Modern Outdoorsman: Fell a Tree Like a Pro
Welcome to our new column, The Modern Outdoorsman. In today’s fast paced digital world, we often lose track of our connection to the outdoors world. Whether you’re inundated with a demanding job, exhausted by perfectly styled social media culture, or simply don’t know where to start on getting your outdoors education, we are here to help. From essential backwoods skills to the best adventure travel destinations, stay tuned for our picks to help you become an expert in all things outdoors both on and off the trail.
It used to be that every good frontiersman had a solid felling axe and set of woodworking tools. Give a 19th century ranch hand a summer and he could build you a decent cabin. Today however, how many of us could walk into the woods, pick a tree to safely fell, and chop it down? If you’re itching to really play the part of a lumberjack beyond the flannel and selvedge denim, you’re in the right place. After spending an early Rocky Mountain spring chopping a few problem trees in our yard and horse pasture down, we’ve learned the skills to fell a tree that will make you an expert backwoodsman.
Select Your Tree
The most important step is picking a tree. Whether you’re out camping and looking for firewood (make sure you have a permit to cut wood on state or federal land), or clearing some problem trees from your own land like we did, you should look for a good direction to fall, and a good avenue of escape for you. Once you’ve found your tree, check to see if it naturally leans a little to one side. Prevailing winds may have made your job easier if it is already primed to to fall in one direction. Also, check surrounding trees to make sure you won’t snag branches on the way down and create a hanging mess. Finally, before you start chopping, plan your escape route. When a few hundred or thousand pound trunk comes down, you want to be well away from the action.
Pick Your Gear
Your favorite pair of raw denim jeans might look like the perfect apparel for hard work on the trail, but there are definitely better options out there. We’ve been using the Helly Hansen Workwear Chelsea Construction Pants for work around the barn and they have stood up to everything from shoeing horses to splitting firewood. The Cordura fabric is extremely abrasion resistant – these pants will last longer than anything else you’ve ever worn. Likewise, it is time to upgrade your flannel. We love the Mountain Hardwear Trekkin Flannel because it is both wicking and stretch woven. A good pair of safety glasses is also a must-have. Smith’s Elite line are built to exacting military standards for ballistic protection, and our favorites are the Frontman. Rounding out apparel, the Aku Pilgrim GTX boots are our new favorites for demanding work. High ankle protection and a full GORE liner makes these an excellent choice for harsh environments. On the tool side of things, we choose Hults Bruk axes for everything from our little car camping hatchet to heavier felling tools. The Atran axe is indispensable when you’re working with large growth, and will make quick work of any tree trunk. Once you’ve got your trunk down and cut to size, the Bjork splitting axe is an efficient tool that will impress even the most discerning gear junkie.
Cut Your First Notch
Felling your tree comes down to geometry and physics. You want to ensure the notches you cut create a pivot point so the tree falls in the direction you want it to. Your first swings of the axe should create a notch in the tree in the direction you want it to fall. You should aim for it to be between knee and waist high, and penetrate about one third of the way through the trunk to start with. Alternate between straight on chops for the lower portion with a downswing up higher. Ideally you’ll end up with a triangular cut out with a flat bottom and a 45-degree slope up and out from the center of the trunk.
Cut Your Second Notch
After you’ve set up your first cut, switch sides. You want your next notch to be about a foot above your first, and on the opposite side of the tree. This will create a balanced pivot for the tree to fall on, making sure it ends up in the direction you want it to rather than rolling to one side or the other. Like the first, cut a notch with alternating flat and downswings. Once you are about one third of the way through the tree, stop.
Now comes the dangerous part. Move back to your original notch, and start to deepen it. Go slower here, because each chop is making that tree a little more unstable. Stick to the same pattern as before, alternate flat swings at the bottom of your notch with steeper downswings from the top. Listen for any cracking, and watch for the trunk to sway or lean. Some trees will give you a good warning, while others will fall quietly – and very fast. Be ready to step out of the way quickly, and keep moving away from the fall line. If you’ve done your job well, you should be fifteen to twenty feet away when the trunk hits the ground, and ready to start trimming it down to split into firewood.
Photos Courtesy Green Goat Collective/Matthew Parker