Choosing the Best Backpacking Hatchet

If you’re looking to buy a hatchet for backpacking we’re assuming you have a perfectly legitimate (and legal) reason for doing so. The reality is, it will likely be one of the heaviest pieces of equipment you put in your pack so there must be a good reason why some backpackers are willing to lug it along.

While a good knife will be equal to most tasks there are times when a hatchet will do a much better, and quicker, job. Chopping firewood or making kindling are the most obvious uses.

Where it’s value really becomes apparent is when you need to hammer in tent pegs, build an emergency shelter in a hurry or even in a self-defense situation.

The amount of value you’re going to get for carrying that extra weight depends a lot on the quality of the ax you buy. We’ve reviewed the best backpacking hatchet options that are worth the extra weight in your pack.

Quick Answer:

Backpacking Hatchets Reviewed

Gränsfors Bruks Hand Hatchet

At a Glance:

  • Superior quality materials and construction – high durability
  • Only 9.5” long and 23 oz makes it fit easily into your backpack
  • High price tag
If you’ve seen any show featuring Vikings then you know that the Scandinavians are passionate about steel blades.

Gränsfors Bruks is a Swedish company that employs master blacksmiths to produce some of the highest quality axes in the world. These are not mass-produced items.

Each ax is signed with the initials of the smith as his personal quality guarantee. The blade is made from high-quality steel and is solidly married to a nicely angled hickory shaft for excellent balance.

The wood grain is tight and straight and the blade is razor sharp out of the box. The short shaft and light weight makes it ideal for backpacking.

When you look at the high price tag you’d be forgiven for being a little skeptical, but the quality of construction, materials, and performance makes this a worthwhile investment.

It’s basically the Rolls Royce of hatchets.

Or Volvo I suppose, seeing as it’s made in Sweden. The point is, this is an awesome hatchet that will be up to any chopping you’re likely to do on your next trip. It also has a 20-year guarantee so your grandkids will probably still be using this years from now.

Gerber 9-Inch Hatchet [31-002648]

At a Glance:

  • Blade is PTFE coated to reduce friction when chopping
  • Only 9.5” long and 23 oz makes it fit easily into your backpack
  • Only 9” and 1.21 lbs – very light and easy to pack
  • Comes with a bulky plastic sheath

If you’re after a backpacking hatchet that is really small but still gets the job done then this is a great option.

The forged steel axe head has a razor sharp blade that stays sharp even after plenty of use.

We liked that the blade was PTFE coated. This reduces the friction between the blade and the wood so you end up chopping deeper with less effort.

It also means that the blade doesn’t end up getting stuck in the wood like some axes do. The composite handle is shock absorbent so it feels good in your hands even after a long chopping session.

The impressive chopping action you get is all the more surprising when you factor in that it only weighs 1.21 lbs. The 9” length makes it suitable for single hand use only but the packability and performance of this compact hatchet more than makes up for that.

If you plan on chopping some thicker stuff you could go for the 14” version which is still pretty light at 1.54 lbs.

Estwing Sportsman’s Axe – 12″ Camping Hatchet

At a Glance:

  • Handle and head forged in a single piece for extra durability
  • Well balanced and angled for comfortable use
  • Weight – 1.38 lbs/li>
  • Made in USA
  • Leather grip looks nice but varnish makes it a little slippery

This attractive 12” camping hatchet is beautifully made with the head and handle forged in a single piece of steel.

The hand polished head and neck and genuine leather grip add to its good looks. Estwing have been making hand tools in the USA for over 90 years and their attention to detail is clear to see in this hatchet.

The blade is super sharp and this camp ax feels great the second you hold it. We liked the broad back of the head which is perfect for hammering in tent pegs. Overall it’s very well balanced and the angle of the shaft makes it comfortable to use.

The leather handle grip looks great out of the box but the varnish on the grip makes it slippery when wet. Also, once the varnish wears off it starts to absorb moisture.

Filing the varnish off and treating the leather with oil will give you a comfy handle that grips well. The ax is supplied with a durable ballistic nylon sheath to make sure the super sharp blade only cuts when you intend it to.

The steel isn’t the hardest we’ve seen but it will be up to most of the chopping you’ll be doing around the campsite. If you don’t mind taking a bit of time to treat the leather handle then this hatchet is a solid choice at the price.

SOG FastHawk Gear F06PN-CP

At a Glance:

  • Light (19 oz) and compact – easy to pack and carry
  • Attractive design
  • Multifunction head offers good versatility
  • Well balanced
  • Good value at a low price
  • Not full tang – not suited to heavy duty use

You may not be the ax throwing type but this tomahawk, or throwing hatchet, works really well as a camping hatchet.

