How to Find the Soil Type for Your Area

Soil. To many people it seems like a lifeless substance where there isn’t much to learn about it. However, anyone that’s ever tried to grow a plant in any way quickly figured out how much they had to learn about soil.

How can you find the soil type for your area? Most areas have local extensions that analyze soil samples for a reasonable cost. The USDA also maintains a soil map, which details the various soil types present throughout the United States. Different applications allow users to find the scientific properties associated with a soil type.

Keep reading and you’ll find out everything you need to know in order to test your soil and put it in the proper context.

Two Different Approaches

This post will have a lot going on, but it might be most helpful to think of it as two separate methods that are trying to answer the same question:

  • What can I learn about my soil from the testing of samples taken of my soil?
  • What can I learn about the expected properties and potential of my soil based on an existing soil map built by the USDA?

There’s no right answer as to which method is appropriate for your situation, as both can provide unique insights into our soils.

Manually Testing the Actual Soil on Your Land

Without a doubt, this is likely the approach that most people have in mind when first becoming interested in the soils in their area. The idea is that you go out to your land and collect a few samples of your soil. Then either you perform some simple DIY tests, or you send off the samples for analysis at a nearby soil laboratory.

While most of this post will not be focused on this soil testing approach, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find it to be incredibly valuable. I think anyone interested in understanding their local soil should without a doubt perform some sort of soil testing, whether DIY or professional. Whether you’re interested in growing a few flowers in the front yard or you’re starting your own homestead, a soil test will give you valuable feedback. Even if the results of your soil test simply confirms the freely-available information you find in the next approach, that confirmation is still valuable feedback.

Finding Soil Data for Your Location From the USDA

On the other hand, there’s a different approach that we can take in order to quickly gain understanding of our local soil environment with a 10,000 foot view. This doesn’t involve us actually sampling any of our soil, it merely relies on the work that the United States Department of Agriculture already did.

Let me explain what I mean: the USDA underwent a massive effort to produce a soil map for the entire continental United States. This soil map has data on the many physical attributes of soil that we’re interested in, but it also provides helpful ratings and information on how each type of soil is suited for different real-life activities.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: there are ratings that indicate how suitable a specific soil series (more on what that means later) is for the production of wine grapes. From construction applications to native vegetation information, there’s quite a lot of valuable information in these reports.

Things to Think About: Context, Desired Outcomes, and Purpose

What ends up being right for you really depends on the context of your situation and the desired outcomes that you’re seeking. I think almost everyone should perform some type of manual testing of soil samples from their land, while not everyone is in a position to gain a lot of value from the USDA approach.

There is one caveat in all of this: if you’re aiming to understand the soils of lands that you don’t technically own (i.e. public land, prospective lands, just for fun research, etc.), then you obviously should only employ the USDA approach.

What I will say is that the USDA approach is generally better if you’re discussing soils from landscapes that haven’t been so greatly disturbed. The data from the USDA indicates what your soil should be based on your location; so if you live in the suburbs and your native soils were trucked away and replaced with less valuable sub-soils, you might be out of luck. I view the USDA information as more valuable for those looking to analyze rural areas, specifically areas that are left a bit more natural such as National Forests and state parks.

Manually Testing Your Actual Soil

The conversation around soil testing can be a little confusing at times, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the different terms floating around.

It’s important to take a little time to understand the basic concepts about soil types before we start digging around in the cupboards for mason jars and dish soap.

Basic Concepts to Keep in Mind Before We Begin

You may have seen heard some of the terms thrown around before:

  • Clay loam
  • Loamy sand
  • Silt loam
  • Silty clay

And so on. These are terms used to describe a specific soil texture, which can be calculated on this page provided by the USDA. At the bottom of the screen you’ll notice a chart that looks like the following:

screenshot of the soil texture chart provided by the usda

What we’re looking at is a graph with three different axes. Overlayed on this chart are the different soil texture groups. For example, you can see that the top section of the graph is almost entirely the ‘clay’ texture. Each of these textures is covering how much of your soil sample is made from these three particle types:

  • Sand
  • Silt
  • Clay

These are in order of the largest to smallest particle sizes, with clay particles being the smallest.

DIY Soil Tests: a Few Different Approaches

Okay, now you’re free to start digging around for mason jars. Despite the fact that these tests are rather simple, there are still some very valuable insights we can obtain from the results.

Using the Jar Test to Get a Rough Estimate of Your Soil Composition

The ‘jar test’ is the iconic version of the DIY soil test. The objective with the jar test is to get a rough estimate of the composition of your soil from the three components discussed earlier.

Here’s an excellent video that slowly goes through the process of the test and then walks you through the science behind it:

Getting an Approximate pH Measurement of Your Soil

You may also be curious about the pH of your local soils. While a pH measurement is usually something that’s best left to the soil scientists with labs and decent equipment, you can get a “rough estimate” of your pH with a few precautions.

