How Best to Cut Down a Tree for Shelter Building or Firewood

By Nick Oetken
Publish Date:

Cutting down a tree is more dangerous than most people realize. It should not even be attempted if you are not physically fit to do it or if you are not aware of the proper techniques.

A simple mistake can lead to a serious injury, and, in a survival situation especially, you want to avoid injuries at all costs.

Cutting down a tree is more dangerous than most people realize

Fortunately, you can reduce the chances of injury by learning and practicing the proper techniques. We will cover these techniques in this article.


Ideally, the tree should be straight without any noticeable curves or knots

The first thing you need to do is to select the tree that you want to cut down. Ideally, the tree you choose should be straight without any noticeable curves or knots. If it is leaning against another tree, it’s also dangerous to cut and you should avoid it. These kinds of trees are called “hang up” trees, and it is possible for them to completely slide away and injure you.

It’s also a good idea to avoid cutting down dead trees or trees that are rotting/hollow. This is because the limbs from dead trees can easily break off and fall, which can lead to a serious injury.

Avoid cutting down dead trees

You need to inspect all parts of the tree for any sign of rotting or for a hollow area. Test if it is rotting by hitting it on the side with your ax and listening for any kind of hollow thud inside.


Now that you have chosen the tree you want to cut, you can go about the process of actually cutting it.

Take a few steps back and look over it to decide which direction it will fall. Remember that where the tree will fall and where you want it to fall are likely to be two different things. You can determine where the tree wants to fall by finding the side that has the bulk of the limbs.

You can also walk up close to it and look up, and you should notice it slanting at least slightly to one side even if it seems at first to be straight. It’s possible that the lean of the tree will be obvious and that you won’t need to inspect it further to determine which side it is likely to fall.

The side with more or heavier branches is likely to be the side the tree will want to fall on

Now, confirm that there are no safety concerns on any side within its falling path, including on the sides where it is less likely to fall. Obviously, you don’t want any houses or your camp to be in its path, but you also want to check for additional trees.

If there are additional trees, it’s possible for the tree to get hung up on them, which we’ve already said is a major safety concern and should be avoided. Also, look for large boulders or rocks on the ground in the tree’s path that could potentially cause it to snap when it lands.


Now that you’ve determined the side the tree is likely to fall on and confirmed that there are no safety concerns within that vicinity, you need to select the tool that you will use to cut down the tree.

If you’re in a survival or bug out situation, it’s better to use an ax than a chainsaw as the chainsaw uses up precious gasoline and requires more maintenance. Axes are simpler and very effective for cutting down trees as long as you have the energy and the stamina to use them.

Make sure that your ax is a felling ax. Avoid spitting mauls as they are made for splitting wood and not for cutting down trees. Sharpen the blade of the ax if it isn’t sharp already; a blunt blade will only make you frustrated and cause you to use up a lot of precious energy.


Cutting the tree

Once your ax has been sharpened, and you again confirm that there are no safety hazards within your immediate vicinity, you can begin the actual cutting process.

Stand alongside the tree so that when the blade of the ax hits the trunk, your arms will be fully extended. Your first cut should be a small notch that you can then make larger and larger with each subsequent swing.

Both planes of the notch should be parallel to the ground. You then repeat this process on the opposite side of the tree. Make sure that no one else is within the vicinity of your swing. Both notches should go almost halfway into the diameter of the trunk.

The goal is to drive a wedge into both sides until a small part of wood (or hinge) is left in the middle to keep it standing. The side that the tree will fall on will be determined by the direction that you chop the hinge.

Double- and single-bit felling axes

If the tree is leaning naturally to one side, you’ll have less room to chop the hinge from your desired side and it may end up falling to its natural side. This is why finding the straightest tree possible is best: because it is easier to determine which side it falls.

It should then fall to your desired side, and you can begin to cut it apart into your desired logs for use as firewood or for shelter building.

Good luck and remember to be safe!

© Copyright 2015–2019 - Outdoor Revival