O Christmas Tree

Angie Ripple

One holiday tradition that has consistently brought joy to my life is the annual Christmas tree hunt. As a child growing up in Northwest Montana, heading out to the wilderness to cut down a Christmas tree was an annual outing for my family. I don’t remember every hunt, but I remember the feelings of joy and delight as I tromped through snowy fields with my dad and brother to find just the right tree. My husband and I have continued the tree-hunting tradition with our own kids; we’ve spent many years heading to Hyalite in our Subaru, going as far as we feel comfortable, hiking through the snow looking for a tree that will fit our home just right.

Cutting down our own Christmas tree has been an affordable way to create some fun memories. Forest Service permits for tree cutting are just $5, available online and at local retailers. Five dollars is nothing these days, but other expenses could come into play if you don’t plan ahead.

Gather a few tools to be sure you can get the job done efficiently. A saw is most important; a simple hand saw will do the trick. Gloves will keep your hands warm, and make handling and transporting the tree much easier. Boots are a must, as we have a LOT of snow. Bring a long sled or tarp to help get your tree out of the woods quickly and without much damage. Packing a first aid kit and/or overnight survival kit is never a bad idea in the Montana wilderness—you can never be too prepared. Be sure you have something to tie the tree to the top of the vehicle so it makes it home with you.

You’ll have to transport the tree from the woods to home, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must if you want to ensure a safe trip. Many back roads are not maintained in the winter, making this activity one that can turn dangerous if you are unprepared. A downloadable map of Custer Gallatin National Forest District is available online to help you navigate.

Checking the forecast is a MUST. Temperatures and weather are often different in town than in the wilderness; be prepared for cold weather and variables like wind, and early sunset. You don’t want to get stuck miles into the woods in the dark, so be sure to get an early start! Check your gas tank to ensure you have plenty of gas, and let someone know where you’re heading in case cell service is unavailable.

This year, my Christmas tree hunt looked a lot different and came a lot earlier than in years past. While browsing a local thrift store, I spotted an artificial tree, prelit and fully decorated, at a very affordable price. Since my husband likes to decorate for Christmas as soon as Halloween has passed, whereas my family always waited for my dad’s birthday weekend in mid-December, we compromised: For the first time, we put up a “fake” tree, and much earlier than normal for us. I remember swearing that I’d never have a fake tree for Christmas, but I’ve actually come to appreciate its simplicity, and the fact that I don’t have to clean up pine needles or add water to the base daily. It’s a bit short in the memory-making department, but for this season it will do.

Whether you hunt for your tree indoors or out, I hope you have a holiday season that is filled with all that is good and joyful. If you need additional support this season (because the holidays can be hard for a lot of us) call or text the Montana Crisis Lifeline at 988, or call the Help Center at (406) 586-3333.

This was made by