This video will walk you through how you can test your soil pH at home with some rudimentary equipment:

The Jar Test for Those With Heavy Clay Soils

Those with heavy clay soils are accustomed to a life where everything’s just a little more difficult than it might need to be. If that’s the case for you, you might want to check out this video that shows a jar test in a region with heavy clay:

Sending Samples in for Lab Testing

Even if you do the DIY soil testing discussed above, it’s almost certainly worth your time to seek out a local lab that is capable of testing your soil professionally.

Most counties or university extensions will have information on locations that provide this kind of testing, so your best bet is to search around to find that page. This page may also have valuable resources on other aspects of soil and gardening, so you might want to bookmark it for future use.

Basic Concepts: Using Existing USDA Soil Maps

This method is all about leveraging the decades of work that soil scientists already did for us. It’s normal to feel a sense of mystery when you step into a natural environment, but the reality is that thousands of people have spent decades studying these natural environments.

A great example of this is the soil map and all of its associated data compiled by scientists that work for the USDA. There was so much work that went into this project that the USDA has a page where they list the ‘Million-Acre Mappers,’ which are past or present USDA employees that did exactly that: map more than a million acres of soil in their careers (side note: they also receive a lapel pin for their work).

My point is this: it’s much easier to take advantage of the product of this tremendous effort than it is to try to learn everything about soil science for yourself.

What Concepts You Should Keep in Mind When Starting Out

Before we dive into the specific details for each application, I think it’s most helpful to cover some basics about soil science and the potential of these applications.

This will help establish a solid baseline of knowledge before we start flooding your screen with unfamiliar maps, symbols, and charts. There’s a lot going on with some of these screens, so it helps to define some key terms to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

Keep the Science Side of Things Simple

As I would bet that these applications are mostly used by soil scientists, the reality is that there’s a lot of complex data fields present at any one point of time. Our job is to stick with only the data points we’re interested in, to resist getting lost in the weeds.

Of all of the scientific data fields available in the reports, we’ll stick to the most basic options. The most important fields will be on the composition of the soil itself, which will consist of percent levels of the following materials:

  • Organic matter
  • Sand
  • Clay

Besides that we’ll also maybe dabble in the ‘pH’ field, as I think that’s one of the more approachable fields for just about anyone interested in this kind of stuff. All of the other scientific fields will be left to the scientists.

Quick Notes on How Soil is Classified by the USDA

Before we dive into the different applications, I think it’s important to provide a little background on how soils are classified according to the USDA.

Let’s start with the basics. The USDA has created a ‘soil map’ for the continental United States that is comprised of pre-defined soil units. The map is just like a map of the states in the US, as it contains borders that identify the specific lands that are each soil unit.

Soil units are named with symbols that tell you exactly what soil unit you’re looking at. There are different naming conventions employed throughout the country, but an example of a soil unit is ‘KbC’.

This brings me to the next point: soil units are comprised of pre-defined soil series. This is perhaps best explained in a screenshot:

Here you can see at the top that this is the composition of the KbC soil unit that I mentioned previously. The blue links that you see throughout the table are all the names of soil series that contribute to the KbC soil unit, as soil units can be comprised of multiple soil series.

This brings me to my last point here: the most valuable information that we have available from the USDA is assigned to the soil series, not the soil unit. This may make it a bit confusing when dealing with soil units that aren’t necessarily dominated by a single soil series. Hopefully this makes sense, but I understand that it can be a bit confusing when you first get started.

Focus on Utilizing Application-Based Features

I’m not going to lie: there’s a lot of different data points available with the USDA soil information set, so it’s tempting to try and learn as much as you can (at least for me it is). Your best bet is to forget everything but the most basic soil properties, and then to focus on the most relevant application-based properties?

What do I mean by that? I’m talking about all of the fields that are used to indicate how suitable that soil series is for a specific real-world application. Here’s a good example: there’s a data field that is called the ‘Potential Fire Damage Hazard’ rating, and it provides a rating for a specified soil series. The Seelyeville soil series rates ‘low’ in this field, as this series is typically very poorly drained and often swampy.

The value here for us non-scientists is that we’re leveraging all of the hard work already done by the folks at the USDA, and using their assessments to better help us understand our land. We’re fortunate that there are a wide variety of data fields available to us, from agriculture to forestry to engineering and so on.

Three Different Approaches Using the Same Data

This is an important point that might help add some clarity to this somewhat confusing landscape of smartphone apps and online applications. As far as I can tell, each of these applications uses the exact same data set.

The main difference here is that each application is unique around the way that it formats the data. They are also unique in the manners that they allow users to interact with them.

Exactly how each application works and who they might be best for will be covered in the detailed instructions below. I’ve covered them in order of easiest to hardest, which also happens to be in the order of least to most powerful.

The SoilWeb Application for Mobile Phones: Simple and Straightforward

This application was developed by the California Soil Resource Lab at UC-Davis, and it is built to leverage the work by the USDA soil team while employing modern functionality.

Who is Best Suited for This Option

This is likely going to out me as a huge nerd, but I’m going to do it anyways: this is without a doubt one of my favorite applications for my phone. As there are only 13 reviews in the Google Play store at the time of this writing, I consider this app to be massively underappreciated and I’m more than happy to shed some light on it.

I think anyone that’s interested in soil at all should have this app installed on their phone. If you’re still reading this piece and haven’t abandoned me yet, you’re the perfect candidate for the SoilWeb app.

