rural heritage logging camp

Cold Weather Logging
by Brandt Ainsworth

When the temperature falls, people who live in cold climates go through the same rituals every year—they tear apart their houses looking for winter clothes; they hope the first snow melts soon so they can find everything they should have put under cover in October; and they spend two weeks with cold hands because they refuse to admit they lost the left-hand glove over summer. Despite its nuisances, winter is the best time for many of us to log.

Winter logging has advantages other than making you work harder to stay warm. For people with seasonal jobs, winter may be their only chance to be in the woods. Cold weather is the prime time to cut veneer hardwood, because the logs contain little sap and don't tend to stain like they do in hot weather. Hardwoods are easier to fell with their leaves off. No flies are around to pester the logger or team. Another cold weather plus is frozen ground. Many muddy jobs are made a lot easier once the ground freezes.

The first part of being prepared for cold weather logging is dressing to stay warm. A native American I once logged with was missing three fingers due to frostbite. The first day we worked together he showed me his hand and warned, "Frostbite real nasty—dress warm." Vanity has climatic limitations. In winter clothes you never look goofy, just warm.

The first thing to do before taking a half hour to get ready to face the elements is use the bathroom. This tip can save you an hour of dressing and re-dressing; or you can pretend to forget this tip and avoid work awhile longer.

The best fabric to beat the cold is wool. No manmade fiber can compete with wool. Wool retains an unsurpassed 60% of its insulating value when wet, and sometimes getting wet is inevitable. Having grown up on a sheep farm, I always had sheep hides around and used them to sit on. A sheep hide as a seat cover on a skid cart, sled, or skidder makes sitting on a cold seat less painful.

Dressing in layers is the best advice anybody can give you about staying warm. Not only can the weather change constantly, so can your body heat, depending your level of activity. When I go out of the woods for lunch after a morning of cutting timber, I'm always surprised at the number of coats and shirts I took off and left on stumps as I warmed up.

Another thing that works for me is to eat my lunch outside, rather than in the truck with the heater on. I tend to have a hard time staying warm in the afternoon after thawing out in a truck while eating lunch.

Extra gloves are a must in the woods. Keeping gloves dry is nearly impossible, even when the temperature is below zero. A quick way to warm cold hands when horse logging is to put them under the horse's collar pad. I spent much of my childhood warming my frozen hands under the collar pads while my dad cut firewood.

Keeping your heart rate up is key to staying warm. As the old cliché says, "When you get cold, work faster." Working alone on a bitter cold day a couple years ago, I sat down to file my saw and kept getting colder and colder. When I finally got cold enough, I picked up my saw and jogged the half mile back to my truck to get my heart rate up. The reason I was alone was because the other guys knew it was too cold to work.

Cold weather can be tough on equipment. Sled runners easily freeze to the ground. Pry them free with a bar or peavey, so when you start your team you don't pull the runners off the sled.

On a chainsaw I like to put a piece of duct tape over the bottom half of the recoil to prevent snow from getting sucked inside. Bar oil tends to be hard to work with in cold weather. It's slow to pour, and messy, and never all comes out of the can. A logger I know with a heated shop drains his empty oil cans into another can near his woodstove. He gains about a half gallon every two weeks that most of us throw away.

Snow can be as much a problem as the cold. I've marked trees with snowshoes in the winter, and thought I was marking them about 3' or 4' off the ground. When I came back to cut those trees in the summer, my marks were 7' or 8' up.

A big problem with deep snow is losing things. I probably spend half the winter looking for items lost in the snow. Among my favorite things to lose are goads, felling wedges, chokers, and my ax. Painting these easily lost items a bright orange saves a lot of time.

For safety's sake when felling trees, make a clear escape path in the snow. For your animals' safety, be aware of hidden dangers under the snow that can injure hooves. Hidden stumps can also tip over a sledload of logs, maybe on top of a logger's favorite chainsaw, costing him $253 in repairs.

Sometimes you need to freeze a road for a log truck, which means plowing the snow off a haul road so the ground freezes hard enough for the truck to drive on it without getting stuck. Snow acts as insulation, preventing the ground from freezing hard. Bare ground freezes much faster.

Even in waist deep snow, with temperatures so cold the mercury hangs three clapboards below the bulb, winter can be the best season for logging when you do everything right.


Brandt Ainsworth of New York hosts the DVD Logging with Horses, Oxen and Mules and is a frequent contributor to Rural Heritage. This article appeared in the Winter 2004 issue.

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29 April 2012 last revision