Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. See Here for more details.
Best Deals of the week on Axes and Hatchets: Current Deals Axes and Hatchets.
Best Deals of the week on Power Tools: Current Deals Power Tools.
Best Bushcraft Axe
I’d like to start by stating that there is no such thing as “The Best Bushcraft Axe” cue the dramatic echo. Bushcraft axes have become one of the most sought after axes in recent years.
Made popular by famous outdoorsman such as Ray Mears, Les Stroud and David Canterbury. But there is still a legitimate need for these axes. There are hundreds of axe patterns out there old and new, more handle styles than you can imagine, not to mention everyone is different in mindset and body type.
One great thing about bushcraft axes is they are generally cheaper than their more task specific brethren. So lets review some popular options along with a few I chose personally.
I read a lot of reviews before writing this article, and to my surprise not one made mention of this beauty. This baby is Norse inspired but with American flare. The CRKT FREYER was designed by Elmer Roush who is a very experienced designer and blacksmith of almost 50 years.
They were tools used to provide comforts and the things needed to survive. Even when that included raiding English settlements. It’s a design that has passed the test of time. But the great thing about this specific design is the fact it is made burlier than your typical viking axe. Giving it a bit more weight and strength.
It’s a design that has passed the test of time. But the great thing about this specific design is the fact it is made burlier than your typical viking axe. Giving it a bit more weight and strength.
The bearded design makes it great for cutting and carving jobs, while also providing a larger cutting edge without the added weight. My only real issue with it is the handle. It is American Hickory but it is more of a simple straight handle. I would switch it out for a contoured handle.
Weight: 1lbs 12.7oz
Length: 16 inches
Steel: 1055 Carbon Steel with Magnesium Phosphate Coating for corrosion protection.
Blade Length: 4.528 inches Thickness: 1.185 inches
Handle: Tennessee Hickory
Gransfors Bruk Forest Axes
These days when having a discussion about axes you will eventually hear the name Gransfors Bruk, and for good reason.
Not only are they well known for the quality and craftsmanship put into every single axe they send out the door (these are not cookie cutter axes), Gransfors Bruk also hails from Sweden.
Sweden has a long history in iron and steel production going all the way back to the middle ages. Sweden is also home to some high quality iron ore deposits.
What this boils down to is, Sweden makes some really good steel. Gransfors axes are handcrafted forged carbon steel. They also offer a large variety of axe types and uses, including many I would call bushcraft axes.
I will give a brief overview of which I think is the best and which every other review will tell you is the best:
There is one thing to keep in mind, handcrafted axes are going to cost more of course because of the time and skill put into them. Many commercial axes are “cookie cutter” meaning they are all the same, pretty much stamped out of a bar of steel and slapped on a handle. Gransfors axes each have their own unique variations.
I’d like to start with my favorite, and seldom acknowledged Gransfors Axe: The Gransfors Hunters Axe.
It is essentially designed to be a bushcraft axe as much as possible. The Gränsfors Hunter’s Axe is specially made for the hunter, and is great for chopping wood and/or meat. A rounded flay poll reduces hide damage when used to assist in skinning an animal. Circular grooves on the handle provide a better grip when hands are wet or sticky.
The handle is a great length for chopping a tree or choking up on it for finer tasks. Handle length is 18.5 inches and the weight is two pounds. It also comes with a tanned leather sheath. This axe is pure woodsman.
The most commonly discussed Gransfors axe in regard to bushcraft is the Small Forest Axe.
This axe is very similar to the Hunters axe, it is missing the flay poll, and also has a slightly longer contoured handle at 19 inches. The head is slightly elongated, combined with the longer handle this provides some decent chopping power for small to medium felling and limbing jobs.
This axe makes a better camp axe than a bushcraft axe in my opinion. A camp axe being an axe that stays at the camp for camp chopping tasks such as firewood or site clearing. Most axe enthusiasts like to compare this axe to its cousin, the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet. Check out the review for similarities and differences.
RINALDI Milano Axe
Rinaldi is an Italian company that has been producing quality forged tools for over 190 years.
They are on of the most popular brands of Italian hand tools. Rinaldi forges it’s tools using a proprietary silicon manganese spring steel. Spring steel is a range of steels used in the production of items that need to resist bending, snapping or shattering.
They are most commonly used for.. you guessed it…Springs! Think car springs, leaf springs, etc. The best part, they harden their tools to 58 HRC! Gotta love hard tools………..you know what I mean.
