Tree Planting Survival Guide: A Funny and Informative Take on the Job!

Tree planting is without a doubt, the hardest job I’ve ever had. But it’s also been one of my favorites. This unlikely paradox is the result of the people I met while living in a tent in the middle of the bush for the last 2 months. The blood, sweat, mosquitoes and tears make tree planting one of the most physically and mentally taxing jobs around. But when you’re surrounded by 60 other like-minded people in the same situation, you find ways to cope. You may think your tough, but are you tree planting tough?

Tree Planting Basics

First let’s start with the basics of the industry. A forestry company waits the 15-20 plus years for a forest to mature. Once the trees have matured a logging company comes in, cuts down the trees, strips them and hauls the logs away. What you’re left with is a hellish looking landscape filled with brush, cracked roots, small ponds, and bedrock. This post-apocalyptic setting is where the tree planter enters the scene. A logging company pays the planter who puts the next generation of trees into the ground which will be ready to harvest in 15-20 years.    

When you picture tree planting you’re probably imagining a group of hippies lugging around four foot saplings as they sing campfire songs and commute with nature. This could not be further from the truth. In reality the ‘trees’ are no more than sapling pods about 3 inches long. The saplings themselves are usually a species of evergreen such as spruce or jack pine. The size of the trees means that each planter is capable of planting thousands of trees in a season. This is not a maple planting ceremony at your local park; tree planters are there to plant quickly and make money.

What To Bring 

Living in the middle of the forest can be challenging. To make it as a tree planter you’re going to need to bring a variety of equipment. The items you bring should be of good quality but there’s no need to break the bank. Remember that any items you buy at the beginning of the season will eat into your profits at the end.  Your first priority is to make sure that you’re warm. The month of May can be really cold in the Canadian north and the occasional snow during this time isn’t out of the ordinary. Your tent should be both water and mosquito resistant. If it’s not, buy some sealing spray and coat the outside. No matter how warm your clothes are, being wet means being cold. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy an $800 winter tent. You’re not Bear Grylls off to climb Mount Everest. I’ve even seen planters make do with a cheap spring tent as long as its water proof.

Pay special attention to your sleeping bag and socks. The nights are the coldest and you’ll need a good night’s sleep if you plan on planting all day. Check the temperature rating on the bag. If it’s less than -5 degree Celsius then invest in a separate sleeping bag liner. They are usually sold pretty cheaply wherever you can find camping supplies.  As for socks there is no substitute for wool. I promise those thick scratchy bastards in the bottom of your grandfathers sock drawer will be your best friend after the first night

One more thing you’ll want to bring is all your standard party supplies. Tree planters usually like to party so don’t feel left out by only bringing the Spartan essentials. One thing you’ll definitely want to remember is condoms. There is no convenience store where you’ll be going and a bush love baby shouldn’t be on anyone’s to-do list. Cards, footballs, and sling-shots can go a long way to making your off time more enjoyable. Something you’ll want to leave at home is all your deodorant, shampoo and perfumes. These will attract the mosquitoes more than you’d imagine. In fact, most planters only shower once a week for this exact reason.


To plant efficiently you’ll need the right clothing. This can be a challenge given the differing conditions you’ll face. Be sure to separate your sleeping and day time clothes. For sleeping attire, pack for the cold wet nights. Try to avoid heavy cottons as they take forever to dry and do more harm than good when wet. Wool is a little better but again, takes forever to dry out. Rather than break the bank with the latest synthetic poly fibers, go for a quality fleece sweater. Fleece is generally lite-weight, dries out fairly quickly and is warm even when wet. As for daywear, fight the urge to bring t-shirts and jeans.

Jeans, although they will protect you from the brush take FOREVER to dry and don’t feel like when soaked. Shorts are a no go in this line of work and if you insist then say goodbye to the skin on your shins. I suggest you go for nylon pants. They are breathable, durable, and come in zip-offs for when your back at camp. Although you can overheat while planting you need clothing that covers the skin protecting you from the brush and bugs. Your tops should consist mostly of long-sleeve shirts. Remember those long-sleeve plaid button-ups your grandfather used to wear? They work perfectly for keeping the bugs off while letting your skin breathe.  

Hand wear is completely up to you. Some planters swear by biking gloves to protect their hands. Those cold mornings absolutely kill the fingers but full size gloves slow the planting speed. Another reason to use gloves is to protect your hands from the pesticides used on the saplings which can dry out your skin. This affects some people more than others but if you’re one of those unlucky few, a pair of gloves and some heavy duty hand cream will save you a lot of pain. Despite this, most experienced planters just use duct tape on the index and middle finger to protect the nails.

No need to worry about food.  Any decent planting operation will have an onsite cook but remember to bring your own plate and utensils. Sunscreen, sunglasses and a medicinal war chest full of creams, gauze, and pain killers are a must if you want to finish the season.  Lastly, spoil yourself with a cheap air-mattress. It will keep you off the cold, wet ground and sleeping on roots and stones for two months will butcher your back.

