If you’re someone who’s spent a fair amount of time camping, you probably already know how useful having an axe or hatchet around the campsite can be. From hammering tent stakes to splitting kindling, axes are designed to be workhorses that can be used for a wide range of tasks.
In this guide, you’ll learn exactly how to choose the right hatchet or axe and, of course, I’ll share what I think are the best camping hatchets and axes currently on the market.
I recommend putting in just as much time and effort into choosing a hatchet as you do a knife, especially if you need something for the bush.
- Here Are the Best Camping Hatchets and Axes
- 1. Estwing 14 Inch Sportsman’s Axe
- 2. Husqvarna 19 Inch Carpenter Axe
- 3. Schrade SCAXE10 11 Inch
- 4. Council Tool Hudson Bay Camp Axe (Best Overall)
- 5. Off Grid Tools Survival Axe
- 6. GRANSFORS BRUK Wildlife Hatchet
- 7. Hults Bruk Jonaker Hatchet
- 8. Gerber Gator Combo Axe II
- 9. Gerber Pack Hatchet
- 10. Drake Off Road Tools Viking Axe
- 11. Operator Axe by 5.11
- 12. RMJ Tactical Kestrel Feather Tomahawk
- 13. Gerber Downrange Tomahawk
- 14. SOG Camp Axe
- 15. SOG Tactical Tomahawk
- 16. CRKT Kangee Tomahahwk
- 17. CRKT Ruger Hatchet
- Finding the Perfect Hatchet or Axe for Camping (Buying Guide)
Here Are the Best Camping Hatchets and Axes
Below, I’ve listed out my favorite axes and hatchets. Keep in mind that “best” axe really depends on what you’re planning on using it for. I’ll list my personal favorites for what I use hatchets and axes for below.
1. Estwing 14 Inch Sportsman’s Axe
Estimated Price: $48
My Review: Estwing is a company that’s well known for making some of the highest quality hammers and axes at a reasonable price. This axe here is good for pretty much all chopping and camping applications. It’s also a very popular throwing axe (although Estwing does not recommend it for throwing) because it’s made from one piece of steel. The balance of the axe is great and it fits really well in the hand and the leather really adds a nice touch.
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The head of the axe is great for cutting lending to the high carbon tool steel it is made from. The back of the head is flat so you can hammer all day long with it if you have to. The thing about hatchets and knives that are made in a large factory is that you will encounter some things that you wouldn’t if you bought hand made products. This isn’t a knock against the hatchet itself, but don’t handmade craftsmanship from an axe that is mass-produced. There may be some dents and chips on the blade or handle. Overall, it’s a solid hatchet that’s made in the USA and sold at an affordable price.
With a hatchet of this quality, I would prefer a leather sheath, but the ballistic nylon sheath that comes with does get the job done. Estwing also makes a camping hatchet with a longer handle you can check out here.
- Forged as one piece
- High carbon steel blade
- Comes with nylon sheath
- Leather handle
- Weight: 2 pounds
- Length: 13 inches
2. Husqvarna 19 Inch Carpenter Axe
Estimated Price: $55
My Review: It is nice to see a larger company execute so well on a handmade product. This hatchet is made out of Swedish steel, which means it is made from higher quality iron ore than what we are used to in the United States. The Swedes have been known worldwide for making great steel and have done a pretty good job of hiding their secrets. Just know this axe head is made of a high carbon steel that retains an edge extremely well.
Oh man, I love that the people who made this left the mill scale on the head. This not only gives it an antique look, but it is an extremely good corrosion barrier. So, they have really helped you out by making maintenance a little easier for you. But you will still need to keep the edge clean and oiled.
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Since this is made of hickory, it ranks higher than the Viking axe that is on the list. Hickory has long been the standard for tool handles because they are almost indestructible unless you get a handle that has an internal flaw.
The edge guard doesn’t really do much other than protecting you from the sharp edge so find a sheath that fits. The weight and length are a great combination and you can accomplish any chopping and cutting task with the head that weighs almost 2 lbs by itself.
- High carbon Swedish steel
- Hand forged
- Hickory Handle
- Includes a leather edge cover
- Weight: 2.4 pounds
- Length: 19 inches
3. Schrade SCAXE10 11 Inch
Estimated Price: $22
My Review: Have you ever wanted a quality hatchet you can fit inside a cargo pocket? Well, the Schrade SCAXE 10 can fit the bill. This little guy is no slouch just because it is small. It has enough weight that you can do some damage to smaller trees.
This is a great hatchet to just have for light use. It is very durable on the whole and very easy to use. The rubber handle makes it very comfortable and since it is a full tang hatchet, you never have to worry about the axe head flying off.
Being stainless steel, you can’t expect it to hold an edge as well as a high carbon hatchet, but you can easily sharpen it in no time. I love the simple design. The designer really went with the basics here and for less than $25 you can’t get much better.
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This isn’t what I would carry in the woods unless I was really concerned about weight, but it would make a great automobile EDC to stash under your seat. It has a thick rubber wrapped handle, so if you have to use it for some kind of emergency where you are cutting through wires, it will offer some insulation from electric shock.
- 3Cr13 stainless steel
- Full tang construction
- Black TPR rubber handle
- Thermoplastic belt sheath
- Integrated lanyard
- Weight: 22 ounces
- Length: 11 inches
4. Council Tool Hudson Bay Camp Axe (Best Overall)
Estimated Price: $150
My Review: Council tool has been making quality axes and hatchets for over 100 years, since 1886. They are all hard-working Americans who obviously put a lot of care into their tools. With the Hudson Bay Camp Axe, you get something designed specifically for camping. It is lightweight for the type of hatchet it is, but it has enough heft to dominate the typical firewood sized tree most people need to fell when on camping excursions.
The balance of this axe is certainly more towards the handle. This is really something that I like because for a camp axe you want it to do most of the work for you. I’m not joking, this hatchet likes eating trees. The fact that this axe comes with a handmade leather sheath really makes it one of those must-buy tools.
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It comes with a high shine so you must keep it oiled and dry, so you don’t have to deal with corrosion. I always take my “naked” axe heads and treat them to a vinegar or mustard bath to force a patina on them. I have tools that I keep shiny and polished but for a camp axe, I like the patina since it adds a layer of protection to the head.
This hatchet is one of many different axes Council Tool makes, so you can start a collection and own many axes that are made for various jobs. This brand is the “Benchmade” of the axe world.
- Forged 5160 high carbon steel
- Hickory handle protected by linseed oil
- Includes premium leather sheath with belt slit
- Arrives razor sharp
- Made in the USA
- Weight: 2 pounds in the head
- Length: 19 inches
5. Off Grid Tools Survival Axe
Estimated Price: $60
My Review: Off Grid Tools executed this design very well. How many other hatchets have 30 features? One of the most useful features on this hatchet is the replaceable saw blade. That’s right, replaceable. I haven’t seen many other hatchets that incorporate a saw blade that isn’t built into a handle. Like the Gerber Gator, the saw is super sharp and useful.
You never realize how much you can use a saw blade in the bush until you take one with you. And since you can swap the blade for a new one, you never have to worry about losing functionality. All you have to do is run to your local home store and purchase whatever 6-inch blade you can find that fits any reciprocating saw.
This tool is great for using on the job site, leaving in your vehicle, or packing in a bug out bag. The fact that this tool has so many useful features makes it perfect for any survival type scenario. One of the best things about this hatchet is that it is made out of carbon steel. That means you get exceptional blade edge retention and since the tang runs all the way down the handle, you never have to worry about the head coming away from the handle or becoming loose.
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I really like the hammer and claw on the back of the blade. So many hatchets have the basic hammer head shape but this one seems to be made specifically for the job. In any case, if you aren’t that great at driving nails, you can at least pull them out with the claw. Also, on the back of the blade is a semicircular shaped device that is great for grabbing onto stuff. Right next to it is a edge that can be used as a can opener or box cutter.
Off Grid Tools make this axe in the United States and give you lifetime warranty, although it isn’t likely you will actually ever use it.
The one drawback for this tool is its size. It will do a bit of chopping but if you need to chop something often, this isn’t something I would recommend. It is a very durable hatchet but doesn’t have enough weight to really take care of trees.
- Carbon steel blade
- Full tang construction
- Hammer head and claw
- Hex sockets
- Replaceable 6-inch saw blade
- Glass breaker
- Seat belt cutter
- Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Length: 12 inches
6. GRANSFORS BRUK Wildlife Hatchet
Estimated Price: $160
My Review: The Gränsfors Bruk wildlife hatchet is an extremely durable hatchet. The axe head is the traditional shape and even has the mill scale on it still. This means less head upkeep as this mill scale is a great protectant.
I usually like a little more weight to my axe head because it just makes life easier when you are trying to handle heavier chunks of wood. It still gets the job done well but is not as suited for felling trees as the Council Tool axe is.
The folks that made this axe know how important it is to have a quality sheath/mask. And they delivered a great hand-made product that perfectly fits the head and isn’t too bulky. The back of the axe is slightly convex so hammering something does take a little accuracy and practice.
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Overall, it looks great and feels great. High carbon blades are very sharp and durable and the mill scale that was left on makes it great for taking into the woods.
- Made of hand-forged high carbon Swedish Steel
- Mill Scale left on the axe head for protection
- Knob hole for lanyard
- Includes a vegetable-tanned leather sheath
- Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Length: 13.5 inches
7. Hults Bruk Jonaker Hatchet
Estimated Price: $130
My Review: Wow, this thing is so cute and tiny. It’s like two hatchets got together, fell in love and made a baby hatchet. But this baby hatchet is like a baby snake, it bites, and it is just as potent as the grown-ups. With a razor-sharp blade made of Swedish steel, this tiny hatchet can cut through just about anything. The handle is made from solid American hickory and is extremely durable.
The handle is well shaped and keeps your hand in the right place. But if you are worried about this little guy sailing out into the sunset midway through a swing, have no fear, you can attach a lanyard by utilizing the hole in the knob.
The fact that this hatchet is so small makes it great to conceal in a day pack. But it can do some really tough work and is a very solid hatchet. As far as small hatchets go, this is one of the best and will last a lifetime.
