Can I Cut Down Trees While Camping? (For Shelter and Firewood)

Worker using chain saw and cutting tree branches. Spring cleaning in garden.

A roaring campfire is a quintessential part of camping. Many people wonder if they can cut down their own wood in order to save costs on camping.

Campers cannot cut trees down without a permit while camping. This is to protect the forested areas from deforestation and campers from injury from improper handling of a falling tree. Depending on the state, the fines can range from $1,000 to $15,000 and at least 90 days in jail.

Read on to discover more about how to safely and responsibly get a permit and get some wood!


Christmas Tree

Getting a Christmas tree permit costs will vary between states and national parks, but often range between $5-$15. Look into where you are wanting to pick out your tree and research what their permit pricing will be as prices and potential restrictions are different for trees cut not on U.S Forest Service Land.

Do not cut only the top of the tree, and cut below the lowest live limb. Make sure to leave the stumps no larger than six inches. Avoid damaging any other surrounding tree.


Firewood permits vary in price depending on location but often are priced by the cord (aka bundle). Often they range between $5-$12.50 depending on where you are so always make sure to double-check with your campsite and the local forest registry where you’re camping. Each state and area will have a maximum and minimum that one cannot go past so be prepared to research and budget.

There are three different subtypes of firewood permits. Dry, Green, and Dual. A dry wood permit is the cutting of trees that are dead or already fallen.

A green wood permit is the cutting of a tree that is still living.

A dual permit is where both green and dry wood are able to be felled. Certain areas only allow for one of these permit subtypes so it is important to check with the area where you are cutting wood.

Tool Permits

Sometimes, even if you have a permit for chopping down wood, the campsite or forest will require you to get a permit to use heavy-duty tools such as a chainsaw due to liability concerns.

Check in with your campground and local forest service to make sure that you have all your tools checked off before you begin to cut into a tree that otherwise would be alright.

In most cases, chopping wood with an ax is less likely to require a permit than a high-powered chainsaw.


Oftentimes hunting season occurs when people begin to think about cutting down trees for either firewood or shelter. Make sure to wear brightly colored clothing and check road and weather conditions before heading out.

Stay on the designated roads and respect private land. Do not trespass on or through even though there might be a gorgeous tree on the other side. The trespassing and property damage fees are not worth the shiny new tree in your living room or in your fireplace

Keep an eye on your local forest service alerts and warnings, and keep up to date on conditions before your expedition out to find trees.

How to Cut a Tree

Double Check the Area

Make sure that your area is clear of any structures, people, pets, or other items that would be disastrous if a tree fell on it. Measure out the radius of this clear area as equal to the height of the tree and keep people and pets away at a distance that is at least twice the height of the tree.

Go With the Tree

Unless you are a professional tree cutter, you will need to allow the tree to fall in the direction it naturally wants to go. Before cutting the tree, make sure to plan a clear escape route opposite where the tree is going to fall and at a 45-degree angle away from the tree.

First Slice

Facing the tree from your non-dominant side and your non-dominant shoulder against the tree, make a 70-degree cut on the side that you want the tree to fall on. Cut deeply into the tree, about a quarter of the tree’s diameter.

Second Slice

The second cut will need to be cut horizontally, creating a notch or pizza slice wedge for the tree.

Call Timber

For the cut to fall a tree, move to the opposite side and make a horizontal cut slightly above the previous cuts on the other side. Saw just enough that you can then place a tree-felling wedge into the cut, pointing in the direction you want the tree to fall.

After driving the wedge in, finish your cut while making sure not to graze the felling wedge with your blade. Leave about 10% of the width of the tree to act as a hinge.

When the tree starts falling, make sure to move away down your escape path at a 45-degree angle to ensure the best possibility of not getting struck by the tree if it falls in the wrong direction or a stray branch comes crashing down behind you.

Chopping Up the Tree for Use


Limbing a tree is the process of removing the branches from the tree. Large branches should be cut from the outside and working in towards the trunk due to the tension that can be experienced from their weight.

Tree limbs that are bent under the tree need to be cut after the tree is rotated, as they are under great tension and can spring out towards you once the tension is released.


Bucking a tree is when you begin to cut and section away from the trunk.

If the log is on the ground, cut through most of the way, and then turn the log to finish the cut so your blade does not hit the ground.

Chainsaw. Woodcutter saws tree with a chainsaw on sawmill

Preventing Binding

Binding is when wood can compress and pinch the sawblade or ax together. Cut one-third of the way through the sides where a potential compression may take place. Cut completely through on the opposite side with a cut that is offset by one inch.

