Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

For many families, the Christmas tree goes up the day after Thanksgiving. For others, it’s well into December before thoughts turn to acquiring the holiday centerpiece. No matter when you typically bring your tree home, consider finding yours in a national forest this year.

That’s right. You are allowed to harvest a Christmas tree from over 75 national forests across the United States. When you do, you positively impact the overall health of the forest by helping to thin densely populated stands of small-diameter trees.

The thinning gives remaining trees in the forest room to grow and reduces competition for nutrients, sunlight and water, all of which ends up making for more robust trees that keep our air and water clean. Harvesting your tree also lets sunlight reach the forest floor, which improves food and habitat for deer, birds of prey, songbirds, and small mammals.

So this year, why not tromp through the woods, enjoy some fresh air, and act like Paul Bunyan by harvesting your own tree. It’s a workout, treasure hunt and chance to reconnect with nature, family, and friends all rolled into one.

We tagged along with the Roberts family recently on their excursion to the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon. From where to purchase a permit to the right tools to bring along, here’s everything you need to know about responsibly harvesting your own Christmas tree in a national forest. And spoiler alert! Having a camper van makes navigating your way to a national forest, bringing along the proper tools to harvest the tree, and then getting it back home super easy.

Family hiking out to harvest a christmas tree

Step 1: Get a Christmas Tree Permit

Christmas tree permits are available through Recreation.gov beginning in late October or early November. If purchasing a permit on Recreation.gov, indicate the national forest from which you plan to harvest your tree. Check out the US Forest Service website for more information about tree cutting. You can purchase a permit, and find the map of participating national forests here.

Although prices vary state by state, permits are relatively inexpensive. It’s likely you’ll pay about $5 for your permit. Note that current fourth-graders are eligible for one free tree with an Every Kid Outdoors Pass. For more information about the pass, which also provides students and their families free admittance into many Forest Service recreation sites, national parks, and other federal public lands, visit the Every Kid Outdoors website.

You can harvest one tree per permit, and up to five trees per household. And finally, make sure you print out your permit at home because you will likely need to display it on your dashboard, or keep it with you, while you are off in search of the perfect tree.

Step 2: Follow the Tree Cutting Rules

While rules for cutting down your own Christmas tree may vary from state to state, there are some general guidelines to remember that are consistent across most national forests.

Tree Size

The general rule of thumb is to make sure that the tree you choose has a trunk no wider than six inches in diameter, and is no taller than 12 feet.

Tree Location

You must be at least 200 feet away from any main roads, recreation and picnic areas, and campgrounds. In addition, your tree must not be right next to any stream, river, lake, or other wet area.

How to Cut the Tree

Cutting just the top of a tall tree is a huge no-no as it causes significant damage to the tree. Cut the tree no more than six inches above ground level.

Personal Use Only

The tree you cut should be used for your personal enjoyment only. The tree cannot be sold for a profit.

When in doubt, refer to the rules on your permit or ask a park ranger for help!

Step 3: Gather the Right Tools

While you won’t need much in your toolbox, perhaps the most important thing you should bring along is a saw that is suitable for cutting your own Christmas tree. A handsaw may suffice, but using a saw that’s designed for tree cutting will keep the experience from becoming daunting or exhausting.

Gloves are another item that you’ll be glad to have when handling the tree. Garden gloves should do the trick just fine.

You might also consider bringing a good sense of direction! You’ll likely hike around in the forest for a while off the beaten path before encountering the perfect tree. Having some sort of navigation tool to help guide you on your trek, like a GPS device, compass, or a map is a good idea.

Other items to consider bringing along include a backpacking first-aid kit, a headlamp or flashlight in case it gets dark, layers in case it is colder or warmer than you expected, water, and some light snacks.

Step 4: Transport Your Christmas Tree

In many camper vans there is ample space underneath the bed to fit a Christmas tree. In others it might be as straightforward as opening the sliding door and putting the tree in the center of the van. Can you smell it? The freshly cut pine? Way better than any air freshener dangling from your rearview mirror!

If there isn’t room for the tree inside the van, one last option for transporting your tree is to put the tree on top of the van. As with a car, if you are going to put the tree on top of the van, you’ll want to be sure you have the right kind of heavy duty ropes or tie downs to keep it safely and securely in place. A lot of people like to wrap their trees into a cocoon with twine before putting them on the top of the car or camper van.

The Roberts? They are lucky. They own a camper van. They just opened up the back of their van, plopped the tree in, and set off in search of some hot cocoa. Camper vans really do make just about everything really, really easy.

Bonus Tips for Parents

If you are headed out with young children, as did the Roberts, consider these additional tips for keeping the outing fun for everyone.

Go in the early afternoon

The Roberts planned their family’s excursion for the early afternoon, knowing that in their area, mornings tend to be icy cold. To avoid cold hands and feet, wait for the sun to warm things up before venturing out with young children.

Bring snow toys

There doesn’t have to be any snow on the ground to pull your children in the proverbial sleigh! Tiffany and her husband, Howard, took turns pulling the kids along in a plastic saucer.

Test the tree with twinkle lights or ornaments

Once the Roberts had selected their tree they strung some festive Revel Gear lights on it just for fun. That helped everyone get in the holiday spirit, and served to assure the crew that they had selected the perfect tree.

Start cutting while the mood is high

When it comes to excursions like this with young children, the experience of being out in nature together is just as important as finding the perfect tree. Worried that your kids will lose steam? Don’t walk for miles in search of the perfect tree. Go ahead and take that slightly misshapen one while everyone is still laughing and having fun.

Try for the family photo while you’re there

Are you in the habit of sending holiday cards? Wish you were but never get around to it? Try to snap a family photo while you’re out adventuring in the natural light. For most of us, outside is our best side!

Bring Your Tree Home in a Camper Van

Convinced? If you've never cut down your tree in a national forest before, it's truly a fun experience and worth doing at least once. And if you have done it before, have you ever done it with the benefit of a camper van? Or tagged the tree cutting experience onto an overnight camping trip? Who's to say you couldn't set up the tree and decorate it right there in camp!?

The Roberts made it look easy because it is. Click the button below to browse through all the GoCamp camper vans that are available to help you take your holiday outside this year.