Here’s where this app is available:

I do have to confess that there is a bit of a limited scope with this app, as it is strictly designed to pull up the soil information at your device’s present location. I think most people will find this more than acceptable, as it’s just enough functionality and probably all that most people need when in the field.

Using the SoilWeb Phone Application for the First Time

When you launch the SoilWeb phone application for the first time you should be presented with something like this:

screenshot of the home page of the soilweb mobile app

All you should have to do to run the app is to click the ‘Get Soil Data’ button at the top of your screen. You’ll then likely be prompted to allow SoilWeb to access the current location of your smartphone.

Once you grant permission your screen should update and you should see something similar to this:

screenshot of the soil web mobile app after pressing get soil data

There are a few things going on here, and we’ll go through each of them in detail in the next section.

Navigating the Results Page for Your Location

Now that you’ve gone through the difficult task of clicking a button or two, let’s actually figure out what the heck’s going on with this screen.

Details About Your Soil Map Unit

As we discussed earlier, the soil map unit is the abbreviation given to the specific type of soil present at your location. Remember, soil map units are derived from soil series. Think of it this way: if a soil map unit was a loaf of bread, then the soil series present would be the flour, water, salt and yeast (or whatever bread needs).

The only part of this screen that is dedicated to this specific soil map unit is the segment highlighted in the below screenshot:

screenshot highlighting the map unit information for a local soil

There are two parts that we need to understand here. First, the part labeled the ‘Map unit’ is the description assigned to this particular soil map unit. Second, we’ll need to click the ‘Details’ button to find the rest of the information directly associated with this map unit. Once we click that button, our screen should show something like this:

screenshot of the map unit data available in the soilweb mobile app

As you can see at the top of the screen, the ‘Map Unit Symbol’ refers to the symbol that the USDA soil map would use to refer to this specific map unit. There is some additional information as you scroll down, but most of that will be irrelevant to the vast majority of people.

Once you are done with this section, click either the back button (sorry iOS users) or the arrow in the upper right section of your screen to return back to the main results page.

Soil Profiles of the Relevant Soil Series are the Majority of the Screen

Now that we’re back to the main results page, we can start to explore the different soil series present in our soil map unit. The majority of the screen here is reserved for the soil profiles of the soil series that this soil map unit consists of:

screenshot from the soilweb mobile app highlighting the graphical depictions of two soil series present

It may look like there are only two soil series present on my screen, but you’ll notice that the percentage only adds up to 97%. Maybe that’s close enough for most, but we’re dealing with scientists here: there’s more to this.

To find the remaining soil series that make up this unit you’ll need to swipe to the left. Once you do that you might be presented with any remaining soil series. Not all soil map units will be comprised of more than two soil series, but many at least three.

Finding Information on each Soil Series

As the Plainfield soil series makes up the vast majority of my soil unit, I’m looking find more information about it. All I have to do to bring up this information is to push anywhere on this light blue area:

arrow pointing to soil series name in soilweb mobile app

This will bring up a screen with three tabs: Description, Details and Links. It should look like this:

screenshot of the description of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

Much of the information in the ‘Description’ tab is geared towards scientists, but there area few sections that may be useful for us. First, the main description right under the series name is a great summary and is very friendly to non-scientists. The other relevant sections are down near the bottom of the page, so you might have to scroll a good bit to get there.

Most people would be interested in these two sections:

  • Drainage and Permeability
  • Use and Vegetation

Here’s an example of what the content in these sections may look like:

screenshot showing the use and vegatation section of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

Hopefully you can now understand at least part of the reason why we can get so much value out of this application.

The ‘Details’ tab contains many different fields but it is formatted exactly the same in the browser version of SoilWeb. As such, we’ll cover this later in the piece to avoid repetition.

SoilWeb in the Browser: Best of Both Worlds

As this browser application was developed by the same team that built the smartphone app that we just discussed, it’s very easy to leverage what we just learned and apply it here.

Here’s what the team at UC-Davis did with the SoilWeb browser application: they took the USDA’s Web Soil Survey browser app (which will be discussed after this) and applied a much smoother interface while enabling modern the modern functionalities we’ve come to expect from any mapping application.

Who is Best Suited for This Option

As you might expect, this makes the SoilWeb browser application an incredibly functional option that makes the most sense for the vast majority of users. The similarities between the two applications means there’s a low barrier of entry for those already acquainted with the smartphone app

There are additional reporting capabilities that the USDA Web Soil Survey application has over the SoilWeb application, but most people won’t be interested in exploring those capabilities. This makes the SoilWeb application a great choice for anyone that wants to quickly access loads of information about their local soils without having to put up with a slightly frustrating navigational setup.

Introduction to the USDA Soil Map

You may not have familiarity with the soil map put together by the USDA, so this is likely the first time you’ve seen something like this:

screenshot of a soil map in northern wisconsin in the soilweb web application

Don’t worry, it’s not as crazy as it looks. The concept is pretty simple: the USDA took the entire continental United States and then divided the land into different soil map units. These map units are denoted on the screen with the symbols you may have noticed in the above screenshot (e.g. SfD, WaA, W, IsA, etc.).