Here is an axe I don’t think you will find in any review but this one. It’s simple, it’s not the prettiest, but it will get the job done. Rinaldi’s Milano axe pretty much looks like it’s new old stock from the 14th century. There is no shine or polish, the handle doesn’t even come protected.
I recommend giving the entire thing a boiled linseed oil rub down right after taking it out of the box. This axe is great for felling, chopping, wood shaping, limbing, debarking, hewing, along with cutting tasks and food prep.
It’s small coming in at 15.75 inches, but the broad bit gives added weight. The first 1.5 inches of the bit is shaped thinner allowing good chopping penetration while quickly widening to a tradition splitting thickness. I will say I do not recommend splitting anything that is wider than the bit.
Chopping is fine, but the design is not great for splitting large wood, I think the bigger the log the greater the chance of the tool failing. Luckily for bushcraft you don’t really need to split large logs in half.
The one slight downfall to this axe is the lack of a protruding poll. You should never use your axe as a hammer, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. The design of this axe would also make it a dangerous hammer. Not gonna lie. I love this thing.
CRKT Pack Axe
Yes, I know I show you a lot of CRKT axes. No, I don’t work for them or promote them for profit. They just make some really quality stuff that also looks really good.
They also have some great unique designs created by very experienced makers from around the country. In case you were wondering, CRKT stands for “Columbia River Knife & Tool”.
You remember when I mentioned I like longer handles and find hatchets obsolete….well thats not always true. This axe is a perfect example of when it’s not true. I love the design it is another by Elmer Roush, it makes me think of a modern take on ancient stone axes.
This is just a little guy weighing in at 1lbs 2.3 oz and measuring to a mere 11.25”. If you could carry only one small axe for a wilderness excursion this would be the one for me.
Takes up very little pack space, adds very little weight for an axe, and above all it’s useful. It has slight beard to it giving you more cutting edge, it has an elongated neck which provides a boost to chopping power, and for it’s small size it still has a decent little pole.
All that in one tiny 1060 high carbon steel package, sitting atop an American Hickory handle. I will say the steel quality is a tad lower than I’d like to see, however, being such a small axe the difference is mostly negligible. If you just want something small and light for “just in case” this is the axe for you.
Amazon is the cheapest place I’ve seen this axe for sale. Check out the current price here.
Lets hop aboard a plane and see what our friends over in Europe have brewing for us to look at.
First Stop Germany!
Germany has a long standing reputation of being a country of craftsmanship and quality. The funny thing is way back in 1887 Germany was known for making junk products, often trying to imitate Britain’s products, kinda like China does to the US now.
But eventually Britain said enough of that, anything you make must say “Made in Germany” it didn’t take long before Germans got tired of their junk to. Several initiatives later and Boom, Germany equals quality.
Helko Traditional Rheinland Pack Axe
Helko got it’s start way back in 1844, back then it was known as Helsper Werkzeugfabrik or in other words Helsper Tool Factory.
The company was always known for quality work, and before long they were recognized and exported around the world. In the early 1930’s a man by the name of Mr. Kotthaus joined the company and it later became known as Helko.
From then until this day Helko has consistently improved upon it’s own products. There isn’t an axe man or woman out there who has not heard of Helko.
The Rheinland pack axe is of course the Rheinland pattern, which I’m not sure if it’s just because of my knowledge of axes, but I think the Rheinland pattern just screams Germany. Anyway, this puppy is made from German c50 high grade carbon steel, with a hardness range of 53-56 HRC.
The handle oddly enough if made in Switzerland, of Grade A American hickory. I do like the style of the handle, European handles tend to be straighter, but this pack axe has some slight curves which make it feel a little more familiar to those of us in the West.
I also love the shape of the handle and how it widens smoothly at the major stress points. The axe is 19 inches in length and weighs in at 2lbs.
The Rheinland pattern allows for a larger cutting edge with less weight than a western pattern of similar size might have. It’s a great weight, great length, and a great design from top to bottom, it is also made with great materials.
Great for felling and chopping, but light and small enough for smaller tasks. This is a very versatile axe and perfect for “bushcraft”. This is a great option to consider, or even add to your collection. Keep up the good work Germany!
Lets Head North to Sweden
Who am I kidding, all of Europe is home to axe companies with very rich history. A prime example would be Hults Bruk. A tool company which had it’s start in the early 1670’s.