Planting Equipment

Every planter is equipped with a planting bag, specialized shovel, steel toed boots, and hard hat. The quality of these pieces of gear will largely determine the quality of your planting season so we will go over each in detail.

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When purchased, the shovel is about 4 feet long and has a narrow, spade-like head. As soon as you are able, cut the shovel down to three feet. You’ll plant faster because you can stay bent over close to the ground as you move. Don’t cheap out on your shovel. Even on the best quality brands, the handles still snap occasionally. Remember, no shovel no planting.  

The traditional planting bag is basically a saddle-bag with a harness strapped to the shoulders. They are adjustable but take time to break in so be patient if it’s uncomfortable at first. Most planting companies will sell these with the position. With some companies it’s best to shop around beforehand and make sure you’re not getting bent over.

The steel toed boots are probably the most important piece of gear you’ll take with you. The average planter destroys one pair a season so make sure that you invest properly in your boots. Some say that it’s best to buy them in a bigger size because of the thick wool sock you’ll wear but honestly but make sure your STEEL TOED boots are comfortable! Yes I know it sounds ridiculous to have steel toes in the forest but read on and you’ll see why.  As for the hard hat, make sure the thing fits. They are royal pains in the ass to begin with but in a job where you’re constantly walking bent 90 degrees at the waist it makes sense to make sure it’ll stay on.

How It Works

Technically, tree planting is one of the simplest jobs in the world. The small seedling pods are first stuffed into both sides of your saddlebags. This means that most planters will carry anywhere from 200-300 pods. It will seem heavy at first but you’ll deal with it. Each planter is then given a space to plant trees in called a plot. Within the plot trees are planted in a straight line at a predetermined distance apart. This is the hardest part of the job. Knowing exactly what 3 meters looks like can be challenging as your exhausted body stumbles through the woods. Not only that but you have to deal with natural obstacles like stumps, logs, bedrock, and swamps. Eventually though you’ll be able to plant at any distance in your sleep. It’s just a matter of not being a little bitch about it in the beginning.

The actual planting of a tree is a thing of beauty. The planter is hunched forward so that the bottom of the shovel is half a foot off the ground. With steel toed boots the planter kicks at the ground to remove the scruff and expose the sweet topsoil underneath. Consequently, repeating this action thousands of times destroys boots very quickly and requires steel toes. Then the planter raises the shovel slightly and plunges it into the ground. The hand motion should be akin to knocking on a door in the ground. Once the shovel penetrates the earth the planter swings the handle 90 degrees to the outside of their body. This opens a narrow slit in the ground made by the shovel blade. While one hand is doing this the other hand reaches into the saddle bad. The pod is quickly put into the slit in the ground and the side of the slit is then stepped on causing it to close and secure the tree pod. When perfected, this action is done in one fluid motion. During your first week it’s well worth your while to sit for 5 minutes and watch an experienced planter at work. Each tree planted is worth around $0.05-0.10 so if you are able to move fast enough there’s a good chance you’ll make some serious cash.

How to Beat the Bugs

In Canada at least, tree planting occurs mainly in the months of May and June. During this time the experts say that trees have a better chance of surviving due to the large amount of rainfall and minimal heat. However this damp, humid time of year is also the peak of the dreaded mosquito’s season. A sad fact of life while tree planting is that in the mosquitos’ eyes, all men are not created equal. You will learn all too soon that some people get ‘kissed’ more than others, A LOT more than others. In the war on bugs the only things you can control are your attitude and your bug repellant.  

Standard bug spray will not work. I know that a few damned souls will bring some thinking that it worked that one time you went camping but I guarantee you it will not work while planting. Mosquitoes during planting season are suitably compared to a war-zone. Think of camping as spending a few nights in no-man’s land. Now think of tree planting as spending two months in a Japanese POW camp 300 miles behind enemy lines. No matter what you do, you will get bitten literally hundreds of times. It’s just something you’re going to have to learn to deal with. To lessen the torments don’t buy the spray. If anything spray repellant seems to attract more and with the sweat that will pour off you while working, it will be on the ground in 30 minutes anyway. Instead go with the cream repellant. It’s usually made by the same companies that make the spray but it will last longer and it’s the only thing that seems to work. Secondly learn to control your attitude. If you flip out and constantly swat above your head like a monkey throwing feces you’ll attract more and get bit more often. Maybe it’s the increase in body heat, CO2 or they just love misery it’s hard to say. But staying calm, cool and collected keeps you working and will allow them to focus on the guy swinging a shovel above his head one plot over.          

In the end everybody hates this job. But it’s a hate that some learn to love. The nature, relatively stress free environment and the camaraderie of the people stuck in the same situation as you make the job one of the most unique summer experiences you can find. It can be hard and many have failed but if you pack right and go in with a positive mindset it can be entirely worth it. So grab a shovel and write an email application. You may think your tough, but are you tree planting tough?


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