You know the book. A kid winds up in the forest with nothing but a small hand axe and figures out how to survive. A hatchet is one of the most versatile tools you can take with you in the outdoors, this is how you use one and how you’ll manage to keep all your fingers and toes when you do.
Why a hatchet?
Different tools for different jobs. A big ol’ axe will chop wood more efficiently, but a big ol’ axe is also heavy and large. A hatchet is just an axe scaled down for single-handed use, which makes it lighter, more compact and easier to carry as a result.
You can still do all of the same stuff with a hatchet, it’ll just take a little longer and require a little more energy. But still likely less time and less energy than it’d take with an even more easily-carried knife.
What should I look for in a hatchet?
Believe it or not, but they’re not all created equal. Pick up a cheap Coleman and it’s going to be dull out of the box, difficult to sharpen, the head will be made with a poor heat treat that means it won’t hold an edge and the metal handle will transfer the impact from every chop right into your hand and arms.
But, just like with knives, you can follow the quality rabbit hole a bit too far down. $50-60 should get you a nice, heirloom-quality tool that will do its job without complaint as long as you need it to.
I prefer a hatchet with a wooden handle, that material’s ability to absorb vibration and impacts and to resist damage from multiple angles is simply unrivaled by steel or fiberglass. Wood also offers an element of repairability should your head become loose over time. I also like a head with a straight line across its top, a pronounced hammer to the rear and a tomahawk-style blade that drops bellow the body of the head. Unlike knives, you often won’t find the type of steel hatchets are made from listed, but if you’re spending more than $60, that’s definitely something you should look for. A harder steel like D2 or 1055 is a good fit for a heavy use hatchet. You don’t need the flexibility of lower-carbon steel in a big, stiff hatchet head. And it’s a tool, not a cabinet queen, so you don’t need stainless. Any surface rust that appears will wear off with use. Rusty hatchet? Use it more.
Try and few and find a length that suits your use, style and body. I find a 24" handle with a 1.5 to 1.75lbs head to be the perfect mix between power and portability.
Ticking all those boxes is the Snow and Nelley Hudson Bay Axe. As with most commercially available hatchets in the sub-$100 price range, expect to spend some time with a file and sand paper to achieve a good edge once you’ve received it. If you want a higher quality, non-Chinese hatchet, the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe is appreciably nicer, but also over twice the price. You won’t need to invest so much time on its edge before using it though.
Older hatchets are also a good purchase. My friend Andy has a little side business restoring axes and hatchets up in Seattle. They make a great gift for manly men and women.
With sheaths, I like a classic leather sheath that covers the cutting edge and connects with a strap around the handle, thereby leaving the back of the head free to hammer stuff with in safety.
Most hatchets come with a rounded, bevel edge (or face, in axeman speak). This is what you need for chopping. If you want a hatchet for a specific job like carving, you may prefer a narrower edge profile. For chopping and use outdoors, you also want an axe where the cutting edge is a little rounded from top to bottom, when viewed from the side
Photo: Robert S. Donovan
Retaining the ability to count to 20
A longer axe (or hatchet) is a safer axe (or hatchet). When you swing it downwards, a longer hatchet will be more likely to hit the ground before impacting your foot or leg.
A sharper hatchet (or any edged tool) is also a safer hatchet, requiring you to exert less force in using it and therefore retaining more control.
If you’re chopping with a hatchet, always do so from a kneeling position. This way an errant swing stops at the ground, not your leg.
Never try to hold a pice of wood that you’re splitting or chopping with your spare hand anywhere in the vicinity of a swinging axe. We’ll show you how to chop and split safely below.
If you’re using a block, place the piece of wood being chopped towards its rear edge. That way, if you miss, you’ll strike the block and not your leg.
Never store a hatchet by just walking it into a piece of wood. This creates a tripping hazard, one with a sharp surprise at its end. A hatchet should always be stored in its sheath, out of the way and, if possible, hanging up.
Be particularly careful swinging anything sharp around other people or your dog. You should have an area around you that’s clear to at least twice the handle length of your tool, in all directions.
Photo: Richard Cocks
How to care for a hatchet
You can use a grinder to remove large nicks or to reprofile a blade, but the metal can easily be over-heated and lose its temper as a result. You’re better off using a hand file for big work like that; it’ll take a little longer but won’t damage your axe head. When using a file, keep the whole face of the edge in even contact with the abrasive material.
