A camp axe (or hatchet) is an important, but often overlooked, piece of camping equipment. Modern tent campers staying in developed state and federal campgrounds need a small camp axe to split firewood into small pieces of stove wood and kindling. Occasionally, they may also need a camp axe to make a baton, a splitting wedge, or some other wooden implement.
Guidelines for Buying a Camp Axe
After using over fifty axes for basic tent camping chores during the past 50 years and hand-splitting firewood to heat my home for twenty years, I have formulated several opinions about camp axes. These opinions are summarized below.
Helko, Ochsenkopf, Hults Bruk, S.A. Wetterlings, Gransfors Bruk, and other companies make excellent camp axes but these axes typically cost $100 or more. Several other companies make good camp axes for less than $50 - but most of these axes have some limitations that should be addressed before use. For example, some need sharpening, some handles need sanding, many need sheaths, and a few need to have their handles tightened. The best value for your money is to buy a vintage or used axe head and restore it yourself but this option requires some wood working tools and skills. A used head can usually be bought in a flea market, antique store, or on eBay for less than $25. A new hickory handle can be purchased for about $10 and a leather sheath can be made for $10. In other words, you can make a great camp axe with a sheath for about $45.
When shopping for a camp axe - new or used - consider the following features.
Head shape: Rectangular shaped heads are best suited for typical camp chores. In particular, Dayton and Michigan shaped heads are good for cutting, splitting, and carving. They have long eyes that hold firm to the handle and small overstrike zones. Rockaway, Hudson Bay, and Rhineland patterns are acceptable but these three shapes have longer overstrike zones that can lead to premature handle failure. Avoid double bit, tomahawks, half-hatchets, carpenter's hatchets, shingling hatchets, broad axes & hewing axes.
Head weight: Head weight is much more important than total weight and the best weight depends upon the primary use of the axe. Heavier heads (1 3/4 to 2 pounds) are best for splitting larger pieces of cord wood - but lighter heads (1 to 1 1/4 pound) are best for splitting kindling and carving wooden implements. Medium weight heads (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pound) are the most commonly used size for scout and camp axes. Ideally, I would like to pack a heavier and a lighter axe but if I can only pack one axe, I prefer one with a 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 pound head.
Overall length: The overall length (sometimes called handle length) of camp axes typically range from 9 to 24 inches. In general, shorter handles are fitted to lighter heads and longer handles are fitted to heavier heads. Again the best length depends upon the primary use of the axe. Heavier axes with 19 to 24 inch handles are best for de-limbing fallen trees and splitting larger pieces of cord wood. Lighter axes with 9 to 12 inch handles, frequently called pocket axes, are best for splitting kindling and carving implements. And they would be a good choice for backpackers, motorcycle campers, and others with limited packing space. Scout and camp axes with 14 to 16 inch handles seem to be the best all-purpose camp axe size. They perform a variety of chores reasonable well and fit into most tool bags.
Quality of the steel: The quality of the steel is a very important factor that determines how easy it will be to sharpen the axe, how sharp you can get it, how long it will hold a sharp edge, how well it resists chipping, and how well it resists rust. Typically, good axe makers start with a good quality carbon steel (1050) and forge it into the final axe shape. Hand forging is considered to be the best procedure but drop forging is more economical. After forging, makers hardened the bits by heating them and then rapidly cooling them in oil or water baths. If the bit is soft (HRC less than 50), it will not hold a sharp edge; if it is hard (HRC above 60) it will be difficult to sharpen and will chip easily. The best axes have a HRC of 55 or 56. Unfortunately, is is impossible to get these important details for vintage axes and difficult to get them for most new axes. The best way to assure your axe has good quality steel is to buy axes made by reputable makers - Helko, Ochsenkopf, Hults Bruk, Hultafors, SA Wetterling, Gransfors Bruk, Collins, Craftsman, Plumb, and True Temper. Avoid axes with no maker's mark. Also avoid axes that have been “re-profiled,” re-ground, or placed in a fire because their bits may have been softened by the heat.
Head condition: Old axes found in flea markets and on eBay vary considerably in terms of their condition. Those with a little rust can be restored to make great camp tools. But those with badly damaged heads, mushroomed polls, cracked eyes or heads, distorted eyes, chipped bits, re-ground toes or heels, heavy pitting, and obscured maker's mark may be impossible to fix.
Eye dimensions: The eye should be larger at the top than at the bottom so that the handle neck can be properly secured to the head.
Bit, cheek & face thickness: Thicker heads are best suited for splitting wood while thinner heads are best suited for cutting trees and limbs. Cheap hatchets, made with lower quality steel, have thicker bits that split firewood reasonably well but are poorly suited for other common camp chores. Some people try to “re-profile” these bits but thin bits made from poor quality steel will chip or dull easily. It is best to buy a good brand name axe head made with good steel with moderately thin bits.
Centerline geometry: Many old American made axes had a concave curvature along the centerline and a pronounced convex curvature across the center line. This elevated centerline geometry reportedly was designed to keep axes from sticking in wood but I prefer a flat ground head because it facilitates splitting small pieces of firewood into kindling and carves well.
Handle material: Steel and composite shafted axes are very durable but most axe enthusiasts, including me, find wooden handled axes to be more comfortable to use. Axe enthusiasts have used a variety of exotic woods to make their handles, but modern tent campers should stick to hickory or ash. Hickory and ash handles are very strong and comfortable to use. Replacement handles made by Beaver Tooth, House, and Link can be purchased on the internet and from a few hardware stores.
