The Top 3 Tools for Mechanical Advantage in Bushcraft

by Todd Walker

Part of our Self-Reliant Summer series


Survival TV scripts promote the “get out alive” theme – as they should – it’s survival. The idea of survival conjures up roughing it, eating nastiness or not at all, sleeping on muddy ground under leaky cover, and drinking your own urine until rescued. Sounds fun, right?

Not so much.

I’m a student of the art and science of bushcraft, not to merely survive, but to live comfortably, even thrive in a wilderness setting. As George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”) put it in Woodcraft and Camping,

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. [Emphasis mine]

Bushcraft is primal (first, original, fundamental). The craft extends far past modern survivalism, prepping, hiking, and camping. It criss-crosses all the preparedness circles and powers the survival mindset circuitry. Self-reliance through basic, simple machines (tools) is the central theme of bushcraft.

If you hang out here for any length of time, you know how fond I am of vintage tools. In a natural/wilderness setting, tools in skilled hands can give you the mechanical advantage (MA) needed for “smoothing it” in the woods.

Here are my top 3 tools and few ways to use these simple machines while learning to “smooth it” in the woods.

Number One

In the world of simple machines, all cutting tools are wedges. The cutting tool is primary since a sharp knife, machete, saw, or ax can be used to create other simple machines. The wedge shape of your knife creates a mechanical advantage when removing material for notches, carving spoons, or dressing animals.

For instance, I wasn’t pleased with my fire reflector wall in front of my shelter. It had served its purpose as a temporary fix for my semi-permanent shelter but had begun to char with all the fires built there. I needed something more permanent.


Thirty yards from the shelter lay a massive, flat rock perfectly shaped for a centerpiece in my reflector wall. Only one problem. Distance, time, and my physical force and capability to get it from point A to point B. Work equals force times distance. Work smart!

I didn’t want to expend too much energy remodeling my campfire. How do I get a 200+ pound rock to my camp? I remembered my daddy moving heavy objects by placing smaller pipes underneath – a technique I’d used before – just not in the wilderness.


Top Tools for Mechanical Advantage in Bushcraft

Rock and roll!

A folding saw (Wedge) gave me a mechanical advantage (MA) in processing the cedar rounds (Wheel and Axle) used to roll the huge stone up a slight incline to camp. Though there was no real axle involved, the solid wood wheel worked and got the job done. Less physical force saves calories. Flipping rocks this size while doing functional fitness workouts is fine. However, we want to save energy/calories to enjoy the fruits of our labor at base camp.

Your cutting tool can also be use to carve a wooden wedge for felling larger trees. Wedged tools make wedges. None of these methods are exhaustive. I’m only giving a few suggestions. You can add your own creative ideas in the comments if you’d like.

Number Two

Levers are powerful tools for creating mechanical advantage in bushcraft. There are two types of levers that give MA: First Class Lever and Second Class Lever.

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. ~ Archimedes

Levers trade distance for force. To get the stone started onto the wheel and axle logs, I sharpened the end of one of the discarded saplings from my old reflector wall to use as a lever. Once on the rollers, I was able to push the rock to camp with less work on my part.

Levers can be counted on to save resources like the cutting edge of your ax. Dull cutting tools are dangerous. Here’s an example of a First Class Lever.


This forked Beech tree caught the firewood as it broke

Find a forked tree or two trees close together and place your stick of wood between the two trees. Now apply force on the lever and break the piece where it contacts the fulcrum (point where lever pivots). Stand with a wide stance and pull the lever toward your body. As your lever grows shorter, more force is required to break the wood.

This sweet set up stacked the firewood for me!

A travois is an example of a Second Class Lever. It’s basically a wheel barrow without the wheel. A travois consists of two long poles lashed together with cross braces or netting to form an isosceles triangle. Yep, geometry and physics are part of bushcraft. Native American plains indians used this as a method of conveyance for heavy loads.

Here’s Dave Canterbury’s tutorial video on making a travois in the bush.

Number Three

Cordage, whether crafted in the field or commercially made, offers MA when used as a pulley, another simple machine. My favorite knot in bushcraft for creating mechanical advantage is the Trucker’s Hitch.

While the two loops in the Trucker’s Hitch are not true-to-form block and tackle pulleys, this is a great way to apply extreme pressure on cordage for ridge lines, hanging game from a branch, or any time you need a taunt line.

Mechanical advantage is quickly achieved with cordage when making friction fires with a bow drill. Cordage wrapped around the spindle forms a primitive pulley system which decreases the amount of work required to produce a burning ember. [Work = Force x Distance] The bow drill combines several simple machines – pulley, lever, wedge, inclined plane.


Simple machines create mechanical advantage

Wrap Up

Learning to “smooth it” with simple tools helps erase the “rough it” aspect of bushcraft, camping, and adventures in nature. Now you can sit around the fire on your rustic camp furniture and stare, without uttering a word to your friends, at the awesomeness you’ve created with minimal tools. You’ll also admire and appreciate your connection to the land as you sip on a cup of camp coffee or pine needle tea.

Mechanical advantage is your friend out there!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Gear, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “The Top 3 Tools for Mechanical Advantage in Bushcraft

  1. Pingback: Prep Blog Review: Survival Projects For The Summer

  2. Pingback: How to Fight Rising Food Prices (+Weekly Roundup) - Home Ready Home

  3. animatio

    add about 3 carbine hooks to your basic equipment of ropes to build leverages, pulleys cranes ….


  4. Pingback: 27 Basecamp Projects Guaranteed to Elevate Skills and Fun in the Woods | Survival Sherpa

  5. Pingback: 27 Basecamp Projects Guaranteed to Elevate Skills and Fun in the Woods | Prepper's Survival Homestead

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