Much like the world is divided into countries in a way that doesn’t always result in the cleanest or most sensible borders, the soil map has many different map units that interact in many different ways. Let’s zoom in on this map to get a good example of that. Here’s an area that has a couple of interesting things going on:

closeup of the soil map unit labels found in the soilweb web app

You’ll notice that I’ve highlighted two different map units: WaA and SfD. As you may have noticed, the ‘WaA’ unit that I highlighted is entirely surrounded by the ‘SfD’ unit, which covers a large portion of the area in the screenshot.

It’s worth noting that these unit shapes and borders are approximations, as it would be difficult for the USDA to fully covers the complexities and variations that can occur even on a few acres of land. With that being said, this still is very useful for our purposes.

How Information is Organized in the SoilWeb Browser Application

One quick tip before we start looking into specific soil profiles: if you’re in SoilWeb and you’re confused about any of the terminology used, check out their help page. You can find this by clicking the ‘Menu’ button in the upper left corner and then clicking the ‘Help’ button.

The help section is mostly just a collection of frequently used terms, where if you click on the link you’ll be presented with their definition. It’s definitely not necessary to read these, but it’s useful for those who want to learn more.

Soil Map Unit Specific Information

When you click anywhere on the map the screen should update to display all relevant information on the soil map unit clicked. This is about what you can expect to see when you click on a unit:

screenshot of the map unit composition info that comes up once you click on a map unit in the soilweb web app

The first thing you should notice is that the symbol in the parentheses at the top of the screen matches the symbol on the map where the ‘red x’ is located (AoB). The description to the left of that is the name for that particular soil unit.

You can see at the bottom of the screenshot that there’s more information below, but most of this information won’t be useful for our purposes.

Compositional Information on a Soil Series

In the most recent screenshot there is a ‘Map Unit Composition’ section. This shows what soil series are included in this map unit. You can see that 80% of the AoB map unit is comprised of the ‘Antigo’ soil series. This is handy for us, as the rest of the information that we’re interested in is tied to the soil series, not the soil map unit.

To pull up the information on the soil series, click the blue link of the series name. This should bring up a screen that looks like this:

soil profile for the Antigo soil series in the soilweb web app

The stacked bar chart that you see on the right looks interesting, but we’ll ignore it for our purposes. What we’re most interested in is the following menu items on the left side:

  • Org. Matter
  • Clay
  • Sand
  • pH

If you click on the ‘Sand’ button you should be presented with a graph that looks similar to the following:

screenshot of the graph in soilweb web app depicting the levels of sand at various depths in the antigo soil series

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a bit of a funky looking graph, as I’m not accustomed to the data flowing in this direction. With that being said, it’s a pretty simple graph once you understand their intentions.

You’ll notice that the y-axis represents the depth (in centimeters) for this soil series. On the x-axis you have the percent of this soil series that is comprised of sand.

This makes the most sense when you think of the trend line on the graph. For example, at 50 cm of depth we can see that approximately 20% of this soil series is comprised of sand. Switching over to the ‘Clay’ graph, we can see in the below screenshot that this same depth is also approximately 20% clay.

screenshot of the graph in soilweb web app depicting the levels of clay at various depths in the antigo soil series

I hope that this makes sense and that you can see how this would be useful when trying to learn more about our soils.

It’s worth noting that the pH is also displayed with a similar graph, it just happens that the pH is represented on the x-axis.

Suitability Ratings for a Soil Series

Now that we’ve learned about the characteristics of our soil, it’s time to learn about how this soil is suited for different real-life applications.

There are two locations in the menu where we’ll find information relevant to our purposes. First, you’ll find a ‘Forest Productivity’ menu item. This doesn’t always contain information, but if it does you may be presented with something like this:

screenshot of the forest productivity section of a soil series in the soilweb web app

This might be a little confusing to some, but it’s pretty straightforward once you figure out the formatting. We’ll explain what these things mean in detail with an example, so let’s turn our attention to the first entry: sugar maple.

The ‘Site Index Curve Number’ for the sugar maple is 66. This means that sugar maple trees in this type of soil are expected to reach approximately 66 feet in height after a specific number of years.

The other piece of information is the ‘Productivity’ column, which merely refers to the volume of wood (measured in cubic feet) that an acre of this tree would produce in a year. In this case, a stand of mature sugar maples that is one acre in size would be expected to produce 43 cubic feet of wood in a year.

You might also find relevant information in the ‘Soil Suitability Ratings’ section of the menu, which looks like this when you open it:

menu showing different options for the soil suitability ratings menu in soilweb web app

Clicking on the ‘Forestry’ button, we should see something similar to this:

forestry section of the soil suitability ratings menu in the soilweb web app

This clearly demonstrates the main purpose of this section, which is to provide quick ratings for a soil series that cover a wide range of potential uses and applications. You can click around the other buttons in this section to see what other information is available for that soil series.

