Whether you are an experienced outdoors person or a novice wilderness enthusiast, the choice between carrying a knife or an axe on a backpacking trip often poses a significant dilemma. The selection largely depends on the specific terrain. However, for approximately 80% of wilderness backpacking trips, one might think of carrying both.

Nevertheless, to keep the backpack weight manageable, carrying only one is a more practical choice. Given the nature of tasks a wilderness backpacker is likely to encounter, a small axe or hatchet, like a Gransfors axe, often seems a more desirable tool.

Renowned for their superior quality and traditional design featuring a forged head and a hickory shaft, Gransfors axes hold their edge well. Moreover, in the event of shaft breakage, the design allows for crafting a new one in the field, an option unavailable with thermoplastic shaft axes.

Comparing a Knife and an Axe on Basic Tasks

To illustrate this choice, let’s compare a Gransfors Wildlife Hatchet (Length with handle: 13.50 inches) and an Eka Nordic W12 Knife (Blade length: 4.7 inches, Total length: 9.6 inches, Blade thickness: 0.16 inches, Total weight: 9.5 ounces). Both tools are assumed to be shaving sharp.

Making Feathersticks

When it comes to making feather sticks, both tools perform almost equally well. The knife may offer slightly better control due to the curved face of the axe, but the difference is negligible for an experienced user.

Collecting Firewood

The axe reigns supreme in collecting firewood, allowing you to gather your needs in a fraction of the time a knife would take. Technically speaking, an axe is more efficient because wood burns only on the surface.

Splitting a 100 mm diameter log into four with an axe increases the collective surface area, generating more heat. Though possible, splitting timber with a knife takes considerably longer.

Making Traps

The sharpness of both tools makes them equally effective for accurate carving needed to make traps.

Preparing Food

Both tools are razor-sharp, making all tasks involved in preparing animals for cooking easily achievable.

Building a Shelter

In situations where you need to construct a shelter, the axe’s value is unmatched. Whether due to unforeseen circumstances or a conscious decision to forgo a tent, the axe outshines the knife in such scenarios.

Refinishing the Cutting Edge in the Field

With its beveled cutting edge, an axe can be brought back to a sharp shaving edge more easily than a knife, giving it an advantage in the field.


Both tools can be carried on the belt, on the rucksack, or inside it. However, an axe might be slightly more cumbersome when attached to the belt.

Safety Considerations and Local Laws

Remember that both tools will be extremely sharp to fulfill their purposes. While a knife can inflict a serious wound, an axe mishap can be catastrophic. Therefore, always keep a first-aid kit readily accessible.

The rules of the area—be it a National Park or equivalent—might affect your choice. However, in a true survival situation, it’s unlikely you’ll be penalized for rules broken out of necessity.

From my experience, if you have to choose, an axe is a better tool. Reducing your pack weight—although only marginally with the removal of a knife—can have a significant impact, especially on difficult terrains. Ideally, keep your rucksack under 25 kg for safety.


Going solo on wilderness backpacking trips eliminates the option of splitting gear among a group to reduce individual rucksack weights. But as your skills improve, you’ll rely less on equipment and more on knowledge and confidence in your abilities.

Don’t just take my word for it—try some tasks with both tools and see what works best for you. The versatility of an axe may surprise you!