Above: Use these tips before heading out into the forest. Photograph by Raychel Sanner/Unspash.
Get a permit
National Forest Service offices sell permits online to cut Christmas trees for $5–$20. The Forest Service also distributes maps of areas where tree cutting is permitted. Local offices vary in how far they ask tree cutters to go from roads, trails, campgrounds, and streams, so check those rules before heading out. Every Kid Outdoors, a federal program that gives fourth graders a free pass to use on public lands, includes a Christmas tree permit.
Make a plan
It will take all day. Snowy, icy, or muddy forest roads mandate slow going. Expect to need high-clearance and 4WD. Chains may be advised. Dress warmly. A hat and gloves are essential. Bring a map, check the weather, and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. (Remember: The sun sets early in December.) Don’t forget the tarp, saw, and permit.
Come equipped to measure your tree so that it fits in your vehicle, your house, and the parameters of your permit. Then cut the entire tree, not just the top. (And that’s measured from the ground up; don’t find a 10-footer and cut off the top seven feet.) Once it’s loaded, attach your permit tag to the tree so people can see it was legally harvested.