Camping near a guy with a machete: Never. (This as a result of an encounter with a fellow with slightly glazed-over eyes and a tightly-sealed tent in July, who asked us a couple of questions about gear before exclaiming, "This machete is AWESOME!" as he half-staggered toward his next tree-victim. We decided to hike a couple more miles before camping.)
Axe: Not for the last 25 years or so. I carried a small one in my early camping days, when I used cooking fires. However, after I got my first non-Sterno stove, I retired the axe; a few years later, when I realized that fires are way too much like a chore, I quit lighting fires, too.
Having said that, I'll also add that I do not do any bushwhacking or trail work; I stick to traveled trails in the Eastern US. If I did a lot of off-trail hiking, or was hiking in an area that I knew was overgrown, or was helping to establish a trail, I could see where an axe or machete could come in handy. Of course, if everyone who went off-trail used one freely...
But for recreational backpacking, I never feel anything close to the need for either.
The subject of machetes comes up ever year. I take care of a nature preserve and for trail maint., machetes aren't allowed. They tend to leave a mess of trimmed branches and more than one volunteer has managed to gash themselves. We use lopers, both long and short handled for trimming. For backpacking, machetes are even more useless unless you are hacking through soft tropical jungle....which we don't see around here. The things are best left at home.
Dryer, agreed. Machetes are pretty much worthless for trail work. I once tried to reopen a rarely used trail in the spring, and the machete didn't do a damn thing except make me tired. Oh wait, I think it knocked a couple leaves loose.
Would a big fake plastic one work as well if you really acted sort of nutty?
I remember one time some guys hiked five mile into a wilderness and pitched their tent 2 feet from mine, I guess when they saw me wearing BDUs and carrying a .45 on a web belt they decided to leave - quickly I might add. Jim
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.
Loc: California (southern)
I've done a fair amount of bushwacking over the years, including a good bit in chaparral and manzanita. It is much easier to slip through the vegetation (there is a kind of zen involved) than to get out a tool and whack the poor little bushes. If you are clearing out a trail, good pruning shears and a lightweight saw are effective gadgets.
War story time. We once had occasion to clear a LZ so a helicopter could come and retrieve the body of a frozen hiker - the alternative was a long operation - getting a stretcher crew up the hill and a long, arduous, even potentially hazardous day.
Smack in the middle of our clearing sat this lovely 6-8 inch diameter pinyon tree, just perfect for a rappel anchor - nice and stout. I started to chip away at it with a very small hatchet I carried. One of my companions averred that we could just uproot the tree. The three of us went to work with a will and actually topple the poor pinyon, thereby allowing the helo to come in and solve our problem. I was really surprised - the tree could have been such a good rappel anchor.
Loc: The Third Maine
Never been into 'em. I've got one, family heirloom, but I never use it. That means, in my line of work where a certain amount of vegetation management is involved. As others have said, if any trail maintenance, veg. management, pruning is needed, there are the right tools for that. (I've got them all.) But it never occurred to me to bring anything but a pocket saw on a recreational trip, and that, only for the rare occasion when a fire is appropriate.