Let’s get something out of the way before we even start this. We do not condone unauthorized trimming of vegetation on public trails. The only acceptable way for you to do your part is under the organized direct supervision of a land manager or a group legally authorized by that land manager. Any time any overgrowth or deadfall removal is ever done outside of these specific circumstances, it is flawed, unhelpful, and should be severely punished.
There. I, for one, feel far better. Now that the only people reading this are in the specific situation outlined above, we can get down to business. I’m no hero, but I’ve put in my time behind a gas-powered chainsaw keeping the seasonal surge of southern California chaparral at bay. And it’s magical. The first time you pull the trigger and clear your favorite trail’s worst choke point, you feel like a wizard. And you can buy one for relatively cheap, especially compared to the saws I’m talking about here. You’ll probably spend less on a decent quality gas chainsaw than you would on a lower-powered electric chainsaw once you buy batteries and a charger, which aren't included in the listed prices, and aren't cheap. A single Makita-brand charger and 18V 5.0AH battery come together for $195.
But gas-powered chainsaws are a pain. They’re noisy, smelly and require a level of care and maintenance that we non-motorized enthusiasts just aren’t used to. So, I bought myself a couple electronic-assist trailcutting tools, and I’m here to outline some pros and cons of each.
I opted for Makita because I already had Makita batteries. There are plenty of tool nuts on Youtube comparing various brands’ cutting speed, battery life, longevity and durability. It’s not very interesting, and it’s not what I’m here to do. I’m covering the fundamental differences between two categories; the chainsaw and the reciprocating saw, which I’ll just call a sawzall because I’m not a robot. You can pick whatever brand works for you. I recommend the brand you already have batteries for.
For some context, most of my work is on low-lying overgrowth and small trees, so I opted for relatively compact tools. I want to carry them in and out the same day, but not need a huge trekking pack to do it. And I want to still be able to enjoy the ride. Anyway, on my trails, clearing full-sized fallen trees is relatively uncommon compared to constantly encroaching brush. Makita 18V LXT Cordless Top Handle 10" Chain Saw: $239.99
Because of my experience with gas
chainsaws, the chainsaw is where I started. This 10-inch-bar 18-volt offering from Makita (model number XCU06Z) weighs 6.6 pounds with a 5 amp-hour battery and fits in my 20-liter Camelbak Hawg pack without any disassembly, though I opt to run a 70-percent-full hydration bladder and relocate it from against my back to instead nestle in the void just outboard of the guide bar and above the power head. I could
just wear a larger pack, but this configuration keeps things snug and compact. One side of the saw is relatively flat, so the layer of padding built into my pack keeps me from feeling any pressure points, but be ready to get creative to suit your needs.
Chain installation, adjustment and lubrication works just like it would on a gas saw, and battery-operated saws use the same chains as comparably-sized gas saws, so replacements are easy to find. I carry one with just in case, as well as a small bottle of bar oil, but I usually run through this saw’s reservoir in the same time it would take to go through two 5Ah batteries. In most cases, that was a little under three hours of cutting and clearing which, as remote as I’ve been working lately, is pretty much long enough to call it a day.
Using an electric chainsaw, I had to constantly remind myself to take things seriously. It’s probably quieter than my Magic Bullet blender, and there’s no idle noise. No pageantry of priming the carburetor or pulling the starting cord. That also means it is a delight to use. In Makita’s case, the safety switch is depressed the moment you hold the handle, so the power is right at your fingertip. And although there is a stabilizing bar to hold onto, I primarily used the chainsaw one-handed. That was a treat because, often, the base of whatever I’m cutting is buried nearly out of reach in dense overgrowth. Eventually, this little guy became an extension of my body, like Ash in Evil Dead 2.
Of course, it has its limits. Makita claims this 18-volt saw matches the power of a 22cc gas saw. That’s pretty tiny. Most saws you might use for trail cutting are at least 32cc. Cutting anything beyond 4 inches thick with an electric saw this small is a bit of a chore, and that gets more difficult when it’s dry deadfall. Give it time, and it’ll go through thick, soft green wood relatively smoothly, but not on anything dry or dense.
That nuisance is doubled by Makita’s Star Protection system that shuts the saw off if it senses it is overheating or overdischarging. Apparently, the speed and force it takes to get an electric chainsaw to behave like a gas chainsaw is pretty serious. Powering it with a battery most of us use in a household drill requires some protection. Protection against this $240 saw from cooking one of its $100 batteries or vice versa, and that protection comes in the form of inconveniently timed shutoffs. You can toggle the power button and spam it back to running in five or ten seconds, but the more I did that, the shorter the spurts of running time would get. I eventually got in the habit of carrying a small folding handsaw in my pocket to kill the 60 seconds it usually took to get it back in the mood to run.
