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Safety first, as they say.
To be safe and efficient cutting wood in the dead of winter requires careful preparation and an appreciation of what you’re up against: slippery ground, bone-chilling temperature, and frozen wood. You need the right clothing, gear, and mindset. The benefits of cutting wood in the winter are many. You have clear access to the trees, and you’re not battling bugs and brush. The work rewards the hearty souls who take stock and act accordingly. On the other hand, it punishes and frustrates those who have taken its challenges too lightly.
This isn’t theory. We test chainsaws by cutting wood. Some years, we’ll test one or more saws every month of the calendar, particularly some in dead winter. So what we say below is borne of experience. Consult it before you head out, whether you need wood to heat your home or just want to satisfaction of stoking a cozy fire with fuel you brought in yourself.
Scroll down for our take on what constitutes essential winter gear and a checklist of safety practices for winter woodcutting.
The odd thing about winter woodcutting is you need both extreme thermal protection and the ability to slip out of it quickly. The work can be extremely aerobic; you can easily get overheated and soaked with sweat. Depending on temperature and wind, you may even need to change back and forth in the course of a day’s work to cope with variable conditions.
The solution: insulated coveralls with a zip-to-thigh feature (a zipper that runs from the ankle to the top of the thigh). That’s crucial. It allows you to quickly put them on, take them off, and repeat as necessary. When I’m not wearing them, I put them in my truck’s cab where they stay warm and dry, particularly as sun shines in through the windshield. If I can’t do that, I hang them from a branch. These Carhartt’s Yukon have served me well.
Warmth is helpful, but if you can’t stay on your feet, you’ll have bigger problems than just being uncomfortable. Slipping on snow with a running chainsaw is dangerous, obviously. The average work boot is simply not up to the job of winter chainsaw work. You need boots with deeply lugged soles. I prefer these old-fashioned leather logging boots, but heavy-duty lugged-sole rubber boots should also work, providing they fit properly so your feet don’t slip around inside of them.
And that brings us to hand protection. Chainsaw mitts—or “mittens,” if you prefer—are essential, as are a pair of wool glove liners to fit in them. (Just plan to size up slightly if you want to wear them with liners.) These mitts differ from the standard winter variety in two important respects. First, the left mitt has chain-stopping fabric built into it (statistics bear out that the saw user’s left hand is the one more likely to be cut in an accident). Second, the right mitt has a trigger finger that allows you to operate the saw throttle.
Finally, chain-stopping chaps are crucial because even with all the precautions you take, it’s possible that you might slip on a patch of ice or snow or, as happened to me one time, on the side of a branch buried in the snow. That slip can result in a chainsaw gash, which is serious anytime of year. But it can be particularly lethal in the winter as you may need to make your way back to your truck through deep snow. Simply put, chaps can save your life. Synthetic fibers in the chaps wind their way into the chain and sprocket of the saw if you accidentally bring it in contact, enough to potentially stop it from cutting very deep into your leg. These from Forester are light and flexible, just know that they’re not quite heavy-duty enough to deal with the increased torque of electric chainsaws.
You need to be able to safely and efficiently turn a log. That’s just part of cutting firewood, yet I see many woodcutters who lack a cant hook–an old-school logging tool made up of a stout handle and a pivoting hook on the end. The leverage the tool affords makes turning logs—even large ones that may weigh a few hundred pounds—easy. And you need all the help you can get in the winter when both the log and the ground it’s on may be slippery.
Skimping on chainsaw chain is a bad idea anytime, but especially in winter’s harsh conditions as you battle frozen wood. Our tests have conclusively demonstrated the value of high-quality chains from Husqvarna, Stihl, Echo, and Oregon. Higher-quality chain not only is made from tougher alloy, usually with a higher chromium content, there’s literally more metal on the tooth to withstand repeated file sharpenings—necessary when you’re laying into iced-up wood, which can quickly blunt the teeth.
Winter-weight bar and chain oil is a must. This is a thinner oil formulated to deal with low-temperature (sub-32 degrees F) wood cutting, different from general chain oil best suited for summer cutting and all-season oil for summer and temperatures down to 32 degrees. Though it’s thinner, it still provides good lubrication. And it’s formulated with a “tackifier” that helps it stick to the chain and bar.
A chainsaw safety helmet is as important in the winter in the summer. Don’t fell a tree without wearing one.
Disposable hand warmers are perfect to quickly warm your hands, especially when you take your gloves or mitts off to adjust a saw.
A rugged snow sled is useful for transporting saws, hand tools, fuel, bar oil, safety supplies, and lunch through the winter woods.
A splitting axe can cut off a branch, pound in felling wedges that direct a tree’s fall, and turn it all to firewood on the spot.
Having a second person on board not only makes woodcutting more efficient and enjoyable but also provides backup in case someone gets hurt.
Before you leave, make sure a spouse, landowner, or other contact person knows where you will be in the woods and how long you intend to be there. In case of an emergency, this information can be crucial to help first responders locate your position.
If you go deep into the woods, especially on a logging trail, use some sort of a marking device, such as a bright orange safety flag attached to a tree branch or fence post that will serve as a marker. A “Logging Operations Ahead” sign is even better. This is not only a courtesy to help a landowner know which trail you went in on but can help first responders find you in an emergency. It can also be a signal for hunters or snow sledders to avoid the area (or at least slow down).
There are specific kits for wood cutters designed to be worn on the belt of chainsaw chaps. This one from Forest Safety is equipped with a rip cord that allows the cutter to access the kit’s tourniquet with one pull. The kit also contains blood-clotting bandages and other lifesaving supplies. If you do serious wood cutting, you need a serious first aid kit. Still, if this kit seems like a bit too much, you need a good quality kit stationed with you in the woods regardless; add to it accessory blood-clotting gauze or bandages.