Hatchets — and notably, tomahawks — are a part of our history. Used as both tools and weapons, they were created out of necessity when an axe was deemed too cumbersome.
Over time, however, hatchets have fallen out of favor (and fashion) among hikers and backpackers. Today you rarely ever hear about a hatchet or tomahawk being used in real-life, survival situations outside of movies and books (see Hatchet by Gary Paulsen).
The misconception about these tools is that, like axes, they’re great at the homestead or camp. But they’re too cumbersome for the trail. So, what’s the next best thing? A good chopper or robust fixed blade? Both are effective — but they lack the leverage of a hatchet.
The fact of the matter is there isn’t anything that can replace a good hatchet in the outdoors. There isn’t anything that could perform such a wide array of tasks as effectively as a hatchet can. Even in a world that’s obsessed with ultralight backpacking, hiking, and camping gear, the hatchet is still a relevant survival tool that deserves a place in your pack. Here’s why.
What Is a Hatchet?
A hatchet essentially has two parts. The first is the hatchet head (which has a cutting edge on the front, a “poll” on the back, an eyelet where the handle is attached, and a bit). The other piece is the handle, which can be made from hickory or synthetic materials (more on this later).
The difference between an axe and a hatchet comes down to more than just the handle length. And with all of the variety of head shapes and sizes out there today, the lines have really been blurred.
First off, yes, a hatchet will always have a shorter handle than an axe. The whole purpose of a hatchet is that it can be carried on your belt or your pack and used with one hand. Hatchets won’t have the same amount of leverage that axes do. But they’re not meant to.
Second, a hatchet head should always weigh less than an axe head. But it can be the same shape. There are some died-in-the-wool experts out there who won’t agree with that statement. They presume that hatchets and axes have a distinct set of head shapes that are specific to the tool.
However, the market seems to disagree with them. Search “hatchets” on the internet, and you’ll see a myriad of head and bit shapes that don’t conform to any one standard.
Third, and my favorite topic to talk about, is that hatchets are a universal tool that can do more than axes and more than camp knives, choppers, and bushcraft-style knives.
Yes, you would be hard-pressed to drop a massive oak tree with a hatchet. But you would also be hard-pressed to use camp knives, choppers, and bushcraft-style knives as hammers or breaching tools or to drop a 3- to 6-inch diameter tree to build a shelter. I mean, you can try. But you won’t get it done without wasting a considerable amount of energy.
Primary and Possible Uses
As time has passed and as society has become more “civilized,” hatchets have been repurposed. They’re used today throughout the carpentry industry, forestry, landscaping, and even in the military (just to name a few). And of course, many wilderness outdoorsy folks are using them for all kinds of creative purposes.
Here’s just a sample of some of the things that you can use a hatchet for. Not all of these are primary functions, but they’re all creative possibilities.
Chopping Down a Tree
I was 11 when I chopped and bucked my first tree in our yard with an old camp hatchet my grandfather left behind.
Quite literally, this is the main function of this tool.
Prying and Breaching
From pulling up nailed boards to prying open stuck doors, a hatchet can help you demo and gain entry with little fuss. Some even come with nail-puller features.
Building a Shelter
A hatchet can make quick work of dropping trees and limbs to make a shelter in the woods.
Shaping a Canoe
Dropping a tree big enough to be considered for a canoe would take a considerable amount of time and effort. But it can be done. And you can then also use your hatchet to shape the hull and cockpit of the vessel (likely over the course of several weeks).
Whether you need a hole or a trench, a hatchet can get the job done. Obviously, this isn’t the primary purpose of this tool. So keep a sharpening puck handy. But digging is absolutely one of a hatchet’s possible functions.
Dropping the Hammer
The jury is still out on whether or not you should use a hatchet as a hammer. Depending on the design, you can deform the butt, or even the eye, making it easy for the head to slip off. But do your homework and you can find hatchets sufficient enough to work as hammers. You can even find some that are made with this purpose in mind. I’ve been using my own hatchet as a hammer for a long time without any issues.
Breaking Through Ice
If you want to go ice fishing, a hatchet is much easier to carry than an auger. And beyond that, a hatchet is generally an efficient way to chop through ice in any form.
A good clean hatchet can prepare meat, veggies, and anything you plan on eating. Just make sure the head is sufficiently disinfected before you start processing those tasty morsels. And it definitely helps if you can give it a good sharpening beforehand.
Sharp hatchets can come in handy when processing game for transport. Especially if you don’t have any other blades on you.
Removing Bark From a Tree
Slicing and peeling bark off of a tree is an easy task for almost any hatchet. And there’s no better roof out there for a makeshift shelter than fresh bark from a tree. It’s also great fire fuel.
Slicing, In General
A hatchet with a well-tapered head and a sharp cutting edge can slice through rope, canvas, leather, and hide with near precision.
Axe heads are made from steel and can help spark up a fire if you have a nice piece of flint.
I wish I was kidding. A man with one arm taught me how to sharpen an axe and hatchet. He proved to me how sharp it was by shaving with it. (Miss you, Rosie.)
As a Line of Defense
I don’t want to get all True Grit here, but if it comes down to life and death, a hatchet could be incredibly effective against anything that bleeds.
Tomahawks, in Brief
The Algonquins designed tomahawks to be a lightweight, easy-to-use weapon as well as a utility tool for hunting and day-to-day tasks. They have a smaller head than a hatchet and are generally lighter so that they can maneuver more effectively.
I wouldn’t call a tomahawk a “precision tool.” But in terms of skinning animals, carving objects, or being wielded in battle, they’ve proven to be pretty precise. So much so, that today the military still employs tomahawks as a line of defense. Modern soldiers use them because they are such effective weapons in tight quarters. And they double as survival tools if you need them to.