Adding to the well-made head and handle, Hults Bruk includes a traditional leather hatchet sheath. And if you are looking for a hatchet brand that is worthy enough to start collecting, look no further. This company makes many different types of hatchets to complement Jr. here. And they really pay attention to detail and deliver on every aspect of the user experience. They ship this axe in its own storage box with an included detailed user manual.
- Swedish steel head
- Solid American hickory handle
- Leather sheath
- User manual
- Storage box
- Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Length: 9.5 inches
8. Gerber Gator Combo Axe II
Estimated Price: $43
My Review: I don’t typically like any of the composite handles, but Gerber did a pretty good job with this one. It seems pretty stout and didn’t give me any reason to doubt it would last a while. If you want something you can always depend on, I would stick with an all steel construction or hickory handle.
The saw blade is a very nice addition but with a lot of chopping, it won’t want to stay in the handle. You end up just removing it and leaving it on the ground. This is another one of those axes that are highly reviewed but something I wouldn’t use much.
The saw blade is actually really effective. It might be quicker to saw through the material than using the hatchet. It also seems like it will last a long time and stay sharp.
Since the handle is wrapped around the blade, it isn’t the best at splitting wood, but it does work.
Stainless steel just isn’t something I want my axe to be made out of. There is less maintenance, but the blade suffers much more than high carbon steel.
I’ll continue to repeat this, but if you want something that will last a lifetime that you can depend on, don’t go with a composite handle. Spend some more money and get a higher quality axe.
- Forged steel head
- Gator grip handle
- Fiber glass filled nylon handle
- Comes with concealed 6-inch saw
- Weight: 26 ounces
- Length: 15.6 inches
9. Gerber Pack Hatchet
Estimated Price: $30
My Review: For a compact hatchet, you don’t get much better than this. Gerber has always made great products and this little guy really pumps me up. It is small and light enough to not really notice but it is an extremely powerful tool.
I know it may be small for some, but this little guy can be carried in a cargo pocket if you have to. It is sharp and heavy enough to cut through trees of several inch diameter trunks with just a little work.
The finger notches in the handle give you great blade control for when you need it and the rubber grip gives you confidence and shock absorption. I love the lanyard loop on the end. If you want to be safe, add some parachute chord and wrap it around your wrist. The fact that the lanyard loop protrudes from the handle acts a handle knob found on most larger axes. This is great because you can place two fingers on each side of the loop and effectively “choke down” to give you more swinging power.
If you want something super effective that doesn’t take up much space this is your hatchet. I like it because it will do most jobs you throw at it while staying small. I stay on the move when I backpack and camp, so I don’t need to chop a ton of firewood.
- Full tang stainless steel construction
- 3.5-inch blade length
- Finger grooves for better blade control
- Rubber over mold handle
- Lanyard hole
- Nylon belt carry sheath
- Weight: 20.8 ounces
- Length: 9.5 inches
10. Drake Off Road Tools Viking Axe
Estimated Price: $60
My Review: Bearded axes are so cool! There isn’t a whole lot to say about this other than it is a very high-quality axe. The size is perfect for something you could take on a backpacking trip.
The weight is very manageable. It isn’t too light but isn’t very heavy. This isn’t made in a factory either. A guy named Ivan Tasev hand forges these in Bulgaria. And boy does this thing keep an edge. 4150 is a high carbon steel so it definitely makes a sharp and durable blade. If you are looking for something super durable and sharp look no further than a high carbon blade like this.
I feel almost ashamed by how good the quality is of this axe and how little you have to pay. When so many of these hatchets and axes on the list are mass made in a factory somewhere, it is nice to see something a person hand made. When you buy a knife, sword, axe, or any weapon that must be forged, you are buying a part of that person. If you want an axe to beat up on, no doubt this will take it, but it should be treated with respect and love.
Make sure you buy a blade holder or find a sheath that fits it because it doesn’t come with one.
- AISI 4150 Steel
- Comes with layer of oxidation and covered in bees wax
- Beech tree handle treated with varnish
- 4 x 4-inch head
- Long bearded head
- Weight: 10.5 ounces
- Length: 16 inches
11. Operator Axe by 5.11
Estimated Price: $160
My Review: If you are looking for an axe that pretty much does everything then look no further and just hit the buy button. I have always been very impressed with 5.11 and their level of quality in pretty much everything they produce.
This specific axe is designed by Kyle Lamb from Viking Tactics. Kyle was a Sergeant Major in the United States Army Delta Force. Kyle was one of the ground guys running around the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, the conflict depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down. He also has a bit of experience playing in the sandboxes of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is one of the most respected tactical trainers in the world, so he knows a thing or two about weapons and how to use them.
This weapon/tool is beefy, you aren’t going to be worried about breaking it or anything. The entire axe is 7 mm thick all the way down which is a little thicker than ¼ inch. Yep, that is hefty. It is certainly an axe for a strong man or a woman with a penchant for revenge against a man named Bill (Kill Bill movie reference for the uninitiated).
Since it doesn’t have scales on the handle, it can be kind of rough on the hands if you are using it for a while. So, if you plan on doing any extensive work with this thing then invest in some gloves or buy a different axe. This thing is really made for fighting in urban environments or someone on a job site. I could very easily see this as a useful multitool for carpenters that can replace the carpenter’s axe and prybar simultaneously.
