Some people are obsessive about what they pack when they go hiking. Things like a Sterno Stove, fuel pellets, some sort of commando machete/combat knife, tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, etc…. Even people who pack a bit more reasonably spend considerable time and thought on what to take on the trail. But there is one thing that often gets overlooked, even though it could be one of the most important things you have on you. I am speaking of hiking hatchets and small axes.
I can’t count the times when I needed to chop up small to medium trees and logs. Sometimes it was to clear an obstacle, so I could get home. Other times, it was to get firewood. Shaving the bark off of a tree is very time-consuming with a knife, but a hatchet makes sort work of it. Field dressing large animals is a lot faster with a good hatchet. Sure, a lot of these jobs can be done with a good large knife, such as splitting wood, by batoning the blade, but it’s not that much more trouble to carry a hatchet or an axe strapped to your backpack. Especially if you carry an ultra-efficient and reliable pack like the A.L.I.C.E, or the wonderful Dutch Rucksack, an axe is easy to carry by simply using the extra external straps, rings and fasteners on the outside of the pack. I actually carry both a hatchet, and axe, as well as a shovel and a machete, all strapped to the outside of my backpack. I also carry a traditional bow and 5 arrows, strapped to the outside.
One really good way to start an argument among outdoor enthusiasts is to bring up the question of which is better to carry, an axe or hatchet. As I said, I carry both, but if I couldn’t, which one would I carry? And that brings us to the subject of this article.
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In The Beginning: History Of Axes
One of our ancestors, Homo habilis, did something that had never been done on planet Earth before. In a stroke of genius, one of these very primitive hominids looked at a stone, and envisioned a hand axe. Through trial and error they learned which rocks worked the best, and which shapes chopped the best. Later, they learned to knock flakes off of the rocks to make them even better, and so the flint-knapped hand-axe was born. The hand axe was the original Swiss Army Knife, because it could be used as a hatchet to chop wood, a pummel to drive things into the ground, or break open shellfish, crack bones, etc…, scrape the fat from animal skins, field dress animals, … even kill them, and each other if necessary. This was the spark that set hominids on the road to becoming us. Without the hand axe, it is doubtful humanity would’ve have progressed the way it has.
After Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, it wasn’t long before someone reasoned that if you had a longer swing, you could generate much more power. Since it was not possible to make arms longer, they did the next best thing, and attached the hand-axe to wooden handles, creating the first true hatchets and axes.
The rest is history. Hatchets and axes were used to build houses, cities, and entire civilizations, used in war, exploration, and even for ceremonial purposes. You could almost say that we owe our entire existence to the combination of fire and axes/hatchets. If you ever get into a situation where you need one, and don’t have it, you will understand why, very quickly.
Axe vs Hatchet: What Are The Differences?
Before we start the discussion, it may be helpful to determine the difference between an axe and a hatchet. Although they look similar, and many think they are interchangeable, this is not the case. Each is a different tool, suited for different tasks. Let’s start with their similarities.
An axe has 2 main parts; a head, and a handle, or haft. The head has several different parts, each contributing to the way it cuts, and balances. Axes are designed to be used with two hands, taking advantage of kinetic energy to provide more force to the cutting edge, or poll. They are made to fell trees, split large pieces of wood, rapidly strip bark, and can make short work out of field-dressing large animals like buffalo, or woolly mammoths. By choking up on the handle, they can be used one-handed as a hatchet, although the balance will not be as good, and will become tiring very quickly. If you think you may need to clear obstacles, build a shelter, make a bridge, or any large job, you need to carry an axe. There are smaller versions for hiking, with handles as short as 19”-22”, making them easy to strap to the outside of a pack. Any axe will be too big to reasonably carry on a belt.
Although a hatchet may appear to be just a scaled-down axe, they are actually a completely different tool. The short handle means you will have less power at the edge, but can use it in much tighter spaces, where it may be difficult for an axe to have proper backswing. Obviously, a hatchet is meant to be used with one hand. A hatchet can fell smaller trees, up to 3” in diameter, and shave the bark quite efficiently. They can split softer woods, and harder woods as long as they are not too big. Hatchets are great for field dressing larger animals, because the small size makes it easier to work in tight places. A hatchet can chop through any bone. The poll allows you to drive stakes into the ground, bust up rocks, or use on anything that needs to be hammered. They are excellent for fashioning travois, pyramid frames for cooking, temporary shelters, tent stakes, etc….