It’s extremely light and the 2-inch blade is easily up to the kind of light to medium chopping you’ll be doing around your camp. It’s a very versatile ax with a chopping blade on one end, a pointed chisel end and a flat hammering section on the side of the head.

The ax blade is made from 420 stainless steel with a polished finish which looks great. The handle is made from ballistic polymer which has a solid, heavy duty feel about it but might be tough to grip if it gets wet.

This is not a full tang hatchet. The head is attached to the handle with two screws that may loosen a little with time after some serious chopping. Check that your multi-tool has a tool that fits the torx screws just in case.

You won’t be splitting thick logs with this but at this low price, it represents great value. We especially liked the cool design and how well balanced this hatchet was.

Fiskars X7 Hatchet 14 Inch

At a Glance:

  • 14-inch handle allows for two handed operation, more chopping power
  • Very lightweight – 1.38 pounds
  • Well balanced for optimum power to weight ratio
  • Very sharp blade with low-friction coating for cleaner cuts
  • Butt of the ax head is a little narrow to use as a hammer

If you want a hatchet with a little more swing power but still want to keep things light then this is a great option.

The 14-inch shaft easily accommodates two-handed use for thicker logs but it’s light enough and well balanced for single-handed use too. The blade is super sharp and the low-friction coating means you get a cleaner cut with less effort.

At 1.38 pounds this is one of the lightest 14” axes. It’s perfectly balanced so that your swing delivers maximum power at the bottom of your stroke.

This is really well put together. There’s no way the ax head is separating from the shaft and the fiber composite handle is pretty much indestructible. This ax would have been perfect if the butt of the head was a little wider.

You’re going to need good aim if you’re using it to hammer tent pegs in. At just over 16-inches overall length this isn’t the most compact hatchet but it is really lightweight. You’ll have to find a spot on the outside of your pack to hang it but you’ll hardly notice the extra weight.

Gerber Bear Grylls Survival Hatchet [31-002070]

At a Glance:

  • Lightweight, compact size, slim profile
  • 3.5” blade is razor sharp
  • Full tang stainless steel construction – excellent durability
  • Rubberized handle offers excellent grip
  • Not enough chopping power for thicker logs

When an ax is too much and your knife isn’t quite enough then this survival hatchet will do nicely.

The Bear Grylls endorsement is pure marketing but the performance and construction of this compact, lightweight hatchet is impressive. It’s full tang with no welds or seams so you’d have to try really hard to break this.

We loved the rubberized grip and the finger cutouts just below the blade are great for more precise work when you want to use it as a knife. It only weighs 20.8 ounces and has an overall length of 9.46”. This makes it easy to pack without denting your weight budget too much.

Because of its lightweight nature it does mean that you have to deliver most of the chopping power rather than relying on a heavy ax head. The blade is super sharp though and easily lops off and splits smaller branches.

This is a survival hatchet and if you use it as intended then you’ll be very pleased with the results. Just don’t try splitting any thicker logs because you’ll probably end up damaging the blade.

SOG Survival Hawk SK1001-CP

At a Glance:

  • Full length stainless steel construction – good durability
  • Sharp blade, nail puller, hammer, fire starter rod – very versatile
  • Lightweight – 19.5 ounces
  • Fire starter rod breaks too easily

This survival tomahawk has a really cool design and solid performance to match. It’s not really weighted right for throwing but works great as a multifunction backpacking hatchet.

It is a full tang design with the glass reinforced nylon handle secured by four heavy-duty bolts. The 3 inch blade is razor sharp and makes light work of small to medium logs.

The versatility of this hatchet is where it really shines. Besides the blade, the multifunction head has a nail puller and a hammering head.

There’s also a ferro rod fire starter concealed in the base of the handle. The fire rod is a little thin so take it easy and support it properly when you strike it along the blade.

The nylon handle has paracord wrapped around it to give you a decent grip but it can be a bit tricky to wrap if it comes loose. It’s not the cheapest backpacking hatchet we’ve seen but the solid construction and versatility of this hatchet make it worth the mid-end price tag.

Also, the edgy design will make you look pretty hardcore and will go great with your camo theme.

Our Favorite

If someone offered to buy us a hatchet then without hesitation we’d choose the Gränsfors Bruks hand hatchet. The quality of the materials and workmanship isn’t just easy on the eye.

Using this hatchet just has a feel about it that makes you begin to understand the high price tag. The idea of chopping wood in the wild with a blade that was hand forged and stamped by a master smith in Sweden has a serious amount of cool factor to it.

