One of the most iconic and useful tools in camp is a good axe or hatchet. It doesn't matter whether you're camping in a luxury RV or roughing it in a tent. Both lifestyles enjoy campfires and a good axe or hatchet is a valuable tool for cutting and splitting firewood, preparing kindling, and driving tent or awning pegs. Which you choose will depend on personal preferences and available space for transporting or carrying it. Personal physical limitations might also impose size/weight limits on the tools you can use safely and comfortably.
Axes come in many sizes. They may have a single or double bitted blade. The larger the axe, the heavier it will be making it both harder to swing and capable of making larger, deeper cuts. I like a fairly small axe for camping, one with about a 30" handle and a single blade. It is kind of like a long-handled hatchet. It isn't too heavy and it fits well in RV outside compartments. Yet it still has enough weight to handle fairly large cuts. Having a single blade I can use the flat back side for driving stakes or wedges. For tent camping I prefer a hatchet or a roofers hammer (kind of like a carpenter's hammer with a hatchet blade instead of a claw), which fits easily in my camping bins. A large, double-bitted, "Paul Bunyan" style axe is useful if you're doing any heavy felling or cutting, but they are big and heavy and in some ways the extra blade is likely to be more dangerous and more susceptible to dulling or damaging other contents knocking around inside a cabinet. For normal campfire activities such an axe would be excessive, take more energy to use than it might be worth, and be cumbersome to store in RV compartments and camping bins. Since most of the firewood we buy is already cut to length, most of the axe work will be converting it to kindling by splitting it. A 30" single blade axe or a splitting wedge is perfect for this task. Splitting larger logs is easier with a wedge. A single bladed axe also has the advantage of a flat head on the back that can be used for tasks like driving tent pegs. For more on splitting logs, see my Log Splitting post.
A hatchet is small axe, most often used with one hand where the larger axe usually takes two hands. One of the most versatile hatchet configurations for campers and RVers in my opinion is a roofers hammer, which has a hatchet blade on one side of the head and a hammer head on the other. The back of a regular hatchet or axe can be used for driving splitting wedges or tent pegs, but the hammer head is more precise and is easy to use as a hammer. A hatchet may be a better choice than an axe for someone with physical disabilities or limited strength. It is also more convenient for splitting kindling than a larger axe. As mentioned above, a versatile alternative for a hatchet is a roofers hammer or hammer head hatchet, with a hammer head on one side and a hatchet blade on the other. They are about the same size and weight as a typical hatchet and make a good mallet for drive tent or awning pegs too. The hammer head seems to be more effective on tent pegs than the back side of an axe or hatchet. Her is a sample of a roofing hammer:
I have recently seen a hammer-head hatchet with a survival tool built into the handle. I am waiting for mine to arrive so I can try it out. Looks like it will be a good option for campers and survival.
No matter what size axe or hatchet you choose, you will need to keep it sharp. Sharp tools are not only easier to use, they are safer. To some people that is counter intuitive. They think sharp tools would be more dangerous, but dull tools are more likely to result in injury. Dull tools require extra effort and will often bounce instead of cutting, causing a loss of control and resulting in serious injuries. It is a good idea to put an edge protector on the blade to keep it from being dulled by rubbing against things in transit and storage. Axes and hatchets can usually be sharpened on an electric grinder. Just be careful not to spend too much time in one spot because that can overheat the metal and ruin the temper. Hold the tool so the blade is tangent with just a slight angle to the grinding wheel and move it back and forth smoothly and fairly quickly to shape a neat taper on each side. If the edge is severely damaged (chipped or dented) you may need to use a coarse grinding wheel for initial reshaping. Grinding using a medium or fine wheel is usually sufficient for sharpening most axes but you could finish it with a file or even a sharpening stone if you want an especially fine edge. However, the relatively heavy cutting axes are usually used for doesn't demand a super-fine edge and such an edge would probably be quickly made ineffective in the first cut or two.
