Most people make sure that they have a knife in a survival situation, but an axe is usually an afterthought or even not thought of at all!
What is a survival axe used for? A survival axe is often much more efficient than a knife in a survival situation. They allow you to gather and split firewood more efficiently, can speed up the processing of game and they’re also useful in the creation of shelters.
When you bring a survival axe with you, you have a hammer, a weapon, a knife, a way to prepare game, and more all rolled into one. As people concerned with preparedness and survivalism, it makes sense to consider adding an axe to our bug out bags. They represent one of the best tools you can have on hand.
The traditional axe is the largest of the three. An axe’s handle is normally two to three feet long and the head is the heaviest of the three. They are best used to fell trees thanks to the leverage you gain from their longer handle and larger head. This gives them much more cutting power than a hatchet or tomahawk.
The overall size and weight of an axe often make it the least effective as a survival axe when size is one of the main factors.
The handle of a traditional hatchet is usually 10 to 13 in overall length with a head between 1 and 2 lbs. Hatchets are sometimes known as camp axes and are usually used for outdoor activities and camping. They have shorter handles and are lightweight compared to a normal axe, this means that they cannot chop as efficiently but they’re much easier to pack around than their larger cousins.
Since hatchets are basically just smaller axes, they’re often the go-to when people are looking for a survival axe. I prefer a lightweight traditional hatchet for a bug out bag.
The tomahawk is roughly the same size as a hatchet, but typically has the lightest head and smallest cutting edge of the three. Unlike the hatchet, the traditional tomahawk is designed primarily as a weapon and a tool second. The size and shape of the head make it more suited to fighting than it does chopping. This doesn’t mean that tomahawks cannot be used for cutting wood or chopping, it simply means that they will not be as efficient as another type of survival axe.
Choosing a tomahawk as your survival axe of choice is great in an urban environment.
Much of what makes each axe different is the head. The shape of the blade is going to determine what the axe is designed for and what tasks it is best suited for.
Axe heads with long flat heads and curved blades are made for cutting.
Axes that have a flat blade are better at carving than those with a curved blade but they aren’t as good at chopping.
An axe head that is shorter and thicker will split wood better than one that is long and flat, but it will have a harder time cutting than a survival axe that has a long thin head.
I think that you and I would be best served by a survival axe that has a curved cutting edge. They’re stronger than a blade with a flat cutting edge and enhance the chopping power produced. I also find it easier to get a sharp blade with this type of axe blade.
Axe handles these days are normally made of metal, wood or synthetic materials.
Metal handled axes are obviously the strongest of the three. A survival axe with this type of handle is best suited for heavy work like demolition and rescue work. You won’t normally want an axe with metal handle material in a bug out bag, but I could see it being useful in an urban environment for use as a prybar.
A wood handle is a very good all-around material and offers a good strength to weight ratio. When selecting wooden handles you should try to make sure that the grain of the wood travels from the rear of the handle to the front (parallel to the axe head). A handle with the grain going from left to right will not be as strong.
Synthetic handles are popular in modern survival axes. They’re light and can be stronger than wooden handles. A synthetic handle on a survival axe represents the best compromise between weight and strength, but axes designed with a synthetic handle can’t often have their handles easily replaced. Many times, these handles come with a non-slip rubberized grip.
In my opinion, wooden handles are the way to go since they can usually be replaced with relative ease if they happen to break. They’re my handle material of choice for a survival axe.
If you love everything about a survival axe other than its handle, you always have the option to modify it to better suit your needs. I personally prefer not to have to make a lot of modifications to tools after I buy them. If you’re the type of person that likes to take on a project or wraps everything in 550 cord then you may feel differently than I do.
Good axes should feel good to you when held in the hand. The weight should be centered just below the head of the axe. A balanced axe aids in cutting wood and carving. The handle should be comfortable and not feel slick. Ideally, there will be a swell at the end of the handle to help prevent the axe from accidentally slipping out of your hands.
This really comes down to personal preference. You may prefer a rougher handle to prevent it from slipping, while others prefer a smoother handle that feels more comfortable to them.
A good axe will fill many roles in your survival kit. In fact, a survival axe is one of the most versatile tools you can have in your arsenal.
Chopping is one of the most obvious uses for an axe. You should try to strike the wood at a 45-degree angle to be the most effective in your cuts. Full-Sized axes and hatchets will allow you to tackle larger trees and are the best cutting tools. If you have a hatchet or tomahawk you’ll be better served by trying to fell trees that are smaller in diameter.
Limbing is the act of removing the limbs from a fallen tree. A tomahawk or survival hatchet is great at limbing larger trees that have already fallen. Start at the base of the tree working toward the top, striking the limbs parallel to the trunk.
The US Forestry Service has a great guide covering everything you could want to know about cutting with axes.
Axes with a short blade that are more wedge-like will split wood better than those that have a longer blade. Splitting will make getting a fire going much easier. The head and handle of smaller hatchets and tactical tomahawks do not typically lend themselves to splitting wood well.
This video by IA Woodsman does a great job of demonstrating one way to use a hatchet and ferrocerium rod as a fire starter. There are a ton of different methods of fire-making out there but this video gives a great overview of the basic concept. This video is also a reminder that you need to be up on your survival skills.