Most maintenance of the edge will be done with an axe sharpening stone like this one. That has two sides — fine and coarse. Wet the stone with a little bit of oil (to carry away the bits of metal you’re gonna take off), then rub it in a circular motion up and down both sides of the blade with even pressure and duration. When you’ve achieve a good, clean edge with the coarse side, switch to the fine and do the same until it’s good and sharp.
You can refine a hatchet’s edge even further by stropping it on a leather belt. Pull the hatched down the leather away from its blade to do that.
I test sharpness by running a blade down by forearm, perpendicularly, feeling its ability to cut my arm hair. Some people feel this is dangerous, for obvious reasons. If you’re one of those people, cut up a piece of paper with the blade to get a feel for its edge.
To protect an axe head from the elements, you can give it a fine coating of beeswax or just wipe it down with a little WD40 here and there; that’s what I do.
Most (nice) hatchet handles are made from strong, flexible hickory wood. To care for them, give them an occasional wipe down with linseed oil, being careful to remove any excess.
As with all leather, a sheath needs to be oiled as well. There’s many different types of leather treatments out there, but I just use Pecard’s Motorcycle Leather Dressing for everything, it’s simpler that way.
If the head of your hatchet ever becomes loose, please don’t soak it in water. When the wood dries out, the problem will just be worse. You need to re-wedge a handle to fix a loose head. Does your hatchet already have a wedge? Remove it, measure it and fit a slightly larger one. No wedge? Put one in. Your local hardware store can likely help with this.
Photo: New Mexico Forestry Camp
Finally, the stuff you can do with a hatchet
Split Wood: You need to break down limbs and logs to expose the dry wood inside in bad weather and to feed a fire progressively larger fuel. This is the main use for a hatchet (or a large survival knife) outdoors. First, find a good log or stump to use as a chopping block. It doesn’t need to have a flat top if you want to use our first, easiest method.
If you’re splitting uneven, smaller branches, you can simply lay one against the hatchet’s edge and parallel to the handle. Hold the branch in one hand in the hatchet in another, with the hatchet on top. Now bang all that against a log, branch-down; it’ll split. This is the safest way to split wood.
If you’ve got a nice, flat-ended log and a nice, flat chopping block, you can split the way you’re probably thinking, where you swing the hatchet like the big tough guy that you are and hit the top of the log with it. The trick here isn’t necessary force, but more finesse. If you can tweak the blade to the side as you strike, it will pull the wood apart without a huge amount of pressure. Practice makes perfect.
Chop Down A Tree: Pretty much every tree leans in one direction. Get underneath that lean and chop into the tree both from an upward and downwards angle to make a wedge through it. When you’re about halfway through, switch to the opposite side and make the center of your wedge a little higher up the tree. When it’s ready to fall, stand back, the tail can kick up and to the side as it falls. Your hatchet can then be used to trim the branches.
Snap Off Dry Branches: A big ol’ tree doesn’t make the best firewood for camping. They just take too much labor to get them down to useably-sized wood. A much better source is dead, dry branches and the hammer on your hatchet can likely knock those right off a tree with a single blow. Just whack them from the top, near the trunk.
Hammer Stuff: Need to drive in a tent stake or a make-shift center pole for a shelter? Well, it turns out that hammer on your hatchet really is a real hammer and you use it just like one. Make sure the blade is sheathed when you do so, catching your face with an upward swing and with a sharp edge would ruin your day.
Sharpen it with a stick: Find a nice, green branch and use your hatchet to cut it off a tree and trim it to a couple feet long. Next use your hatchet to skin its bark. Now dip it in water and rub it in sand with plenty of pressure. Yeah, you should carry your sharpening stone with you, but one of these will get the job done in a pinch.
Process game: Killed yourself an elk, deer, pig or another big animal? A hatchet is going to separate its joints and quarters much more easily than your little skinning knife ever will.
Throw it: Doing this is dangerous and trying it for the first time when you’re drunk, high or both is a bad idea. If you insist on doing so, don’t come blaming me when you lose an eye. Find or make yourself a good backstop with said hatchet, then follow the instructions here. Throwing a hatchet or a tomahawk is never going to be useful, but it sure is fun.
Top photo: Ida Myrvold