In Defense of Batoning

Image courtesy of David Andersen

Hyperbole Alert: There are two types of people in this world–those who believe batoning is a valid way to split wood, and those who do not. These people say that an axe or a hatchet provides a far more effective way to achieve the task than any knife, and decry batoning as abuse–indeed the technique can break a lesser knife. To a certain extent I can see where they are coming from, but I am here to offer up a few situations where knife beats axe.

For those who are not familiar with the concept of splitting wood with a knife let us see what the Wikipedia hive mind has to say on the subject:

Batoning is the technique of cutting or splitting wood by using a baton-sized stick or mallet to repeatedly strike the spine of a sturdy knife, chisel or blade in order to drive it through wood. [link]

This is a technique that is talked about often when discussing the subject of “survival”, but the method is just as valid in more mainstream situations. The typical car camper has just as much reason to baton as anyone else. Here are my reasons why:

Image courtesy of David Andersen

Safety

One of the things I internalized from my time as a Boy Scout is that one must be very careful when using an axe. A missed strike can quickly turn into a leg injury. One must also be very aware of your surroundings, specifically people going to and fro in a busy campsite. We would always rope off a “blood circle” for safety, but awareness was still key.

It is for these reasons I argue batoning is a safer method much of the time, especially for those inexperienced with an axe. The sharp edge of your tool is not being swung around, making it much harder to injure yourself. And if your space is limited, such as in a typical state park camping pad, there is less worry about injuring those you are camping with via an inadvertent strike. If you are a parent with young ones that like to scamper about, this can be especially crucial.

Improvised Work Areas

In order to get the most out of an axe or a hatchet, some sort of chopping block is a must have. But what if one isn’t available? From my own experiences this can make your axework much more laborious. If all you have is soft ground, you have to be aware that any stones in the earth can wreak havoc on your edge. Additionally, much of the energy from your swing will actually transfer through the wood you are trying to split, and disappear into the dirt.

If batoning, however, you can take advantage of any hard surface around you. Be it a rock, a picnic table, even a tree root, batoning allows you process your firewood more efficiently as the energy you expend is going exactly where you want it.

Less Than Optimal Wood

Let’s say you do have a nice stump on which to place your wood. This works wonderfully if you are dealing with cut logs, but what if you are unable to stand your log on its end in order to chop it? Mangled ends are no problem at all when batoning.

Image courtesy of David Andersen

Hiking

One argument I have heard regarding the big knife vs hatchet debate is that a hatchet of the same weight will be far more useful than a knife. Let’s take a look at batoning from the hiker’s perspective.

First off, you will certainly be dealing with improvised work areas and less than optimal wood  when hiking. In regards to weight, most backpacking hatchets have at least a 1 pound head. The Gerber Back Paxe, a hatchet designed specifically for the backpacker, weighs a full 1.2125 pounds. When you can carry a large knife, like the Becker BK9 which weighs only 1.05 pounds (a smaller blade paired with a folding saw can weigh even less), the choice for me is pretty obvious. In addition to being lighter, more versatile and easier to pack than a hatchet, the large knife will chop well enough for a hiking situation and will split your wood more safely and more efficiently.

Conclusion

These are a few of the reasons that I baton my wood, even in preference to an axe at times. Obviously, a very sturdy knife is needed, and there are plenty of designs on the marketplace, at nearly every price point, that will do the job. What about you? Do you baton? Let us know in the comments.

comments

  1. Jon says:

    I am not as familiar with what large knives are out there. Maybe you could do a follow-up article to this, and recommend some good knives for camping in various sizes that can baton fairly well?

    1. David Andersen says:

      Perhaps an article on how to choose a knife that will baton well… what design features to look for etc. I’ll see about reviewing some specific knives as well.

      I can tell you that the knives I featured in the photos above work excellently. The top two photos show the Benchmade 162 Bushcrafter, and the bottom photo with the hatchet shows the Becker BK9.

