The Best Camp Axes

August 29, 2016

  • by
  • Peter Reese

Basecamp to backcountry, there are chores that take more than a sturdy knife or palm-sized rock. Driving, digging, cutting and trimming are among the list of axe-worthy tasks that fit a new generation of smaller, nimbler tools.

Pick the right camp axe and the entire experience takes on new meaning. Not only will your group be better sheltered and warmed by a soul-feeding campfire, but problems on the trail are addressed before they become crises. And, should weather, accident or illness strike, you’ll be able to make it instead of fake it. Active Junky tested some of the best camp axes on the market and put together this guide to help you find the best axe for your needs. And don’t forget to sign up for Active Junky for exclusive deals and cashback on your gear purchases.

Camp Axe Brands Reviewed

  • CRKT
  • Estwing
  • Gerber
  • Gransfors Bruk
  • Klecker Knives
  • Ontario Knife Company
  • Outdoor Edge
  • Wetterlings

How to Choose the Best Camp Axe

Surprise, surprise. Active Junky recommends starting with the tasks you expect to encounter. Axe owners looking to use their tool at home or the family cabin will find the list of projects gets longer as skill and confidence grow.

Campsite Preparation: Here, agility is more important than pure cutting power. Shorter, lighter camp axes do well as they get snagged less in bushes and don’t encumber movement. Sharpness is a secondary requirement, as tasks here may use the other parts of the axe more than the blade.

Campsite Construction: Driving tent stakes is the most common maneuver. Controlled, accurate impact is critical from an axe head with enough weight to drive easily without damaging wood, plastic, aluminum or alloy stakes. If a shelter is being constructed, cutting and trimming downed wood is part of the process to make top and cross members and string tarps or lay branches for a full-on, site-built structure.

Campfire Creation: Depending upon the builder’s skill, campfire preparation with the camp axe can include shaving tinder, chopping up finger-sized kindling, sectioning and splitting downed limbs and splitting dried hard and softwoods (including the plastic-wrapped bundles from 7-11). Here, penetration is vital to make short work of wood piles.

Backcountry Travel: While the intent isn’t to get into trouble and build splints, crutches or litters for injured team members or wait out a storm or natural disaster, group trips make carrying a few extra pounds of axe weight advisable to be prepared for a variety of scenarios. Still, size (combining weight with physical dimensions) needs to be considered, balancing the axe’s functionality against the effort attached to transporting it.

Home and Cabin Utility: From landscaping to gardening and construction (including demolition), a camp axe is handy. As most feature shorter handles, they are not the best choice for powerful swings against resilient surfaces such as larger lumber, metal bolts or concrete. In addition, shorter handles normally mean single-handed use which limits safety-minded control of the axe head. For outdoor lovers who are also DIYers, durability counts.

Universal Attributes

The Five Attributes were evaluated, with one Key Attribute selected for each camp axe from among them:

Agility: balance and single-handed maneuverability

Utility: task variety

Penetration: cutting accuracy and productivity

Size: weight plus overall dimensions

Durability: short-term wear along with anticipated longevity

Klecker Knives KLAX Lumberjack

Klecker axe head lumberjack main 1 Klecker Knives KLAX Lumberjack Starting at: $144.99

Best “Quiver of One” Camp Axe

Ever wanted to be a fearless bush pilot, ready to repair their landing gear on a remote sandbar? Or that person that makes a shelter, builds a fire and prepares dinner (from foraged foods) in 60 minutes or less? KLAX axe head is the key, bringing to bear camp and survival essentials in a fold-flat tool protected by a ballistic nylon wallet. Purchase the optional 15” hardwood handle or fabricate your own – on the spot – and you’re chopping, hammering and wrenching with authority. Even without the handle, serious cutting, peeling and bottle opening happen smoothly with the 14.4oz stainless steel blade. Bring ¼” bits along if boat, mountain bike or snow machine need work using the integral socket (a metric head version is available as well).

Pros: Stay-sharp edges on all tools. Secure attachment to a fabricated or factory-built wooden handle. Total efficiency in a fold-flat package.

Cons: Tricky to handle safely. Practice and skill are required to take advantage of this high-end tool that functions best with the optional handle.

Tester Comments: “Stunning, really. Rather than a hokey mash-up of trivial tools, KLAX goes to work immediately, even before a clamp-to-cut handle is attached. Non-hunters will learn to love the ulu knife blade, an ancient palm-held cutting, peeling and scraping device. The angled knife blade takes some technique but is the perfect length to slice and chop.”

Key Attribute: Utility

Best For: Backcountry trekking, adventure travel and giving as an Ultimate Gift that’s both totally practical and perpetually amazing

Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe

Gransfor bruks main Gransfors Bruks Outdoor Axe

Best “Cutting” Camp Axe

Field Notes: More hatchet-like in proportions, the Outdoor Axe swings straight and confidently. Making contact with larger limbs, Axe cuts deeper than the 1lb. weight would suggest on paper. In reality, the place this one lives since conceived by survival expert Lars Falt, this tool finds its own path. Wielded one- or two-handed, Active Junky took it to task where chainsaw-like penetration mattered (cutting and sectioning pine and hardwoods) as well as on more delicate missions (shaping and shaving). Spin it around and, using good judgment, employ the elongated head to drive stakes and wedge-split balky firewood. Slide Outdoor Axe back into the vegetable-tanned leather sheath but keep it nearby. The tasks at hand, big and small, won’t let it rest long.