I’d say they have a fair amount of experience under their belts. It’s amazing to me how even when the axe market collapsed some of the manufacturers from long before modern times, still survive today.
Hults Bruk had an interesting history, for about 100 years it was owned by absentee wealthy nobles. For the next 100 years it was owned by a family who lived on the property the entire time.
The key to their long lived success was the owners interest in modern American manufacturing and machinery. His studies and travels allowed him to modernize the company before his death.
It passed hands a couple times after that before being purchased by the Hultafors Group in 1992. We’ll discuss Hultafors a little more in a bit. On to the axe!
Hults Bruk Salen
This axe is on the beefier end of things.
The head weighs 2lbs and is made of Swedish steel, remember when I told you about how good Swedish steel is, if not, it’s good stuff. The handle is 20 inches of lovely American Hickory.
This little beef cake it ready for the heavier jobs around camp, it’s design it also made to assist with heavier jobs. Chopping firewood, felling small trees, and I think at 2lbs it’s still not to bad for taking on finer tasks such as carving or cutting.
This Hults Bruk Salen also features the flay poll or rounded poll, so it can be used to aid in skinning game. This is an all around great camp axe. It may be a little hefty to carry in a pack all day, but it may also be worth it. It comes with a pretty nice leather sheath too.
Hulks Bruk Almike Small All Purpose Hatchet
Here is another nice piece from Hults Bruk, I can’t speak for everyone but I love a carpenters axe for bushcraft.
The long flat blade makes it great for cutting tasks, the elongated neck and slight bearded style give it a good balance and hand protection when choking up on the handle for carving tasks. It has a solid weight at 1.57lbs again made of the amazing Swedish steel and a straight 20” handle of American Hickory.
If you read this entire review and still are not sure what you should try first, try this one first. Overall it gets the job done, it’s simple and sweet, great size, very user friendly.
Now onto the business hi-jinks of Hultafors Burks which came to be in 1883. Hultafors sells axes, however those axes are made by Hults Bruk and have been since the early 1990’s. Hultafors purchased Hults Bruk along with some other acquisitions in the early 90’s after having substantial growth during the 1980’s.
The funny thing is Hultafors now a leader in all sorts of tools, all began with what was essentially a ruler during the time when Sweden was converting to the metric system.
You can see here the carpenters axes from Hults Bruk and Hultafors look oddly similar. Which is because aside from the labeling, they are pretty much the same.
You know what other axes Hultafors makes, Husqvarna. Thats right those axes that you may be prone to think are cheap or low quality are in fact made but one of the oldest axe manufacturers in existence.
For comparisons sake, I’ll show you the Husqvarna carpenters axe. The axe head like the others is pretty much the same. The difference is in the handle. Gone is the straightness of the European style handles and in with the American curves and beveled grip.
It’s fair to assume that the steel quality is not the same as their self branded product lines hence it being half the price. Either way, it’s still a great tool made by people who know what they are doing. Huqvarna used to have their axes made by Wetterlings until they shut down shop. More about Wetterlings later.
Continuing on with the Swedish axe empire I have another favorite from Granfors Bruk that I failed to mention earlier in the article. See Hults Bruks vs Gransfors Bruks for a comparison of these similar Swedish companies.
The Gransfors Bruk Outdoor Axe sports a 14.75” hickory handle and a head wiegthof only 1lbs. It was designed in part by Lars Falt a well known European survival expert known for his books and training of the Swedish military. This axe was designed for the long haul, light weight but designed to increase power.
It also has a steel over strike guard which I think is a great thing for small bushcraft axes as the light weight makes it easy to swing to fast and to hard, missing could be a problem without a guard. I’d prefer an 18”- 20” handle for it, but I can’t complain it’s just to nice.
One of my favorite things about GB, they initials of the person who made it are stamped into the head. Overall this axe is five stars for usefulness and sexiness. It’s pricey but well worth it, this axe will last multiple lifetimes.
Gransfors biggest axe is designed to take on the toughest trees seen throughout the American countryside. This specialized axe might be what you need to tackle the tough jobs you may have. Check out this American Felling Axe Review to see if it’s right for you.
Wetterlings in business since 1880, was purchased by Gransfors Bruk in 2007.
