Ask any outdoorsman what his most important piece of equipment is, and most often an axe will be his response. The trappers axe is one of those rare tools that can be used for just about anything. For daily trap-line chores like cutting drags, clearing trail, or checking ice, this tool is indispensable.
An axe is so highly thought of among big game guides, northern trappers, and bush pilots that they will show off a new axe like most sportsmen show a new rifle or fly rod.
All axes are not created equal however, and having the right one for the right job can make your work go much smoother. A Pulaski is a great tool for a firefighter digging out hot spots, but makes a very poor trail axe. A splitting axe is too long and heavy for everyday use, and need not be super sharp, but a trail axe should be as sharp as you can make it. One of the first lessons I learned as a young woodsman was how important it was to have a sharp axe.
My folks kept a small cabin open year round on our remote ranch for the Cree trappers who passed through on a regular basis. Those Cree trappers were the best woodsmen I have ever known. Their axes were kept as sharp as a good hunting knife, and they took great care to keep them that way.
As a young boy I looked forward to the visits from these trappers. They always had time to answer all my questions, and were happy to show me how to make sets for different animals. One of the first things I learned from those trappers was how to sharpen and use an axe.
Those old trappers would never just toss an axe into the back of a sleigh or pickup, like so many outdoorsmen do today. Their axes were carried with a heavy leather sheath over the head to protect themselves and the axe when it wasn’t being used. To them a dull, chipped axe was a sure sign that its owner was a greenhorn, or just plain slovenly.
Axes heads come in all shapes and sizes. Sweden has been producing top quality axe heads for over 100 years. Wetterling and Gransfors Bruks still forge their axe heads by hand. An axe from either one of these companies will cost close to $200.00 but they will last a lifetime.
Each axe head that comes out of the Gransfors Bruks foundry is stamped with the company logo as well as the initials of the craftsman who made it. An axe head from Gransfors Bruks comes with a 20-year guarantee. In 1995 Gransfors Bruks received an award from the Swedish Society of Crafts for the “Hunters axe.”
Vintage Plumb axe heads can still be found occasionally at trappers’ rendezvous, at gun shows, or even on e-bay. These were American made, and top quality. Before you buy a used axe head, look closely at the “poll” or butt of the head. Axe heads are not made to be used as wedges and beat on with other axes or hammers. This can cause cracks or damage the eye. When buying used axes look for clean un-peened polls.
The “Forester”, or “Trail Axe’, is the best all around choice for most outdoorsmen. A good trail axe will have a head that weighs two and one half, to three pounds, and a handle 22 to 26 inches long, depending on your arm length.
Small hatchets can be useful for making sets. I will usually have one in my trap box, and will use it to bed traps under trees, pound nails, or other chores I don’t want to use my good axe for. A hatchet can also be handy for butchering or cutting up bait, but they are to short to do any serious cutting.
A good trail axe can get you out of some real jams too. I once took a hunter and two saddle horses down a steep mountainside after a nice bull caribou we had spotted in the valley below. Unbeknownst to me that hillside was nothing but jumbled rock under a layer of thick moss. Once we started down, the horses, sliding on their haunches peeled that moss back exposing slick jumbled rock. There was no turning back.
When we reached the timber, we found ourselves in an old burn with so much deadfall it was impassable. Since going back up wasn’t an option, I got out my axe and cut my way down into the valley. It took some cutting; that fire-killed timber was bone dry and hard as iron. The caribou was long gone, but we made it through that mess. Without that axe we might still be there.
Something a lot of outdoorsmen don’t even think about is keeping an axe head clean. Rust, dirt, and pitch will make an axe “stick.” This is not so noticeable in green, wet wood but when you start cutting dry wood, a clean axe head cuts much smoother. To clean an axe head use a wire brush and a little paint thinner or turpentine. Regular cooking oil will also dissolve pitch in a jiffy. After it’s clean wipe it down with a light coating of oil.
A fine-tooth flat file and a whetstone will be all you need to keep your axe sharp. Avoid the temptation to use that angle grinder sitting on your workbench. The heat it generates will quickly take the temper out of the blade and ruin it. Commercial loggers and those who compete in Timber Sorts will sharpen their axes differently depending on the wood they plan to cut, but for an outdoorsman’s trail axe that is not necessary. A 25 to 30 degree angle is all that’s required.
A trail axe needs a good sheath. This not only protects the edge from getting nicked up; it protects you and other things your axe might come in contact with.
Heavy leather makes a good, durable sheath. There is no need to pay top dollar for premium cowhide though. An old cowboy boot that can be found in most thrift stores works great. Just cut the top off as close to the foot as you can. Then make a slit partway down one side (you can see how far down by laying your axe on the boot.) Then simply rivet or sew up one end.
Good, straight-grained axe handles are very hard to come by where I live so my son, James being very good with wood, started making ours out of birch. He fire hardens them by running the finished handle through an open flame until it’s hot to the touch. He then rubs raw linseed oil into them as they cool. These handles look good and have proven to be very durable.
Other than the overall fit and finish of the handle, something to pay very close attention to when looking at an axe handle, is the knurl on the end. This knurl should hook slightly downwards, and thicken at the end. This helps keep the axe from slipping out of your hand as you use it.
Other than my splitting mauls I prefer wood handles. The plastic handles on many modern axes and mauls are usually very durable, but they get very slippery in the cold. Hickory, oak, and birch all make excellent axe handles as long as the wood is straight grained.
Measuring marks on the handle of your trail axe are very handy. I use a permanent marker and put two marks on the handle, one at 12 inches and one at 18 inches. These marks prove useful more often than you would think. I use them a lot when I start setting canine snares. At kills or bait piles when I’m setting a lot of snares a quick check with the axe ensures I am keeping the snares at the right height. These marks also come in handy to get a quick idea of how wide the antlers are on that buck you just shot, or how big your fish is.
An axe is so important to wilderness survival it is mandatory equipment at some sporting events. Most dog sled races that are over 200 miles long require the musher to carry an axe at all times.
The Yukon Quest is billed as the toughest dogsled race on earth. Like the Iditarod, this race is over 1000 miles long through the wilderness of Yukon and Alaska. On this race mushers will face distances of over 200 miles between checkpoints.
On those long stretches of trail a musher, just like the trappers, RCMP, and mail carriers who traveled these same trails years ago, might need to build a fire or shelter, clear fallen trees out of the trail, or cut open ice holes to water their dog team.
Most mushers carry their axe where they can reach it quickly. Out on the open ice it must be used to chop a small hole for the snow- hook that holds the team. A musher needs to anchor the team solidly so they don’t get tangled each time they stop to feed, water, or just to look after their dogs.
I ran the Yukon Quest in 1997, and that year the 180- mile stretch of the Yukon River, from Eagle Alaska to Circle, was glare ice the entire way. Without an axe to set the snow-hook, getting off the sled would have been out of the question.
An axe makes a decent weapon when a firearm is not available too. Veteran musher Jeffery Mann found this out the hard way one year when he was attacked by a moose.
He was driving his team through a wooded section of trail when a cow moose charged out of the trees right at him and his dog team. Knowing the moose would kill his dogs; Jeffery grabbed his trail axe and got between the moose and his dogs. The moose wasn’t bluffing, and in a fight for his life Jeffery ended up killing the moose with his axe.
Whether you are running a short trap-line not far from home, or have been dropped off in the wilderness on a do–it-yourself hunt, chances are you will need an axe. Having the right axe, and knowing how to sharpen and care for it will make your trip a little easier, and might just save your life.