Footsteps in the Forest

Why Learn to Identify Trees?

(It’s a more helpful skill than you think.)

It’s a fair question.

You have an app on your phone. It’ll only get things right the first try 70% of the time, but I guess that’s something.  You probably only care so much, anyway.

For that matter, is there even a compelling reason you should learn?

That’s, if not a bad question, an exceedingly easy one to answer.

Yes. We’ll share nine compelling reasons hikers should learn to identify trees below.

9 Reasons Nature Lovers of All Stripes Should Learn to Identify Trees

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There are countless reasons people should learn to identify trees, because the ways this knowledge provides value vary from one person to the next. A backyard gardener will use this information differently than someone simply looking for a place to sit.

But we’re focusing on the ways in which tree identification skills will help hikers, campers and anyone else who likes to spend time outdoors.

1. Some trees produce helpful resources.

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Need some tinder? It’s hard to beat river birch bark. Need to put together an emergency friction-fire kit? It’s time to start looking for sycamores. Trying to get your forage on? It’ll help if you can spot hickories and pecan trees from a distance.

These are only a few examples; there are scads of others.

Oaks produce great firewood. Pines produce sap that burns well. Pawpaw trees, blueberry trees, and persimmons all produce edible fruit.

If you learn to identify trees, you’ll enjoy the bounty the forest provides.

2. Some trees are more likely to fall over or drop branches.

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You do not want to stop for lunch or set up a campsite under an old black willow tree. For starters, you’re probably getting annihilated by mosquitos, but you may also find a large branch hurtling toward you as fast as gravity can pull it. Black willow trees have notoriously weak wood.

Box elders, red mulberries, ashes and Bradford pears (which aren’t native, but they grow in many suburban parks) are also frequent branch droppers.

The odds of one of these dropping a limb or falling over on you while you’re having a snack are pretty low. But if the winds are blowing or you plan on being there a long time, you’d be wise to avoid them.

3. Some trees can provide clues about the local wildlife.

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Whether you’re trying to encounter or avoid wild critters, you’ll find it helpful to know how to identify your local trees.

Fruit-bearing trees, for example, almost always attract rodents, birds, rabbits and deer. Stick around places with lots of sparkleberries, persimmons or hickories and you’re going to see lots of creatures scattering hither and yon.

Conversely, some trees provide relatively modest value to wildlife. Some animals certainly benefit from ironwoods and sycamores, but they aren’t the creature magnets that some others are.

Don’t forget, by the way, that trees that feed local critters also, in a roundabout kinda way, feed their predators too. So, note that the local cherry tree is not only popular with birds, but it may also attract rat snakes too.

4. Some trees can signal that water is (or is not) close.

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Trees are all individuals who occasionally buck common trends. But trends are trends for a reason, and they can help you may predictions.

For example, if you start seeing a lot of black willow trees, chances are, water isn’t far. Ironwoods, tag alders, or river birches also indicate that you’re probably close to a water source.

Conversely, you’re not terribly likely to see a Virginia pine low in a watershed.

Learning which trees tend to grow near water and which ones thrive far from it can be quite helpful to those exploring the great outdoors.

5. Some trees will provide better protection than others.

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Trees provide great protection from some of the things mother nature can throw at ya.

They can shield you from the sun, rain, loud noises, hail (to an extent), and winds. Some trees will even help discourage nuisance wildlife from bothering you. They can also provide “protection” in the form of privacy.

But not all trees are equal in this regard – some provide much better shelter than others.

Typically, evergreens rule the day here, as they not only serve these purposes in all seasons, but many are also blessed with denser canopies.

So, whether you’re trying to avoid a cold wind in winter or the July sun, it pays to know an eastern hemlock from an umbrella magnolia.

6. Some trees “rain” stuff.

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Hiking (or even worse, camping) under some trees will leave you vulnerable to a knocked noggin’.

Oaks obviously drop acorns, but other trees drop stuff that can lead to fairly serious injury. Black walnut fruit, for example, are almost tennis-ball sized and pretty heavy – you don’t want one of them crashing through the canopy at you. You actually don’t want them falling on your stuff either, as they can cause inky stains.

There are other trees that drop stuff from their branches too. Sweetgum fruit aren’t very heavy, but they’re certainly sharp. And even small pinecones can give you a surprisingly serious would if dropped from a respectable height.

But most of these things are easy to avoid, if you simply know what to look for.

7. Identifying trees can combat boredom.

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Let’s face it: We all may love hiking, but it does get a little dull at times. Fortunately, learning to identify trees can help break up the monotony a bit.

Honestly, I don’t even have to try to do this anymore. I identify most of the trees I see while walking down the trail automatically. I don’t even really think about it.

Maple, maple, pignut, maple, pine, pine, dead something, pine.

And then, every once in a while, I stumble onto something I can’t ID at a glance.

Wait, is that an ironwood or a beech? It looks too big to be an ironwood.

And I stop and figure things out, no longer bored, and sometimes excited by the find.

8. Some trees bear sharp thorns.

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Sometimes, you’ll need to grab a small tree to help negotiate a sketchy or steep part of the trail. At other times, you may need to squeeze through a little thicket of trees to get to a safe (and private) peeing spot.

And unfortunately, some of these trees will bear spines or thorns — some of which are pretty gnarly.

Take one look at an aptly named devil’s walking stick or honey locust tree and you’ll quickly learn why it’ll behoove you to be able to spot one before you wrap your hand around it.

But fortunately, it is pretty easy to learn to identify these before you get within stickin’ distance of their weaponry.

9. Some trees will make you happier than others.

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A funny thing will occur as you learn a few tree species: You’ll end up liking some of them and thinking others are pretty meh.

Some of these preferences will precipitate from tangible value the trees provide. But in other cases, it’ll all simply be subjective.

Ash trees do nothing for me. Nor do eastern red cedars. I don’t actively dislike them, but they never quicken my pulse. On the other hand, I love tuliptrees, bigleaf magnolias, and black gums. I even think bald cypresses are pretty neat.

So, you better believe I notice these while hiking or camping and try to hang out near them whenever possible. Faced with two otherwise-equal campsites, I’m picking the one near the bigleaf magnolias.

And I can do this because I know how to identify trees.

Plenty of old-school hikers and campers have spent decades on the trail without learning to identify the trees they’ve walked among. You certainly can take this approach too.

But we think that you’ll find tree identification skills can be quite helpful and allow you to make more of your time enjoying the trail.

Can you think of any other benefits hikers would enjoy by learning to identify trees? Are there any downsides (we doubt it)?

Let us know in the comments.

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