Pros: Competent control. Peerless good looks. A reputation that precedes them.

Cons: Shorter blade length takes precision to make the most of every swing. Pricing means this one is definitely an investment.

Tester Comments: “As a lifetime outdoor lover and graduate of the Pathfinder Survival School, I’m shocked at the pure utility of this piece. The balance, head angle and collar guard carry – and deliver – on the promise of exceptional agility. Two-handed felling and one-handing limbing flowed easily even before finer work ensued. Carry this piece in tandem with a blade-equipped multi-tool and you’re covered.”

Key Attribute: Agility

Best For: Camp and backcountry use, essential carry on rafting trips and for climbing basecamps

Gerber Sport Axe II

Gerber axe ii main Gerber Sport Axe II $48.00 - $61.60

Best First Camp Axe

Field Notes: Active Junky’s taken Gerber to task with previous, shorter-handled versions of this 14” model. The biggest challenge with Sport Axe II is emotional. As in, overcoming any bias toward a composite handle and the green carrying sheath. Our advice? Let it go and get to work with a sure-handling hatchet with axe-like power. Meaning, tough limbing and splitting chores are well within range. The smooth 2.6” forged steel head rarely bogs down during cutting while penetrating crisply. And quick tune-ups maintain sharpness in the field. At under 24oz., Sport is balanced for easy swinging power along with close-in control. Testers, as with previous Gerber axe models, relished the blade’s coated surface to defy sticking along with the build-up of pitch, sap and grit when working in dirtier conditions.

Pros: Great value. Hard to lose. Two solid carry and blade guard options. Lifetime warranty.

Cons: Shorter blade length. Need for frequent sharpening. Hard to lose green color.

Tester Comments: “Using it makes you feel somewhere between a monstrous beaver (for cutting enthusiasm) and a motivated woodpecker (for smooth and unencumbered rhythm). The result is steady progress even on undulated ground or in the rain. While the Axe’s handle butt flares to provide secure grip, don’t be afraid to wrap the handle with athletic tape if there’s concern about slipping.”

Key Attribute: Penetration

Best For: Seasonal property clean-up, cabin and camp use, mobility for paddling expeditions where some digging and stake driving are expected

Estwing Camper’s Axe

Estwing campers main 1 Estwing Camper’s Axe Starting at: $36.00

This brand, known by roofers and other tradesmen, is easy to forget. Not featured in photos of Amazon expeditions or video feeds from the International Space Station, Estwing quietly gets the job done. The Sportsman’s Axe is another example of common-sense construction of a well-conceived design. Most notable, the Shock Reduction Grip nearly eliminates vibration even when the axe connects with immovable objects (which is still not good for the blade). Forged in one-piece steel, Active Junky’s been using the longer-handled version for over five years in home improvement and campground settings. Sharpening Camper’s 4” blade takes time but the thicker-gauge steel bounces back from adversity while the poll (back of the head) is a driving force in the overall 16” tool. The sheath included is well matched to the axe.

Pros: Nearly indestructible. Affordable. Part of the everyday toolbox. No-brainer investment, made even better by pairing with other Estwing tools including hammers and the long-handled version of the Camper’s Axe.

Cons: Heavy. Unimpressive look reminiscent of an everyday hammer. Balance is good for most chores.

Tester Comments: "This is the “Rocky” of the entire test collection. There’s nothing delicate or extraneous with this camp axe. Definitely one to keep in the toolbox or drawer at home, take on trips and consider for paddling expeditions given its notched-up weight. Get a good sharpener as this one doesn’t respond to finer sharpening stones. Estwing is a brand for home workshop, travel or camping. I’m getting the longer-handled version for some construction work I need to do."

Key Attribute: Durability

Best for: All around use when extra weight is not a factor, ideal for first-time axe owners – solid gift choice along with a purchase for an extended road trip where constant resharpening is somewhat challenging.

OKC SP-16 SPAX

Okc sp 16 spax main OKC SP-16 SPAX Starting at: $62.16

Is confident cutting merely the beginning? Are you ripping, repairing or rehabbing a shelter or cabin? Does river running mean fixing on the fly, from oars to ice chests? SPAX is no stranger to hard things nor does the product’s medieval look keep it from anticipating the future. Quarter-inch steel, powder coated in black, it’s flat tapered with a secondary flat bevel. The benefit? Power combined with penetration. An orange handle and wrist thong maintain control of 57-59, made-in-USA hardness. Active Junky valued the triple-snapped leather and Cordura sheath with wide, D-ringed belt loop. Built from 1095 carbon steel, SPAX carries 13.1” overall length with a 5.2” blade.

Pros: Argh. Grrr. SPAX turns nasty work into chopping, prying, splitting and wrench glory for pure productivity even in tough conditions.