The size of this weapon is its best asset for its targeted audience. The only drawback for me is the handle, but like I said, unless you are chopping down trees and splitting logs you should find a ton of utility out of it.
- SCM 435 Stainless Steel
- Black oxide finish
- Two prybar ends with nail-remover
- 21 mm hammer head
- Metric and standard hex drivers incorporated into the handle
- Small and large socket drivers
- Sheet metal cutter
- Two-piece hard sheath
- MOLLE compatible sheath
- Inches and centimeter graduated handle
- Length: 15 inches
- Weight: 1 pound, 10 ounces
12. RMJ Tactical Kestrel Feather Tomahawk
Estimated Price: $480
My Review: All I have to say is this thing is nasty. And I mean that in a good way. It is very simple but sometimes that is all you need.
The size of this tomahawk is smaller than the Gerber Downrange (below) but you can still get just as much work done. The 3-inch blade is extremely sharp and great for chopping. Although, it isn’t quite heavy or long enough for cutting down trees.
On the back of the blade there is what the company refers to as a talon. This “talon” is awesome for penetrating your target and since it is a full tang build, you don’t have to worry much about something snapping when you start prying.
For the size of this thing you can’t go wrong. It is well balanced and very effective.
Unfortunately, all of these great benefits come at a price. Coming in at right under $500, this tool is a lot of money to spend on a hatchet unless your life depends on it. But boy does it like to tear stuff up and not feel like it’s going to ever break. I would venture to say this is the most durable tomahawk on the list.
- 1075 (HRC 57-58) Steel
- Molded kydex sheath
- Full-tang construction
- Permanently attached G-10 handle scales
- Length: 13 inches
- Weight: 19 ounces
13. Gerber Downrange Tomahawk
Estimated Price: $200
My Review: Have you ever wanted to tear an entire house down and only use one tool? Yes, you could do it with a bulldozer but if you are the angry type and need to get a workout in, just grab this bad boy.
Gerber outdid themselves with this weapon. No house is safe when you wield this thing. It has a prybar on the knob and a handle built into the head, so you don’t have to awkwardly fumble with finding a good grip when you are breaking a door off of its hinges.
When prying won’t do the job just flip the axe head over and bludgeon your target with the hammer head. This hatchet is just great for angrily beating on things. If you are in the military or law enforcement, nothing is going to stop you with this thing in your hand.
I really like the sheath that comes with this. It is easily attached to your gear if you have MOLLE loops. This comes in handy since wearing a plate carrier or flak jacket will make wearing something on your belt a literal pain in your side.
The handle is made out of very strong steel. Don’t underestimate it because of its small size. This axe is strong enough breach a steel door deadbolted into a steel door frame.
If you want something great for using in an urban environment, this is one of your best choices. You can use it very effectively in the bush but since there is a handle built into the blade you lose a good bit of heft. Since the head is lighter than the handle, you end up with a blade that isn’t conventionally balanced. By that I mean the handle is heavier than the head.
It still cuts very well but it isn’t something I would use for field craft only. If you want a hatchet to take into the bush all the time, this isn’t your best option.
- Axe head with integrated prying handle
- Hammer head
- Pry bar
- G-10 scales on handle
- 420HC steel body
- MOLLE compatible sheath
- Length: 19.27 inches
- Weight: 36 ounces
14. SOG Camp Axe
Estimated Price: $45
My Review: The SOG Camp axe has a great balance between utility and looks. It is well balanced and feels really comfortable when you use it for a while. The stainless-steel head is great for keeping rust at bay. When you flip the axe over, you can use it as a hammer. Most axes and hatchets can be used this way but SOG basically added a hammer to the back of the blade.
This axe feels pretty sturdy until you use it for a while. The problem with the SOG two-piece construction is they use two bolts to fasten the haft to the head. Because of this, they work their way loose and make the axe unstable.
The sheath is pretty much worthless so you are better off finding a sheath that will fit it.
Overall, this is probably an axe you need just for using a couple of times. Like if you fly to your hiking destination and need something to use for the weekend. It would also be good for keeping around the house for yardwork and other small jobs.
- Stainless steel axe head
- Hammer head on opposite end of the edge
- Glass reinforced nylon edge cover
- Glass reinforced nylon handle
- Weight: 1 pound
- Length: 11.5 inches
15. SOG Tactical Tomahawk
Estimated Price: $42
My Review: All I have to say is man, this thing cuts through wood like butter. For a hatchet that is so light it really surprised me. The blade edge is flat so it is great for squaring things up and the spike on the other side can easily penetrate whatever your intended object is.
It comes with a nylon sheath that serves the purpose well and is easy to get in and out in comparison to other axes and sheaths on the list.
It should be pretty clear by now that hatchets and axes made out of composite handles just aren’t as reliable as hickory or steel handles. Composites can make great handles, but how you attach them is the key.
Just like the SOG camp axe, this tomahawk head is fastened to the handle by two little screws. It just isn’t something I would rely on. At some point, the screws start to loosen up and then you get a tomahawk that has a loose head. Which is pretty scary. This is another SOG tool that is best suited for yardwork.