A 3rd type of chopping tool is the tomahawk, but they are designed specifically as weapons, and are not really any good for chopping wood. Sure, you can do it in a pinch, but there are much better alternatives available. Save the tomahawks for your next pow-wow.
What To Look For in an Axe/Hatchet
It stands to reason that the most important part of any chopping tool is it’s chopping ability, which means good steel. But what makes a good knife blade does not necessarily make a good hatchet or axe head. The edges of chopping tools are subject to much more stresses than any knife blade would be under any circumstances. Choppers need to take a good edge, but it also need to hold it long enough to get through a reasonable job. Some of the super-steels used in knives take a great edge, but are too brittle to absorb the shock of chopping for very long. Softer steels are tougher, but may need to be sharpened more often. It’s all a trade-off. One way some producers have tried to get around this is by making double-bit, or two-sided hatchets and axes. When one side gets dull, just flip it over and use the other bit. However, I strongly advise against these models, because they are incredibly dangerous both to use, and carry. It is easy to fall on the bits if you take a spill while hiking, climbing, etc…, or hit something you didn’t intend to hit on the backswing.
Most well-made modern axes and hatchets have good enough steel to where a double bit is unnecessary. In my opinion, it doesn’t get any better than 1050 High Carbon Tool Steel. SK-5 is outstanding, and so is D-2. These are all tool-steels made to take incredible abuse. They take a great edge, and hold it very well. They are also easy to sharpen in the field. In fact, the predecessor to SK-5 (Carbon V) was so good that I have sharpened one of my Cold Steel Bushman knives, which was made of one solid piece of Carbon V, on a flat rock, and it popped back to almost shaving sharp after just a dozen or so strokes. These are steels that you can count on when the going gets tough.
The haft is the next area of concern. One problem with chopping tools is that the impact of the edge can be transferred through the bit, down the handle, and right into your carpals, up the ulna and radius, through your humerus and clavicle, and rattle your teeth. The cartoon version of this is not all that much of an exaggeration. So the haft needs to be of a material that softens vibrations, or have enough padding to absorb the shock. One reason hickory is such a popular handle material is that is has pretty good damping properties. Handles covered in rubber, polymers, leather, or another materials do a good job of cushioning the vibrations.
If you notice, very few hatchets and axes have straight handles, Most have some sort of gentle double S-curve. There are good reasons for this. First, the curves help to deflect some of the shock of impact. Next, the curves help provide a better balance, making it easier to chop for longer periods of time. Which brings us to the last thing to look at; balance. A bit-heavy axe, or hatchet will certainly apply a lot of force to what you are chopping, but it will also wear you out quickly. Balanced chopping tools actually cut better than bit-heavy ones, because you get a better swing from them.
There are many schools of thought as to whether wood hafts are better than a solid steel axe or hatchet. A chopping tool made from one piece of good steel will be pretty much indestructible, and require little maintenance, other than sharpening. It is extremely unlikely that you would ever break the handle of a solid steel axe or hatchet. Certainly, wooden handles can be broken. But they do have a few advantages. The bit on a wooden chopper is attached to the handle through a hole in the bit called an eye. The handle is larger at the top so that it can’t slide all the way through the eye. The bit is held to the handle by friction alone, although many of us drill small holes in the side of the bit for retaining screws, just as an added safety measure. But, honestly, I have never had an axe head fly off of a handle. All that happens is that sometimes the bit may occasionally slide down the handle when it is not in use, which can be a little irritating, but has no effect on using it. The bit can be removed from the handle and used as a hand-axe, or hand-adz if needed, and can even be used to make a new handle if the you break the original one.
Wood vs steel handles is mostly a matter of personal preference and philosophy.
The Best Camping Hatchet/Axe: My 3 Choices
Now you know all about axes and hatchets. I have reviewed a few of what I believe are the best values available. These are just my opinions. As always, your mileage may vary, but that’s perfectly fine. The best chopping tool is the one you feel the most comfortable with.
