Hatchets and knives have always been trademark tools for camping, survival, and bushcraft. Each of these tools makes everyday tasks achievable and significantly easier in the outdoors.
The thing is, you don’t always need to pack both of them for a trip. There’s a lot of overlap between the tools, and the redundancy makes the extra weight not worth it, especially when you’re not car camping.
So, you need to choose between them, but how?
If you had to pick one, a good bushcraft knife tends to be the best pick when choosing between a knife and a hatchet. You can split smaller cuts of wood, perform precise carving, and they’re perfect for skinning and dressing anything you catch while out.
That being said, both a hatchet and a knife can support you and save your life if the moment arises. We’ll look at the two side by side to get an idea of which one will give you precisely what you’re looking for on your next trip out.
The Best Uses for a Hatchet
Even though I’ll suggest a knife vs. hatchet 75 percent of the time, there’s still that other 25 percent. Hatchets can be incredibly useful in certain survival scenarios, and there have been plenty of moments while out that I wished I had one.
The best hatchets are designed to be beaten up and used aggressively, which definitely gives them the advantage for many different tasks that a knife will struggle to keep up with.
Here are a few ways a hatchet will excel in a bushcraft scenario.
1. Tree Felling and Bigger Jobs
This is one of the primary designs of the hatchet. The longer handle and heavyset head are made to swing powerfully into the trunk of a tree and slowly chip away until it comes down.
If you try to do the same with a knife, even a big Bowie, you’ll find yourself with a tree still standing and frustration that only comes from failure and wasted work energy.
A hatchet is also much more efficient when it comes to splitting wood. If you have consistent fires that demand a lot of wood, you may want a hatchet.
The difference between a knife and a hatchet here is the power for big tasks. Some bushcraft is about building larger structures and shelters. To do this, you’ll find yourself having a much better time with a hatchet than with only a knife.
However, if you’re building a large structure, you’ll likely stay put and bring both, so you won’t need to choose between the two.
The hammer end of a camping hatchet can come in handy throughout loads of different survival situations. Often, shelters will need stakes hammered in, the meat you catch might need to be tenderized, and you can hammer pieces of traps in the ground to make them more secure and reliable.
The catch here is that I’ve always found a good rock will work just as well for most of the hammering tasks that a hatchet will do for me.
One of the biggest arguments people make for the hatchet or an axe is its utility in a self-defense scenario. The longer handle provides reach, which is vital in a close encounter. The head’s weight can be damaging alone, even if the sharp end fails to make contact.
That being said, any tool in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it will be useless. If you’re a knife fighter but you have a survival hatchet, it won’t go as well as it would if you had a knife.
One of the biggest advantages of a hatchet is its durability. This strength has a few facets, including its long-term use and ease of repair.
First, you can swing a hatchet for months without its quality deteriorating. The heavier head and the sturdy handle are designed for heavy use when a knife blade may actually snap.
If the wooden handle breaks, it’s pretty easy to make a new one. Since the head is so bulky, it’s far less likely to break than a knife blade, so it’s more reliable over the long term.
The Top Advantages of a Knife
The arguments for a hatchet are compelling, but I often find I can get by with a solid knife. To be clear, the knife we’re talking about isn’t a $30 folding knife you get at Walmart. We’re talking about one of the best survival knives, typically a full tang, beefy blade built for rougher use.
The differences between a survival knife and a camping knife are huge, so it’s essential to be clear about the style of knife you want for survival and bushcraft rather than a short weekend out.
1. Lightweight and Compact
Compared to a camping hatchet, a knife is much lighter and more compact, making it easier to haul around on long trips. If you know you’ll be walking great distances, a knife will always be a better pick than a hatchet since you’ll thank yourself when putting your pack on.
This also means that a knife is easier to keep on your person and to have accessible at all times. A hatchet on the hip has always gotten in my way and ends up being more of a nuisance than a help.
2. Wood Carving
Many survival tasks, especially trap building, require more fine woodworking skills that are difficult to do with a bigger blade. A knife provides a smaller blade, making it ready to take on more intricate tasks.
3. Skinning and Cleaning Game
Hopefully, when you’re out in a bushcraft scenario, you’ll need to skin and clean your recent catch. The smaller edge of a knife allows you to clean your harvest more precisely. If you do it well, you can use more of the animal and get even more meat off its bones.
A knife will only fall short when you’re quartering or removing a larger piece of the animal, like the head. Some of the best knives for hunting are helpful for these tasks and will get the job done, just not as quickly as a hatchet.
The truth is, you’re less likely to be field-dressing big game when in a bushcraft scenario. You want a knife by your side for the smaller rodents you’re likely to snare.
4. Batoning and Feathering Wood
While a hatchet comes out on top with splitting wood, a good survival knife can baton some impressive chunks of wood. Batoning, simply the process of splitting wood with a knife by whacking on it with another piece of wood, is a helpful way to get smaller chunks of wood for fires.
A knife is also much easier to use to feather wood. Feathering wood is like shredding the wood into smaller strips that will light and catch much easier than a larger stick. I use this to get dry tinder from larger branches, as many small sticks will soak water up quicker.
Is a Hatchet Better Than a Knife?
So, what’s better, a hatchet or a knife?
This is going to be something that’s fully up to personal opinion. I will likely pack a solid bushcraft knife over a hatchet, but that can change. I’ll choose the hatchet if I’m packing for a week of staying still and shelter-building.
Many people find it okay to use the hatchet as a knife or vice versa. That’s the piece of personal preference that can actually answer this question.
Hatchet vs. Knife FAQs
Is a hatchet a knife?
A hatchet is a smaller version of an axe with a tapered head, making it completely different than a knife. A knife is a smaller, more compact blade that is longer, thinner, and designed for more intricate tasks.
Does the military use hatchets?
While the hatchet used to have more of a presence in the military, it is still used today in specific applications. The Navy Seals are known to carry hatchets into missions for hand-to-hand combat and breaching missions.