Cons: Challenging to sharpen. Sheath bothersome but essential. Not for everyone.

Tester Comments: "Tear out a dock. Shred hardwood pallets for quality fire wood. Dig, bulldoze and build with a tool that’s more firefighter than flyweight. With a camping hatchet’s form factor and the determination of a rescue axe, we’re christening this The Unstoppable One."

Key Attribute: Durability

Best For: Use as an outsized multi-tool in camp, paddle-in and float trip use along with ready access at the cabin; defer to OKC’s extremely capable RD Hawk Pick – part of the Ranger Series – if a more conventional (but still radical) hatchet is a better fit

Outdoor Edge Wood Devil

Wood devil Outdoor Edge Wood Devil

The name and graphics on this under-$40 camp axe are ridiculous. At the same time, the tool’s overall utility, particularly at only 10” long and 1.2lbs, is silly. In the same way a ninja is simply playing around. Capable well beyond the lighter weight, the choke-up grip handle turns a quick slicer into a competent shaver. While the one-piece coated stainless steel head carries a useful 4” blade in front, the butt is nearly useless even though promoted as a hammer. Enter the handle butt for high-impact tasks. Testers found more applications over time, only disappointed that the 3Cr13 blade won’t spark fires. Otherwise, and with an ABS and rubberized TPR handle, this one brings the heat without losing its cool. While supervision is important, this small axe gets younger outdoor lovers taking responsibility for camp chores. And even pulls them away from smartphones for at least 30 minutes.

Pros: Light and compact. Solid grip construction. Multi-purpose blade.

Cons: Tough to hammer. Lots of work to dissect larger-diameter wood. Silly graphics.

Tester Comments: “So easy to start using. Larger hands might find the molded grip on the small size but most campers will find Wood Devil is easy to control. This is part of Outdoor Edge’s Survival Series and I’m putting it in my trunk as one element of being prepared.”

Key Attribute: Size

Best For: Emergency preparedness, camp use along with group backcountry trekking with its compact size covertly stowing away in a day-hike or multi-day packs

CRKT Woods Chogan T-Hawk

Woods chogan main CRKT Woods Chogan T-Hawk Starting at: $40.56

This one pushes the limits of one-handed use while bringing a full complement of forest-savvy functions to every scenario. A timeless flat-grind design, here reinterpreted by Ryan Johnson of RMJ Tactical, wouldn’t be out of place on the plains or peaks of the American West 150 years ago. The Woods Chogan T-Hawk is no museum piece as the all-day cutting power of its 4.21” blade commands respect while testers found enough shaving, carving and scoring capability (by choking up on the Tennessee hickory handle) to balance cord-splitting credentials. The poll’s hammering surface drives stakes, spikes and nudges logs and lumber into proper position more like a light sledge. Active Junky valued the forged carbon steel’s hammered finish along with heel bevel that strips bark while mastering trenching chores. At a little over 2lbs, this CRKT camping axe is full-sized power scaled down for portability.

Pros: Solid notching, splitting and driving earn this tool a place at camp or on paddling trips. The look, feel and even sound of T-Hawk hard at work are old-fashioned music to an adventurer’s ears.

Cons: Head takes regular reseating. Its nineteen-inch length pushes packing and storage limits.

Tester Comments: “I’d been to a fur traders rendezvous some years ago. This fits the coonskin cap vibe but carries the durability that comes from forging a solid block of steel. At about $70, it sits right between the weekend warrior camp axes and the the premium brand options. For my money, it hits the mark. Over and over again.”

Key Attribute: Penetration

Best For: Camp chores, cabin living and getting aerobic with every swing – with an optional leather sheath that’s worth the money

Wetterlings The Expedition Hatchet

Wetterling hatchet main Wetterlings The Expedition Hatchet Starting at: $104.64

Timeless. Legendary. Worth passing down to the next generation. This Wetterlings camp axe made the cut for testing in Appalachia at Dave Canterbury’s Pathfinder School. Its ability to cut and carve became essential in creating shelters, processing firewood and fabricating survival essentials. The hickory handle’s shape and overall balance stood out among models tested. Tenting at the state park? Setting up base camp to ski or climb? Paddling and portaging? The Expedition Hatchet brings uncompromising performance with a head that’s hand forged from 100% recycled Swedish-carbon steel. For better protection, consider replacing the minimal leather sheath with a full-head cover on longer expeditions. From Storvik, Sweden to wherever adventure calls, help is close at hand with Wetterlings. Tester Comments: “Contrast is what’s happening here. An elegant curving handle on top of a head that will overcome against all odds. A striking hickory handle that dampens vibration nearly as well as synthetic alternatives. For not much over $100, I’m ready to pretend I’m part Swedish. Oh, I already am.”

Pros: Attention to detail. Curved handle for better swing. Time capsule-worthy.

Cons: Average sheath. Prone to oxidizing and corroding. Sharpening takes skill.

Key Attribute: Agility

Best For: Camp- and backcountry-related tasks, any excuse for gift-giving

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