If you spend time browsing Instagram… it seems that bushcrafting knives are taking over firewood processing duty. And, almost every time you see a write up on a bushcrafting blade the topic of batoning is covered in great detail. As is feathering. Bushcraft knives are awesome – for your adventures and social following alike.
Generally speaking they work great. And, they’re pretty safe too. But, we should not forget the awesomeness that is the camp axe.
It was the go to camp tool for centuries. And, there’s something magical about the best camping axe… kind of a Paul Bunyan, badass lumberjack connection to the past.
In semi skilled hands a camp axe will outpace that baton and blade… hands down. You can split wood for a campfire just like you would at home. Power through hard woods that would laugh at even the best knife.
But, you can also drive stakes (though we recommend a hammer) or even chop through a downed log.
Bottom line… a camp axe is one of the few camp tools that’s as useful in the backcountry as it is in your yard. The only thing that comes close is a shovel. But, you can’t chop the hell out of a bunch of stuff with a shovel.
|Product||Our Rating||Weight||Handle Length||Price Range|
|Hults Bruk Salen Hatchet||2.75 lbs||20"||$$|
|Hults Bruk Almike||1.75 lbs||16"||$$$|
|Fiskars X7||1.38 lbs||12"||$|
|Gränsfors Small Forest Axe||2.00 lbs||19"||$$$|
|Husqvarna S2800 Composite Splitting Axe||6.17 lbs||28.5"||$$|
|Estwing Camper's Axe||3.14 lbs||26"||$|
Our Favorite Axes & Hatchets
At the end of the day axes and hatchets are very subjective. Some work well for the price you pay, while others are heirloom-worthy tools to pass on for generations. It really comes down to your individual use case and how much you’re willing to invest in a tool.
With that said… there are some clear winners and losers in the world of axes. Some are a overpriced; exhibiting neither strength nor beauty. While others are skewed heavily toward either looks or functionality. But, there are some that buck that trend and offer a great overall value.
We’ll cover those below…
1. Hults Bruk Salen
The Salen is a great option for people in search of a well rounded camp axe. Within Hults Bruk’s “standard” axe collection we find it to be the best all around wilderness axe.
How does it compare to other axes and hatchets? First, its an affordable option from one of the world’s top axe makers. It’s missing a few things when compared to their premium collection… but we’ll talk about that later.
What it does provide is a lot of value for the money. Sure you can buy a tool that performs well for less money… but not much less. You can also find better crafted tools from companies like Gränsfors, Hoffman, and Hults Bruk. But, the these are serious hard use tools designed to last lifetimes.
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds or want to dip your toes into the pool of higher-end axes the Salen is a great way to do it without breaking the bank.
2. Hults Bruk Almike
The Almike is one of our absolute favorite tools to take into the wilderness. It’s at home in a pack as well as a 4×4; thanks to its light, but ultra useful weight. It’s a bit pricier, but comparable to the more affordable Salen. That is until you pick it up for closer inspection.
In hand you can really tell the difference between Hults Bruk premium axes and their standard line. The higher end stuff is absolutely beautiful and oozes craftsmanship uncommon to modern goods.
The head is and forged and then further strengthened during the grinding process. Each head is attached to a gorgeous hickory handle that’s been hand sanded and treated with linseed oil. And, to keep that edge (and its owner) protected… HB includes a really well crafted leather sheath.
We love this axe and think you will too.
3. Gränsfors Small Forest Axe
Next up; another Swedish axe maker enters the list to top out our choices for the higher end of things. If you’re familiar with Ray Mears… you’re probably familiar with Gränsfors Bruk.
Gränsfors’ small forest axe is an excellent choice for those of you looking for a tool that can fell a tree and perform bushcrafting tasks well. Think of it like a Goldilocks kind of axe… but it doesn’t come cheap. Prices for this well crafted tool are roughly the same as or a bit higher than HB’s Almike featured above.
Which would we choose? Well to be honest we already faced this dilema and went with the Almike. But, we were really splitting hairs on this one. Both will serve you well and either will make a great gift to pass on to subsequent generations.
4. Estwing Camper’s Axe
Estwing axes are a great option if you’re looking for something affordable and durable. They come in various lengths, and feature all steel construction.