- Stainless steel head
- Spike on the back of the head
- Grippy GRN handle
- Comes with a nylon sheath
- Weight: 24 ounces
- Length: 16 inches
16. CRKT Kangee Tomahahwk
Estimated Price: $110
My Review: The CRKT Kangee is designed and built by RMJ Tactical in Chattanooga, TN. And these guys sure no how to impress. Although the tomahawk is a simple design, don’t let it fool you. Sometimes you just don’t need a ton of features, you just want something that does one job well.
CRKT made this tomahawk out of one solid piece of high carbon steel. Since the steel runs down the length of the blade you get one very sturdy weapon. It has very good balance for its size and is very comfortable in the hand due to its well thought out shape and checkered scales.
As you know by now, I am a big fan of having the “complete package” when it comes to weapons and tools. I like when I make a purchase and get everything I need. I don’t like buying a hatchet and then having to find a sheath that fits it. You don’t have to worry about that with this hatchet. It comes with a form fitted kydex sheath that is molle compatible. If you don’t want to fool around attaching it to your kit, then you can use the included shoulder sling.
There are two different models of this tomahawk. One with a spike on the back and one with a hammerhead on the back other than the back, they are the exact same tool. It has a great length and is perfect for a camp hatchet for light use. Like all lightweight hatchets, it isn’t the best for heavy duty work and chopping.
Something else I really like about this tomahawk is the dual edge. The back portion of the head also functions as a knife, so you can put a really sharp edge on this side and use it to cut instead of chop.
- SK5 Carbon Steel
- Powder coat durable finish
- Comes with sheath
- Spike or hammer on the back
- Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Length: 14 inches
17. CRKT Ruger Hatchet
Estimated Price: $35
My Review: For a camp hatchet, the Ruger can handle just about anything. It comes in at a very reasonable size so you can stow it in your ruck very easily. The handle is made out of reinforced fiberglass and is actually quite impressive as far as durability goes. So many of these types of handles are flimsy and feel unstable but this hatchet is pretty solid.
The hatchet head is shaped much like a splitting axe, which makes it perfect for camping. The axe head weighs enough to take down larger trees and once they are in manageable chunks, it takes no time splitting since you aren’t having to dig it out of a log if it doesn’t make it all the way through on the first swing.
A high carbon steel head is just what the doctor ordered for this hatchet. Keeping the design and materials very simple ensures this hatchet will last a lifetime. The back portion of the blade features a perfectly shaped hammer head so you can drive in tent steaks or smash things at your leisure.
Unfortunately, this hatchet doesn’t come with a sheath, so you are going to have to break down and order one. Luckily, you can get a CRKT sheath for less than $10. Why they don’t already include it I will never know. I guess they reason that some folks don’t like sheaths.
- 1055 High Carbon Steel
- Magnesium phosphate coating
- Blunt hammer head
- Fiber reinforced handle
- Includes lanyard
- Weight: 1.7 pounds
- Length: 13 inches
Finding the Perfect Hatchet or Axe for Camping (Buying Guide)
Before jumping into the list and picking something that looks cool there are a couple of key considerations to understand. If you just want something that will work, all the products on this list will work. But, if you want an axe to exactly match your use case, or if you want to know more about axes in general, then make sure you read the full guide.
Parts of an Axe or Hatchet (Don’t Flunk Anatomy)
You don’t have to know the dirty details on where the company sourced the materials to make an axe, but you should at least know what the different parts are called. Understanding your axe better will help you identify what use it will be good or bad at.
Axe Head Terms
Toe: The toe is the top part of the edge of the blade. Aptly named as it is the portion of the blade that is responsible for the most severed toes.
Bit: The bit is the middle portion of the blade. This is where most of the chopping work is done.
Heel: The bottom part of the blade edge.
Beard: Just because an axe isn’t called a bearded axe doesn’t mean it has no beard. The beard is the portion of the blade between the heel and the handle.
Cheek: If the sharp edge is the face and the butt of the head is the back, then the cheeks are on the side. Skinny cheeks are great for chopping and fat cheeks are great for splitting wood.
Butt: The butt is the back of the head that can be used as a hammer.
Eye: The eye is where the handle is fit into the blade.
The Handle/Haft Terms
Shoulder: If the metal blade is the head then the closest part of the handle to the blade is the shoulder.
Belly: This is the part that gets kind of confusing. The belly is the part of the handle that faces the user, just like a bow.
Throat: The throat is the bottom half of the handle where your non-dominant hand goes.
Knob: The knob is the bottom of the handle. Most wood handles have an actual knob, so your hand doesn’t slide off.
Why An Axe?
Axes and hatchets are some of the most versatile tools anyone can buy. While we do love knives here at Marine Approved, and have guides on our favorite camping knives and fixed blade knives here, when you’re in the bush sometimes a knife alone just won’t cut it. Think about being in the woods without any weapon, a large and heavy tool with a sharp edge is often more useful than one that is small and very light
A well-maintained axe can cut just as well as the sharpest knife on top of being able to hammer, pry, and chop down trees. If given the choice between a knife or a well-made hatchet, I would choose the hatchet every time.
Hatchet or Axe?