      1. Dan Schwemin Jr. says:

        Good Article, I’ve often drifted to both sides of the fence, as I’ve broken a few knives batoning, so it’s kinda of a love/hate relationship for me at this point… One thing I thought worth mentioning here with regards to choosing a knife sturdy enough for batoning is that while most of these knives that are built strong enough for the task, unfortunately usually incorporate handles that are merely bolted onto the tang with either Torx or Hex bolts… In my experience I’ve found that these style grips often come loose and begin to rattle due to the shock the handle endures during batoning… This is usually a deal breaker for me because I absolutely loath using products like Loctite because it’s messy, usually gets on the scales, and is inconvenient when you need to remove the scales to clean under them. I also loath the thought of needing to carry a Torx or Hex wrench around with me because my knife handle scales perpetually loosen and wobble about. It’s for this reason that I either simply use a knife that isn’t designed for batoning, and just don’t baton the knife… Or if I plan to baton, I prefer a sturdy full tang knife with a pinned or riveted handle like the Benchmade Bushcrafter pictured in this article. Just some food for thought.

    2. sagebrushracer says:

      I have a Ontario Knife Company SP10, very good at batoning. I would like to get my Dad a SP8 for him to put in his ATV so he can carry it with him all the time. Both those Knives are sturdy, full tang, 1095 carbon steel (1/4 in thick at the spine), I doubt you would be able to break one even if you tried. A quick google shows no pics or articles of people breaking them.

    3. Robert says:

      I think a tool should be used as it was designed…as batoning..
      I have a “Hacking Knife” made by Sheffield (in Merry ole England) that is designed for just this purpose…You can pound this thing through far harder items than you will ever come across in the wild…bricks, blocks ect no match…wood is nothing for this…and it has a sheath to boot…love it…

    4. Mike Knicely says:

      The Ontario Knife Company RTAK2 is an excellent choice for batoning. Look for something at least 8″ in length with a full flat grind.

  2. David says:

    I agree with this article on so many levels. I am glad to see someone else use common sense.

    I would add that I have seen the term “batoning” applied (maybe inaccurately) to hacking w/ a large knife or machete without the mallet or stick – sometimes w/ the stick still attached to the tree.

    For small, adequate fires (when the ground is not super damp or covered in snow) little processing is needed for wood. Much of the processing that needs to be done can be done without tools. Although it might take a little more time/effort. It only takes a few mid-sized “batoned” branches (exposed wood – no bark) to aid the rest in obtaining a small, sustainable fire.

    Good Job TTAK.

  3. Jason Coyne says:

    In an emergency, batoning is great.

    In a non emergency, even if all you have is your knife, there are generally better choices for any significant processing.

    Carve a few wooden wedges and you will split your wood just as easily, with much less wear on your knife, while also practicing additional bushcraft skills that would let you process entire logs.

  4. Sam L. says:

    The Scouts rope off an axe yard for using an axe. To split a small log or piece thereof, you place said log standing vertically, and, hold it in place with a small branch or other piece of wood to keep your other hand well away from where you plan to whack the log with the axe or hatchet.

  5. Mike L says:

    I am a pretty firm believer in the “whatever floats your boat ” school of life. But if I can add my 2cents….grabbing the axe head and “gentley “embedding it into the kindling, then being patient and using the now unfied axe and wood together is safe and effective. The leverage of the axe handle delivers good sufficent energy to split the wood without swinging the axe or wacking away at it.

  6. Colby says:

    Like you said, an axe is ideal in a situation where you have a lot of room, a solid foundation for splitting, and when the wood being processed is very large. For that reason I use an axe for most of my heavy duty wood processing at home.

    BUT, when I am outdoors camping, hunting, hiking, working, etc., the last thing I want to carry around with me is an axe of sufficient size to be of any real use simply due to their bulk, weight and awkward shape. Instead I usually have an 18 inch Ontario machete that I use for brush/trail clearing, chopping, blind/shelter building, and splitting wood for small fires by means of batoning. I have been very surprised at how effectively I can baton through crooked-grained mesquite logs as thick as 9 or10 inches using that simple machete. I then use a 3-6 inch general purpose knife, such as a Buck 110/112 or handy fixed blade knife, for all my other cutting needs.

    That’s what works for me and it’s cheap and easy.

    YMMV

    1. Bobby says:

      No, the last thing you want to carry around with you is a thick perfectly cut log to batton through. In an emergency I’m going to start with a smaller fire, how likely is it that you would have cut logs to batton, but no smaller branches? Good to know how to do, good to have a knife that can, but in a realistic scenario, not going to happen.