Best For Budget

The 12” Estwing Sportsman’s Ax offers the best bang for your buck if you’re not looking to spend too much. It isn’t the most versatile of hatchets but it is really well made.

The full tang construction, excellent balance and light weight make it an excellent hatchet at the price.

Best Backpacking Hatchet Buyer’s Guide

Do I Need A Backpacking Hatchet?

If you prefer keeping your backpacking kit super-light then it may be hard to justify carrying a hatchet. There are some good reasons that help to justify the extra weight though.

If you’re going to be making a decent fire you’ll need more than just kindling. Being able to chop up logs quickly at the end of a long day’s hike means you get a fire and cooked food without too much hassle.

That’s probably the main reason you’ll need a hatchet but don’t discount the tactical, or survival aspect, either. Having to defend yourself against a wild animal is something you hope you’ll never have to do. The reality is that it can happen and having a hatchet will give you an edge that your knife just won’t.

Also, you may have packed a tent and a medical kit but things can, and often do, go wrong. In a survival situation, you may need to build a shelter in a hurry or fashion a splint, a crutch or a spear.

A decent hatchet can make a bad day a whole lot better.

Components Of A Hatchet

In simple terms, a hatchet is made up of a head (the business end) and a handle. These are either cast in a single piece (full tang) or made from two separate pieces. Each of these components is comprised of a few key design elements.[1]

The ax head is made up of the:

  • Ax eye-opening at top of ax head where the handle sticks through
  • Cutting edge – sharpened edge of the blade
  • Ax blade / Bit – angled part of ax head starting from just behind the cutting edge
  • Poll / Butt – the flattened back end directly opposite the cutting edge

The ax handle is made up of:

  • Shaft – length of handle where hands are placed
  • End knob / Swell knob – curved end at base of shaft that prevents hands slipping from shaft

Small differences in each of these key areas can have a marked effect on the performance of the hatchet.

Choosing The Best Hatchet – What To Look Out For

Balance

The way the weight of the head is balanced with the handle has a big effect on how good the hatchet feels in your hand.

More than that, a well-balanced hatchet will develop good speed through the air and deliver maximum force at the downward stroke. Having a curved shaft will often help to position your hands directly below the cutting edge for maximum effect.

Length

Size really does matter. A longer shaft means you’ll be generating more speed at the ax head as you swing. This means increased chopping power with less exertion. Of course, more length means a heavier hatchet that’s not so easy to pack.

Shorter, single hand hatchets are fine for chopping kindling. If you’re going to be chopping 4-inch logs or thicker then be prepared to carry something in the range of 12 to 14 inches.

Sharpness

The sharper the cutting edge, the easier it’ll be to make its way through wood. Out of the box sharp is good but the blade also needs to be made from good quality steel that stays sharp.

You also want the blade, or bit, of the ax head to go gradually wider. If it gets too wide near the cutting edge then it’s going to get stuck in the wood.

Weight / Size

While you want your hatchet to be fairly light, that reduced weight does come at a cost. The lighter the head is, the more work you’re going to have to do in order to deliver enough chopping power.

Also, reduced handle length means reduced ax head speed and power. Again, this means you’ll be doing more of the work. A good compromise is to aim for a hatchet that’s under 1.5 lbs and in the 9” to 12” range.

Multi-use

Some of the best hatchets are designed with more than just chopping in mind. Having a spiked end, a hammering surface or even a fire starter incorporated into your hatchet offers versatility that goes beyond just a novelty factor. A sharp hatchet is great for more precise carving too. Some hatchets will have finger cutouts just below the head so you can choke up on the blade and use it as a big knife.

Cool design

With a hatchet, you want to aim for function over form but there’s no reason you shouldn’t look good while getting your chop on. Some of the aesthetics of a hatchet can also have a more practical side to them.

A brightly colored handle makes it easier to find your hatchet when you drop it. Cross-hatching on the butt will give you better purchase on those tent pegs when you strike them. Also, there’s just something special about a polished shiny blade.

Price

When it comes to backpacking hatchets, once again you get what you pay for. High-quality steel that stays sharp and doesn’t rust or chip comes at a price. Design factors like being single cast full tang or having a solid straight grain wood handle are worth paying a little more for.

If you’re looking for lifetime use and head out regularly then invest in a top end hatchet like the one from Gränsfors Bruks. If you’re more of an occasional backpacker then one of the cheaper Gerber or SOG hatchets are good options.