What is the difference between hatchets and axes? Hatchets are axes but not all axes are not hatchets. I know, that might be a little confusing the first time you read it, but it is one way to think about it. Hatchets are short versions of full-size axes and are made to be used with one hand. Axes are made specifically for two handed use so the user can put a full effort into the swinging motion.
That is about it, one hand vs two hand. You can definitely put two hands on a hatchet, but they can easily be handled with one hand. If you can swing a full axe all day with one hand your name is probably Paul Bunyan.
If you’re backpacking for weeks on end, you don’t want to carry around a really heavy axe. This is self-explanatory but different weighted axes are used differently. Even if you are spending a great deal of time on “the trail” a heavier axe is something you might have to make a compromise for if you are building shelters and felling trees.
Heavier axes do a lot of the work for you when chopping so you have to think of it like this: If I am chopping wood frequently, do I want to spend a ton of time and effort hacking with a really light hatchet, or do I want to carry more weight and spend much less time and effort when I need to chop? I can tell you from experience that I would always choose a heavier axe if I am going to be chopping. Using a light axe to fell even a small tree can leave you totally exhausted.
Don’t get a heavy axe just because you think you might need it every once in a while. Make your choice based on the 80 percent rule. Meaning what will you be using your hatchet for 80 percent of the time. If you use it mostly for chopping kindling and small branches, then you probably don’t need something very heavy. I use this rule often for just about anything because it helps me eliminate having too much gear. Most of us get too caught up in planning for all the things that have a low probability of happening and I have certainly backpacked many times and only used half of my gear.
The overall length of your axe should be next on the list for things to think about. A hatchet that isn’t the proper length for the job can cause you considerable anguish.
Why is length so important? Well, if you have ever swung an axe before you can probably guess why. Leverage. I could get really deep into the science and use phrases like mass moment of inertia and angular momentum, but I’ll spare you for now.
The biggest takeaway is the longer your axe handle, the harder it will be to swing, but the longer handle gives the axe head a ton of speed compared to a short handle. If you combine a heavy head with a long handle, you end up having a very effective axe for tackling big jobs. This is why axes for splitting logs have long handles and really heavy axe heads.
On the other side of the spectrum are short handles. Short handles make it very easy to get your axe head up to speed, but because it is short, it will be traveling just a little faster than your hand that is holding it. This can result in considerably more work if you are trying to cut a large tree.
When I say form factor, I mean how much space it takes up and how it is shaped. You can have something that is small and shaped funny that won’t fit in a backpack. Conversely, you can have something that is huge but shaped in a way that allows it to fit into a space more easily.
When considering form factor, you only need to think of how you will be carrying and storing it. If you decide to strap it to the outside of your backpack, you might want an axe with a more complex shape. This is not just because it’s complex of course, but because the more complex shapes are usually more ergonomic and have extra features. Something that isn’t a standard straight handled axe will give you more places to fasten it as well as keep it from sliding out of straps.
If you are storing it inside of a backpack or vehicle, a more conventionally shaped ax will be easier to work with. When I choose to pack a hatchet inside my bag, I like something with a straight handle. The straight handle can be slid in and out of my ruck very easily. It can also work as a splint in an emergency.
Another good reason to choose an axe with a simple form factor is if you store it in your vehicle. I keep an axe underneath or behind my seat. When I need it, I don’t want it to get caught on something.
Do you want a hatchet that can double as a weapon? Well, really all types make very effective weapons, but you probably want something for a specific type of job that can also handle a threat. If you encounter a person who you must defend yourself against, they probably aren’t equipped with a shield and a sword.
The reason I am giving this example is because an opponent equipped with a shield and sword will be slow in comparison to someone with a gun or knife. And a full battle axe is great for defeating a shield. For a duel like this, you would want to pick a heavy long handled axe so you can stay away from your opponent while inflicting the most damage.
With that in mind, you probably don’t want a heavy long handled axe for modern defense scenarios. Yes, they are beasts but once you start swinging, it takes a lot to stop them or change their direction. In most scenarios will just want something sharp that can be deployed quickly.
Now that we have considered weight and length for defense, let’s talk about the fighting method. You can throw and swing your axe, but some axes are better at one than the other. An axe with a long handle is good for up close combat because you can stay away from your opponent. But a longer handle means it takes longer to swing and is harder to accurately throw.
A hatchet with a short handle means you will need to be in close to your opponent. You will be faster on your swings and have a better chance of hitting your target when your weapon is thrown. And you can get short handled hatchets that are extremely lightweight and balanced, making them perfect for defense against an agile opponent.
Since I mentioned throwing your axe, I just want to offer a little insight. Throwing any weapon is a huge risk. Unless you are highly skilled, and even then, your chances of hitting a moving opponent and stopping them are very low. You never want to throw away a weapon when in a fight. If you throw and miss, you could quickly end up on the receiving end because now your opponent has your weapon. So, don’t make your selection based solely on throwing ability. If you are interested in learning how to throw an axe or which axes the best, check out our throwing axes guide.
How Will it Be Used?
Are you an avid camper who spends days in the same location or do you relocate every day? You might even drive an ATV or automobile to your campsite. Don’t buy a full-sized axe if you are doing some serious hiking. Really try to think of how you will be using your hatchet.