  7. Duncan Idaho says:

    I prefer an axe, myself. I’ve carried large knives a bit over the years (specifically the 1917 US Army Bolo pattern) and it always felt too damnably unwieldy. Depending on the object of the expedition, I usually only have one or two belt knives and maybe an axe, in addition to the bow/rifle.

    Cold Steel, despite their goofy marketing, actually makes a hell of a tomahawk.

    Folding camp saws are another great tool for processing wood or game, but I still prefer an axe.

    1. Oregon Hobo says:

      I have a Cold Steel Pipe Hawk, and I agree that it’s a fine tomahawk.

      That said, I gave a shot at processing some firewood with it last winter and found that while its steeply curved blade doubtlessly provides for optimal penetration of thick hides and light armor, it is terrible for splitting wood. Unlike axes/hatchets designed specifically for woodcutting, the tomahawk’s blade shape causes it to constantly pop out of the front or back of the cut, seemingly no matter how perfectly on-center my swing.

      After 15 minutes of pure aggravation watching the tomahawk send piece of wood flying forward into the yard for me to retrieve, or backward into my shins/knees/junk, I finally gave in and started holding the pieces in place with my offhand. I couldn’t just prop it up with a few fingers and pull my hand away when I struck though, or it would go flying just as before. The only way I could keep the wood in place was to ignore that little voice screaming “NO, YOU IDIOT!” in the back of my head and just gorilla-grip it, at which point the tomahawk promptly bounced out of the next cut and buried itself into the bone just below my thumb joint.

      A very expensive hand surgeon managed to find all the tendons and put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and now a year later my thumb is back to 90% of its original strength and flexibility. As my girlfriend lovingly pointed out, this proved not to be a cost-effective means of heating our home.

      All in all I’m glad I didn’t learn this lesson in a minimalist setting where advanced medical aid might be much harder to come by.

      Happy trails,

      #OREGON HOBO#

  8. J- says:

    I’m not a fan of batoning. As bushcraft/woodcraft seems to be gaining in popularity, more and more knife reviews and videos I see on Youtube make wood processing the be-all-end-all of knife uses. People seem to want a knife that can fell, buck, and breakdown a tree into toothpicks and kindling, and batoning is at the heart of that.

    The thing is, knives are made for slicing, axes are made for chopping/splitting. The better a knife gets at chopping/batoning, the worse of a slicer it is. Chopping and batoning require thick, heavy blades, with steep edge grinds. Some of the larger “woodcraft” knives have blades 3/8 to 1/4 inches thick. Slicing is best done with a thin (full flat ground), blade with a shallow 15-20 degree edge grind.

    There are so many high quality, light weight camp axes on the market, buying a knife for wood processing seems silly. I’d much rather have a smaller axe and finer knife as a combo.

    And when it comes to safety, I don’t believe batoning is any better than proper axe handling skills.

    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mears%20axe&sm=3

  9. Paul B says:

    I can see both side clearly in this debate. Personally if I had to split a bunch of wood by hand I would use a sledge and wedges. For taking some wood down from a dead tree and axe or saw would get the nod.

    I can see the validity of using a knife when the ends of the stick are uneven. it would also get closer to the sledge and wedge method which is fairly safe method of splitting wood.

    I am a firm believer in using the correct tool but I always have a knife so I can see the validity of batoning.

    May have to spend some time in the woods this summer to see which is better.

  10. Dyspeptic says:

    Batoning makes sense if your outdoor activities don’t include the ability to carry a truck load of specialized tools. For those who practice survival techniques or enjoy simple, lightweight camping or backpacking a knife is much more versatile than an axe. Even large knives are obviously not as efficient at wood processing as an axe or hatchet, but for those whose outdoor lifestyle requires making a choice, knives are the way to go.

    And besides, for us knife nuts what could be more fun than buying a big ass blade and torture testing it by batoning or felling trees? Works for me anyway. I recently purchased a Kershaw Camp 10 bolo knife and took it “camping” at a neighbors RV park just so I could process campfire wood with it. It worked surprisingly well hacking up pieces of Ficus tree. Would an axe have been more efficient for that task? Probably, but the knife still worked and was more fun to use.

  11. MD says:

    Good article. Battoning is starting to appeal to me. As a kid I spent a lot of time splitting wood with an axe, hatchet, wedges and a sledge hammer. Even under optimum conditions I almost amputated my thumb splitting kindling with a hatchet. So the safety issues discussed in the article resonate with me.

