How to Survive Alone in the Woods with Nothing but a Hatchet

In the most extreme cases you could be put into a situation were you might have to survive with little or no resources. For whatever reason you may have a hatchet handy. That one tool, not only can save you but it can become the single most important survival implement you can possess. The extent of this concept will be explored below. Note: Temperature takes precedence over anything stated below. For cold conditions fire takes precedence. This is because water is often contained in snow or ice making thirst an easy thing to get rid of. Just as that is true, in a hot environment your body will excrete excess amounts of water making it your most sought after resource.


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    Be calm in the situation: You are your most valuable resource. Pay attention and take note of your surroundings. The only thing that can fail you in any environment is lack of motivation. If you believe you will survive your chances are higher. Its all about will-power!
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    Go to your nearest source of water: If you do not know where that is, then go downhill until you find a moving, clean source. The ideal water source would be a moving river with sandy banks.
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    Wet stick: Once you find a river you can make a traditional wet stick. Clean the bark off from a hard wood stick, dip the stick in water and beat the side of a sandy bank. This will embed sand into the sides of the stick. Keep doing so until ample abrasiveness is accomplished. Use this stick to sharpen your axe or knife.
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    Create a shelter: Build it with a small silhouette in mind as the larger it is the more it will catch wind. Larger structures also waste physical resources and energy in building and upkeep. Also note that smaller shelters tend to trap more heat and heat up much easier than large shelters. Make sure to face it away from the prevailing wind. Also consider the fact that the shelter will need to drain any rain that comes.
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    Use that axe: Once you have a relatively permanent position you have around three weeks in which you can use the axe before food deprivation can kill you or make you severely sick. Also note that after two days of not eating you will begin to lose energy. During those two days it is important to find a safe food source as in that time your body will still hold ample amounts of energy. Tips for this will be explicated below.
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    Search for large amounts of dry wood that can easily be dragged to your shelter. You can use the blunt end of your axe to snap softwood away from a tree. Larger softwoods tend to have a great many dry branches ideal for the making of fire. Also note that pine needles make ideal tinder. You will need this dry wood to produce safe food and water.
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    You can use your axe to chop off spruce boughs. Be careful not to get pitch on your hands as the sticky sap can create large blisters if worked into your skin. The reason spruce is important is because boiling the needles into a tea makes the perfect morning drink. Imagine a cup of nasty-tasting orange juice with seven times as much Vitamin C. Note that this concoction will also save you from scurvy.
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    The only real significant source of fat and protein in the wild is that of meat. By successfully using snares and pitfalls one will only catch something on the rarer side of things. As that is the case it is important to set many snares, in varied locations. It is also important to remove all these snares before you move on.
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    You can use your axe to make a waterproof shelter. If you cut down an ash you can pound the blunt end of the axe on a white, brown or black ash. This will loosen long strips that can be pulled off and used as shingles. If they break vertically while you pull them off the log simply use pitch to fill the cracks.
    • The ash is a sacred tree to many Native Americans. Native basket makers will often times offer tobacco before a tree is chopped down, it would be wise to make this offering, or one that can be deemed appropriate given your resources. This is out of respect for where the knowledge comes from and out of respect for the thing that helps you survive in adverse conditions.
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    Keep an eye out for game trails; avoid those that are large as they support larger predatory threat. Instead look to the smaller game trails that often yield quail, rabbit and smaller turkeys. These creatures can be captured using the stringy roots of spruce or the inner bark of basswood in the form of a snare.
    • The basswood snare is a powerful tool but is a native technology that requires the destruction of a tree. An offering of tobacco or some other comparable resource may be advisable. Never compromise survival to make such an offering.
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    Look for things you can use. There are very few places where man hasn't been. Signs of his presence include bottles, cans and often times wrappers useful for tinder. Also during the autumn rocky terrain is often hidden under a layer of leaves. Men have died because they did not check their footing with a good walking stick, as this tool can serve a number of purposes.
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    To stay warm at night, get up off the ground. The earth gets cold at night. Lay a mattress of pine, cedar, juniper boughs, palm leaves, or just small wood or pine needles. More layers = more warmth.
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    If your source of water is a river all you have to do is follow it downhill to find a road or town. Be prepared however to go anywhere from 10–50 miles (16–80 km), or much further, depending on the location.
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    It pays to be prepared before you move. Often times one reverts to wishful thinking in a time of crises. Again be prepared to travel indefinite distances or you will not survive. In situations where you suspect that someone will be searching for you, it is generally advisable to stay put, provided you have sufficient food and water resources.
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    Never revert to a state of apathy or indifference as the world is only as merciful as you make it. Once you give up there is nothing keeping you from dying. Humans can and do survive on virtually any terrain on Earth. If a technique is not successful, learn from the mistake and keep trying.


