The shepherd’s axe and bushcraft by Polish highlanders

Some time ago, I traveled to the Tatra mountains and even climbed one of its highest peaks Rysy, which is also the highest point in Poland.

Simon the HighlanderBut what I really wanted to talk about are things I saw there. Not just up the hills but also in the local museum. So let me explain how all this relates to what we know today as bushcraft.


Me in the Museum


Ciupagi i kapelusz thumbnailYou see, I come from a country where up until relatively recently, people had to be largely self-sufficient. You can still observe that, especially, in the Polish highlands. The highlanders are renowned for their independence, hardiness and strong attachment to tradition, which by the way is also quite unique. Many of them still dress, sing and dance like their ancestors 200 years ago! Although, now it’s mostly to entertain tourists. They also have their distinct dialect, which to me sounds pretty damn awesome. I guess it’s a bit like the Appalachian American, which I also find very pleasant to listen to, only it doesn’t seem to have any negative connotations in Poland.

Highlanders Clothes  Swinica mountain

So when you go to a museum in the biggest and most famous tourist town in the area – Zakopane –  you quickly realise that self-reliance, survival and bushcraft are not just empty words, fads for crazy people with too much money and too little to worry about or terms reserved for some distant tribes from tropical regions. You learn that this is how people lived less than a human lifetime ago in a large European country.

What did I see? Well, just take a look at this awesome outdoor cooking rig and shepherd’s axes.

Highlander Bushcraft cooking rig

These, by the way, are probably the most underestimated survival tools I know. You take it on a hike as a walking stick but if need be, you can use it to take down a small tree, delimb it, split wood, drive nails or use it as a weapon since it is practically a little pole axe.

Timeline photo z ciupaga  Ciupagi thumbnail


Nowadays, the axe has become more of a prop in traditional dances and performances and is most often sold as an unusable souvenir. However, you can still find and buy proper shepherd’s axes, although, I hear that outside of Poland they can be ridiculously expensive. I got my carefully selected axes, with historically accurate ash wood shafts and decorated carbon steel heads for about $15-$20 each, and decided to bring this tool back to live and use it like in the good old times. It worked great.

Me as a highlander  Góralso kompozycjo

Ciupoga z copkom Ciupagi i kapelusz


But let’s take a look at some other interesting bushcraft and survival type tools I saw in the museum. Bear in mind, that these are things used on a day-to-day basis just a few decades ago.

axe heads and anti_wolf dog collarDecorated axe heads and an anti-wolf collar for a shepherd’s dog

Highland cleaver  Highlanders knives and pipes
Regional cleavers, typical highland-style knives, pipes and brooches

Highlander hunting equipment  Hunting_trapping
Hunting and trapping equipment including some massive bear trap, and hand-made slingshot/crossbows. Joerg Sprave from the slingshot channel would be proud.

Drill_chisel  Highlander White Room
A pump drill and a ‘spoon-making chisel’, plus an entire ‘white room’. It’s called white because it was the only room without a fireplace. It was to preserve the bright wooden walls and protect them from smoke.

And a little something from the mountains themselves

Bear  Słowacka strona z żółtego szlaku


Alpine accentor  chamois


My mountain  Cabins in the Mountains





11 thoughts on “The shepherd’s axe and bushcraft by Polish highlanders

  1. I really like this concept of using an axe. Would love to buy one but i saw only one online for 190$ . Would you like to share where you got yours from?

    • Hi. Sure. I got one from a Polish online store called Allegro. That one cost me about $20-$25. I found the other one in the town I mention here (where the museum is) called Zakopane. I just walked through the stalls and picked up the best one for about $17. I know they are very expensive elsewhere so it might be worth to get one online and even pay that extra money for shipping.

    • you can go to a flea market and find an old used axe head and grind it to your designed profile. that head shouldn’t cost more than 15-20 dollars, handles are about 15 bucks. if the blade rolls on it during use you can give it a crude heat treatment with a campfire and dutch oven. just watch some youtube video’s on it.

  2. Good post and thanks for sharing. I’m always on the lookout to see what people who actually had to rely on their tools actually used. In Australia the aborigines who still live the traditional life always carry around an axe. Most “bushcraft” people are obsessed with their knives but whenever you see documentaries or come across sites like yours it seems to be the case that the axe was the more popular tool.

    • I think it’s because today we associate bushcraft with traditional camping (almost like reenactment) and for those people 100 or 200 years ago, it was just life. We modify our gear to go lighter and what not, whereas, they had to do what they had to do, and chose the best tools for the job they had available at the time. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Really appreciate your post. As I live in the southern Appalachian mountains of the US, it appears from your pictures and others I’ve seen the terrain is quite similar.

    There is a book written in the 1930’s about bushcraft, before it was called bushcraft – written from someone who lived with the residents of the southern Appalachian mountains, the book is Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart. considerable content was based upon his experiences in the mountains documented in another book, out Southern Highlanders.

    I believe that the peoples of the Polish highlands had and probably still have a lot in common with the people Kephart wrote about. In may case, I was not raised in the mountains, but in my late parents lifetime, there were people living in very much the same circumstances the Polish Highlanders did.

    Excellent post.

    • Thank you. Believe it or not but I have actually read the book by Horace Kephart 🙂 And the one by George W. Sears – aka Nessmuk.

  4. Hi, great post! I’m in Zakopani right now and have been looking for an authentic shepherds axe. Where were the stalls you talk about? Were they at the museum?


    • Hi. Sorry it took me so long to reply but I was on a trip myself. The axes were along Krupówki street where all the hype in Zakopane is these days.

      • I did find the Ciupagas in the market under the bridge. I was hoping for something more unique and higher quality. I actually found a blacksmith in Zakopane by the name of Bartak Latta who made me one on. I was able to watch him make it. I’m not sure how to post a pic here. But it’s awesome. He also made the tip and cover for the bottom. Here is his address if anyone is interested in one.
        W. ZA Strugiem 4


  5. Made mine!-
    From a sturdy stick found near the Funicular at end of Krupowki (before heading up to Gubalowka). I bought my ticket but forgot the stick; it was still there on way back, so decided to take it with me back across the Pond.

    Besides a souvenir from “the Old Country” it was a labor of love, in tribute to my Goral Grandparents and their son– my father– & his siblings.
    I used an axehead from my Dad’s old basement workbench & other hardware. I attached a Polish coin at bottom; then, I read about the old custom of Highlanders attaching souvenirs of their travels onto it (plus, making it “jingle”).
    Not a ‘Bushcrafter’, so it’s mainly a sentimental momento for me but, I could use it in the field, IF I decided to extend it w. a top handle or bottom to lengthen it spike. And someday, I will get around to sharpening that axe head (a sheaf on it, IS a wise addition)!
    I DID also tour the same museum you did, took loades of photos and really admire my ancestors’ resourcefulness and creative talent in all those handicrafts, tools and gear.

    Here’s my Ciupaga:

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