Additional Information on a Soil Series

There’s one more thing to keep in mind when you’re digging around for information on your soil series, the links in the top bar of the menu:

screenshot of the Antigo soil series in soilweb web app showing the various tabs available

The first thing you need to know is that the ‘Soil Data Explorer’ link (SDE) and the ‘Description’ link bring up the same information, so you can disregard the latter. The reason we’re interested in the SDE is that it neatly compiles a lot of different information sources and functionalities.

This was discussed previously in the phone application part, but there are two main parts that are valuable in the SDE:

  • The initial description under the soil series name
  • The ‘Use and Vegetation’ section

There may be additional sections that could be useful for you, but it depends on your soil series.

The last thing to keep in mind is that the ‘Series Extent Explorer’ link brings up a valuable map that indicates where this soil series is present:

screenshot of the series extent explorer for the antigo soil series in northern wisconsin

I don’t know if there’s necessarily a practical use for this map, but it does seem cool to me. This map can also be found while in the SDE, and all you need to do is click on the ‘Extent’ tab at the very end.

USDA’s Web Soil Survey Application: Most Powerful Option

Last but certainly not least, here we finally get to the soil mapping application provided by the USDA, which is called the Web Soil Survey (the government really does have the most creative names for applications…).

Who is Best Suited for This Option

I don’t anticipate that the majority of people that find this piece will be interested in this application. I think that’s totally fine and I wouldn’t recommend someone start playing around with this application unless they really enjoyed working with SoilWeb’s browser application.

While the SoilWeb application has a ton of information, the simple reality is that the USDA’s Web Soil Survey application has many additional fields that can be really valuable. The application includes everything from reports on the expected native vegetation to the most commonly found trees on that soil series.

This application is a great opportunity to people interested in foraging or people that would like to better understand the natural landscapes around them. Another benefit is that the reports in this application output the results for every soil series present in an area you specify, so you’re not just limited to viewing the data of a single soil series at a time.

The main downside is the fact that the user interface (think more MapQuest and less Google maps) and functionality are a little dated, but that’s more than OK in my book given the value it provides.

Check Out This Post if You’re Interested in Learning More

If any of this sounds interesting to you, you’re more than welcome to check out the following post:

USDA Web Soil Survey: A Complete How-To Guide

In this post I provide step-by-step instructions on how to use this application, as well as demonstrating what reports I found most valuable for my purposes.

Final Thoughts

Whew, we’ve reached the end of the post. I hope this was valuable for you and that you didn’t find it too overwhelming. There are a lot of really amazing things that you can learn about your soil with the right methods and tools, and hopefully you enjoyed this post.

If you’re interested in other posts that go into great detail about how we can make the most out of time in nature, feel free to check out any of the following:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

Can You Ride ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service Roads?

Cruising around in an ATV or UTV is one of the most popular ways to explore everything that our National Forests have to offer. A large part of that is thanks to the great network of Forest Service roads.

Can you ride ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service roads? Both ATVs and UTVs are allowed plenty of access on U.S. Forest Service roads, as they are considered Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV). Access typically depends on the width of your OHV, as vehicles wider than 50 inches are classified separately. Motor Vehicle Use Maps provide more information about access.

Now that we’ve got the short and sweet answer out of the way, let’s dive into the details and cover everything you need to start using your ATV or UTV on U.S. Forest Service roads.

Determining Which Forest Service Roads are Open to Your ATV or UTV

Before we get started, I think it’s important to stress that riding ATVs or UTVs on Forest Service roads requires a fair amount of diligence. From reading the local regulations to remembering to check if a road is open before heading out, there’s a lot of keep in mind.

What You Need to Know Before Getting Started

There are a few things to check before we start looking for your specific rules and regulations.

I briefly mentioned it earlier, but ATVs and UTVs are both considered Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV) according to the U.S. Forest Service. You’ll be seeing this acronym a lot, so just be sure to remember that it’s a catch-all category that covers everything from ATVs to UTVs to even dirt bikes.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the Forest Service employs vehicle classifications in order to make the rules simpler. It’s possible that a specific National Forest has more complicated categories than this, but the two categories that ATVs and UTVs fall into are the following:

  • Off-Highway Vehicles <= 50″ Wide
  • Off-Highway Vehicles > 50″ Wide

As such, you’ll want to know the width of the ATV or UTV that you plan on driving. The majority of ATVs will be less than 50″ wide, but many UTVs are going to be wider than that.

Finding the Rules and Regulations Regarding ATVs and UTVs for Your National Forest

Each National Forest will have different rules and regulations surrounding the use of ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service roads, so you’ll have to do some digging.

First things first, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and select your National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right side of the screen. Once you’re on the website for your specific National Forest, you’ll need to find the ‘Recreation’ menu item on the navigational menu found on the left side of the screen.

Click this and then find the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ item in the menu. This is approximately what you’ll find when you click through to this page:

screenshot of us forest service website with the OHV riding and camping section visible

Most National Forests are structured like this, in that they organize info on OHV riding by the type of activity you’re interested in. Looking through these pages will give you a better idea of the types of opportunities that exist in your National Forest.

You’ll be able to find a list of locations in the National Forest that allow that type of activity. Occasionally you’ll be able to find detailed information when you click through to the location-specific page, but that doesn’t happen often.

