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Ice axes belong to that group of tools that is widely skirted by the regular joe because not a lot is known about them - angle grinders is another one that sits in this category. However, it is our intention to extract the ice axe from its shady corner and provide you with useful guide that will not only explain what to look for in an ice axe but which ones are best.
What to look for in an ice axe
The axe head
The point at the front of the head is the pick, and this is used for more vertical terrain and ice axe arrests (to stop a slide). At the other end a small spade-like feature called an adze is for cutting steps in ice or excavating snow. More technical axes have removable picks, allowing you to switch it out depending on your intended use or replace when worn. Climbing axes often come with the option of a hammer instead of an adze for placing protective gear.
A light axe will be more comfortable for carrying in hand, but less effective at biting into ice when climbing or performing an ice axe arrest. As such mountaineering axes will tend to be heavier than walking axes.
Hold the axe by its head with your arm straight down your side. For a general-purpose axe for walking and easy mountaineering the spike at the end of the shaft should reach your ankle. For a dedicated walking axe a slightly longer length makes it more comfortable to use, while climbing axes tend to be shorter.
The curve of the shaft
Walking axes that will be used more like a trekking pole tend to have straight shafts, while mountaineering axes that will be swung by the shaft when climbing will have a more curved profile. The greater the curve, the more climbing oriented the axe is.
Ice axe heads are given a rating to indicate their strength. A type 1 or B-rated axe is suitable for winter walking and is likely to be lighter. Type 2 or T-rated axes are stronger and can be used on harder terrain or for creating belays. Note that it is possible for the shaft and head of an axe to have separate ratings.
To prevent an axe being dropped and lost, a removable leash attaches to the head of the axe and secures it to the wrist. Many axes come supplied with a leash, but leashes can also be bought separately. More technical axes use lanyards which attach to the bottom spike at one end and the belay loop of a climbing harness at the other.
The best ice axes
Grivel G Zero
With its straight shaft, long lengths (up to an almost walking stick proportioned 74cm), and removable head cover for better grip and comfort, the G Zero is an excellent walking axe. Unusually for winter equipment, it’s available in a range of colours!
Lengths 58cm, 66cm, 74cm | Weight 425g (58cm) | Strength rating 1/B-rated
DMM Spire Tech
The new Spire Tech is a classic walking and easy mountaineering axe. It has a slightly curved shaft and a machined grip for use on steeper terrain, and is light when used for walking.
Lengths 45cm, 50cm, 55cm | Weight 323g (45cm) | Strength rating 1/B-rated
Another new ice axe, the Alpine-Tec is a technical step-up from more basic walking axes. The ergonomic head and light weight make it comfortable to carry in hand, while the aggressive pick and adjustable hand rest give it the ability to tackle steeper slopes.
Lengths 50cm, 58cm | Weight 366g (50cm) | Strength rating 1/B-rated
Petzl Summit Evo
The curved rubber-gripped shaft of the Summit Evo makes this a tool for those venturing onto more vertical ground. Its weight strikes an excellent balance between carrying comfort when walking and effective use as a climbing tool on more technical ice and snow.
Lengths 52cm, 59cm, 66cm | Weight 400g (52cm) | Strength rating 1/B-rated
Edelrid Riot Adze
With a ‘T’ strength-rating, replaceable pick and adze, and a matching Riot Hammer model for use as a pair, the Riot has the key characteristics of a climbing tool. With the removable lower hand rest taken off, it also performs excellently as a general walking axe.
Lengths 50cm | Weight 595g (50cm) | Strength rating 2/T-rated
More from Live For The Outdoors on winter kit:
Our guide to mountaineering boots, including reviews of the best.
Our guide to winter daypacks, including reviews of the best.
Our guide to winter hardshell waterproof jackets, including reviews of the best.