In 2009 he sold the company to two of his children Adam and Daniel Branby. They are still working, according to their website there are about 20 people on the crew and they are still puttering around getting things done.
Wetterlings has a great ideal which Is as follows “You can not really own an antique axe forge – it belongs to our joint industrial history – but one can assume a responsibility.
A responsibility to nurture and pass the knowledge previous generations have created, and that hopefully will outlive its keeper, on to the future.” this is something we need more of in all aspects of life, sharing of old knowledge.
In 1919 the owner acquired a new forging press hammer, that machine remained in use until 2014. Wetterlings has a strong feeling of tradition even a stubbornness. Which I can fully appreciate. Most things today everyone is looking for the easiest and cheapest way to make everything.
Companies that refuse to give up their principles and resort to modern business practices simply die off. But I find that commendable. If more companies would just say you know what we shouldn’t be making junk, like the realization Germany had that I spoke of earlier.
But it’s alright, things change and there is a resurgence of traditional skills on the horizon.
Wetterlings Outdoor Axe
This axe has a nice little design, in total it weighs about 2lbs 3oz and comes in at 19.5” in length. The size to length ratio is fantastic. It is hand forged from 1045 high carbon steel. If I remember correctly Wetterlings was known for a bit of extra hardness to the steel.
Which later caused some mild problems as a lot of chipping complaints were coming out of the wood work… as far as I know they got it sorted before went mostly out of business. I love the small design of this axe, it’s very simple and functional. It would make a decent belt axe.
Another great model from Wetterlings is the Backcountry Axe. It’s sort of like a Tomahawk on steroids. 1.5lbs and a 20 inch handle allow for good chopping and felling of small trees. Axe is small enough to handle small tasks and fit in a pack, it is also light enough to not notice.
I read these generally have around a 57 HRC, which is pretty good and speaks to my memory of Wetterlings using a higher hardness in general. Something to keep in mind, these axes won’t be around forever, eventually supplies will run out.
So if you want a great tool from a company with great history pick up a Wetterlings before it’s to late. An interesting read on Wetterling’s History can be found here.
Back Over to America
An interesting fact I’ve learned while researching company histories. It became clear that although Europe had a long standing axe industry, most of the big companies that remain today, at some point studied American manufacturing techniques which many suggest is why those companies still exist. Modernization allowed them to prevent being pushed out of the business.
I’m not saying America is better or anything like that, I just find it interesting how the new world provided new lessons for Europe. Europe being sort of stuck in a “traditional rut”.
It’s interesting to wonder what may have happened to the axe industry had the American Revolution gone the other way. Everything is connected in some way.
The region best known for it’s axe history in the Unites States is of course New England. At the top of New England we have Maine, The Pine Tree State. Once known as having the highest density of axe manufacturers at one time, in the world.
The number was somewhere around 200, and most were within a few select areas. Between 1800 and 1960 there were 300 different manufacturers.
One of these companies which is still operating today is Snow & Nealley. The company was started by Charles Snow and Edward Nealley in 1864 in Bangor Maine, it began as a shipping chandlery (warehouse).
After World War 1, there was a boom in the middle class and subsequently the demand for farm and hand tools. Along with consistent growth in the logging industry surrounding Bangor. In the 1920’s S&N began selling it’s newest line of axes through the catalog business of Leon L. Bean.
Today that company is known world wide as L.L Bean. A major retailer of outdoor gear in Freeport, Maine and online. The relationship between S&N and Bean went on for decades.
I actually own an all original 1930’s S&N L.L. Bean axe, it’s my baby. Over time and the decline of the Axe Industry S&N fell to the economy and changed hands a few times, at a point using axes made in china.
The company had all but lost it’s spirit when an Amish man and his sons bought the company and began producing 100% American axes in Maine once again.
My favorite is their Hudson Bay Camping Axe, the Hudson Bay pattern is very popular with outdoorsman. The pattern allows for a longer cutting edge 3 7/8 inches to be exact, while limiting unnecessary heft, it weighs 1.75lbs. The body of the axe head is lean and rectangular, and holds the majority of the weight.
This shape allows for the force of what little weight it has to be directed into a smaller area on the edge.
It’s essentially a splitting wedge that has been widened out on the bottom. It’s light and small but packs a punch. It’s also great for carving as you can choke up on the handle right to the base of the axe head for great control and precision, not to mention safety.