  • Wood Name/Class/Use
    • Poplar: Hard; Good for boards, white powdery bark can be burned.
    • Spruce: Soft; Roots make excellent rope, Needles contain lots of vitamin C.
    • Fir: Soft; Sap is flammable, sap makes ideal fire starter.
    • Ash: Hard; Oil-laden, useful for handles, flexible. Burns very well.
    • Hemlock: Soft; Very sturdy, used in log cabins.
    • Cedar: Soft; sometimes poisonous.
    • Black Walnut; Walnuts can be cracked dried and eaten, black husk is poisonous.
  • If it snows, or if there is snow on the ground, do not make your fire under a tree or its branches. Snow is an excellent isolator, however direct contact with clothing results in melting. Keep your body off the snow with spruce boughs or large amounts of pine needles. The walls of your shelter should only be made out of snow if and only if there is nothing else available, as snow can and will lower body temperature. Igloos can be made out of hard snow pack, however traditional igloos were usually made from dirt, branches and other debris. If the need arises one can use their axe to cut blocks to make the iconic round design.
  • Knowledge is your best answer to circumstance, For a healthy survival reference, look to the list of books below (sorted by accuracy and relevance):
    • SAS handbook
    • FM-71 Army Survival Guide
    • 2003 Army Survival Guide
    • How To Survive In The Woods by Bradford Algier
  • Tips on fire:
    • Clear the area before starting a fire, if done adequately insects and parasites will leave the fires vicinity giving one a relativity clean place to sleep.
    • If your fire area is near swampy terrain it is advisable to push all the debris towards the center of your fire pit instead of away. This is to kill chiggers and ticks that are common in that environment.
    • Dig a small fire pit. It should be a shallow hole, about half a meter wide and around 6 inches (15.2 cm) deep. This will help protect your fire from wind and proves to minimize the spreading of your fire as it settles during the night. Also note that by keeping it confined one can reflect heat back to the fire for better efficiency and warmth.
    • It is common to dig a second smaller fire pit beside your main fire pit to be used as a cooking area. When filled with heated rocks (no sandstone, as it can explode) or hot coals from the main fire, this smaller pit will serve nicely when warming water, cooking, etc. as the heat can be regulated more easily.
    • When making a fire, you must make a good tinder bed before it will take. Tinder are any little shavings of fine, light, dry material like grass or dry moss. One can use their hatchet to shave dry branches to make said tinder. The fluffier the material is, the easier it will catch fire. But be aware, the faster the tinder catches, the faster it will burn. One needs fuel, air, and a source of combustion for fire to be successfully made.
    • Layer fire building fuel: first small chips of wood and balls of tinder that can then ignite larger pieces placed above with ample room for air and other combustible materials. Make sure you have plenty of every type of material: Tinder, catch wood and larger burnable logs.
    • For one's fire to get air, make sure as it is built so that the fire 'structure' isn't packed down. A fire need lots of air for combustion. Keep tinder loose so as to facilitate said combustion. The most common types of 'structures' are the tepee, cabin, and leaning. Each are efficient in their own ways, so use whichever is easiest for you.
    • COMBUSTION or THE SPARK - If you weren't lucky enough to find flint, there are still plenty of ways to get the spark.
      • You can use your glasses or any lens to focus sunlight. It must be DIRECT sun, and it takes longer than you think to make it burn stuff, so be patient. To facilitate this method, use a small forked branch about 6" long, where you can wedge your lens into the nook and post the device into the ground for stability. This will save you a hand and much fatigue, so you can finish any last-minute preparations and prime the tinder when necessary.
      • You can rub two sticks together. The most effective way seems to be to sharpen one to a point, and then position the point on top of a flat piece of wood with a notch cut into it. When cutting the notch it helps to leave small grooves as to facilitate the friction necessary. Pile tinder under the notch, and then move the stick back and forth, either by scraping it, or the more popular way, by rolling it between your palms, much the way you'd wash your hands. This 'spin' is a lot faster than scraping yet will most likely give you blisters. It takes a lot of strength and will, but you can do it.
      • You can make a fire-bow out of a length of string (such as a shoestring) and a stick. This method is much like the above method, yet will save your hands from blistering and will provide a much faster spin. Tie the string to both ends of a thin branch about 8" long leaving about 3" of "looseness" to the bow. The second stick, sharpened to a point on one end will be placed on the inside of the bow, and twisted around the bow-string. you will need some sort of hand protection to hold the pointed stick perpendicular to the bottom board with the notch; small flat rocks and fresh bark will nicely protect your hand from the friction burns. Simply move the bow back and forth in a sawing motion until you build enough heat to form a cinder, which will drop through the groove into the awaiting tinder.
    • If you do find flint, use the blade of your hatchet to 'chip' at it. This will produce sparks, and if you have your tinder set up right, the tinder should catch the sparks. Blow on it gently until the flame is big enough to be fire, and then transfer it into your fire pit - be careful not to smother it!
    • Try to keep your fire under two feet tall. Having a fire any bigger is purely unnecessary and will require excessive amounts of fuel and personal energy to get more fuel.
  • Keep your feet protected, dry, and well cushioned. It's a matter if life and death. If your feet get blistered, they will get infected, which can cause severe fevers and you won't be able to carry on. Keep them safe at all costs.
  • When eating berries and wild plums, be conservative with the amount eaten at one time. Most such edibles can cause diarrhea, which compounds your need for water, when overeaten.


  • Find water as soon as you can as one can only survive a few days without it. If you can get fire, boil your water before you drink it. If you can't, drink it anyway. You usually have a maximum 1/10 chance of getting parasites from unboiled water, do not let yourself die of thirst as parasites can be dealt with using pasture brake, salt or ingested cigarettes.
  • Don't eat mushrooms. In some areas up to 95% can be poisonous.
  • Always cook raw meat before eating it, this kills any possible bacteria/ parasites that the animal may have been carrying.
  • Stay as warm and dry as possible (if you do get wet, take your clothes off and dry them if you can). You will ironically survive longer naked and dry than wet and clothed.
  • Bears and other scavenger/predator animals can be dangerous if cornered. Also if an animal stands taller than you at the shoulders a good rule is to avoid it.
  • Get water from a running source such as a stream or a waterfall, rather than a standing source. White water, the kind that creates rapids, is safest.

Sources and Citations

  • These resources are from the book "Hatchet by Gary Paulson".

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Categories: Survival Kits