5 Reasons to Pack an Axe

And how to use it responsibly on a wilderness canoe trip

The axe is the quintessential woodsman's tool, rich in symbolism and legend. The image is well deserved: Axes are versatile and, placed in the right hands, capable of making wilderness travel more enjoyable. Increasingly, they are also pieces of art, handcrafted by expert blacksmiths in a centuries-old Scandinavian tradition. Axes are important tools for wilderness paddling. It's debatable whether or not it’s worth the weight of packing one in a popular canoe destination such as Minnesota's Boundary Waters or Ontario's Algonquin Park. But they come into their own on the path less travelled or when things get tough, especially in the colder, wetter shoulder seasons.

Fastest Way to Fire -- You need access to dry wood to kindle a fire in wet conditions, and the best way to produce kindling is with an axe. Even after days of rain, dry wood can be found in the core of a standing dead tree. Soft or resinous woods such as cedar or larch are ideal, and often found adjacent to wetland areas. (If you're traveling in a park, be aware of the rules before you cut; in some areas you may need to find a piece of downed wood.) Cut it down and split it up into fine, toothpick- to match-sized pieces. A couple of handfuls should be enough. Add some fire starter, such as birchbark or dry paper--or if you really want to be resourceful use your razor-sharp axe to create shavings--and you're all set.

Into the Unknown -- My axe sees the most use when I venture into lesser-known canoe areas, such as Ontario's Crown (public) lands or Quebec's far north. In these places, a lack of traffic and no portage maintenance puts the onus on canoeists to keep ancient travelways open. Axes are efficient tools in clearing deadfall on trails to create a safe path for carrying your canoe and gear.

A Functional Tool for Plan B -- One idle afternoon, I decided to try to carve a canoe paddle with my axe, to see if I could make do if I lost my paddle on a trip (though I usually carry a spare). A bit of wandering in the forest yielded a promising slab of spruce, which was peeling off the trunk of a blowdown. It was easy enough to use my axe like a planer to remove the bark and create a flat board. Then, I carefully chipped and split off chunks to achieve the rough shape of a paddle. At this point, after less than half an hour of work, I had a crude but functional paddle. More fine carving with my axe, and then finer work with a knife, yielded a grip, oval shaft and slender blade. It's reassuring to know I could salvage emergency gear from the forest.

Timeless Beauty -- Like any well-made tool, there's something special about a handcrafted axe. I have tried a bunch, and my current favorite is the Hults Bruk Akka ($189). The Swedish manufacturer traces its Swedish roots to 1697. The Akka is a "forester's axe", with a general-purpose 24-inch handle and a 1.5-pound head. That means it has enough length for trail-clearing (see below for safety tips) and enough weight to split eight-inch rounds for the campfire. What I like most about the Akka is the way its curved head allows you to choke up and use the axe for finer work, such as carving shavings to use as a fire-starter. The blade is also razor sharp.

Hults Bruk Akka. Photo: Carl Pawlowski

Be Good to the Environment...and Yourself -- Before you swing an axe, think about the impacts you will have on your surroundings. Sloppy axe work can make a mess of a campsite or trail. There's absolutely no point in cutting green wood for a fire. And when brushing a portage trail, just clear enough material to carry the canoe. Use a small amount of surveyor's tape instead of axe blazes to mark a trail. Speaking from experience, wear leather gloves when using an axe. Always think before you swing; imagine the trajectory of the blade after it hits--or misses--the target, and position your appendages accordingly. A sharp axe is safer to use because it's less likely to glance. My favorite sharpener is the diamond file on a Leatherman Wave multi-tool. You can further refine the finish with a disk-shaped sharpening stone. The best way to maintain a sharp blade is to make frequent touch-ups.

More at CanoeKayak.com

  • Bushcraft with Darren Bush: How to make fire with flint and steel
  • Watch Adventurer Jim Baird wield his axe in wild Quebec
  • Axes aren't for everyone: Long-distance canoe tripper Frank Wolf travels light; read Wolf's perspective in Different Strokes, part 1; part 2
  • Pair your axe with a saw: Read our review of the Boreal 21, a folding bucksaw