Now that we’ve covered some premium choices lets start moving toward more utilitarian choices. Enter the Estwing Camper’s Axe. This is actually a great axe to transition on… it’s ultra utilitarian, but has a bit of that “pass me on to your kid” feel to it.
It’s made in the US and features a good mix of looks and strength. But, it does have a bit of a shortcoming in that the head and handle are a single forged piece. Its a strong piece, but if by some crazy chance you do break the handle… its ruined.
But, the chances of busting one of these in two is pretty rare. You really have to be abusing that axe to get it to break… or get a faulty one. Either way the Estwing will serve you well around the home and on shorter camping trips.
5. Husqvarna S2800 Composite Splitting Axe
Husqvarna sells some great axes and hatchets for a reasonable price. While we really prefer their wood handled products, for field serviceability, we thought we should look at one of their composite axes to mix things up a bit. And, this is a great one.
As you can see in the image above the head of the axe is a bit different than others in the list. That’s because it’d designed more for splitting than other tasks. Now it’s not quite as robust as a splitting maul. But, it will get the job done around camp or the cabin.
We really like it because it handles wood processing much better than anything in this list. Think stack of cordwood more so than splitting a few small logs and branches for a bushcraft style fire.
Who should get one of these? Anyone who camps in larger groups, has a cabin, or a wood burning stove. But, be warned… a maul or splitting wedge will be better suited to enormous or knotty rounds.
6. Fiskars X7
The Fiskars X7 is the go to pick if you’re not looking to spend an arm and a leg, but want a great little hatchet. It’s metal is just a bit softer than you’ll find in the premium Swedish hand-forged axes, but not by much.
Treat this hatchet right and it will pay you back many times over. We have one and really like it. It’s light, affordable, and we’d way rather lend this out than our treasured little Hults Bruk Almike.
Overall, this is really all that 90 percent of hatchet shoppers will ever need. So we say buy one as a beginner… or as a backup to your higher-end options. We keep ours in the truck… that’s where it fits in to our “arsenal.” It’s not babied like the HB… but it is trusted to be there when needed.
Axe and Hatchet Basics
Buying an axe can get pretty confusing, but once you start breaking things down things become simpler. So stick with us and prepare to scroll. At the end we hope to turn you from a noob to a axe-pert.
1. Chopping vs Splitting
When you’re working with wood there are two basic directions you can cut. And, this is the biggest decision you’ll have to make when buying an axe.
First, is across the grain. With a saw you’re making a cross cut. But, with a axe you’re chopping. Chopping is what you’re doing when felling a tree, removing limbs, or bucking into sections. For these tasks you’ll be browsing Forest Axes & Hatchets.
The other cut, is with the grain. On a saw you’re making a rip cut, but with an Axe you’re splitting. You’re splitting when you are processing rounds into smaller pieces of firewood for easy stacking and burning. For this task you’ll want a splitting axe, a maul, or a splitting wedge. Heck it you’re splitting a ton of wood or huge rounds at the cabin you may even want a hydraulic splitter.
When it comes to finding a camp axe you’ll only want a splitting axe if you’re at the cabin or camping with a large group. A splitting axe is geared more toward larger pieces of wood.
For most campers and bushcrafters a type of forest axe will be the best choice. There are a good number of variants (some lean a bit toward splitting), and others are better suited for pure chopping and limbing.
For most camping scenarios you will want to buy a type of Forest Axe rather than something geared toward splitting… or carving.
When you hear the word carving you’re probably thinking either “turkey” or whittling a spoon. When it comes to axes carving is use to construct things like cabins, shelters, canoes, etc. Carving axes come in many shapes and sizes, but generally speaking they’re more delicate and specialized than forest or splitting axes.
There are some carving axes or carpenter’s axes that will work around camp. However, they’re
3. Parts of an Axe
The two main components in an axe are the head and handle. Heads vary in shape, size, and weight. And, they’re what you’re “really” buying when you’re shopping for an axe as handles are replaceable.
That doesn’t mean a handle is not important, an axe without one is basically worthless. A handle affects an axe’s power and portability. A shorter handle is portable, maneuverable, and easy to swing. A long handle, however, is fast, powerful, and in many cases safer to use. For camping we’re typically fans of shorter axes and hatchets… they’re portability and versatility are well worth the downsides.
