Going on a backpacking trip is always a great way to disconnect from the modern world and spend a few days in the relative peace of nature. However, backpacking can also be stressful if you’re not fully prepared. For this reason, a lot of thought needs to go into the gear that you need to bring on a backpacking trip.
Axes aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of backpacking gear. They are certainly heavy, difficult to pack, and need some skill to wield properly. However, bringing a backpacking axe on your trip might still be a wise move.
When to consider bringing an axe backpacking #
Context is important if you’re trying to decide if it’s a good idea to bring an axe to your backpacking trip. One situation may call for an axe, while another can be perfectly served with a good knife. Here are some situations where an axe could be useful.
You like building fires #
Axes have traditionally been used to chop firewood and prepare to kindle. Although modern axes are made to be a bit more versatile in how they are used, their old-fashioned application is the one that truly matters. If you like building a campfire for warmth and cooking, then a good axe can help you build that fire quickly and more efficiently.
On the other hand, there also campsites were building a fire is strictly prohibited. Some campers prefer using alcohol stoves for cooking, which is also a valid backpacking strategy. If you can’t build a fire in camp or are simply not interested in doing so, then bringing an axe might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Dealing with wet firewood #
Some campsites sell or provide big pieces of firewood. In most cases, these chunks of firewood have been chopped down from standing deadwood quite some time ago. There’s a good chance that they will be wet on the outside, making it necessary to split them apart before they can be used to build a fire.
Splitting firewood with anything other than a good axe or hatchet is a fool’s task. That nice camping knife won’t be up to the task, no matter how much you sharpen it.
Camping in one spot for a long time #
Most backpackers spend the bulk of their time on the trail, moving from one campsite to another. However, staying put on one campsite for an extended period will require an entirely different strategy.
If you need to stay warm or cook, you’re going to need a LOT of firewood.
The loose pieces of wood and twigs you can pick up around the camp simply won’t be enough. To sustain for a long time, you will likely need to look for standing deadwood and chop it down to small pieces. An axe is the fastest and most efficient tool of the job. If your axe has a blunt side, you can also use it as a makeshift hammer to put down stakes for a temporary shelter.
Advantages of bringing an axe backpacking #
The axe isn’t exactly a tool of convenience. It’s bulkier and heavier than a knife, making it less than ideal if you want to keep your pack light and compact. However, there are certain benefits that an axe can bring to the table that other cutting tools do not.
The best tool for chopping firewood #
Yes, a knife can arguably be used to chop firewood and kindling. However, it’s not the best tool for the job. The weight of an axe gives it enough power to split a piece of firewood in half in just a single motion, allowing you to do it faster and with less effort. Energy is a premium commodity when you’re out backpacking, and you certainly would not want to waste energy preparing firewood just because you’re using the improper tool.
Doubles as a hammer #
An axe may not have the versatility of a knife, but it has one thing going for it – the blunt edge of an axe can be used as a hammer. This can be useful if you want to put down stakes to secure your tent or to set up any kind of complex shelter. We know any piece of rock can also be used as a makeshift hammer, but we also know that it’s unsafe and inefficient.
Suitable for felling trees #
Backpackers aren’t always lucky enough to find enough pieces of loose wood, branches, and twigs to be used as kindling. If you got stuck in such a situation, the best course of action would be to find large chunks of firewood and chop them down to pieces. In rare cases, you might even have to fell an entire tree.
Useful for warding off animals #
Just to be clear – we do not condone hurting animals when you’re out backpacking. However, there may be times when you’ll need to protect yourself from predators. An axe is a good tool for such a situation if only because it’s larger, longer, and more intimidating than a knife. Just keep in mind that the intention is to keep any animals at bay and not hurt them.
Disadvantages of bringing an axe backpacking #
An axe can provide superior chopping power for when you need to prepare firewood and kindling, but a lot of backpackers would rather bring a utility knife. Despite the many benefits, there are also plenty of drawbacks to bringing an axe on a backpacking trip.
Very heavy and bulky #
Even a compact hatchet with a fiberglass handle weighs more than 2 pounds – a great deal heavier and larger than a utility knife. If you want to bring a larger axe or one with a wooden handle, then you will need to contend with an even heavier tool.
The added heft of axes is probably the biggest reason for backpackers to OPT not to bring them. This is especially true of backpackers who subscribe to the ultralight principle of hiking. If you spend a lot of time on the trail, carrying the burden of an axe might have you spending more energy than necessary.
Lacks versatility #
While an axe is an ideal tool for chopping firewood, it’s not useful for much else. A knife, on the other hand, may not be the best tool for chopping firewood but has several other applications. It can be used to prepare food, cut a paracord, and clear your camping ground. With so many uses for a knife, it’s almost impractical NOT to bring one, even if you already have an axe.
Some camping sites do not allow chopping firewood #
Campsites with strict “Leave no Trace” rules will likely prohibit you from chopping firewood and require that you use an alcohol stove instead of cooking. If this were the case, then your axe might end up being dead weight. Check out the rules of the campsite you’re headed to before packing your gear to avoid this problem.
Things to consider when choosing a backpacking axe #
As with any piece of gear that you bring on a backpacking trip, considerable thought needs to go into choosing your backpacking axe. If you find the choice overwhelming, then here are a few points to consider to narrow down your options.
Size and weight #
Any added weight to your pack means using up more energy while hiking. When you go on a backpacking trip, energy is the premium currency – it’s arguably more valuable than any survival tool you can bring. For this reason, it would be best to bring an axe that is only as big and heavy as you need.
Hatchets are an excellent choice for backpacking because of how small they are. Designed to be used with one hand, hatchets are excellent for cutting down small pieces of wood for kindling. They can be also be used to fell trees or split firewood, although with greater effort. You can also opt for axes with fiberglass handles if you’re cutting down on weight.
Axes with longer handles provide a lot more swinging power but are naturally much heavier. It’s up to you to decide if the extra weight is worth it. If you’re staying at one campsite for a long time, then a full-sized axe might be a little more useful for building a shelter and preparing a large amount of firewood.
Sharpening and maintenance needs #
No matter how well-made your axe is, it’s going to dull down after repeated use. It might even get nicked if it hits a rock or a particularly tough piece of wood. If your axe has a wooden handle, you might need to treat it with oil now and then to prevent moisture damage.
When bringing an axe on a backpacking trip, take note that you may want to bring some type of axe sharpener. These are essential for keeping your axe sharp. Don’t skimp out on these accessories – a dull axe is an axe that’s dangerous and woefully inefficient.
Not all axes are made equal. The strongest axe heads are typically made of forged steel. The choice of the material for the handle is a bit more open to debate. Wooden handles look great and provide a good grip but are more prone to moisture damage when left outdoors. Fiberglass handles are lighter and have better vibration absorption capabilities but need to have a rubber grip to provide traction.
No matter the quality of the axe you end up buying, it’s longevity greatly depends on how well you take care of it. Keep the edge honed as much as possible to avoid getting the steel nicked or chipped. A wooden handle needs to be treated with linseed oil regularly to avoid warping because of moisture absorption.
An axe isn’t exactly a common tool that backpackers bring. It’s heavy and not very versatile, so we understand that it’s not for everybody.
However, it’s an essential tool if you’re the type of backpacker who likes to prepare a lot of firewood for cooking or for keeping warm. Using the best tool for the job is always the safest and most energy-efficient route to take, even if it means having to carry around a moderately heavy axe in your backpack.
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