Any axe is going to be capable of creating devastating wounds if you have to use it as a weapon. A firearm should be your primary means of self-defense unless you live in a country that doesn’t allow you to own one.
If self-defense is one of the roles you need to fill with your survival axe, then a tactical tomahawk will slightly edge out other forms of axes. Axes used in a defensive manner have the added advantage of being able to control an opponent’s arms and weapons. I’d suggest at least watching a video that shows some simple techniques before trying to employ an axe as a weapon.
Prying isn’t something that most axes are designed for, but that doesn’t mean that you may not want to use it as a prying device. For urban environments, this will probably be more of an advantage than in rural environments. Being able to pry open a door or fence in a survival situation could make the difference between life and death.
Choosing a survival axe with a metal handle will make it so you’re less likely to damage the axe if prying is something you intend to use it for. Wood handles have a tendency to break when used to pry.
If you want to use your axe as a rescue tool in case of an emergency, like a flood, then prioritizing its prying abilities makes sense.
Everything really comes down to selecting the survival axe that is going to work best for you in your particular situation. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each and decide what makes the most sense for you.
In a rural environment, I’d suggest going for a hatchet or a full-sized axe. Most of the time, you’ll be processing wood with it so it makes sense to focus on a tool that is really well suited to that task.
If you’re planning on having to survive in an urban environment, then you’re going to want to consider a tomahawk. I find that tomahawks are better suited to breaking and prying as well as a last-ditch defense weapon. If you live in a city that doesn’t allow you to possess a firearm this may be the best weapon you can legally own.
A full-size axe gives you the most chopping power that you’re likely to get in a survival situation. If you plan on processing thick trees at some point then you may want to consider a full-sized axe.
In an urban environment, selecting a multi-use full-size axe could be a good idea. Having a large prybar and rescue tool as an integral part of your axe could actually save you some weight in the long run if you were thinking about added all of them to your bug out bag.
A full-size axe has two distinct disadvantages when used in a survival situation. They weigh more and take up more space, and they’re not really suited to finer work that you would normally associate with fire building and carving tasks. These make full-size axes the least desirable as a survival axe in my mind.
If you’re worried about size and weight, and you’re not planning on chopping down full-size trees, then the hatchet probably fits what you’re looking for in a survival axe.
Hatchets are uniquely suited to chopping small dead standing trees, limbing trees and preparing a fire. They also make splitting wood much easier than if you were stuck batoning with a survival knife.
The main disadvantage is that you cannot easily chop down large trees or process large logs for a fire. They can still do it, it’s just going to take a long time and a lot of energy.
If you’re building a bug out bag for a wooded environment then I would strongly consider the hatchet as your survival axe of choice.
The tomahawk has the same size and weight advantages that the hatchet possesses.
Many tomahawks have straight cutting edges which allow them to carve easier than rounded blades. The traditional hammer or spiked end opposite of the blade makes them a fearsome weapon and sometimes give them added utility over other tools.
The disadvantages of the hatchet are magnified in a lot of tomahawk blade designs.
In my mind, a tomahawk really shines in an urban environment. The added utility of a spike for prying open doors or other objects immediately stands out to me.
Keeping your axe well maintained will make it last much longer. Make sure it’s dry and oiled before putting it away to prevent rusting and always keep your blade sharp if at all possible. In survival situations, maintenance of tools may seem like an afterthought, but these tools may be all that are keeping you alive. Treat them accordingly.
Schrade has a pretty good video showing how to use a stone to keep the cutting edge of the blade nice and sharp.
This video is a good place to start when you’re first getting into sharpening an axe, but I always recommend looking up the manufacturer’s recommended method as they may have suggestions that will aid in sharpening that particular type of blade and steel.
Hatchets and tomahawks will probably provide you the most versatility. We prefer the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet, but in the end, your individual needs will drive what you end up buying. Look at the reviews below and see if any of the axes that we’ve reviewed fit your needs.
Gränsfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet
Gränsfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet
The Gränsfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet is simply one of the best survival hatchets that you can buy. If you’re willing to spend a little more money, you won’t regret the purchase.
You can read our full Gränsfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet review here.
Pros: Handmade for a quality level that you won’t find in many other hatchets. It also feels very well balanced and comes razor sharp from the factory. When I have mine with me, I rarely feel the need to reach for a knife. Has a 20-year warranty.
Cons: Occasional defects have been found in the handles and it’s very expensive when compared to others in this round-up.
The Fiskars X7 is one of the best selling hatchets for a reason. You get a great hatchet that sacrifices very little for not a whole lot of cash.
You can read our full Fiskars X7 review here.
Pros: The Fiskars X7 is inexpensive and very well made. The handle is a very strong synthetic material that will most likely last for a lifetime.
Cons: The blade is made with a steel that could be considered inferior to some other hatchets.
Smith & Wesson SW671 Extraction Tomahawk
The Smith & Wesson SW671 Extraction and Evasion Tomahawk is a solid choice for an urban bug out bag. The full tang construction lends itself well to breaking and prying.
You can read our full SW671 review here.
Pros: Made from a single piece of steel so it will probably never break. Because of this, it can be used as a prybar with little fear of breaking.
Cons: Heavy due to its construction. It also doesn’t do nearly as well when processing wood as other axes do.