It’s also light enough to use for small jobs over extended periods of time, as one may do while providing for themselves in the bush. The length is just under 23 inches, this extra length also lends itself to the chopping ability of the axe pattern.
It’s an all around great axe and a great design that has been used for a very long time by many types of outdoorsman. Of course this pattern is made by most axe companies. But I am a Mainer born and bred, and I love history, so Snow and Nealley it is for me.
Not to mention it is American made 100%. This pattern from this manufacturer has a pretty cool history here in Maine, it would be a shame if they closed the doors for good without up and coming axe men getting the chance to own one.
A word of warning though, there was a time period where a previous owner was getting axe heads from China…yup, very uncool. I assume he was only trying to save the company but it was a bad idea.
So when you buy one be sure they are either very old, or if you want a new one make sure they are very new. The best ways I figured out how to tell the difference is the new ones have a “100% made in the USA” sticker on the handle.
I also always try to find in the product description if it states if it’s new or old stock. Most people in the axe community don’t want the china axes so many sellers are sure to make the point. In my opinion if the axe head came from China it’s not a Snow & Nealley axe. With the new owners the axes are tempered, assembled, and sharpened right here in Maine.
I was able to find one that I am confident is the new 100% American made model on Amazon, I don’t trust Ebay to properly depict which is which. Snow & Nealley being owned by the Amish doesn’t have a website.
In 1886 John Pickett Council founded..you guessed it Council Tools. The company is still family owned and operated and has never wavered in their ability to make a quality tool. Council Tool employees as of 2018 have a cumulative 500 years of tool making experience. Council makes a wide array of heavy duty hand tools for home and on the job.
One such tool is the WoodCraft Pack Axe, with a unique design, and is an all around great axe.
It’s a little bigger than most others I’ve talked about, I considered not including this one in the Bushcraft article due to it’s size, but it’s such a good axe I had to mention it. This big boy has a total weight of 2.75lbs, and the handle is 24”.
Like I said it’s on the larger side of the spectrum however it’s not to large. One might call this a camp axe rather than a bushcraft axe, but I would gladly carry this beauty in my pack.
This axe can effectively cut, chop, splits, carve, shave, and even hammer as it’s pole it hardened just like the cutting edge. It’s made from 5160 steel. This axe was designed to be one of their premium multi-function axes for their product line.
You can see a lot of similarities among other buschcraft axes, but it still stands on it’s own also. It’s one sexy quality axe. If you think you might prefer something on the larger side I’d start with this bad boy.
A couple of honorable mentions, The classic Estwing Sportsman’s Axe is a classic, and has not really changed.
I’m sure anyone born during the 80’s or before has seen one of these old beauties beat up in a garage or barn at some point. What I have linked here is the special edition version, which still holds the traditional look with the layered leather handle, but has been given a sexy black finish instead of the usual polished steel.
These tools are forged as one solid piece in Rockford, Illinois. They are a classic and long lived tool, nothing special or fancy about them. But they will be there for you when you need them most.
So, I know this was a long read, but what we have discussed is several companies and several axes, all of which would be my first options to consider when seeking a bushcraft axe. Now don’t get me wrong there are as many opinions about axes as there are axes.
This is only my opinion. But if we really had to get down to the nitty gritty, and I had to choose the best tool for bushcraft or die… it would be a Kukri. You might not know what that is, but imagine if a knife, a machete and an axe had a baby, that baby would be a Kukri.
It is by far the ultimate bushcraft tool. But this is an axe website so I won’t go into to much detail. But if you would like to learn more you can check out the link below. It is a genuine Kukri made by Bishwakarmas.
It is made with 5160 spring steel and is a cutting and chopping machine. Check it out here, maybe somewhere down the road I can do an article on these awesome tools.
The amount of variables needed to be considered to find the absolute best bushcraft axe on the market at any given time is beyond comprehension.
I just wanted to get that off my chest after reading so many reviews with the aforementioned headline. However there are some general considerations to ponder when choosing a bushcraft axe.
These considerations are what I will be discussing in this article along with a review of some of the lesser acknowledged but still the best bushcraft axes on the market right now. Most other reviews are just showing you what is popular, not necessarily what is good.
Much like I stated in my Tactical axe article, the best axe is the one that best meets the requirements of the task or set of tasks it will be used for most. This includes being the right axe for you. When it comes to tactical axes the choices are easier to make as they are all pretty much the same in form and function. When it comes to bushcraft there are a lot more options.