Read Everything You Can in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ Section

With all of that said, the best thing you can do for yourself is to browse through all the material found in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ section of your specific National Forest’s website.

This will alert you to any special rules that may be in place, and is just a best practice in general. Also, it’s possible that you could learn of unique opportunities for ATV or UTV riding, as they would likely be found in this section. This section usually isn’t too long, so it’s well worth the read.

Learn How to Use a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM)

Here’s the deal: if you’re interested in riding your ATV or UTV on Forest Service roads you’re best served by getting comfortable with Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs).

These maps look intimidating at first, but they have almost everything you need to get started safely riding. Each map will serve a different region and outline the specific rules and regulations that apply to each of the Forest Service roads shown on the map. Needless to say, this is a very important skill and is sure to save your butt at one point or another.

If you want to learn more about MVUMs, check out this post that contains step-by-step instructions on how to make the most out of them.

Using the Interactive Visitor Map to Find Open Forest Service Roads

There’s no doubt about it: technology has made it a lot easier to navigate the complicated system of Forest Service roads. This is best demonstrated with the Interactive Visitor Map, an application built and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

Open the Map and Select Your Relevant Layer

Once you’ve opened up the Interactive Visitor Map in your browser, you’ll first be presented with the following screen:

screenshot of the interactive visitor map menu option from the us forest service

As you can see at the bottom on the menu, we’ve got two different categories that might be applicable for our purposes:

  • OHV > 50 Inches
  • ATV/OHV <= 50

This is why we first verified the width of your ATV or UTV. The majority of ATVs will be under 50″, but you’ll have to confirm the width of your specific vehicle. I’ll assume that we have an ATV that is less than 50″ wide, so we’ll select the bottom-middle icon.

How to Read the Map for Our Purposes

Next, we’ll want to zoom into the National Forest that we’re interested in exploring. Once you reach a certain point your map should start to show the Forest Service roads and look something like this:

screenshot of us forest service map in interactive visitor map highlighting open roads of ohvs in yellow shading

There are a couple of things you’ll notice here:

  • There are a few different colors of shading applied to the Forest Service roads (yellow and red)
  • Some of the roads use different types of styling
  • There are small icons scattered throughout that are attached to different roads

Let’s go over exactly what each of these mean. The first thing we need to do is to expand the Legend, which is found on the left side of the map. This is about what you should see when the Legend is open:

legend of the OHV section of the interactive visitor map provided by the us forest service

You’ll note that the color shading is used to depict the status of a road. Roads that are shaded red aren’t open to this class of vehicles, while roads shaded yellow are open for use.

The other thing that you’ll notice is that the styling of the road line refers to the type of road present (paved, gravel, dirt, etc.).

Getting Additional Information on Specific Roads

Once you’ve found a Forest Service road that you’re interested in, you might have the opportunity to click on an icon that is attached to that road.

Here’s the kind of information you can expect to see from one of these markers:

screenshot of an information window in the interactive visitor map from the us forest service

You’ll note that the there’s a variety of information available for this road. If you scroll down you’ll find more information on the type of road, the segment length, and the type of vehicles this road is designed for.

Other Things to Keep In Mind

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that it’s our responsibility to ensure that the Forest Service road we drive on is currently open to our vehicle. Many roads have defined seasons, and these seasons are selected for a variety of important reasons.

For example, a National Forest might not allow ATVs or UTVs on certain types of roads in the spring, as the wet conditions could do unnecessary damage to the roads.

Final Thoughts

I hope that you enjoyed this piece and found some helpful information while reading.

If you are interested in reading more on similar topics, here are some articles you might like:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

What is the Difference Between National Parks and National Forests?

It’d be quite understandable if you get a little mixed up when talking about either National Forests or National Parks. I mean, they both start with the same word and they’re owned by the federal government, right?

What is the difference between National Parks and National Forests? National Parks are usually designed to protect very unique natural features and landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon. National Forests are more plentiful and cover much more land, as they are designed to protect forests as a whole while offering recreational opportunities and producing timber.

While I personally tend to be more of a National Forest guy, in this post I’ll go over the differences between the two. Both are incredibly valuable in our efforts to protect the natural landscapes, but they generally serve very different purposes.

How They Are Managed

While both are areas of land that are managed by the federal government, National Forests and National Parks are managed for very different reasons.

National Forests

Right off the bat, we arrived at one of the clearest distinctions between the two. The National Forests in the United States are managed by an agency called the U.S. Forest Service, a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. This should provide a pretty good idea of what’s so different about these two. As you may guess, National Forests are managed more with utility and recreation in mind.

Regarding what utility means, you should really think about forest products such as timber and other related timber products. In comparison, National Forests cover almost four times as much land compared to National Parks. Despite having more land, the U.S. Forest Service has a lower budget per acre.

National Parks

On the other hand, National Parks are managed by the National Park Service, which falls under the Department of the Interior. Generally speaking, the purpose of National Parks is to protect an exceptional natural resource and the land that surrounds it.

While the National Park Service has less land to cover, they have higher budgets and employees when you look at it from an acreage perspective. What kind of areas are covered by a National Parks? Think of locations that are very well-known to the average American, such as Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. These locations typically have a unique feature or landscape that draws people in from all sources.