The other thing I had to stay aware of was keeping the cutting teeth of the chain away from dirt and rocks. I’m well practiced at all that from my time with a gas saw, but it harshed the buzz (pun intended) of having such a light and easy tool in my hand. And even after I’d cleared a section, there’d often be small stumps left behind. If I had a sharp pick mattock with me, I was then obliged to chop out the pungi sticks that I’d left behind.Makita 18V LXT Cordless Sub-Compact Reciprocating Saw: $159.99
That’s when I got inspired to try a sawzall. Most of what I need to cut is three inches in diameter or less, and most of it needs to be cut at or sometimes below ground level to keep it from growing back. All of the sensitive moving parts of a sawzall are inside of it, so there’s really no need to baby the blade. Seemed like a no-brainer for my application.
The true apples-to-apples (or at least dollar-for-dollar) comparison to the $200, 18-volt 10-inch Makita chainsaw would be the $200 XRJ05Z 18-volt Brushless Recipro saw. I borrowed one, and spent enough time on it to know it may be a good fit for my trails, but also that it is not the saw I want to spend hours holding in my hand climbing through the bush. It’s 8.2 pounds with a battery, and most of that weight is cantilevered far in front of the grip, making it extremely difficult to use one-handed. In a large pack, it does nestle itself next to a standard 100-ounce hydration bladder quite nicely, and is overall an easier thing to transport, but it is not an easy thing to use.
So, I opted for the $150 sub-compact version, model number XRJ07B. Functionally, the main difference is in the stroke length. That sacrifice varies between brands, but in Makita’s case, the full-sized XRJ05Z has a 1&1/4-inch stroke while the sub-compact gets 13/16-inch. In practice, that translates to it taking approximately 10 percent more time to get through the same branch. How that impacts battery life is far more difficult to quantify, though it’s likely not positive. But it didn’t matter to me. The sub-compact saw is 5.7 pounds with a battery, and that weight is far closer to the handle, making it nearly as easy to use one-handed as the chainsaw is. Also, it packs easier. It fits perfectly in the upper compartment of my 19-liter-capacity Camelbak Mule LR.
It took some adjustment to optimize my use of such a different tool. My goal when clearing brush is to cut as close to the ground as possible, and I eventually learned I could cut below
the ground. Once I knew the size and shape of what I was cutting, I’d pretty much jab the blade into the dirt and push it to the left until it was through. Or, until it hits a rock or a second unseen root.
The danger in such indiscriminate slicing is not knowing what you’re up against. Most woodcutting blades are easy to bend, but hard to straighten. Demolition blades are taller and stiffer, and the smaller teeth don’t dull as quickly, but they don’t act as quickly either. I now have a small canvas pouch with several blades. The 6-inch demolition blade’s durability is ideal for sticking in the dirt, 6-inch woodcutting blades for thick branches and small trees, and 9- and 12-inch pruning blades can decapitate large yucca or, with patience, get through nearly any deadfall the blade is long enough to span.
I really was able to drive the sawzall hard. I truly never had it shut off on me like the chainsaw. Whether going from stump to stump or just driving through something thick and heavy, it stayed on until the job was done. But there is one annoying flaw that often forced me to use the sawall in one specific way. A chainsaw constantly pulls in one direction. Once it hits the base of the blade, it cuts through it. The sawzall, on the other hand, goes back and forth. If whatever you’re cutting is able to move back and forth, you’ll find yourself just shaking a branch.
Even if you think you’re making progress on something, a sprout just behind it may be stopping the blade from progressing. It’s crucial to only cut things that are stiff and stationary. This issue is compounded as the blades get dull which, with how I use this thing, tends to happen quickly. And many of the nice fancy blades are not easy to sharpen, so I find myself buying a couple new blades every three or four outings with the sawzall. Thankfully, the ones I use the most are about $5 each, less if you buy in bulk.
Your results may vary. Pacific Northwest and East Coast riders who deal with huge fallen trees and broken branches are in a whole different world from us desert folk. I’m glad I have my chainsaw for specific strike missions to address specific treefall, but when I set out to give myself and my fellow riders a little extra elbow room, I’m bringing my sawzall.