If $10, some elbow grease and a willingness to explore sound like the right price for a Christmas tree, you might want to try skipping the farms and stands this year and head straight to one of the national forests within driving distance of Seattle.

But unless you want to be one of those city slickers who gets stuck in the snow or requires search and rescue to come looking for you, do a little research and prep before you head out.

Most national forests have long allowed the harvesting of Christmas trees and firewood for personal use with the proper permit. The trees can cost as low as $5 each in some forests and cost $10 per tree in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Natural trees have been very popular this season as a familiar comfort during the coronavirus pandemic, and demand for natural trees has picked up earlier than usual — Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has sold 8,000 permits so far this year after selling over 6,800 last year.

Getting the permit is the simple part. As the practice becomes increasingly popular, so too must the warnings.

“It can be easy to be in Seattle and not realize how snowy it is out there,” said Colton Whitworth, a spokesperson for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

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Whitworth said Forest Service stresses that people need to take the same emergency equipment and 10 essentials they would take on a hike — navigation, hydration, nutrition, insulation, fire starter, first aid, tools, light, sun protection and shelter — as well as do their research and be aware of weather and snow conditions. People also need to have the right vehicle.

One of the most common problems is getting stuck in the snow, he said, but there have also been “quite a few people who have spent the night out there” and needed the efforts of search and rescue.

Some areas to cut trees may be inaccessible and dangerous. Whitworth said the only way to know what areas you can reach on any given day is to call the local ranger station, which is at the bottom of each forest’s permit page. Rangers are still answering phones during the pandemic and will return calls if they miss them.

If it’s not clear already, people should go into this looking for an adventure and a fun event or to start a new tradition instead of looking for the picture-perfect tree, he said.

“We definitely loosened our definition of what a Christmas tree should look like,” said Steven Vargas, of Renton, who harvested his first wild tree last year and posted a video to YouTube and Reddit about it.

Vargas’ video shows his four-wheeler charging down rutted roads and creeping past snow-stuck mini vans as well as the hiking, chopping and tree-carrying he and his girlfriend did.

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He said he learned a couple of things from his inaugural trip: Don’t forget the saw or ax, be prepared to drive around for a while and be careful of big holes and washed-out sections of the road.

He said he plans on making this an annual tradition because if nothing else, it’s a an excuse to get outside.

“There’s not too many reasons in the winter to go for a hike or a drive in the forest, and this year, with COVID, it’s one of the few things still available to do.”

Another bonus: When done correctly, following the Forest Service’s rules and guidelines, cutting trees of a certain height within a specified area of the forest helps thin the trees where needed, Whitworth said.

If you’re feeling up for a challenge and a unique way to track down this year’s tree, here are some rules to understand before you cut, via the Forest Service:

  • Choose your location — permits are good for use in the eastern portions of Pierce, King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
  • Mind the signs — cutting is prohibited in posted areas, on state/private land, in wilderness areas, research areas or tree plantations.
  • Keep your distance — do not cut near campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads or administrative sites, as well as where new trees have been planted. Do not cut trees within 150 feet of wetlands, lakes, ponds or streams.

Once you have your permit, which you can buy online in case a ranger station is closed due to COVID-19, it’s time to pick a tree. Here are the Forest Service’s regulations on which trees you can cut and take home:

  • Height limit — your tree must be no more than 15 feet tall (height requirements may vary from year to year and forest to forest).
  • Stump height limit — your tree’s stump must be no more than 12 inches tall.
  • All or nothing — you must cut down the entire tree, meaning you cannot just chop off the top to bring home.
  • Sharing is caring — you can cut and take no more than five trees in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Olympic National Forest

So, no, it isn’t quite as easy as hopping to your local nursery, parking-lot vendor or u-cut lots. But despite all the extra work and how long it took the Vargas party to find their tree — longer than they expected even with their modified expectations — Vargas said he’s going out again this year.

“It wasn’t as nice as a store-bought tree, but we enjoyed it more,” he said.

Most national forests allow users to harvest trees for personal use firewood and Christmas trees, but you must first have a Forest Service-issued permit and you must follow specific guidelines, which can vary from forest to forest. 

There are five in Washington: Colville, Gifford Pinchot, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee and Olympic. The cost for the permit varies from $5 to $10 depending on the forest and some of the rules vary as well.

Here are some general guidelines provided by the U.S. Forest Service:

• Contact the forest district office nearest you to obtain a permit for and tree cutting instructions and for specific dates, maps, times, and road accessibility.

• Permits must be in your possession at all times while on the forest.

• Before heading out, check for the latest warnings and weather conditions.

• Always check weather conditions for proper dress attire in the forests.

• Tell someone you know where you are going and when you’ll return.

• Check with local district offices before you cut dead or downed trees. Dead trees could provide animal habitat.

• Stay away from areas along the sides of streams, rivers, lakes, and wet areas.

• Check with the ranger district for the proper distance.

• Be aware of areas where trees may be weakened by storms, insect damage or fire.

Learn how to read a map and use a compass – and carry them both with you.

Additional guidelines for Christmas trees:

• The tree you choose must be at least 200 feet from main roads, recreation sites and campgrounds, and completely away from areas along the sides of streams, rivers, lakes, and wet areas. Check with the ranger district for the proper distance.

• Select a tree with a trunk six inches or less in diameter, and prepare to cut the tree no more than six inches above ground level.

• Never cut a tall tree just for the top.

• Select a tree from overstocked areas and thickets. Watch restricted areas. Cut only one tree per tag.

• Attach your tree tag to harvested tree before placing in vehicle.

• Bring a rope and tarp to move your tree from the harvest area to your vehicle.

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