You can also use a wedge to help keep the gap open but make sure that the wedge is not caught on the blade.

Dry Wood is Best for a Fire

Make sure that any wood you are using for firewood is dried out completely before use. Freshly cut wood that was green and growing will not burn. A freshly cut green tree will need to be set aside and left to dry before it can burn.

Make sure that your firewood is not damp either from conditions such as rain or snow, as damp firewood will not burn even if it is not green any longer.

Use and cut only dry wood if you wish to skip the drying process of gathering firewood.

Types of Structures

While not as waterproof as a regular tent, there are several structures one can build using tree branches and other vegetation and tools available.


The most basic structure to build is a lean-to which consists of branches, brush, and poles as the initial framework and a combination of leaves, grasses, palm fronds, or any other vegetation as the very loose insulation.

To construct a lean-to, use one long sturdy pole between two trees as a spine and then cover one side of the pole with the branches, brush, or poles to form a wall with the vegetation placed on top.

A lean-to can be constructed in less than an hour but its quick and easy construction also brings major downsides. A lean-to doesn’t retain heat well and if the weather changes, whether the wind or rain direction, the shelter will not be comfortable due to there only being one wall.

Young adolescent girl outside in the forest with lean-to tree fort treehouse tree house hangout she built. High quality photo

The Leaf Hut

The leaf hut is a two-sided wedge-shaped lean-to. Due to it having two sides, it is better at weatherproofing and has better insulation. The spine of this variant of a lean-to needs to be a pole that is 9 to 12 feet long. Prop it up against a fork of a tree or set it on a rock, stump, or two forked sticks.

Cover the sides of the spine pole with tree branches to act as the ribs of the leaf hut, leaning them up against the spine with the branches layered close together to keep the insulating vegetation on top instead of falling through the cracks.

Next comes the final step of heaping on your vegetation over the entire frame. This can be anything that will insulate, some examples being grass, ferns, moss, pine needles, brush, etc.

Wedge Tarp

This tarp shelter does not require the chopping down of trees to be a good shelter. It is best suited for windy areas where the wind goes in a constant direction with no change.

It has five tie-down points which make it a sturdy option if you have a tarp with you. To build the wedge tarp, stake down two of the corners down toward the ground into the prevailing wind, keeping in mind to not use the opposing corners.

Tie a line up to the center of the opposite side of the tarp, to either a pole or a nearby tree to give it the steep angle upward.

Tie the last two corners down at a sharp angle to keep the most water out of your shelter.

Types of Camp Fires

There are many different ways one can build up a fire with their own pros and cons to the build.


This is the easiest fire for beginners to make. Start with the smallest and driest pieces of wood and lean them up in a small teepee like structure. Make sure that the structure is loose enough that there is an opening to place the tinder inside.

Light the tinder and allow it to catch onto the wood already in the formation before adding more wood to help build the flame.

Joyful international friends frying marshmallow on sticks and talking at forest, camping together

Log Cabin

This is a fire that is good for a long night around the fire with little to no maintenance.

Place down two of the largest and sturdiest logs horizontal to each other. Place two logs on top of them vertically to create a log cabin. Add smaller logs to this configuration and leave space for the tinder. There is also an option to create a small teepee structure at the base before lighting the fire.


The star campfire is the one most commonly depicted in campfire scenes. It consists of a small teepee middle consisting of sticks and kindling, with a ring of logs around it. The ends of the logs must barely touch the teepee, and the logs can be adjusted to slowly catch fire as the teepee in the middle burns.

Fire Safety

Always keep water on hand when handling fire. Keep loose flammable objects away from the open flames, and do not let the fire burn throughout the night unattended even if it looks like the fire has gone out. Smother the fire with dirt and water so it doesn’t burn unattended.

Always ensure that you follow your local fire restrictions and keep up to date on any changes. Follow your campsite and state regulations for any burning.

Do not burn anything in your campfire that is not wood or paper, even if it is trash. Plastics and soda cans can produce noxious fumes that are hazardous to breathe in and release pollutants into the air and in the coals.

Keep your fire to a manageable size, and make sure that children or pets are never unattended around the fire.

Keep adding water, dirt, or sand and stir with a shovel until all the material in the fire pit is cool. If the contents of the pit are too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave the fire pit alone.

Make sure to turn any remaining wood and coals over and wet all sides. Mix it together with the dirt to fully smother the embers.

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