Different Types of Hatchet

Hatchets come in a variety of designs with different applications in mind. Broadly you’ll be choosing between one of the following hatchet types:

Camping hatchet

These mid-sized hatchets are designed primarily for chopping and splitting wood for your campfire. The shaft is normally long enough for two-handed use and the butt is wide enough to hammer in tent pegs.

Survival Hatchet

This is your “just in case” hatchet. It’s typically smaller than a regular camping hatchet with the shorter handle designed for single-handed use. If you need to build a shelter in a hurry then these hatchets are great for cutting a few sturdy logs. The blade is normally big enough to handle some decent chopping but the shorter shaft means that cutting thicker stuff will be tough going. This makes this it less suited for chopping and splitting a lot of firewood.

Tactical hatchet

If you’re a fan of action movies and expect to have to defend yourself then this is the hatchet you’ll be carrying. These are normally tomahawk-style hatchets and are designed to be used as weapons. Your tactical hatchet may help you survive a bear attack but you’re more likely to be using it to lop off thinner branches and split some kindling.

Throwing hatchet

These are tomahawk style hatchets that are specifically designed to be thrown and then embed themselves in whatever they hit. They’re typically balanced around the center of the hatchet. This makes them great for throwing but less effective for delivering a solid chop to wood you’re trying to split.

Hatchet Safety Tips

Your hatchet may have been designed to chop wood but if you’re careless you’ll find that it’s equally effective at cutting you. If you’re planning on keeping all your fingers and not breaking the seal on your first aid kit then these hatchet safety tips are worth paying attention to.

  • Make sure that there are no obstacles (or people) nearby. Check that you have enough clearance behind, around and above you before chopping by holding the sheathed hatchet by the head and slowly rotating it all around and above you at arm’s length.
  • Keep your hands and feet clear of the wood you’re chopping. Rather use another piece of wood to hold the piece you’re splitting.
  • Don’t leave the head unsheathed unless it’s in use.
  • Keep it sharp. A dull cutting edge is more likely to glance off what you’re chopping
  • Make sure the head is secured tightly to the handle.
  • Don’t use the hatchet barefoot. Your hiking boots won’t stop a misplaced hatchet swing completely but they’ll at least offer some protection.
  • When splitting wood only do so on a flat surface. Using a surface that is a foot or two off the ground will save you from having to bend down too low.

Caring For Your Hatchet – How To Keep It Sharp And In Good Shape

Your hatchet blade will eventually become dull and develop a few chips. The easiest way to take care of this damage is to use a fine-toothed flat file or heavy duty sharpener.

An Ax To Grind

Just make sure that you retain the original shape of the bevel of the cutting edge. You can file it down on an emery wheel but make sure that you cool the blade often. If the steel overheats it can lose its temper and will become damaged a lot quicker.

Once you’ve filed away the chips and nicks it’s time to sharpen the cutting edge. Carrying a small sharpening puck in your pack won’t take up much space and is great for sharpening your hatchet in the field.

  • Use the coarse side of the puck on the one side of the cutting edge and work on it until the scratches from the file are removed.
  • Then work on the other side of the edge making sure you maintain the same angle on the bevel. The blade should be pretty sharp after this already.
  • Now use the smoother side of the puck for the last stage of sharpening. Use alternating and consistent strokes on the blade to maintain an equally angled bevel on both sides of the edge.

Here’s a video that explains it further:

Handle Care & Rust Prevention

A hickory handle with straight grain lines running parallel to the handle is ideal if you want it to last. To keep the wood in good shape you should oil it with a little linseed oil mixed with some beeswax to give it a good finish.

This will protect the wood from water damage. Using boiled linseed oil rather than regular linseed oil will have the wooden handle dry quicker and avoid a sticky, oily residue.

Your hatchet head will eventually develop a few rust spots but wiping it with a little machine oil or gun oil will protect it from the elements.

This is especially a good idea if you’re storing it between trips. Using a gun oil designed to dry leaves a protective coating on the head and won’t leave it with an oily finish.

The top-end hatchets use steel better suited to heavy work and tend to avoid stainless steel. This makes them last a lot longer but does make them more susceptible to rust.

Is it Worth the Weight?

Whether you decide to pack a hatchet or not really depends on the kind of backpacking you’re into. If you do decide to buy one, then make sure the extra pack weight is worth it by buying the best backpacking hatchet your budget allows for.

Avoid the gimmicky all-in-one Swiss Army type hatchets. They may look fancy but in a real outdoors situation these cheap hatchets just don’t cut it.

A good quality hatchet will be safer to use, will last longer and makes for a lot less frustration when you’re trying to get that campfire going.

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