Best Ice Axes

Updated July 2021
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

57 Models Considered
8 Hours Researched
2 Experts Interviewed
205 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best ice axes

When hiking across steep slopes covered in ice and snow, you will want to have an ice axe on hand. Like all tools, ice axes come in different designs for different uses. If you are a hiker who uses an ice axe only occasionally, your needs won’t be the same as someone who summits snow- and ice-covered peaks on a regular basis.

There are three primary uses for an ice axe when hiking. The first is security and balance. Used in this manner, an ice axe is vaguely similar to a hiking pole — though nothing can take the place of a quality hiking pole. The second use is for cutting steps. The third and most important function of an ice axe is to stop yourself from sliding down a slope.

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Keep your ice axe in hand whenever you feel fatigued, the slope is steep, snow conditions have changed, or the consequences of falling become more hazardous or life-threatening.

Parts of an ice axe

Shaft: Consider the general shape of an ice axe to be a "T.” The shaft is the longer vertical portion of the letter.

Grip: This is the part on the shaft where you can hold the ice axe when cutting steps.

Spike: The spike is a sharp point at the bottom of the shaft. It can be used to plunge into the ice and snow for additional support when standing or hiking.

Head: The head is the top horizontal part of the ice axe.

Pick: On one end of the head, there is a sharp point used to dig into the ice for self-arrest (to stop yourself from sliding down a slope).

Adze: On the opposite side of the head is the adze. This is a wider, flatter structure that resembles a hoe. It is used for cutting steps in the ice and snow when hiking.

Leash: The leash tethers the ice axe to your wrist so it won't get lost if you drop it.

When not in use, your ice axe should be placed on the side (not the front) of your rucksack. In this position, it is easy to reach and will not pose a hazard for individuals who may be walking behind you.

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A note about ice tools

This article focuses on ice axes, which are used when hiking. If you will be using your ice axe to climb up instead of across, or if the slope of the mountain is greater than 60 degrees, you will want a smaller climbing axe that features a curved shaft. These devices are called ice tools, and you would need two of them. Additionally, they are designed for climbers on belay.

Key considerations

The length of an ice axe is of primary importance.

Ideal length

Since you will be using your ice axe for support and stability, the main factor to consider is length. At the perfect length, when holding an ice axe at your side, the tip of the spike should be even with your ankle. To get this measurement, stand with good posture and let your hand hang comfortably at your side. Have someone measure from the crook of your thumb to your ankle. Since most ice axes have a length expressed in centimeters, take this measurement in centimeters.

Why you might need a shorter ice axe

If you will be doing a lot of hiking and using your ice axe only occasionally, to reduce weight, it is generally safe to purchase an ice axe that is up to 10 centimeters shorter than your ideal length. One stipulation: avoid purchasing an ice axe that is too short (less than 60 centimeters) because that may place the spike in the proximity of your vital organs when you are executing a self-arrest.

Why you might need a longer ice axe

If you will only be trekking on low-angle snowfields where slipping isn't as much of a problem, it may be acceptable to get an ice axe that is slightly longer than ideal because it will be used more like a trekking pole. However, there is an upper limit on length. Unless you are exceptionally tall, do not purchase an ice axe with a shaft longer than 70 centimeters because it will make self-arrests much more difficult.

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DID YOU KNOW?
Carrying and using an ice axe takes practice. It is important to learn the proper techniques in real (but supervised) conditions involving snow and ice.
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Features

Shaft

You can purchase an ice axe with a straight shaft or a curved shaft.

Straight shaft: A straight shaft ice axe is the best all-purpose tool. It can easily function as a cane when walking a low-angle slope, or it can be used to self-belay if you slip.

Curved shaft: As expected, curved-shaft ice axes feature a slight bend. The curve provides a little more clearance for the hand when the need arises to self-arrest. A curved shaft is best for steeper slopes.

