Cutting Edge: The Basics of Axe Safety When You Camp

Doug Williams
Image credit: Cosmoh
Image credit: Cosmoh

Safety when doing outdoor activities, including using axes, comes down to managing risk. Risk can be divided into two components: probability and severity. While the probability of cutting yourself with an axe is similar to the probability of cutting yourself with your knife, the severity of axe wounds has a tendency to be greater and, in the worst case scenario, very debilitating.

Compared to a knife, an axe weighs more, has more leverage, and carries much more momentum when using it. Furthermore, when out camping or going on a journey, it is not unusual to not be wearing any sort of protective clothing or footwear. Prevention of injury from an axe has to come from caution, good habits and attention.

The Basics Of Axe Safety When You Camp

Carrying An Axe

When you have to carry an axe, whether in the woods or around the campsite, make sure the axe’s sheath is on. This is for your protection and for the protection of your companions. Most axe heads made today are made with very good quality steel that maintains a very sharp edge. Even brushing the edge of the axe against clothing or skin could cause damage or injury. However, the sheath won’t protect you from the axe edge in all circumstances. For example, people have been known to cut straight through the metal rivets of a leather sheath when they forget to remove the cover. If you were to accidentally trip and fall onto the axe, even with the cover on, you will probably be badly injured. Therefore, you should carry the axe in such a way that if you trip, slip, or fall, you will not fall directly onto the axe head.

Personally, I prefer to carry an axe. I don’t like clipping the strap of the sheath to my belt. Besides the axe flapping and whacking at my side, the safety of the axe is entirely reliant on the sheath covering the edge remaining closed, but we know that gravity combined with the weight of the axe is plotting against it. Hooking it to the belt also stretches the sheath strap. I also don’t like having an axe slipped into a slot or loop that some pants have on the side of the leg. I surely don’t want an axe attached to my leg if I slip and fall or trip and fall. Holding or carrying the axe in your hand, in a way that allows you to throw it to the side, is much more preferable.

If You Have To Leave Your Axe Unattended

You will know for sure where you left your axe, but others might not. You should leave your axe in such a way as to minimize the chance of people kicking, standing on, or otherwise coming into contact with your axe. Even if the sheath is on, with enough force applied, an axe can seriously injure people. Also, you don’t want your axe getting damaged, even if it is only minor. If you have spent time perfecting the wooden handle, the last thing you want is for it to be kicked across a rocky campsite.

Occasionally, you may need to leave your axe unsheathed momentarily while you do something else, before returning to use the axe. During this absence, the safest place for your axe is lodged in a stump or a log, with the cutting edge fully buried.

Photo credit
Photo credit

Allow Enough Room For All Campsite Activities

When setting up and organizing your camp, take some time to consider what you’ll be doing with your axe in the camp. Will you need to split firewood? Do you have a chopping block? What size axe is being swung? Consider other camp activities such as food preparation, washing, gathering firewood, or controlling the campfire, as well as the walking routes to the water supply, latrine, and sleeping areas.

You don’t want your companion swinging an axe too close to others. Remember, it’s not only the axe being used in these situations that you need to think about, but also the firewood being chopped can fly off the block and strike someone. Also, to keep in mind, what if someone lets go of the axe by accident? Could it strike someone?

Understand And Optimize What You Are Dealing With

Could it strike someone?’’ is a question that always should be asked when using a cutting tool.

What happens if I miss what I am trying to chop? What happens if it bounces off? What happens if I slip while swinging the axe? What happens if it glances off the chopping block? What happens if it cuts straight through what I’m working on?

In each of these cases, the next question is where does the axe head go next?

When it comes to using an axe, you never want the answer to that question to be a part of your body.

Dynamics Of An Axe

Popular axes of today are broadly recognized as four general purpose head sizes. These are, in order from smallest head size to largest head size, a hatchet, a half-length axe, a three-quarter length axe, and a felling axe. There are also specialty axes available for splitting or carving.

Each different head size of an axe has its own distinctive dynamics and how each one reacts is somewhat different; longer handles will increase leverage, and swinging a heavier head momentum increases. The position where the axe is held also alters the way it performs.

An axe with a lighter head gathers speed and decelerates quicker than those with a heavier head. Also, the position where the handle is held will make a difference to how fast the head will accelerate.

When you are using the half-length axe with one hand, if you hold the handle towards the middle, you will notice the part of the handle below your hand will move in the opposite direction to the part above it. This has a decelerating effect on the speed of the axe and will slow any change in direction from forward to backwards or vice versa.

The next dynamic is when you hold the hatchet the same distance away from the head as the grip on the half-length axe. This grip will leave very little of the handle below your hand. This does not have a decelerating effect when using a lighter head axe, meaning the hatchet will bounce back towards you considerably faster than the half-length axe held in a similar way. This dynamic has resulted in people being hit in the face with a hatchet bounce-back when trying to cut branches at face height.

Working With A Low Chopping Block

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Even at the campsite, if you are fortunate enough to have some sort of chopping block, it will probably be quite low.

Half-length axes such as the ‘Gransfors Small Forest Axe’ or the ‘Wetterlings Outdoor Axe’ have become very popular among outdoor enthusiasts in recent years. They can be used with both hands or even with one hand and can be used for several tasks; from felling trees to splitting kindling to carving.

Because of the compact size of the half-length axe, you are better off kneeling most of the time while using it: mainly for safety reasons and for better body mechanics.

Keep Those Fingers Safe

If you are splitting wood on a chopping block, your hands are usually well out of the way. If you are going to do some carving, though, you will have to hold on to the piece of wood you are working on. You will have to steady it or maneuver it around while working on it with the axe. Therefore, it becomes very important to follow some rules to minimize the risk of injury to the other hand not holding the axe.

Splitting On A Low Chopping Block

Maintaining the general safety principles, the piece that is going to be split is placed on the far side of the chopping block, away from the cutter. This means that if you hit too close to the end or bounce off the wood in front of you, the chopping block will be the next thing that the axe strikes.

More likely to happen, though, is the axe striking too far away. When kneeling to split wood, there is a tendency to kneel too close. When you swing an axe with any force, your arm will extend and straighten at the elbow. When inexperienced people first choose an axe, they tend to underestimate the distance the axe head will strike. The resulting strike will be the axe handle hitting the piece of wood, rather than the sharp steel axe head. This leads to damage to the axe handle from an overstrike.

It is unsafe and not advisable to kneel to split wood on a low chopping block when using a long-handled heavier axe. A more powerful swing can be applied if you are standing and gravity can be used to help because of the heavier axe weight.

As with the smaller axe, you should consider all safety factors when you first pick up the heavier axe, ensuring that you are at a proper distance from the chopping block. Place the piece to be split on the furthest edge of the block. With the larger axe swinging down towards your feet, the backstop of the chopping block being the next strike is very important.

Bending your knees will improve the safety and efficiency of the swing by allowing the axe handle to be more horizontal at the point the axe head strikes the wood you are splitting. This changes the course of the axe head, from an arc towards your body, as you turn the shoulders, to a more vertical drop towards the chopping block as you bend your knees. This adjustment signifies the cutting edge of the axe is hitting the wood straight down, which is a more efficient and safe swing.

The key then is to follow through as much as possible, again by taking full advantage of gravity pulling the axe head straight downwards, rather than swinging it towards your body and the ground as you turn the swing away from your shoulder.

Working With What’s Available

When travelling, a chopping block is unlikely to be available unless you are at a relatively well-used camping site where some kind soul has supplied the site with a block. Most of the time you’ll have to work with a log or at best a stump.


fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival