Backpacking Axes — Matching Axes to Your Needs and Your Gear

side hawk

Somewhere I have the name of the smith who made this axe for me. It’s a trail hawk in a side axe style, meaning the back face is flat and the blade has a single bevel. Photo by JTHats (that’s me). All rights reserved.

On the American frontier, few people traveled without a tomahawk. Aside from being an extremely versatile tool for camp chores, the tomahawk provided a better defense than either knife, spear or rifle for close combat in dense woodlands. You can swing a tomahawk effectively among trees and in heavy brush without getting tangled up, and even though it’s a small blade, the long handle amplifies the impact. Today few people have need of that, though tactical tomahawks are still an optional part of a military kit. If you hunt large game, a small axe helps with butchering chores, letting you quarter a carcass for hauling out, in record time. If you get far enough into the wilderness to build a base camp and enjoy primitive living for awhile, an axe builds most of the facilities you need there.

Backpackers who rely on found fuel to fire up debris stoves or to build small cooking fires will find an axe much more efficient than a Bowie knife, and if you’re a careful shopper you can find an efficient axe that weighs about the same.

Beware of the modern backpacker axes, however, since many appear to have been designed by people who neither backpack nor use axes. If it’s too small, it’s no good. Some of the modern construction techniques used to manufacture axes with “permanent” handles also fail to meet real-world standards. You can spend a good chunk of money on an axe or hatchet you don’t like when you get around to using it.

One of the real problems for backpackers who carry axes is how to wear it. In olden times when traveling gear was a musket, powder horn, satchel of supplies and a tomahawk, people tucked the tomahawk into their belts for easy access. Even if you hang the axe from your belt with a belt sheath today, you’ll probably find it conflicts with the waistbelt of any backpack you wear. Tucked into your belt it’ll probably cut holes in your gear. Manufacturers of axes have compensated for modern gear by making axes shorter. Short axes are crappy axes, but easier to stash in your pack.

Smaller, lighter, and shorter
but built with the same quality
as any Gransfors Bruks axe.

When you reduce the length of an axe handle you reduce the power of the strike. To compensate, people swing harder. The short handle puts your knuckles very close to the object you’re hitting, and even if you don’t miss you can smash yourself up pretty good by chopping a notch in a medium-sized log with a toy axe. Axes don’t need to be big to be useful, but a little extra handle length helps. If you look at old photos or illustrations of the tomahawks the Plains tribes used, you find a whole different species of weapon. The head of the axe is about the same as the regular tomahawk but the handle is long and slender, looks to be about three feet or even more in length. Those people didn’t carry tape measures so I can’t be certain, but they installed long slender handles that made the tomahawk swift and deadly from the back of a charging horse. The axe I carry measures 3 1/2 inches across the cutting edge, with a handle 17 1/2 inches long. That’s plenty of axe for anything I need to do at camp and the handle keeps my hand out of knuckle-busting territory. Total weight, less than a pound. I tuck the tomahawk into a knife sock and stash it in a side pocket of my pack.

The Hudson Bay from Snow
& Nealley — a fully func-
tional camp axe small
enough to pack.

My tomahawk is a side or broad axe design, because I’ve done a lot of timber framing with axes and now I’m committed to that kind of blade, flat on one face with a single bevel on the other. I find it works best for all things, even though it’s a purely right-handed axe. Chopping axes with double bevels and symmetrical heads work the same in either hand, but don’t cut as cleanly and can’t cut a flat face on a round piece of wood as neatly as a side axe. Most people would find the chopping design satisfactory. I’ve read, since acquiring my side axe habit, that many Indian warriors preferred the single bevel on both knives and tomahawks. I agree with my ancestors on this point, but you’ll find few side axes today in the tomahawk style.

Regular tomahawks are still available, made in the traditional styles of spike poll, hammer poll, round poll and pipe poll. Spike poll axes were meant for combat and in woodscraft the extra spike only adds hazard to the work. Hammer polls increase weight a bit but make the axe more versatile, although if you buy a good frontier axe with a plain round poll you can drive tent stakes with it just fine. I prefer the round poll. Stay away from pipe polls. Pipe axes with hollow handles were created as trade goods, and sold well to both pioneers and Indians. Most of the old pipe axes on display in museums sport broken pipe polls. Handles didn’t hold up well either.

8.9 inch lightweight
knuckle buster. Many
people like it.

Since manufacturers today don’t expect anyone to actually use a tomahawk, some don’t offer sheaths to go along with them. Cold Steel offers inexpensive tomahawk Core-Ex sheaths sold on Amazon as the Trail Hawk Sheath even though they fit both frontier and trail axe styles. A cut-proof knife sock works all right if you stow the axe with the rest of your gear, but won’t fit all axes. I got mine at Chicago Cutlery in Lebanon, Missouri, but you might find similar products in sporting good stores. You can make your own axe sheath easily enough if you have a good piece of leather and a stitching awl. In fact, this looks like another job for “Speedy Stitcher!”; one of my favorite tools.

“I drew my little pocket-axe and we proceeded to start a fire, while the two older men went up stream a few rods to unearth a full-grown axe and a bottle of old rye.” — Sears, George Washington (2009-10-04). Woodcraft (Kindle Locations 412-413). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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