Leash

A leash provides peace of mind because it helps ensure the adventurer will not lose their ice axe. While some models include a leash, it is often a separate purchase. Many instructors consider a leash mandatory, but the downside to using a leash is it can keep the ice axe hazardously close to you during a fall.

Accessories

Trekking poles: LEKI Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles
These durable trekking poles feature comfortable grips and adjustable locking height, making them ideal for a variety of outdoor adventures. If you'd like to use them during different seasons, the interchangeable basket system makes that possible.

Crampons: Sportneer Crampons
Manufactured using stainless steel and TPE rubber, these durable ice cleats quickly add traction to your boots, making them suitable for trekking across icy terrain. The heavy-duty cleats slip easily around your footwear for no-hassle installation.

Ice axe prices

Inexpensive: For less than $100, you can get a basic ice axe. In general, these models have a straight shaft, no grip, and no leash.

Mid-range: From $100 to $120, ice axes begin to change. You may find one with a grip or a leash, but there will still be a straight shaft. These models may be designed for heavy-duty use and boast better build quality.

High-end: If you spend more than $120, you’re moving into the zone of top-quality ice axes. While these will include all the desirable features, the main difference is that you will also start to see curved shafts.

If hiking conditions are exceptionally bad, consider holding an ice axe in your uphill hand while keeping a trekking pole in your downhill hand.

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Tips on using an ice axe

If you are considering an activity that requires an ice axe, we advise you to first get some professional training. The purpose of this section is to give you a general understanding of how an ice axe works. It is not meant to take the place of training.

Holding your ice ax

Here are some key points to remember when holding your ice axe.

  • Unless you are cutting steps while descending a slope, an ice axe is always held in the uphill hand. This means you will need to switch hands if you switch directions.
  • An ice axe is held by the head with the spike pointing down.
  • For the self-belay grip, place your palm over the adze, and wrap your thumb and forefinger around the pick (which is facing forward). This grip is better for steep terrain, but it can take some practice to quickly switch it to a grip that allows you to self-arrest (stop sliding down a slope).
  • For the self-arrest grip, place your palm over the pick, and wrap your thumb and forefinger around the adze (which is facing forward). This is the position you need to be in to self-arrest if you slip.

Self-arresting with your ice axe

Here are the key points to remember when self-arresting with your ice axe.

  • If you slip, arrest your descent as quickly as possible. The longer it takes you to get into position and make an attempt, the more momentum you will gain, and the harder it will be to stop your slide.
  • As you are sliding (feet first, on your stomach), you will need to position the pick above your uphill shoulder and the shaft diagonally across your body. Position your other hand at or near your hip, on the grip.
  • To stop your slide, drive your pick down into the snow and raise your hips, as well as the bottom end of the shaft, away from the ground.
  • Put your weight on the head of the ice axe, and dig your toes into the snow to stop your descent.
  • If, after you slip, you find yourself descending in any position other than feet first on your stomach, you will need to maneuver your body into that position before you can arrest your descent.
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You can not bring an ice axe on a plane in a carry-on bag. If it is wrapped to help prevent injury to baggage handlers and inspectors, however, it can probably be placed in a checked bag, but you should always check airline regulations first.

FAQ

Q. What does it mean to cut steps?

A. If you are not wearing crampons (or your crampons have become damaged in any way), cutting steps is a way to get traction on an icy slope. Using the adze side of your ice axe head, swing the axe in a pendulum-like motion to cut slashes in the ice. The slashes, or steps, provide a more secure foothold. This can be done when ascending or descending treacherous terrain.

Q. Do I need a leash on my ice axe?

A. A leash prevents you from losing your ice axe when you fall. Since wearing the leash could become a hazard, using one is a balance of personal preference and weighing the dangers of the terrain. The leash should be worn on the wrist (never the harness), and it should be considered whenever you’re in a situation where losing the ice axe would prevent you from safely navigating the terrain.

 

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