If you like to “set up shop” in the woods and stay for a while, having a larger axe for felling trees is probably your best bet. If you are constantly moving around, choose a smaller axe.
Remember though, a hatchet isn’t only for chopping. There are many different uses for one that is well made. So, when you think about how you will use it think outside the box about ways you could end up using a hatchet. You can hammer things with the backside and cut things like a knife if your blade is thin and sharp.
Some hatchets even have more survival-based features and functions so make sure you buy the right tool for your use.
Everyone wants their belongings to last forever. One way to make sure that happens is to purchase the right item for its intended use. Axes and hatchets are themselves pretty simple and durable but that doesn’t mean they all have the same level of durability.
Two-piece construction is the main concern here when it comes to durability. If you grew up handling axes a lot, you have no doubt experienced the fear and frustration of an axe head flying off the handle mid-swing. This usually happens with wood handles when an axe has been used a ton and improperly maintained.
If you are having to rely on an axe to survive, you don’t want to have to deal with re-securing the axe head to the handle. Especially when you don’t have access to the tools to properly complete this task. Wood handles can also split sometimes.
Another concern is composite handles. While they offer different features, they can also be more unpredictable than wood handles.
If you are looking for something that is extremely durable, look for an axe that is made out of one piece of steel or has a hickory handle. Composite handles are very durable and flexible but aren’t one of my favorite choices for handle material.
All types of axe handles are breakable, even full steel handles.
Most Common Steels
There are many different types of axe heads out there. Let’s discuss some of the types of steels as well as types of axes and how they are used.
Carbon steel is one of the most common steels for high end knife blades as well as hatchets and axes. Blades made from this type of steel are very hard, so they maintain an edge longer than other steels.
The drawback is this steel is much more susceptible to corrosion than other steels such as stainless. It isn’t a big deal if you take care of your blade and most manufacturers will put a layer of durable paint or sealant on the blade to keep it from rusting.
Or as I like to call, “painless steel” since you don’t have to scrub off rust like you do when you leave a carbon steel axe out in the yard when it rains. It takes a lot of work to fix that mistake.
Stainless steel is just as popular as carbon steel if not more so. So, you will find a large selection of stainless axe heads. Stainless is great and everything, but you do give up a little of the hardness that high carbon axe heads have, so you get less blade retention and overall durability. It’s all about tradeoffs so just know what you want.
If you want an axe that will be your old and trusty, I would go with a carbon axe head. You just can’t beat the edge retention and durability. And since most carbon axe heads have a layer of protectant on them from the factory, you don’t have to worry much about corrosion.
Understand the Different Types of Axes
A felling axe is designed specifically for cutting down trees. You can expect a felling axe to have a thin head that weighs around 2 pounds. This design is perfect for swinging and cutting wood across the grain. The thin head allows for maximum penetration into the material. Most camping axes and hatchets fall into this category.
Splitting mauls are a type of axe used primarily for splitting logs. They are also referred to as a sledge axe because they look like a sledgehammer with a blade on one side of the head.
Logs can be split quite easily with a felling axe but sometimes the blade likes to get stuck before making all the way through a split. To avoid this, splitting mauls have heads that are more of a wedge-shape. This wedge shape causes the log to split much more rapidly than it would when using a felling axe.
This type of axe isn’t something you are likely to take with you on a backpacking trip. Most splitting mauls have heads that weigh between 6 and 8 lbs. I have seen some that even go up to 10 lbs. Once you account for the handle too, you can have a really heavy tool.
Unless you want to have a heavy backpack then leave this guy at home. If you are camping out of a vehicle or have a permanent campsite, this type of tool is great for quickly splitting logs and prying. Some even come with a metal handle welded to the head making it pretty much indestructible.
If you are interested in woodcraft and making log cabins or even nice temporary shelters, a hewing axe is a great tool to have around. Historically, these axes were used to make usable timber out of a felled tree.
Hewing axes are easy to spot. They have very broad heads and are relatively thin compared to a splitting maul. There are some hewing axes that have flat edges and some that have an edge with a radius. Blades with a flat design are perfect for squaring up a round log to use for construction.
If you want to carry an axe that will give you the option to make perfectly square posts, this would be a great tool to carry. But if you aren’t interested in building anything out of wood while you are in the bush there are other axes that are better suited for you.
When it comes to an all-purpose chopping tool, look no further than a tactical axe. These bad boys are for people who want to do much more than cutting. They are usually the size of a tomahawk but incorporate far more features. Tactical axes can feature saw teeth integrated in the handle, glass breakers in the pommel, pry bars, and many other multipurpose functions. If you are looking for a specific feature, you can most likely find it on a tactical axe.
These axes are best for people in the military and law enforcement, hence why it is called a tactical axe. They are great for use in an urban environment for breaching houses as well as using it as a weapon. If you want something to carry with you in the woods, many of the features that make these things so awesome are not going to be very useful to you, but if you want one axe for everything you do in life, you can’t beat a tactical axe.
Tomahawks originated in North America and are commonly associated with Native American weaponry. Tomahawks are characterized by a straight shaft and a very lightweight head. This makes them great for throwing and for use in hand to hand combat. Because they are so lightweight, they are limited in usefulness for camping.