As the National Parks are structured to protect such resources, they are generally meticulously maintained, and you’re a little bit more restricted in what you can do there.

How They Are Used by the General Public

While National Parks are great places for anyone to visit, National Forests tend to offer a mix of visit of recreation and utility that’s worth taking advantage of.

National Forests

National Forests are open to a wide variety of activities: everything from fishing to hunting to ATV riding and so on. While some of these things may be possible in National Parks, you can generally expect that you’ll deal with far fewer restrictions when in a National Forest.

A good example of this is foraging: almost every National Forest allows foraging of some kind, but a significant portion of the National Parks doesn’t allow foraging at all.

You can also generally expect to pay less in fees when visiting a National Forest. in fact, the vast majority of a National Forest is almost always open for free visitation. If you are interested in simply being around forests and spending time in nature, National Forests are likely a great fit for you.

National Parks

You can do many things in a National Park, but almost all of the activities are centered around the idea of visiting that location. Think of things like hiking, camping, or even visiting learning centers.

The idea is that visitors to the National Parks shouldn’t expect a certain level of engagement with the natural surroundings around them. Time spent in National Parks is better reserved for appreciating and admiring these amazing natural resources preserved by the National Park Service.

Geographic Distribution and Size

You can expect both National Forests and National Parks to cover large areas of land.

National Forests

Simply put, National Forest covers a lot more land when compared to National Parks. This makes sense, as one of the main purposes of National Forests is to help protect forests in general, not just specific areas of beauty. The National Forests in the United States cover more than 190 million acres of land, from 154 designated locations.

Most of that land is out West, but a fair amount of National Forest is distributed through the rest of the country. This isn’t necessarily the case with National Parks, but National Forests are more accessible to people in the country’s remaining parts.

National Parks

Although it’s still a lot of land, National Parks cover much less land as the 62 designated National Parks cover just over 50 million acres. The vast majority of the National Parks are located at West, making sense when you think about the unique geography associated with the western part of the United States.

Once again, the purpose of National Parks is generally to preserve natural features or landscapes that are particularly beautiful and unique.

What Kind of Lands They Protect

The type of land that is covered by each is one of the most significant distinctions between the two. As much as I love my National Forests, they just don’t usually have the incredible geography that’s often the main feature of a National Park.

National Forests

Much of the land designated as National Forest was less suitable for agriculture but perhaps quite suitable for forests. These lands are almost exclusively second-growth timber, which means that they were initially logged at some point, and very little old-growth trees remain.

Despite being mostly second-growth forests, there are still many mature forests present throughout our National Forests. Many of these lands were acquired in the early 20th century, and therefore the second-growth forests may be more than a hundred years old.

National Parks

Typically, what you see in a National Park is a natural feature or grouping of incredibly unique features prized by the public. The National Park typically consists of these features and then a wide range of land surrounding it. On the other hand, some National Parks are designed to protect a unique landscape itself.

A great example of this is Isle Royale, which is a remote island in the middle of Lake Superior near the Canadian border. This landscape is not unique from a geographic standpoint, but its size and location allows it to be and incredibly interesting experiment in predator and prey dynamics.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned a thing or two about the great opportunities present on federal lands. Whether you’re interested in National Forests or National Park, there are plenty of ways for everyone to spend time in nature.

If you’d like to read other articles that are similar, here’s some you might want to check out:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

Can You Ride Dirt Bikes on Forest Service Roads?

Got a dirt bike and find yourself interested in taking a good old-fashioned forest bath? If so, the Forest Service roads you see running through your local National Forest might be a great opportunity for you.

Can you ride dirt bikes on U.S. Forest Service roads? Many Forest Service roads in National Forests allow are open to use with a dirt bike. Forest Service roads may be open to dirt bikes only in specified seasons, and some National Forests may limit the kind of activities a dirt biker can participate in.

With that being said, keep reading if you’re interested in learning more about how to make the most out of our National Forests with your dirt bike.

Determining Where You Can Ride Your Dirt Bike in a National Forest

When trying to figure out where you can ride your dirt bike in the National Forest, the unfortunate reality is that you have a good amount of reading to do. While you’ll have to carefully read the materials that your National Forest provides, the U.S. Forest Service does provide some great tools to help you along your way.

This post will cover step-by-step instructions as to how this information can be found, as well as what you need to know to make the right decisions.

Understand How the U.S. Forest Service Classifies Your Dirt Bike

The first thing to understand before we begin is that the U.S. Forest Service considers your dirt bike to be an Off Highway Vehicle, otherwise abbreviated as OHV. You want to keep this in mind while you’re browsing the website of your National Forest, as this will be the best spot for you to get relevant information.

The most helpful information regarding how your National Forest classifies dirt bikes will likely be found in a Motor Vehicle Use Map, otherwise known as an MVUM. You can find more information about how exactly to use MVUMs in this post that covers them in great detail.

