more aggressive cut, than the machete saw has. The teeth on the ones I’ve used are ground, rather than just being cut, like the ones on a machete saw. That helps them to cut faster, even though you have a shorter stroke.
The folding pruning saw looks like a large folding pocket knife. It just has a different sort of blade. They are fairly light and less bulky than either the machete saw or a full-sized bow saw. The one weakness to them is that they are a folding blade tool, which means that they are not full-tang. There is a risk of the saw blade bending or breaking at the hinge.
I would take any of these three alternative saws over the standard wire saw or even the survival chain saw. They cut better, are stronger and are still reasonably light enough to make it realistic putting them into a bug out backpack. My bug out bag now has a Gerber machete saw permanently strapped to the side of it, so that it doesn’t take up space inside the pack.