Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Guide to Camping and Wilderness Survival
Way back when trees were plentiful, many campers wielded a full-length ax, relegating the smaller hatchet to novice woodchoppers. Nowadays, when wood is an all-too-precious resource, the hatchet has become the most common woodcutting tool at the campsite.
Invest extra money in a premium-quality hatchet. The one-piece styles are the best, with all-steel construction from the head to the bottom of the handle. A cheap hatchet, which may have loose headwork, might injure a nearby camper or shatter after several sessions of chopping. As perspiration can make a handle slippery, get a hatchet with a handle of rubber, wood, or leather lamination, which will provide a secure grip.
Should you prefer a hatchet with a wood handle, make sure the handle is chemically bonded to the head. This process ensures that it will rarely, if ever, come loose. Some choppers prefer wood handles because there isn’t as much cushioning in them. Though the resultant shocks may be uncomfortable, they signify that you are chopping ineffectively. When the shocks cease, you will know you are handling your hatchet correctly.
Some hatchets feature neither the one-piece construction nor the bonded head. These models frequently use a wedge to secure the head to the handle. As this is far from safe, check this type of hatchet frequently during chopping.
Hatchets—also known as belt axes—come in a number of sizes and weights. The right choice obviously depends on your own needs. For all-around use, however, a hatchet with a 1-pound head and handle about a foot long is an excellent choice. Slightly larger ones are preferred by some campers, and manufacturers have recently offered much smaller ones as well. The light, very short-handled models, sometimes called backpacker’s axes or hunter’s axes, are fine for chopping kindling or the wood for a small campfire, and they can also be used to fashion wooden tent stakes (but then, so can a knife). They’re useless for heavier work, though adequate for their intended purpose.
Despite its smaller size when compared to the ax, the hatchet is an important tool that needs special care. Never throw a hatchet. Besides ruining the bit and other important parts, you may injure someone. Only use a hatchet to hammer metal stakes or nails if it is a half hatchet, which features a regular hatchet blade at one end of the head and a tempered hammer head on the other end. A conventional hatchet used for such purposes soon becomes worthless.
A durable leather sheath with a sturdy leather buffer strip or rivets facing the cutting edge should be used to carry the hatchet. If you don’t have a sheath handy, drive the blade into a stump or log so it is not dangerously exposed. (Avoid the double-bitted hatchet on the market featuring blades at both ends of the head. It is dangerous except in the hands of a skilled chopper.)
To cut a piece of wood, use the contact method. Place the edge of the hatchet on the stick. Lift the two and then bring them down together hard on the chopping block. To split the wood, place the hatchet edge in a crack. Again, lift the two and bring the hatchet and stick down hard on the log or stump. Once contact has been made, slightly twist the hatchet hand to separate the pieces.
On a cold day, heat the hatchet slightly before putting it to work so it won’t become brittle and crack.
To pass a hatchet to another person, hold it vertically, head down, with the blade facing away from the two of you. Give the receiver more than enough room to grasp the top of the hatchet handle. When you are carrying it in camp, hold the hatchet firmly by its head, keeping the cutting edge away from you.
If not inside your pack while hiking, the hatchet should be strapped to the outside and sheathed. When the hike is a short one, sheath the hatchet and carry it on your belt on your right hip. Never strap it near the groin or kidney area. Another useful tool in camp is the Woodman’s Pal, a unique combination tool with an11-inch carbon-steel blade that will cut branches up to1 inch with a single stroke.
About the author:
Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli.
He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.