Fit & finish: Anyone can stick a handle into an axe head but only a few can do it well. Thus, the head and handle interface is the most important factor to examine before buying a new or reconditioned axe. You want a head that will remain solidly attached to the handle after many hours of work because a loosened head could fly off and injure a bystander - and will result in several hours of downtime replacing it. The handle and head should fit tight at the top and bottom of the eye but small gaps should not cause a problem. To get this solid fit, the eye of the head should be wider at the top than at the bottom and the top of the handle neck should be spread wide by a good wedge. The handle should be smooth and well-oiled with no cracks, rot, or overstrike damage. And it should have a lanyard hole. A lanyard helps to keep the axe from slipping out of your hand. Many axe enthusiasts consider the grain orientation of the handle to be the most important fit & finish factor but I would disagree. Although I prefer handles with good grain orientation, many excellent camp axes are sold with "poor grain orientation" and these axes will give many hours of excellent work with no problems.
Sheath: A sheath is absolutely necessary for safety reasons but few used and new axes are sold with good sheaths. Therefore, you may have to make or buy a sheath for your axe.
Additional information about good camp axes can be found in my recent YouTube videos - Best Camp Axes 1 & 2. If you haven't already watched these videos, you should find them very informative.
Axes can be dangerous! Know and observe basic safety procedures.
- Never work after consuming alcoholic beverages, marijuana or other drugs.
- Do not allow young children (3 to 12) to handle an axe at any time. If they are interested, allow them to observe and explain the dangers
- Only allow youth (13 to 18) to use semi-sharp axes under close supervision - to assure they follow safety procedures and avoid horseplay.
- Avoid working after dark.
- Avoid double bit axes: two sharp edges increase the danger.
- Never use an axe with a loose head or badly damaged handle; the head could fly off and injure a bystander.
- Wear safety equipment: protective eyewear, gloves, jeans & closed toe shoes.
- Warn others and clear the area: children, vegetation & obstructions.
- Anticipate the direction of a glancing blow and stand clear.
- Never cut or chop overhead.
- When felling trees and bucking logs: use a saw when possible; when unavailable, use long handle axe.
- De-limbing: cut small limbs on opposite side of larger limb - from bottom to top.
- Use a chopping/splitting block.
- When splitting large tree rounds, use a maul, wedge, and large splitting platform if available
- When splitting larger pieces of firewood, make short controlled swings and use a wedge.
- When splitting larger pieces of firewood, kneel, bend over and/or squat to keep edge parallel with the ground.
- When splitting smaller pieces of firewood, do not hold wood with hand. Use side splitting technique when possible.
- When using a short 10 to 14-inch handle, use a lanyard to prevent the axe from slipping out of your hand.
- Cover edge with a sheath when not in use.
- Hold unsheathed axe near head and shoulder.
- When giving an axe to another person, put its sheath on or lay it down for the other person to pick up.
Axe Safety Myths
- A razor sharp edge is needed for all camping chores.
- Sharp axes are safer than dull axes
- Axes with handles with poor grain orientation are unsafe.
To preserve the life of a good hatchet, spray the head with WD-40 and polish it with a steel wool pad after every camping trip to remove any rust that may have started. After cleaning the head, wipe it clean with a dry paper towel and lightly coat it with machine or vegetable oil. Then rub boiled linseed oil into the wood handle.
Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, an axe was essential for comfortable camping and early camping books spent considerable space discussing their use. Axes (and hatchets) were used to cut trees for shelter, bedding, firewood, and various camp equipment. After felling a tree, smaller axes and hatchets were used to remove limbs, cut tree trunks into short logs, split logs into firewood, split firewood into small stove wood and kindling, make tent stakes, and carve various implements. Consequently, early camping books described good camp axes, where to buy them, and how to use them safely. As bushcraft began to emerge in the 1940s, a good camp axe continued to be recognized as an important tool - and bushcraft books continued to devote considerable space for discussing their use.
But in the late 1900s, camping books began devoting fewer and fewer pages for axe safety and use. Although axes were still essential for splitting firewood into smaller pieces of stove wood and kindling, recently published camping books provided little, if any, information about them. Backpacking books may have omitted this topic because hatchets add additional weight to a backpack and are unnecessary for driving tent stakes into soft ground and cooking meals with backpacking stoves. Other camping books may have omitted this topic because cutting live and downed trees is considered to be unethical by the Leave-no-Trace guidelines, because any cheap hatchet sold in a hardware store was assumed to be just as good as a well-made hatchet, or because hatchets and axes have caused numerous injuries to careless users. Regardless of the reason, modern camping books provide very little practical information about qualities of good camp axes, where to find them, and how to use them safely.
So, if you want to read more about the proper use and care of axes, you'll have to find some older books. Here is a list of some good resources.
- Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties (1914) by D. C. Beard
- Camping and Woodcraft (1917) by Horace Kephart
- The American Boy's Book of Camp-lore and Woodcraft (1920) by D. C. Beard
- Woodcraft and Camping (1920) by George Washington Sears (aka Nessmuk)
- American Axe (1972) by Henry J Kauffman
- The Axe Book (1981) by D. Cook
- Bushcraft (1987) by Mors Kochanski
Axes For Sale
I usually have several good quality restored camp axes available for sale. Each axe has been cleaned and sharpened. Most have replacement handles but a few have original handles that have been retightened. All have a custom-made leather sheath with a welt ($25 value). A leather overstrike collar can be added for $25 more. Shipping is extra and will depend upon handle length and distance from my home. Contact me for more information. My contact information is provided at the bottom of this page.