Cut your Christmas Tree Down From the Woods like Santa Intended

You know those old stories and children’s books where the family treks into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree and they actually find it?  No trees shipped in from who knows where, no parking lots to browse through, no sales people.  A tree from the forest near your home. Sounds nice.  I wish we could do that. Oh wait! 

spruce Christmas Tree from white mountain national forest
Here’s our spruce tree for 2015!

For the past several years we have hiked into the White Mountain National Forest here in New Hampshire to grab our tree.  There are many spots with decent spruce, fir, and pine to choose from in a variety of sizes.  All it takes is $5 to support the national forest, and you get your permit. 

To give you an arsenal of skill and preparation to show off in front of your family, here is some key information and strategy you can pretend you knew all along:

How to tell Spruce and Fir trees apart

The two classic Christmas trees you can find around here are varieties of spruce and fir.  Though not entirely necessary, it is fun to be able to tell them apart, and lucky for you, it’s pretty simple.  Here are some basic steps you can easily remember before you head out for your tree:

1. Does the tree have a classic, triangular Christmas tree shape?  If yes, you probably have a spruce or fir on your hands.

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2. Now you need to check out the needles.  Here are the key differences between fir and spruce:

Fir needles are flat and more flexible. If you hold a needle between your fingers you won’t be able to easily roll it back and forth.  I think of fir trees as the softer, gentler Christmas tree.

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Spruce needles are sharp, firm, have 4 sides, and will roll  fairly easily between your fingers.  Spruce trees have a bit of bite when you handle them!

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Which Christmas conifer is best?

spruce christmas tree hiding in the woods

This is completely up to your taste and your family’s traditions and preferences.   There are many factors to be considered:

Difficulty handling: fir needles are like angel wings gently kissing your skin compared to spruce

Overall appearance: Spruce trees have much fuller looking branches and often a more classic shape

Performance in the home: I’ve read that fir trees tend to hold their needles and color a bit better than spruce, but both have fared well in our experience.

What you can actually find: Sometimes you just can’t find that perfect fir tree you were hoping for and have to settle for a nice, vibrant yet ouchy spruce.

The tree your family actually likes and helps select is always going to be better than the one that fits the ideal tree you have in your imagination, so don’t be too picky and drag everyone through the woods for too long.

Wild Christmas Tree hunting tips

Two trees look like one tree
Two trees look like one tree

Don’t get your hopes up from a distance. Sometimes a tree will look amazing from 50 yards away, but when you get closer you’ll realize it has a dealbreaker flaw, like it’s two trees growing into each other, both with good branches only on one side.

Consider cutting down a taller tree and using the top portion.  This is often very reliable because the strongest trees poke up above others and are able to grow more fully in the upper space.

Make a point to look for bare spots.  Sometimes you look at so many trees and just want to finish, and overlook a major bare spot that is going to drive you crazy for the next few weeks.

Don’t be afraid to trim awkward branches at home. All trees you would get in a tree lot have been trimmed to perfect triangles. If this is something your family enjoys, plan on trimming branches at home. No tree in the wild is going to look like trees from a farm that were trimmed to fit the standard expectations.

cutting down a tree without power tools

There are really only two options for cutting down a wild Christmas tree: a hatchet or a hand saw.  A full blown ax will be awkward to carry and you may not have enough room to get good swings in. Not to mention the tree is only going to be a few inches in diameter at most, and an ax would be way overkill.

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I think a handsaw is harder to actually take a tree out with, since you have to hold it sideways which will feel awkward and wear you out fast.  But we bring a hand saw along anyway so we can make sure to cut the remains of the trunk low to the ground after the tree is removed. It’s much easier to work with a handsaw when the bulk of the tree is gone!

For either tool, the method is simple:

cutting down spruce christmas tree with a hatchet

  1. Make sure you follow the guidelines by not cutting down a tree that is too large or in a restricted type of area. Review the rules!
  2. Once you’ve found your tree, plan two escape routes in case the tree falls in a direction you didn’t plan for.   Make sure there aren’t any obstructions in the way if you have to make a run for it.
  3. Cut a small wedge, about 1/3 of the way through the tree, on the side facing the direction you want the tree to fall.
  4. Cut in from the backside of the trunk at a point slightly higher than the inside of the first cut.  When the tree starts to fall, play it safe and move quickly down one of your escape routes. This is probably not necessary with a small Christmas tree, but always better to play it safe in case something unexpected happens.
  5. Before heading home, make sure to clean up the remains  of the tree you leave behind by cutting them up the branches and trunk and scattering around on the forest floor.

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Keeping your fresh wild tree green all month long

  • Before you set the tree up, trim an inch or two from the trunk to expose fresh wood and to ensure a level base for your tree stand.
  • Give the tree plenty of water. Check the water after the first couple of hours, and then again every day to make sure it doesn’t run dry. A dry tree is a sad tree, and will make a mess and lose color.
  • Keep the tree away from heat sources and electricity (other than Christmas lights).  Always play it safe!

Complete info on getting a tree from the White Mountain National Forest is available here: Christmas tree permits.  

We recommended googling around for permits and regulations for other forests near you if you don’t live in/near NH. Never cut down trees that aren’t on your own land without permission!

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