Handles should always fit tightly in the head. Loose handles are dangerous. The head could fly off at any time and inflict serious injuries on anyone it hits. A loose head also messes up the precision of your cutting strokes, reduces the efficiency of each blow, delivers vibration than can be tiring and even cause injuries, and may cause bounces and loss of control. Wooden handles can usually be tightened by driving wedges into the end of the handle at the head so it expands the wood to fit tightly in the hole in the head. In a pinch you might be able to drive a few heavy nails into the end of the handle where it fits in the head. Sometimes a slightly loose head can be tightened by soaking it in water to swell the wood. Be sure to coat the iron head with oil or grease so it doesn't rust. Metal or fiberglass handles usually don't come loose and may need replacement or servicing by a qualified expert if they do begin to fail. Metal handles are usually forged along with the head so the tool is all one piece. Molded metal handles may have a rubber grip or leather wrapped grip. If the grip is loose, it should be securely re-glued or the tool replaced.
Handles should be clean and smooth. Some hatchets have rubber or leather wrapped handles for a better grip and to cushion the impact somewhat. Any damage to the rubber or leather should be repaired if possible. If it can't be repaired, the tool should be replaced. Wooden handles should be checked for cracks, rough spots, and splinters. Cracked handles should be replaced although you can sometimes tape them up as temporary repair. Rough spots should be sanded down, splinters trimmed and sanded, and the entire handle treated with linseed oil or a good quality furniture oil. Don't over oil the handle! You don't want it to be slick. The oil should penetrate the wood, not create a slick, glossy coating. When oiling the handle, use a soft cloth to rub the oil well into the wood. You might also rub a light coating of oil on the iron head as well to prevent rust, especially if you're putting the tool into storage for a while, like at the end of an outing. A little lube on the blade will also make it easier to pull it out if you swing hard enough to get it stuck.
Swinging your axe. Using a hatchet you will most likely use just one hand, usually your dominant hand, in a hacking motion, but swinging an axe usually requires both hands, giving you more leverage and allowing you to strike harder. If you are right handed you will probably swing your axe right handed, but not necessarily. My dad was right handed but always swung his axe left handed. Sometimes it is useful to be able to cut either right or left handed, depending on which way gives you best access to where you want to make your cut. Whether you swing right or left handed is determine by the position of your hands on the axe handle. A right handed swing will start with the left hand near the butt of the handle and the right hand a couple of inches from the head. The right hand slides back until it is nearly against the left hand as you swing the axe. The left hand remains stationery. DO NOT keep both hands stationery! A left handed swing is just the opposite. Regardless of whether you are normally right or left handed you might want to try swinging your axe both ways and find out which way is most comfortable for you. You may find it useful to be able to swing either way since you can achieve different angles each way. The handle of an axe or hatchet functions like a lever to give you mechanical advantage that increase the speed and force of the blade. If you grip too close to the head, you loose that leverage and are essentially just trying to push the blade into the wood by the strength of your arms. The same thing applies to using a hammer. You want to hold the tool near the end of the handle, away from the head, to get maximum leverage. Let the tool do as much of the work as possible.
Wranglerstar has several good videos on Youtube where he tests and reviews axes and hatchets. He also offers good videos on how to sharpen and care for them as well has instructions on how to use them safely and effectively.
Here's a handy tip for splitting kindling: hold the target piece of wood with a little stick instead of your fingers. If your aim is off and you chop off the stick, no big deal but if you hold it with your finger and strike your finger it is going to spoil your whole evening and possibly the appetite of your fellow campers! If you, or someone in your group does sever a finger or fingers, collect the severed parts and keep them clean and cool, but DO NOT pack them directly on ice. Doing so can further damage the tissue. The recommended procedure is to wrap the severed parts in a clean cloth and put it in sealable plastic bag, then put the bad in ice water. Do not put the severed parts directly in ice water without the plastic bag.