Tip: Striking the Poll / Butt with a sledge or hammer can deform the eye and ruin your axe head.
Looking at the image above you can see the general terms used to discuss or describe the head of an axe. We left out a few things like “beard” and “lug,” but these parts will get you well acquainted and ahead of most campers.
Within the “bit” you’ll find the cheek and cutting edge. This is the area that will determine how the axe behaves when put to use. Wider cheeks and a stout edge will be more robust and perform better at occasional splitting tasks. While narrower cheeks and a thinner profile give your axe outstanding limbing and deep chopping.
As we said above in the callout box; the poll (or butt) is used to strike things. It is not there as a striking surface. You should really only use it to drive things like tent stakes. And even then… if you have a hammer or mallet available you’ll be safer and better equipped.
On the cutting edge you’ll find a heel and a toe. The toe serves as a aiming tool for chopping (or splitting). When you swing; you want to focus your attention on connecting with the toe. The heel, bottom of the edge, is great for detail work (feathering, carving, etc.).
4. Handle Length
When you are trying to figure out the length of the best axes for camping, it comes down to three questions. Where are you headed, how much wood will you cut, and what kind of wood will you cut?
Depending how you’re traveling on your camping excursion, you will be able to take a different size axe with you. If you are a vehicle-based adventurer, then you’ll be able to pack a full size axe. You won’t be responsible for toting it up and down mountains, so get something with as much mechanical advantage as possible.
However, if you are backpacking, on horseback, or traversing terrain on an ATV you may want to take a smaller, more compact axe. That way you don’t take up too much space or excess weight.
When it comes to handle length you’ll want longer if you’re processing a lot of firewood. The same hold true if you will be processing harder to chop pieces. On the other hand, if you’re just splitting kindling something with a short handle will be adequate.
5. Handle Material
Handle materials vary and they all have pros and cons. We were always fans of the metal handled Eastwings, but they do tend to transmit a lot of vibration and such to your hands. The rubber grip does help, but you might want some gloves for extra padding. If you somehow manage to break a metal handle… time to buy a new axe.
Hardwood handles, on the other hand, absorb a lot of the impact created when chopping. The downside is that they can be more fragile. If you miss… you might break the handle. A big plus is that you can buy new wood handles at almost any hardware store. And, they’re by far the easiest to re-handle.
Then there’s fiberglass (and composite). It’s lightweight, absorbs shock, and it’s pretty durable. The downside(s)… they’re expensive, difficult to rehandle, and when the fail; it’s catastrophic. Composite handles are by far the lightest choice and are surprisingly durable. They come with cool features like comfort grips or hollow spaces to absorb the impact shock that you may encounter while chopping. They are typically the most expensive to purchase and are equally as costly to replace.
If you’re hard on tools and short on skills, go with a metal handle. If you’re on a budget or like the retro look, consider wood. And, if you’re processing a lot of difficult to chop firewood or want to maximize length and weight, go take a look at fiberglass.
The weight of axes vary widely, and you should determine which one best fits your needs and type of camping/chopping you’ll do most. The heavier the axe’s weight, the more power you tanspit in each swing. That’s why a splitting maul is almost all weight with little focus on being “sharp.”
On the other hand… they will wear you our faster than a light axe. Whether you’re just luggin it around, or splitting wood… heavier tools take a toll on your body.
Although all of the best axes for camping we cover will be relatively lightweight. Compare to a splitting axe or maul, that doesn’t mean they won’t weigh you down after a long day of hiking. Be sure to get one that you can carry with you and will still have enough weight to provide the chopping power you require for efficient use.
Tips & Advice…
Here are just a few things we’ve learned using, and researching axes. And… asking family members (old, retired loggers / wildland firefighters) for some tips and tricks.
Cut toward the top of the tree if the branches point upward from the trunk. Start at the butt and work your way up. On evergreens, if the branches were pointing down when the trees were standing; do the opposite. You never want to come into the branch from the “inside angle.”
Smaller limbs and branches can be removed with a single strike or swing. Larger ones may require two or more. On your first swing come in at a steeper angle (more perpendicular to the trunk). On subsequent strikes you can come in a little shallower.