But most importantly… What is Bushcraft?
Well, in the simplest terms, The Oxford English Dictionary lists bushcraft as “skill in the matters pertaining to life in the bush.”
The actual phrase has origins in Australia which means “skills used in the bush”. It’s an interesting coincidence that the oldest axes found so far also come from Australia. Australia also has a strong axe and forest work culture to this day. Some of the biggest stars of timber sports hail from Australia. Crikey!
You might be asking yourself “Ok, what exact skills pertain to living in the bush?”
The obvious is for chopping wood, which provides fuel so you can use your high carbon steel bushcraft axe to get a spark from some flint and start a fire. See what I did there.
The job of a bushcraft axe is to assist you in providing the things you need to survive and even be a little comfortable in the wilderness. The simplest tools known to man were born out of necessity and nothing more.
The bushcraft axe has to quell a lot of necessity in one tool. Think of all the tasks you might do with an axe, now consider that it can also be used for knife tasks, and even some hammer tasks if necessary.
At home we have knives, scissors, hammers, chainsaws, wood splitters, and hired help. In the wilderness you have an axe and maybe a knife. One thing to note is a small axe can do the job of a big axe, the difference just has to be made up in effort. A big axe cannot do the job of a small axe.
Important Factor #1: Weight
With a bushcraft axe you generally want something fairly light, I wouldn’t go above three pounds. The main reason for this, is simply because you will be carrying it everywhere.
Three pounds doesn’t sound like much but when you add it to the rest of your gear and the lower caloric intake people usually have while spending time in the wilderness, it can become tiresome to carry a heavy axe.
A heavier axe will also make using it for finer jobs more difficult. Also you will fatigue quicker working with a heavier axe. Think of it as a spectrum, on the light end you have finer tasks such as cutting down trees, carving, chopping kindling, or clearing the brush around your camp site. On the heavier end you have felling trees and chopping firewood. Bushcraft falls close to the middle, but a little more toward lighter tasks.
Important Factor #2: Length
You don’t want to be trying to travel through brush with a handle sticking out of your pack. You’ll snag it on everything which not only get annoying quick, but it can cause the axe to potentially damage your other gear or even you.
It can also cause noise which will frighten game which you don’t want when hunting. Much like with the weight, the shorter the length the better the axe is for finer tasks, the longer the handle the better it is for heavier tasks that require more force.
I generally carry a 20” handle, I prefer a longer handle but try to stay within reason for bushcraft axes. As long as you can put it in your pack without having it sticking out above the pack, you are good to go. When it comes to small tasks where I am holding the axe close to the head I like the feel of the counter balance created by the longer handle.
This is why I am not a huge fan of hatchets. They have their place I suppose, But I feel they are vastly overshadowed by bushcraft designs and made all but obsolete.
Another fairly important factor is the type of steel used, and what it’s hardness is. If you are going to be in a wet, hot humid climate for an extended period of time you may want to find something made with stainless steel. Routine maintenance can prevent rusting of carbon steel but after a long day tromping around in the woods we tend to “forget” or simply not have time before we’re snoring by the fire.
However you will find that a well made high carbon axe will retain it’s edge much longer which cuts down on time used for sharpening. Wiping down after use and then covering the head with an oily rag will help limit oxidation.
I like my bushcraft axes to be good and hard at least 56 HRC. This is because a buschcraft axe is most used for cutting jobs rather than chopping. So I like an axe that will take a razor edge and hold it for a fair amount of time. This is best achieved with a high carbon steel axe.
Another less important consideration is the handle. You’ll find most bushcraft axes have the traditional American Hickory handles. Making sure the handle is a good fit is important because the axe will be used often and for various tasks.
I feel traditional handles are the best option as they come in many shapes and sizes, and if need be can be easily customized with a little sandpaper for a better grip. Many commercially sold handles come with a clear coat applied.
Though this is a very functional method of protecting the wood, it sort of sullies the traditionalism of axes and backpacking. I always sand of this clear coat and then protect the wood using a few coats of boiled linseed oil.
This not only protects the wood very well, it also brings out the wood grain and makes for a better grip, as you are gripping the actual wood fibers rather than smooth lacquer.
This method of wood protection also allows the handle to age and become an extension of you. Where memories can be found in every nick, scrape and chip. This best oil for axe handles article goes over this more in depth.