Camping axes have come a long way. Modern materials and creative design have transformed them from a simple blade to a multipurpose tool that's easy to carry even on a challenging hike. As a result, the axe you choose depends largely on how you plan to use it.
If you're looking for a hand axe for the family cabin, you might be most interested in how well it chops wood, while a hatchet for an alpine hike should be lightweight and replace as many tools as possible. You may not mind, for instance, that a hatchet intended a survival kit or for car camping is heavier but what you may be concerned about the most is that it's easy to store.
The reviewers at Active Junky spent a lot of time trying out axes in different environments and conditions, and they found that certain qualities apply to functionality. No matter what you use a camping axe for, you want one that's high quality. Below are the features and qualities to look for when searching for the best camping axe.
A camping axe should help you slice through multiple chores with ease; however, how well it does an individual chore depends on the function its best suited for. Here are the five qualities to look for, as determined by Active Junky reviewers, for evaluating an axe's functionality:
Agility: Camp hatchets are generally shorter and lighter so you get a good range of movement. They are most useful when you need to clear small amounts of brush or dead limbs or remove rocks from a campsite. Sharpness isn't as important here as with other chores, such as chopping wood.
Utility: These camp axes do more than cut. They have good balance and a well-formed hammering head for driving in tent stakes without damaging them. The blade is easy to handle for accurate trimming of wood for a shelter or for making good crossmembers for a dining tent or camp shower. They may have other tools, such as a hex-head ratchet, for assembling equipment for longer stays.
Penetration: There's nothing worse than trying to split logs with a dull axe. Penetration is a combination of sharpness, the grind of the bit (the area behind the cutting edge) and balance. Penetration is most important if you mainly plan to use your hatchet for chopping firewood, shaving tinder, chopping up kindling and splitting downed limbs. Look for a blade with a narrower grind, as it will more easily sink into the wood.
Size: This includes weight as well as physical dimensions. Some axe heads detach from the handle to make it easier to carry. Size should be weighed against utility, because the lightest hatchet in the world won't do you any good when you are on the far end of the world needing a tool you don't have.
Durability: Camping axes can be used for anything from landscaping to construction – or demolition. If you intend to use your camping hatchet around your home for regular chores, then you want one that can stand up to long-term use without the handle breaking or the blade wearing down too quickly. Look for durable materials as well as warranties for indications of durability.
Camping axes are generally easy to replace: They aren't extremely expensive and are commonly available. Cheaper does not necessarily mean inferior quality. (However, that doesn't mean you should spend good money on a poor-quality hatchet.) When looking for a good quality axe, consider the following:
Resharpening. This should be an easy process, especially when away from home, as one unlucky collision with a rock can turn a blade into a butter knife. Sharpening stones or "pucks" specifically for axes run under $20, but some axes need a coarser grit.
Handle gripping power. This is important for safety as well as for effective swings. It's always a good idea to use leather gloves when handling an axe, but in an emergency when the weather is rough, you want a handle you can hang onto while cutting and driving, even with wet hands.
Care. How much maintenance do the handle and blade need in order to stay sharp and smooth? Easy resharpening is still a pain if the blade dulls easily, and there's nothing worse than a handle that splinters, rusts or corrodes. Wood handles shrink over time, ruining its fit with the axe head. If the axe comes in pieces, check how much replacement parts cost.
Vibration. Remember the cartoon where the lumberjack hits a metal pole that looks like a tree, and rather than felling it, he starts vibrating until he's off the screen? Vibration occurs when the axe can't transfer cutting or driving power to the surface effectively. This can happen if you use it to cut a surface the axe is not designed to cut, like in the cartoon, but it also may mean the blade itself is not well designed. See the paragraph above about blade penetration.
Sheaths. A good sheath protects both the axe and the handler. Look for a durable sheath of strong leather or of ballistic nylon. Some have clips so you can attach them to a pack, the inside of a boat or to your belt.
Extras. This ties back to utility and use. Built-in sharpeners, striking tools, prying and nail-cutting utilities all add to the usefulness of the blade and can lighten your load because you don't have to carry extra items.
Reputation. While it's tempting to grab any brand in the store, company reputation is important when looking for a high-quality blade. Blade metallurgy, handle materials and overall construction mean the difference between a one-season hatchet and a long-term investment. Thus, it pays to purchase from a manufacturer or craftsman who has earned the trust of the industry.
You may find that no single axe handles all of your needs. This is especially true for less-experienced campers. In order to cover your bases, you may need two camping axes: A short-handled utility axe for driving, wedging, prying, and moderate cutting; and a cutting axe, which has a longer handle and heavier head for heavier chopping.
Depending on the brand and models you choose, your total investment can range between $100 and $250 with most camp axes, including a sheath. Regardless, finding the right axe made with the best quality results in an investment that lasts a lifetime.