Recently, we did an article about outdoorsmen's knives and some readers have asked for opinions on the Woodsman's Pal. For those unfamiliar with this iconic American tool, it looks roughly like this:
This tool is still made in the US, with all-American parts. There are some variations of it: some have a handguard and a leather handle while others have no guard and a wooden handle. The genuine article is manufactured by Pro Tool Industries in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
The Woodsman's Pal is a combination machete, hatchet, brush-hook, and---in a pinch---can be used as an emergency digging tool or even a weapon. It was designed in 1941 for a military contract and saw considerable use in the jungle warfare of both WW2 and Vietnam. These tools are sturdy and practically indestructible with reasonable care. There are plenty of them from the WW2-era still floating around and in good shape.
The advantages to this tool are its versatility and its size. If you're hiking or hunting in a heavy brush, the Woodsman's Pal can replace a lot of other tools you'd have to carry. It's also much shorter---though considerably wider---than a traditional machete. Machetes can be very uncomfortable to carry in brush: they get caught easily on limbs and their length makes hiking with them a chore.
The Woodsman's Pal comes new with a leather sheath, which has a belt loop. But unless you have really big thighs, we would advise against wearing it on the waist. The sheath lacks a tie-down, for one thing. Fortunately, though, it's compact enough to fit into a pack or use with an under-the-shoulder sling. I prefer the latter, since it's easier to access in brush. And in a lot of more tropical regions, you may need that speed it if you chance across one the many venomous serpents inhabiting those areas.
Pro Tool Industries offer models with and without a handguard. I prefer that it has one. The reason for this will become apparent the minute you have to cut through some blackberries or other thorny plants. Because it lacks the machete's length, your fingers are well in range of those thorns. The handguard is a big help. As for handle materials, the leather is very strong, but should be cleaned periodically. The wood is lower maintenance. In terms of utility, I think there's little difference.
These currently cost new between $60-$75 factory direct---and depending on the model and type of sheath you'd like. They offer both nylon and leather with a free stone. I prefer leather, but if you order nylon that sheath is best carried in a pack. Used ones are available online in varying conditions and price-ranges.
As a side note, though, I would recommend ordering new ones directly from the company. The most reason is that retailers put massively high mark-ups on them. I've seen some sporting goods outlets charging double what the company does. Buy direct.
I've used both vintage and newer models and never had problems with either. The company also makes a version with a longer handle for home & garden brush-clearing.
I wouldn't say that a Woodsman's Pal is an indispensable outdoor tool, but it's sure efficient. I've used them for a long time, and having one tool that will handle about all of your typical campsite maintenance is well worth the investment.