Also… choke up on the axe handle if possible. This will reduce the likelihood that a mistake will result in injury. This is especially critical if for some reason you’re forced to stand… and limb on the same side of the tree. Generally speaking though you should avoid that scenario if possible. It’s always good to have protection between you and the axe.
Beware the “Tactical” Camping Axe…
Pretty much every edged tool has a tacticool… mall ninja counterpart. Axes and hatchets are no exception. If it looks like it was designed to chop through a horde of the undead… pass, and keep looking.
You should never go with something tactical looking over something practical when you’ll be swinging a sharp, heavy piece of steel about. When you’re shopping for a camp axe go with something classical and you’ll be set.
Beyond avoiding the cheap, dangerous, kitschy axes that pop up from time to time… there are a few things you can do to spot a quality axe. We’ll cover those in a bit.
But, just know that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get something that will work well for many camping seasons to come.
Keep it Warm
Don’t leave you axe outside. There are a number of obvious reasons (rust, rot, etc.). But we didn’t even think about this one. If you leave your axe in the cold the cutting edge may become more chip-prone. Which makes sense… things get brittle when cooled.
If you’re splitting or chopping wood at the cabin or home. Keep the axe in a heated (or semi heated space). If you’re out camping in the winter keep it in your vehicle or fairly close to the campfire.
You can warm it up a bit with a torch or lighter too. But, just know that chopping and splitting in cold weather will increase wear and the chances of damage. You can of course repair the edge later if necessary. But, just be aware that cold is less optimal.
Kneel if the handle is too short.
We learned this one along time ago, but it’s especially important to touch on from time to time. Especially if you’re around kids or people not familiar with axe handling.
Basically, you want the axe handle and your positioning to place a barrier between your extremities and the axe head. For example if you’re splitting wood and miss, you want the edge to land on the ground or on the chopping block. This is why you position the wood to the back of the chopping block when splitting.
If you’re using a small forest axe to split firewood while camping you can kneel. This compensates for the shorter handle and makes a ground or block strike more likely should you miss the mark.
If you want to see an awesome video on camping / bushcraft axe safety there’s a great Ray Mears video out there. He demonstrates a lot of common sense tactics to reduce the likelihood of injury. We have a link below in the “resources section.”
Single Blade (Bit) or Double Blade
These days… double bit axes are geared more toward the lumberjack competition crowd. Single bit axes are the standard among bushcrafters and those who make a living in the forest.
They are much safer to use. The are safer to store. And, in transport less likely to “bite.” Plus, in a pinch, you can use the poll like a hammer for stakes and such. But, that brings with it a few safety concerns.
However, with a double bladed axe, you get the added benefit of extra weight. That could give you a bit more chopping power and an additional blade if something happens to the first. Two blades are a bit more dangerous if you aren’t careful. This should probably be the most significant factor when you are deciding on the best camping axe.
In the end, you need to choose the type of axe head that works best for your needs. We recommend opting for a single blade for 90-100 percent of the tasks you’ll encounter around a campsite.
Hard Sap & Such
This is a lesson we learned the hard way. Be careful of solidified pitch and sap. It can literally be rock hard. Without going into the specifics of what happened we can assure you that pine trees can have insanely hard surfaces that form where the limb meets the trunk.
It can be hard to see and impossible to prevent hitting 100 percent of the time, but be aware of it. Especially in cold freezing temperatures when your edge is a little on the brittle side.
Also, be aware that things can embed themselves in bark. The thicker the bark the harder it is to see. We’ve seen pebbles, bullets, and nails in trees we were cutting. So wear eye protection, and use common sense tips like those described in Ray Mears’ video.
Grandpa Tip: When limbing a tree try to limb the side opposite the side you’re standing. This puts a physical barrier (the trunk) between you and the edge of the axe. – ( This is a paraphrased version of actual grandfatherly advice with colorful language and lengthy anecdotes removed)
- An Axe to Grind, A Practical Manual – Bernie Weisgerber, USDA
- Choosing an Axe – Ray Mears
- The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter – Dudley Cook
- History of the Axe – Gränsfors Bruk