Additionally, tomahawks can have different poll designs. Some have a hammer poll or flat poll. Some even come with a pipe poll as the Algonquins saw these as ceremonial objects and sometimes used them as peace pipes.
Size May Not Matter, But Balance Does
The average hatchet handle length ranges from 12 to 18 inches. The average head weight ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 pounds. In order to determine the right combination of head weight and handle length, you want to find balance. To check that, you can lay the hatchet across your palm just below the head. If it balances in place, then the ratio is spot on.
The reason behind all of this is leverage. You want to let the tool do the work so you don’t get fatigued. It’s a tale as old as time and something that comes with using a hatchet over and over again. If it’s well balanced, the weight of the head and the length of the handle should work in synchrony to make chopping things energy efficient.
In all of my travels and experience, one of the best-balanced hatchets I’ve used is the Gränsfors Small Forest Axe. It has a 19-inch curved hickory handle, with a 2-pound head and a 3.25-inch bit. I can lay it across my hand — as described above — and it balances in place on just two fingers. It’s a bigger tool, but an effective one.
In the same vein, one of the smallest yet incredibly effective hatchets I have ever used is the Hults Bruk Jonaker, which has a 9.5-inch curved hickory handle, and a 1-pound head. I have bushcraft knives bigger than this hatchet, but they can’t do as much as the Jonaker can.
What Makes a Good Hatchet?
Some hatchets are full tang while others are the standard head and handle style. Some come with hickory handles and some come with rubber or plastic ones. There are cast steel hatchets, carbon steel hatchets, and forged steel hatchets. And they all offer their own benefits.
The big question behind which type you should buy is: What are you going to use it for?
Instead of trying to start an argument over what the best hatchet out there is, here are a few things to look for when searching for your next hatchet:
Avoid Cast Heads
A forged axe head is going to be stronger than something cast because it’s had the hell beaten out of it to achieve its final shape. Cast heads can have voids in them and do not hold an edge nearly as well. Additionally, they generally don’t hold up well to shock and will break down quicker.
Balance Is Key
As I wrote earlier, trying to find that sweet spot between the weight of the head and the length of the handle is key to a long-term relationship with your hatchet. Everything is subject to experience. But a longer handle with a lighter head may cause you to swing and bounce instead of swing and chop. And vice versa, you might burn energy faster using a shorter handle with a heavier head.
Hickory Is the Time-Tested Champion of Handle Materials
I’m not knocking anything new and modern that has come out for hatchet handles. But the truth is, hickory has been used for over 300 years. Hickory does require maintenance — sanding and reoiling are prerequisites (especially for anything you plan on using and abusing for a lifetime).
By comparison, some of the new polymers are subject to light degradation and fatigue.
Make Sure It Has a Sheath (or Be Prepared to Make One)
You need to protect and baby the bit and blade of your hatchet because a dull or damaged one can be both ineffective and harmful. If your hatchet doesn’t come with a sheath, you should either buy one that fits or research how to make one.
What Are My Favorite Hatchets?
I use all of my hatchets for working and playing outdoors. I’ve never been in a war to defend my tribe, and I haven’t turned a profit because I used a hatchet to complete a task. I’ve built shelters with them, chopped and split wood with them, and prepared food with them. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection and admired many more.
Below is a list of hatchets that I currently own and some I think are worth checking out if you’re in the market for a new one.
Classic: Hickory Handles, Traditional Look and Feel
- Hults Bruk Jonaker
- Small yet effective. This one is fun to carry around on your belt.
- Hults Bruk 325 Anniversary Axe
- Premium grinding on this anniversary axe enhances cutting and splitting abilities.
- Gränsfors Small Forest Axe
- I’ve been using mine for 20 years. To me, it’s the perfect hatchet.
Modern Classic: Modern Materials Mixed With Traditional Styling
- CRKT/RMJ Jenny Wren
- This full tang hatchet has a carbon steel tomahawk head and a nylon handle. Ice fishing and food prep, including fire prep, makes this little dandy one of my favorites.
- CRKT/RMJ Chogan Hatchet
- This hatchet’s carbon steel head is affixed to a nylon, steel, and wood handle. It’s small, fast, and effective for kindling, prying, and cabin repairs.
- Mora Outdoor Axe
- This traditional hatchet has a boron steel head and a polymer plastic handle that dampens the shock to your palm.
Modern: Modern Materials With a Modern Approach
- Fiskars X7
- This hatchet is great for around the yard. You can keep one in the back of your truck for emergency situations. It has a forged steel blade and a FiberComp handle.
- Silky Ono
- Great for pruning and trail maintenance, this hatchet has a full tang steel head and a rubber handle.
- Zippo AxeSaw
- It’s an axe. It’s a saw. It has a steel blade and plastic handle. These look cool and I want one.
It seems like in recent years there’s been a concerted effort to usurp hatchets with the influx of camp knives, choppers, and the like. And though those other tools are effective in a jam, hatchets are more effective, more utilitarian, and easier to use than the whole lot of them.
At almost 42 years old, I just got my first chainsaw. I’ve been using axes and hatchets since I was 11 without the need to consider anything else. Yes, ok — I have a few Silky Saws that I love and adore. But even those haven’t replaced the hatchet in my life. They’ve just been added to the tool kit.
Axes, hatchets, and tomahawks have been around for so long, with little change, because they’ve proven their worth in work, play, and war. And though I would hate to think what it’s like to use a hatchet to defend myself, I love using them to get things done outdoors. They’re as functional as they are versatile and they might just save your life in a survival situation. I think they should still be a tool that hikers, backpackers, campers, and wilderness enthusiasts carry in their packs or on their belts.