Don’t get me wrong, a tomahawk is a very effective tool since they are sharp, light weight, and easy to carry. They can remove small tree branches, but you aren’t going to have much fun chopping down a tree for firewood or shelter construction. That isn’t to say it can’t be done, it will just take much longer than it would with a felling axe. There are some tomahawks that are a little heavier than traditional designs and these are much better suited for chopping. Just make sure you pay attention to weight if you have your heart set on a tomahawk for use in the bush.
Because tomahawks are meant to be lightweight, many manufacturers incorporate design features to make them more useful. You can find tomahawks with picks, hammers, spades, and many more features.
Most of us aren’t slaying dragons or fighting sword wielding knights on a daily basis. Even still, battle axes, also known as Viking axes, have their uses in modern times. Historically, battle axes had large broad heads usually with a portion of the blade forming a long hook. This is what is known as a bearded axe.
Bearded battle axes were great for combat because you could hack at your opponent as well as grab them with your weapon. If you are fighting someone with a shield, this is a great feature to have.
On the flipside, if you want to carry a battle axe style blade into the woods you will find it very useful. They are not only great at chopping, but they are also versatile in the sense that you can hook limbs and drag them around or use them to pry free a buried tent stake.
So, don’t see the word “battle”, “Viking”, or “bearded”, and disqualify these types of axes. They can be much more useful than you expect. Plus, they look really cool.
A crash axe can really be lumped into the tactical axe category. However, since they are specifically designed for use in aircraft, they get their own little blurb.
These types of axes are usually made out of expensive material such as titanium. This cuts down on weight while making them more resistant to heat and higher stress when prying. Since they are designed for getting out of a crash, they are great for chopping through aluminum, cutting wires, and prying. Many brands also electrically insulate the handle, so you don’t get electrocuted if you happen to chop through a live wire.
Maintaining Your Axe
Axe head care
If you have an axe that is high-end, I am willing to bet it is made of a high carbon steel. If it is, you will need to spend some time treating it properly so it will not rust. If your axe head is already a little rusty, start sanding. With a little work, you can get your axe head looking like new.
To keep your axe head from rusting you have two options: patina or oil.
Forcing your blade to patina is one of my favorite methods for knives and axe heads made of carbon steel. To me, they look great with a nice patina, but I know some people have to have their metal shiny and that is perfectly fine.
The great thing about a patina is that it will make your blade more rust resistant. With regular use, the blade will eventually start to patina anyway. So, grab some vinegar and old towels you don’t mind throwing away.
It is a good idea to clean your head before getting started so grab some high grit sandpaper and start scrubbing. Next, soak a towel in vinegar and wrap your axe head. Check on it every ten minutes or so. Once it has an even grey color you are done. Rinse it off, dry it, and enjoy. If you want max protection, hit it with some self-drying gun oil.
You can also use yellow mustard to create really cool designs. Use a piece of steel wool and dab the mustard all over the head. Let it sit for 20 minutes and quickly wipe it off.
If you don’t want a patina just make sure you keep your head oiled. Self-drying gun oil works best because it doesn’t leave your sheath nasty on the inside.
Make sure that you always try to keep your axe dry regardless of the protection method you use.
We are mostly talking about wooden handles here. Any handle made of metal just needs to be kept free of rust. Sanding and repainting rust spots is all you need to do to upkeep a metal handle.
Most high-end traditional hatchets and axes have handles made of wood. When you buy a new axe, the wood will be treated with some form of protectant. This could be anything from poly, linseed oil, wax, etc.
As you use your axe just make sure you occasionally treat it with boiled linseed oil. Just make sure the oil is actually boiled. If it isn’t, your handle will feel sticky.
First, I always run some high grit sandpaper over the handle to remove any rough spots or anything. Then I use a wet rag to wipe away the dust. I then get another rag and apply the linseed oil after which, I wipe away the excess and let dry.
If you keep doing this, over time there will be so many layers of oil you won’t ever have to worry about your handle not being protected.
Your sheath is an integral part of your axe. It not only protects your axe; it protects everything else that might come into contact with the axe blade.
If you have a sheath that is made of leather, it is very important to keep it in good condition. Buy some Nikwax waterproofing wax made for leather and apply it to the sheath.
When you are trying to find the right hatchet or axe for hiking or camping, you can easily be overwhelmed. Always select the tool that is best suited to the job you intend to use it for. It can be very easy to just pick up an axe that looks cool, but this can end up costing you a lot of effort or even your life.
So, know why you need a hatchet and what you will be using it for. You may want something only good for chopping wood, in that case, a tactical tomahawk will be a disappointment. Conversely, if you are in law enforcement or the military, you need something with multiple features and functions. So, a regular wooden handled axe probably isn’t your best option.
As always, feel free to reach out with questions or helpful comments.
Sergeant Mitchell is a former Combat Engineer with the 4th Marine Divison. After serving his time in the Marines, he attended the University of Alabama and obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He has worked for multiple companies, including NASA, and currently works as a Flight Test Engineer for the Department of the Army. Some of his passions include hiking, cycling, running, competing in long distance triathlon races, shooting, camping, and helping others!