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Find a low-cost fresh Christmas tree at a National Forest

You can cut your own Christmas tree in a National Forest.
flickr-Brian Gautreau

You can have a great family outing and get a low cost, beautiful fresh cut Christmas tree if you are willing to do a little work for it. Most people don’t realize that many National Forests can be the source for Christmas trees. You’ll need to cut your own tree and transport it back to the car. Each National Forest will also have a fee for a “tree tag” which you’ll need to purchase before going out to hunt for the perfect tree. These tags usually cost $5-$10.00. (In Michigan tags cost $5). Some National Forests also require that you have a permit to enter the park. You can usually buy a day permit.

Here’s what you need to do if you’d like to take the family into a National Forest to cut a fresh Christmas tree. First locate a National Forest near you . Most maps show where National Forest lands are. Then you’ll need to find out whether they issue permits for Christmas tree cutting and where you go to purchase the permit. If time allows permits can be purchased on line. Often permits will be purchased through your states Department of Natural Resources offices. You can often buy more than one tree tag.

In Michigan we have one National Forest in the Lower Peninsula, the Huron –Manistee National Forest. It extends east from Hartwick Pines State Park to the Lake Huron shoreline. There is also the Hiawatha National Forest in the UP. For people in other states you can link to many National Forests ( bottom of page) here:

If you are not familiar with your National Forest lands when you get your tree tag get a map that will show you where you can and can’t cut Christmas trees, where park boundaries are and where access roads are located. These maps are usually available where you purchase your tree permits.

When you get your tree tag you’ll probably be given a set of regulations on Christmas tree cutting. Read them before you hop in the car to search for a tree. There are generally hours when tree cutting is permitted. These are generally set to make sure people are out of the forest before dark. In some states you won’t be able to use a chain saw for tree cutting. Some National Forests may restrict the size of tree you can cut. And most National Forests don’t allow “topping” or cutting just the top of a tree off. Pets may also be restricted if you are thinking about including them in the outing.

Things you’ll need

With tree tags in hand and maps and rules read, it’s time to do a little more preparation. A hand saw is the preferred cutting tool for a tree. It should be sharp. Since blades can break a back-up blade or saw is a good idea. Axes are hard to use when a tree has branches to the ground and more dangerous than a saw. Chain saws, if they are permitted, are heavy things to carry when trekking through the woods, and even heavier on the way back when you are carrying a tree. They are also dangerous tools to use when medical help can be a long hike back to a car and miles to emergency treatment.

Depending on the weather you may need a four wheel drive vehicle to get down access roads. Most National Forest roads are not plowed or sanded in winter. Everyone in your tree cutting party should be dressed appropriately for a day in winter weather. Even if you are in a warm weather area you’ll want heavy gloves for handling the tree. Your car should have blankets, food and water and other emergency supplies should something happen. Take your cell phone, but realize you may be out of a signal range. It’s a good idea to bring a compass or a GPS device. Carry something to start a fire should an emergency situation occur. Make sure to tell someone where you are going- at least the general area and when you expect to be back.

Be practical and careful in hunting for a tree. Don’t go so far into the forest that after cutting a tree and heading back it will be dark. Keep track of where you are going so you don’t get lost. Respect your exercise and strength abilities and those of the weakest member of your party. Stop before everyone is overly tired as this is when accidents happen. A tree can be very heavy even if you are dragging it. Don’t cross ice covered water unless the ice is 2 inches thick and even then use extreme caution and cross one person at a time.

You’ll want a tarp and ropes to tie the tree on the car or at least to wrap it for the back of a truck or van. A sled or wagon can be handy for transporting a large tree back to the car. And you may want a measuring tape to check to see if the tree will fit your car and home before you cut it. Trees look smaller out in a forest than they do in the living room.

Tree Tips

Look for a full symmetrical tree but realize that National Forest trees are not pruned into shape the way trees on commercial Christmas tree farms are pruned. Look at the tree trunk to make sure it’s straight and not oddly shaped. A tree may appear to be straight but the trunk may have an odd angle that will make inserting it in a stand and keeping it upright hard. Leave a long “stem” on the tree because you need to do a second cut across the stump before you put it in the stand. This makes sure the tree can take up water. And make your cut as straight across the trunk as possible.

After the tree is cut give it a few quick bounces on the ground to dislodge loose needles. Make sure to attach your tree tag to the tree before you begin to transport it to the car. The easiest way to carry the tree back to the car is to wrap it in a tarp. It protects the tree and makes it easier to handle. If the tree is to ride home on top of the car it should be wrapped in a tarp or blanket and the top of the tree should point to the front of the car. Secure it tightly with ropes or bungee cords.

If there is a National Forest near you your family can have a fresh Christmas tree and a family outing to make memories for less than $20.00 (not counting gas and supplies). Why not check it out?

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

How to attract wildlife to your property

Build some birdhouses this winter

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