"Shall I choose to bring an axe or a machete on my trip?" This is a dear question among many of my bushcraft friends.
Personally throughout the years I've gone from favoring large knives to smaller knives, and from axes to folding saws and back to axes again. Perhaps it's time to give the very large blade; the Machete another chance?
As always learning by doing is the best way to reflect on what tools are the most proper ones for a task. Therefore I pile up my favorite axes and machetes for a evaluation session out in the woods to confront my old habits and prejudices.
Of course you can use the edge of both an axe and a machete to perform smaller handy tasks like carving and dressing game, but a small and thin blade is always my first pick when it comes to precision work. Therefore I define axes and machetes as tools for chopping. So I grab some steel and chop away on both bush and timber...
When it comes to clearing a path in a thick section of the woods the machete is the way to go as the axe is less efficient cutting the flexing twigs around finger size in thickness. Also you have the safety aspect to consider when a heavy axe's short edge misses a small tree. The long thin edge of the high velocity machete also enables to take down several small stems in one single blow when the bush is getting really thick.
But when it comes to chopping and splitting larger wood the axe is your best friend. The weight of the axe in combination with the wedge shaped head takes away bigger ships from a log than the lighter and thinner blade of the machete does. A right size axe work through a arm size and up thick tree faster than a machete does, even though the machete eventually also gets the job done.
Parang and Kukri
Although we right now focus on axes and machetes I want to also mention the big blade tools falling into the category of Parangs and Kukris. These are nice chopping tools I would say is something in between an axe and a machete. I would even say a really large Bowie knife would fit into this category. The blade is often shorter and thicker than the machete's and the weight and balance is closer to an axe. In my opinion a long, thin, flexible and light machete is best suited for chopping bushes all day long trailing the jungle. The shorter and stiffer blade of the parang or kukri is not as energy efficient when it comes to this task. But as I touched on earlier; whenever the material meant cutting don't flex back on impact, the heavier and stiffer blades and axes chunk away real good. Perhaps these "hybrid tools" is the right pick for you if you for some reason only can bring one edge tool on your trip.
The Answer to the Question
My conclusion of today's session out in the beautiful Swedish forest is that the answer to the initial question is; "It depends on what kind of vegetation you will travel through". When in a tropical environment; the thick bush and the vines demands a machete to be able to advance in the terrain. Here in the Scandinavian outdoors focus often is on building shelter and gather fire wood rather than clearing paths. Then the axe is superior to the machete when it comes to efficiency.
It's All in the Hands
But bear in mind that the most important variables in most comparisons is the skills and techniques of the craftsman; the more experienced you are in handling a tool the more efficiently the work will get done (this also include taking care of the tool, like for instance sharpening). So my advise to you is to try out for yourself; which tool is the way to go for me, when operating in this area, doing these tasks.
In situations when space and weight is not an issue I'd pick a larger axe for fixing firewood and more robust carpentry and a thin flexible machete for moving off trail in thick vegetation. As I said; in thick jungles the machete is you best friend moving about. It's really not a competition between axes and machetes, it all depends on the task you are about to perform. These two tools complement each other very well and fits inside or outside most large backpacks.
But of course as a Northerner the axe always will lay a bit closer to my heart than the machete.
Keep on cutting and be safe.