    These days I only process wood on backpacking trips. And I certainly don’t want to add a hatchet or axe to my pack – its heavy enough already. A robust knife seems far more versatile than the axe or hatchet.

  12. 2hotel9 says:

    If you have nothing else you can split/cut wood with a knife. Would be better to keep a “chain” or ribbon saw in a pocket, though, but you can do it.

    As to what knife to use for wood cutting? Always fall back on the classics. KaBar. Next best, Air Force Survival knife(it has saw right on it!!), a “Corn Cutter” type utility blade(you farmer boys know) then you are down to pocket and belt knives of various sizes.

  13. Luke says:

    Batoning is a perfectly valid way to split wood.
    IF you don’t have a better tool available for the purpose.

    I fail to see why anybody would abuse a knife like that if they have other (better) options.

  14. NavyRetGold says:

    My knives are finely tuned defensive weapons. I do not carry them for the purpose of splitting wood. However, desperate situations call for desperate measures, and a defensive/survival knife should be up to the task of splitting some wood. I get ridiculed on here for saying that a “military” grade knife should be usable as a pry bar in an emergency. Well, a military grade knife should also be able to split a little wood. Likewise, a knife that is not “military” or “survival” or “bushcraft”grade should not be called upon to perform those tasks without fail. If you use a lightweight EDC knife for such abuse, you should expect it to break. You should also expect a “military” or “survival” or “bushcraft” knife to survive at least a small amount of this type of abuse and still be functional. All things considered, there is no way I would use a knife for splitting wood if there were any other reasonable option. Axes and hatchets work great for this type of work. Anyone intentionally going into the bush and expecting to need to split wood should take an appropriate tool along for the task.

    1. 2hotel9 says:

      Oop, there it is. In an emergency it is quite doable.

      Camping with kids I have shown them how to use various implements for collecting/cutting/splitting firewood, always with emphasis on proper tool when available.

  15. DomC says:

    I am an advocate of batoning when the need arises. If I need to process rain sodden wood to fashion a hearth board for a bow drill kit, I won’t hesitate to baton with my OKC RANGER RD-7 to accomplish the task…the right tool for the right job…I don’t own an axe nor do I desire owning one.

    Bushcraft is about living and thriving in the wilderness & learning/acquiring the skills to survive there. Bushcraft skills include; firecraft, tracking, hunting, fishing, shelter building, the use of tools such as knives and axes, foraging, hand-carving wood, container construction from natural materials, rope and twine-making, and many others. I suppose “unique” bushcraft is the knowledge that is unique to your surroundings. I live in the southeast and alot of what is unique to the boreal forest doesn’t pertain to me. It’s a whole different set of rules to survive in the southeast than say the northeast or west. Many basic skills can carry over but ultimately you must be acquainted with your own unique surroundings and learn what works.

  16. mcswood says:

    It all boils down to preference as to what we carry and why.
    Lets assume that most of us can safely use either an axe or knife.
    Axes and even hatchets are awkward carry on foot for much more
    than a short hike but they split saw cut wood much better.
    Most knives, even very large ones carry better than hatchets or axes.
    I can see carrying a knife designed and built to take the place of a hatchet but
    I would also carry a knife designed for cutting / slicing like a purpose
    built skinning knife (and protect it’s edge).

  17. jason says:

    i like batonning wood for small fires in my stove while hot tenting. Batonning allows me to process wood easily and more safer than a hatchet while remaining seated inside my tent. For bigger fires i use a chain saw.

  18. John says:

    I suppose it all depends on what you’re specific needs are. I have been an off-trail solo
    wilderness backpacker for many years now. For me, the considerations are: Safety, Ease of use and Weight carried.

    With those being the criteria for my preferences, I have found nothing better than the combo of a good fast bucksaw and a good Finnish Sammi Knife with a scandi grind. I carry a double knife set in a single sheath. One large Sammi and a smaller pukko.

    I have batoned with the same knife for many years now and it’s in as good condition as the day I purchased it. Total weight of both my two knives, sheath and fast bucksaw comes to 2 pounds. I consider every ounce of that (good weight).