1. Estwing E24A Sportsman’s Hatchet Review
I started with the Estwing because it is what I carry most of the time. This little friend is one of the best-looking of all available hatchets, with the beautiful classic stacked-leather grips. It is also one of the most popular hiking hatchets there is, and little wonder. Made of a solid piece of 1055 high carbon steel, it is indestructible, for all practical purposes. The 4” edge is wide enough to do some serious chopping, and at just 14” long and only 15 oz. in weight, you’ll forget it’s on your belt, until you need it. The curved haft provides excellent balance, and it feels like an extension of your hand. This hatchet will easily hack through any trees up to diameter of your upper arm. The hammer poll is beefy enough to whack even the toughest stakes into the ground. It comes with a really nice nylon sheath, and the best part is that you can find these almost anywhere, for a very reasonable price. If you can only have one chopper, this should be it.
> Check The Estwing On Amazon <
2. Schrade Axe Review
This is a great compromise between a full-sized axe, and a hatchet. The head is made from 3cr13 stainless, and has a wicked poll. The handle is an indestructible glass-filled polymer that is chemical, cold, water, and heat resistant. What really sold me on this chopper is that it comes with a great ferro-rod fire-starter that stores in the handle…Is that cool, or what? It also comes with a nice poly sheath. The bit is around 4” and, due to the excellently balanced handle, cuts very deep. It can be used two-handed, and can fell some really impressive-sized trees. At around 16” long and 2 lbs, it’s a little big for a belt, but lashes to a pack jus
I borrowed one of these from a friend to evaluate, and chopped about a 1/2 rick of firewood. It did a great with no issues. It shaved bark well, and the hammer poll did a fine job. However, when I was driving a tent stake in the ground, and accidentally hit a rock. The hammer poll actually cracked, making the axe unsafe for further use. At my friends request, I replaced his axe with a Estwing, and he is very happy. Some may like the bigger size, and it has a lot of nice features, but I still prefer my Estwing. It is a never-fail tool. Your opinion may be different. A lot of people like this axe.
t fine. Best of all, the price.
> Check The Schrade On Amazon <
3. Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe Review
If price is no object, and you want the absolute best there is, then this is it. I got one for evaluation, and I am warning you, do not open Gransfors Bruks catalog. This is absolute blade-porn. I wound up buying the smaller Hunter’s Hatchet to compliment this. I couldn’t help myself. This is absolutely one of the finest tools I have ever held, in the same class as Snap-On Tools. It is a pleasure to use. The balance is perfect, the blade is sharper than many knives, and holds its edge unbelievably well. It makes you want to go look for things to chop with it.
There are so many cool things about this axe that I don’t know where to begin. The bit is made from recycled steel and alloys from Ovako, and as far as I can tell, is every bit the equal of D-2 steel, and maybe even better. The edge is a little less than 4”, and can be honed to razor sharpness with just a few swipes on almost any stone or sharpener. It came razor-sharp right out of the box. The handle is made from hickory and perfectly shaped. It is the most balanced tool I have ever picked up. Another cool feature is that the haft is unfinished. Yep, you read it right. The haft has no finish on it whatsoever…just pure hickory. You can finish it any way you like, or just seal it and use it as-is. I plan on putting a hand-rubbed Tung Oil finish on mine. The overall length of 19” makes it easy to strap to a pack, and at a mere 1.5 pounds in weight, it will not slow you down in the boonies. And to top it all off, the Forest Axe came with a beatifully-crafted, real leather sheath.
> Check The Forest Axe On Amazon <
The day it arrived, I chopped and split wood until there was no more to split, and the Mrs. made me come in. I wasn’t even all that tired, and I am not a young man. The next day, I felled several trees that needed thinning, and it chewed through cedar and maple trees as big around as I am (which is saying something…), like it hadn’t eaten in a month. I felled an oak tree with a 44” diameter in about 30 minutes. The axe shaved wood like there was no tomorrow, and the bit was easy and comfortable to use as a hand axe/adz. I have no doubts that this would make short work of field dressing anything up to dinosaur-size. I dressed out a Hereford with the Forest Axe, since it is advertised as a Hunting Axe, and it did an outstanding job. It separated the rib bones, and haunches effortlessly.
This chopper is pricey, for sure, but you really do get what you pay for. Like Mora Knives, this is one of the finest cutting tools I have ever had the pleasure to use. I recommend this axe unconditionally.