If you’re heading into the alpine, an ice axe is a must-have piece of gear.
But, selecting the right walking axe for your needs is no easy feat. There are plenty of great options to choose from, so the key is finding one that’s fine-tuned for your preferred type of adventure.
To get you off on the right path, we’ve reviewed 5 of the best options on the market today. We’ve also included some top tips to help you decide on the perfect ice axe for your upcoming hiking trip.
Why do you need an ice axe?
Ice axes are essential tools for alpine adventures where you’re traveling over steep snow slopes. With an ice axe, you can more efficiently arrest (a.k.a. stop) a fall down a snow slope, preventing serious injury in the process.
Although ice axes are not necessarily designed for technical ice climbing, like an ice climbing tool is, they can be used for ascending moderate snow and ice slopes when necessary. They can also be used to chop steps and to place snow anchors. However, they are most commonly used as tools for self-arresting on snow.
How long should a walking ice axe be?
Most ice axes are between 50cm and 70cm long, which is a pretty wide range.
For self-arrest purposes, an axe should be long enough so that the tip of the spike reaches about ankle height when you hold the axe head in your hand. However, for very steep snow slopes, a slightly shorter ice axe is often preferred.
Featuring a classic straight shaft shape and a neutral pick, the Grivel GZERO is a beginner-friendly walking axe for less technical applications. It is affordable and functional, and even comes with a leash for added security.
This ice axe boasts a strong steel pick and an aluminum shaft for added durability. To help you get a better grip on the axe in cold conditions, it also comes with a plastic head cover to insulate your hand and provide a bit of traction in icy conditions.
- Durable steel pick
- Comes with a leash for security
- Includes a plastic head cover for insulation and grip
- Straight shaft isn’t ideal for steeper snow conditions
A solid all-around mountaineering axe with an award-winning design, the Black Diamond Raven is a tried and tested option for less technical mountain adventures.
This axe boasts a sturdy aircraft-grade aluminum shaft to cut weight. It has a one-piece stainless steel head with a positive curve that’s specifically engineered for self-arresting.
Additionally, it has a large hole at the base of the head for clipping carabiners when making anchors or for attaching a leash for added security while climbing.
- Solid one-piece stainless steel head for durability
- Positive curve offers a good mix of self-arresting and climbing ability
- Lightweight aluminum shaft
- One-piece head can’t be easily replaced or repaired
Providing a good mix of technical steep snow performance and self-arresting abilities, the Petzl Summit EVO is a solid choice for more experienced mountaineers that are looking to take their climbing to the next level.
It features a curved aluminum shaft with an anodized finish for added ruggedness. Additionally, it has a hot-forged steel head and pick that’s thicker in the middle for better traction in soft snow.
For added functionality, this ice axe also has a hydroformed handle that provides a substantially improved grip in cold conditions.
- Hydroformed handle for improved grip
- Pick is designed for use in soft snow
- Curved shaft provides better swinging ability
- Very expensive
The Black Diamond Venom is an all-purpose mountaineering axe with a new-age twist for added performance.
It boasts an asymmetrical angled shaft that provides a good blend of swinging and self-arrest functionality. This axe even includes a rubberized grip toward the bottom of the shaft and a sliding FlickLock pommel for improved swinging on steep snow.
For added convenience, the Venom also has an interchangeable pick construction which is compatible with all of the company’s picks. That way, you can customize your axe to meet your needs.
- Interchangeable pick design
- Angled shaft for improved swinging performance
- Rubber grip for increased control in the cold
When weight savings are a priority, the Petzl Glacier is a solid choice. It has a classic straight aluminum shaft with a machine-ground handle that provides a good grip without adding weight.
The pick on this axe is made from high-quality steel and has a hole carved out for attaching a leash and other accessories. Moreover, the Glacier’s pick is thinner toward the tip for better penetration into firm snow and ice in cold conditions.
- Lightweight design
- Machine-ground handle improves grip
- Durable steel pick is designed for use in hard snow
- Somewhat pricey for a straight shaft ice axe
What to look for in an ice axe
Choosing an ice axe for hiking or mountaineering isn’t easy. So, here are some of the most important things to keep in mind as you shop:
Ice axes run the gamut in terms of weight. From a mountaineering point of view, lighter ice axes are ideal because they’re less likely to weigh you down on the ascent when you already have a pack full of gear.
However, lighter ice axes often achieve their weight savings by using aluminum or titanium picks rather than traditional steel. While aluminum and titanium are great in terms of weight savings, they tend to be less durable in the long-term, especially when used in icy conditions.
The shape of an ice axe’s pick makes a substantial difference to its performance in the real world. There are a few different options to choose from:
- Positive Pick. The positive pick shape has a gentle downward curving shape, which offers a good mix of self-arrest performance and moderate ice climbing ability. But, it’s harder to remove from ice after a solid swing.
- Neutral Pick. Neutral picks have barely any downward turn. Instead, the pick on these axes comes out of the head at nearly a perfectly horizontal line without drooping downward. This is a very traditional design as it’s best for self-arresting. However, it’s not a good option for climbing on steep snow or moderate ice.
- Reverse Pick. Reverse picks are found mostly on technical ice tools but are becoming more popular on high-end mountaineering axes. They have a very steep downturn on the pick that flattens out and then curves upward toward the point of the pick. This shape isn’t as good for self arresting, but is the best when it comes to secure swings in steep, icy terrain.
The traditional ice axe has a straight shaft, which makes it easier to self arrest. However, straight shaft axes are less functional in steep conditions where you may need to swing the axe because they cause you to slam your knuckles into the ice or snow.
Thus, some newer ice axe designs now have slightly curved shafts. This slightly decreases your self arresting ability, but greatly improves your swinging ability.
When it comes to high alpine adventures, an ice axe is an essential piece of gear. Choosing the right one comes down to identifying the one that offers the perfect combination of portability and functionality for your needs.