    Again, I think it all depends on your purpose. If I were car camping, things would certainly be different. (wait… don’t car campers carry coleman stoves and kingsford charcoal? )

  19. Chris says:

    All this funny business of ” Batoning ” must have been started by Americans……Australia has much harder woods than the in America or Europe, due to Australia having one of the driest climates combined one the lowest rainfall with vast deserts creates tree’s that even when green are the hardest timber. The earliest inland explorers here never used batoning wood with a knife large or small, there are no written records of explorers like Blaxland, Wentworth, Leichardt and many others using this fad technique, the written records of these pioneers used the Axe, the bush saw for timber processing, none of these men were stupid or idiots in the bush, yet you would almost believe these rugged hardy men didn’t know any better, the contrary is true however, Lecichardt the man who explored the vast deserts himself used a knife, Axe and rifle, in his journals he records his use of each, never once using a knife for a job the axe does. In 40 years of exploring and camping through vast areas of inland Australia, I have done the same, axe for felling and breaking up timber, knife for its intended use ie cutting !, no doubt the keyboard warriors will be fuming about my comment. No problems !, oh by the way, see how you go” batoning” a 15cm piece of Iron bark or Snowy River gum instead of the axe,

    1. Mark says:

      Australia is unique in many ways. Always found my visits interesting. I was a knife and axe guy and only relatively recently learned about batoning which I considered gross abuse of a knife. Big knives seemed silly to me but I appreciated learning how to process wood in “unconventional” ways with a knife if needed. Very recently, I have begun to value the parang which is very convenient in the Eastern woodlands of the U.S. despite it’s Malaysian origins as it is a very large knife intended for chopping like a hatchet and stands up well to batoning as well.

      1. pat says:

        Yup. The last twenty or so years have opened up the concept of larger, heavier knives and machete type tools. Parang, barong, golok, kukri, bolo, and others have shown that there is indeed more than just the excellent light hatchet. In the end, in some environments, you can simply never replace a mid to heavy axe.

    2. pat says:

      Like many have said, different environments, different needs. In many environments, there is simply no need for a hatchet or ax. I think the Ontario gen ll sp-53 can take a little light batoning, don’t you? No doubt, some environments, you would be a raving lunatic in NOT using a heavy hatchet or ax.

  20. David says:

    If the main concern with using a hatchet is safety then just baton with the hatchet instead of swinging it. I’ve done it many times and it works quite well.

  21. Sunhammer says:

    I keep seeing people say, “The right tool for the right job.” and then talk like only one knife was brought.

    Generally, if I can haul the heavy pack then there is a hatchet, a large knife that can chop if it has to, a thin medium knife, neck knife, large pocket knife, small pocket knife, a tiny knife on the little multi tool, and a butter knife (titanium). Minimum.
    According to signs up, officially here we are required by law to carry both axe and shovel when camping on federal or state lands. Lots of BLM lands with no stipulation. The occasional ranger has never asked if I had the axe or shovel (which always goes).
    If I can’t haul the heavy pack then the hatchet and medium knife stay home.
    Working up to walk the Pacific Crest Trail for a spell. Hoping to go light as possible which probably means a bit of batoning. A big woodsman’s axe is out, and probably not borrowing a Wetterlings splitting hatchet either even though it would be the “right tool”.

    “Always use the right tool for the job when the situation allows. Always try to have more tools than the situation allows.”

  22. Dave Alderson says:

    Well… I work 2 or 3 months of the year in the Northern bush in Manitoba Canada, as a Hunting Guide. Sometimes completely out of human contact for up to 10 days. Flown in be float plane. For the last 30 years I have carried a Cold Steel Trail Master. And a Weterlings Axe. In all of this time, I have not ever used the knife to “baton” or split wood. Or for that matter even considered it. Axes are for splitting wood. Knives are for cutting things. In real survival situations… if you broke you knife hammering on it with a piece of wood… Well… from bad, to worse. If you do not have an axe. The knife if big enough, can be used to chop small trees or dead fall into pieces you can move. And then shave into kindling you can start. Then the rest can be burnt whole by dragging the tree over the fire as it burns. So… in my opinion… your knife is far to valuable for its many other tasks, to take the chance of beating on it to split wood, that would probably burn whole. The facts are simple. “Battoning” with a knife is nothing more than a novalty. If you are truly headed into the wilderness… And you leave without an Axe… What can I say… Better read the book again…

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In Defense of Batoning

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