Tools separate us from animals, with the exception of a few primates. With limited resources at hand, it is possible to greatly increase your camp experience by making camp tools from wood. Prehistoric man used stone, but with careful selection and preparation, some wooden tools are just as effective in accomplishing camp tasks.
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Edible and medicinal plants are a staple of what I teach. Certain plants like leeks, Indian cucumber and cattail require harvesting below the surface. Choose a 2.5-foot-long piece of hardwood approximately 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Using your knife, carve the wider end of the wood to a wedge. Make sure to remove bark from around the entire section that will be used in the ground; this will reduce friction. Keep the bark around the handle as it will improve grip. Once done, make sure to fire-harden it by placing it in the ash where there is heat but no air. This will rapidly remove the moisture from the wood, creating a very solid tool. To use, probe and lever the dirt from the ground.
Much like the digging stick, the digging adze allows for one-handed use. This tool is very useful around camp when creating run-off channels around your tent, kitchen and camp. The digging adze can also be very useful when preparing buckskin for fleshing the hide. To create an adze, find a branch growing from a solid hardwood tree. Cut the tree above and below the branch, leaving enough trunk to carve the adze blade and cut the branch about 12 inches from the trunk. This will create your handle. Carve your adze from the inside angle of the trunk and handle to the outside edge, creating a wedge. Let dry and use as any other adze.
Pot Lifters & Holders
Whenever time, space and weight allow, I would rather cook in cast iron than titanium or stainless steel. The problem with Dutch oven cooking most obviously is the weight. If you factor in the lid lifter, lid stand and tripod, the prospect of remaining relatively lightweight goes out the window. Utilizing wooden tools and cooking implements, it is possible to carry only the Dutch oven and create tripods, lid lifters and lid stands from green saplings.
To create a lid lifter, cut a forked branch to leave a hook on one end and a long handle on the other. If you realize your lid is not overly heavy, then you do not need to use a forked stick that is too thick. I have had success using branches as thin as a quarter inch in diameter as a lifter, with the knot rounded smooth where the hook protrudes from.
In creating the lid stand, cut two 1-inch-diameter and 1.5-foot-long lengths of branches. At the center of each, create a notch about halfway way through the diameter. These notches will mate and ideally form a level surface to rest your lid on. I prefer this to using stones since stones can scratch my lid as well as leave grit in my food upon recovering.
Finally, to create a tripod for your Dutch oven to hang from, cut three 6-foot saplings and bind them together with your preferred tripod lashing method. Use a similar pot lid lifter, only oversized, to hang your Dutch oven from the center of the tripod. You can fashion an adjustable hanger by carving out additional notches down the length of the shaft.
Metal grills are found in many campgrounds, even backcountry campgrounds. We generally don’t have an aversion to using a grill others have used before us, but we do hesitate to use utensils others may leave behind. Carving a camp spatula is easy and requires basic knife skills. I teach carving spatulas as a prerequisite to carving spoons. Once a student has made enough spatulas to learn the basic carving methods, they can experiment with different sizes and eventually carve or burn out the bowl or the spoon.
From a single round of softwood (birch is my favorite) about 12 inches long, baton a knife through twice to create a flat board approximately 1.5 inches thick. From this board the handle is carved, as is the spatula blade. Depending on the shape of the round of wood, you can often make a spatula with a natural offset to the handle. Always look at the potential of what you make with an object. Remember, some of the nicest Scandinavian kuskas (drinking cups) and bowls are made with wood burls. That knotted wood may yield a unique tool.
There have been many times I’ve grabbed the nearest stick, pushed it into the ground and tied it off as an expedient tent or tarp stake. Then again, there are also many times in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the night and in the middle of a great night’s sleep that I’ve awoken to find that quick tent stake flapping in the wind with the corner of my tarp or rain fly. Carving an effective tent stake can mean the difference of a full night of sleep or an interrupted night.
When making tent stakes, don’t be afraid to overbuild them. I’m not advocating for creating a peg which will hold a circus tent down, but I am suggesting creating something that will hold up to pounding with a rock, mallet or stepping on with your boot. If possible, use the growth of a branch to create a hook on your tent stake. When that’s not possible, create a notch around the perimeter of your tent stake where cordage can wrap around for a secure purchase.
Also, remember how wood splinters and splits when hit. Generally, it will break from the outside edge, so make sure to bevel your edges. Also, if you want an aggressive tent stake, think about barbing the shaft. This will grip the ground and prevent it from pulling straight out.
Read modern reviews of knives and they will state how well they baton. Batoning wood means introducing a supplemental weight to the knife to improve its splitting ability. I usually will pick up any old branch, but when I can I make a “bunny thumper.” This name comes from the trapping clinics I used to hold when I would explain how animals found in traps alive must be dispatched humanely. Turns out the “bunny thumper” works extremely well for batoning wood, too.
To create a bunny thumper, you will need a good-sized round of wood with some girth to it. Determine how long you want the head of your baton and cut down cross grain into the wood about a quarter of the way through, around the circumference. From the opposite side of the head, you will baton through to the stop cut to free the material. Through this process, you are shaping the handle.
Once you have the rough shape, use your knife to smooth out the handle. Remove the bark from the baton head as it will provide a “spongy” barrier to the hardwood and decrease the effectiveness of the tool. I find leaving the handle of the baton not perfectly smooth provides some grip when using it. Like the other wooden tools described here, make sure to bevel the edges wherever possible.
Learning to make what you need from the land is part of the evolution of your backwoods skills. As you learn to make tools, you’ll become less dependent on carrying more gear. As you perfect the skills to make tools, you can set your sights on other projects. Eventually, you become more and more confident in traveling through the natural world. As we move toward new inventions and innovations in the future of the outdoor sporting goods world, we run the risk of forgetting the skills of past. While gadgets and electronics are great to have, primitive knowledge will always be with you when parts wear out and batteries drain.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.