What Riding Allowed is Highly Specific to Each National Forest

As you probably already know, what opportunities you have to ride your dirt bike in a National Forest is highly dependent upon the specific National Forest that you’re interested in. Therefore you must know the local rules of that forest before you start using its vast network of roads and trails. Not everything will be open to dirt bikes throughout the year, and it’s your job to understand what roads are open to you at the time.

You can generally assume that you’ll be prohibited from traveling off-trail or off-road while in the National Forest. Most locations keep dirt bike travel to specific roads or trails, but there are exceptions to this. If you’re looking to ride your dirt bike and don’t necessarily want to be confined to the trails, you’ll be looking for something referred to as ‘OHV Open Area Riding.’ This doesn’t appear to be available in many locations, but it could be possible in your National Forest.

The first thing you’re going to want to do is to go to the website of the U.S. Forest Service and select your specific National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the screen. This will take you to a website devoted to that National Forest, and then you’ll want to find the recreation menu item in the navigational menu on the left side of the screen. After you click through to this part of the menu, you want to look for an OHV riding and camping menu item that might look like this:

screenshot of the recreation menu for a us forest service site with a red arrow pointing to the OHV Riding and Camping menu option

Please note that not every National Forest has the section listed in the recreation part of the menu. This may very well indicate that your opportunities for riding dirt bikes in this specific National Forest may be limited. Assuming you do have that option in the menu, you’ll be presented with a screen that may look something like this:

screenshot of the OHV riding and camping page of a us forest service site

There may be additional text presents on this page, but you can at least expect to have several OHV links present on the page, as you see in the above screenshot. These different lengths cover the different types of activities that are available to off-highway vehicles in this National Forest, so you want to click through to the areas that interest you the most.

One other thing to note is that the right-hand side of the screen may have a menu that contains links you might want to check out. These could be links for additional applicable regulations, riding clubs, or specific trails dedicated to motor vehicle usage.

When you click through to a specific site, you’ll likely be presented with a page that looks something like this:

screenshot showing a list of OHV road riding areas of a us forest service location

If you click on the links for the individual locations listed on this screen, it is possible that you’ll find greater details about that location. However, this doesn’t appear to happen very often, as the majority of locations merely list that that activity is an available option.

Your Best Bet: Read Everything You can Find in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ Section

With all that being said, the best thing you can do before riding your dirt bike in the National Forest is to spend the time needed to read all the different rules and regulations found on the website. What you might encounter is highly variable from one National Forest to another, so it’s quite difficult to summarize effectively.

I’ll be the first to admit that reading the rules and regulations isn’t my favorite activity in the world, but it’s an essential part of using these tremendous resources responsibly. It’s also a good opportunity to find out interesting and unique things that might be offered by your local National Forest.

How to Use the Interactive Visitor Map to Find Open Forest Service Roads

The Interactive Visitor Map is an application maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Its job is to take the Motor Vehicle Use Maps’ relevant information and turn it into an interactive and searchable platform.

Finding Forest Service Roads Open for Dirt Bikes

To use the Interactive Visitor Map, you’ll want to open this link, and you can expect to get a screen that looks like this:

screenshot of the menu of the interactive visitor map from the us forest service with the dirt bike option highlighted in red

You want to select the dirt bike option on the lower right-hand side of the menu, and then zoom in to your area until you see Forest Service Roads on the map. Once the roads are visible, the first thing you want to do is expand the legend, which is found on the left side of the map. This will contain all the information that you need to find local roads open for dirt bikes.

screenshot of us forest service map in the interactive visitor map with yellow shading on the roads open to dirt bikes

Ultimately, we’re looking for Forest Service roads or trails shaded in either a yellow or green hue. Green shaded trails indicate that they are open for dirt bike use at the time and that they are ultimately maintained for dirt bikes. On the other hand, yellow shaded trails indicated that Forest Service road is currently open to dirt bike usage.

Getting Information Regarding That Specific Road

Once you find a Forest Service road that you’re interested in learning more about, you can look to the Legend on the left to learn more about that specific road. The styling that you see applied to the road will indicate how the road is constructed.

screenshot of the legend of the dirt bike option in the interactive visitor map from the us forest service

For additional information, you’ll want to find an icon on the map that looks like a trail marker, and you want to click it. This will bring up a window of information that corresponds to that specific forest service road.

information pane of a forest service road in the interactive visitor map

You will see the seasons available for the different classes of vehicles and other relevant information about the road’s grade or the length.

Reasons Why a Road Might be Closed to Dirt Bikes

You might be noticing at this point is that a lot of Forest Service roads are not open to use by dirt bikes. There are many possible reasons why a road may not allow dirt bikes, but here are some to keep in mind.

Generally speaking, you can assume that any national forests that experience wet springs will do what they can to ensure that their roads received minimal damage at this time of year. You might also run into temporary closures resulting from storm damage or related to ongoing construction, which is why it’s always a good idea to check the interactive visitor map before heading out.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this article valuable and that you came away having learned a thing or two.

If you’re interested in other articles on similar topics, you should check out the below links:

Foraging Technology

Our Favorite Apps for Foraging

I’ll admit that it strikes me as a bit odd to be writing about which smartphone apps we use for foraging. After all, we’re talking about foraging which is essentially the world’s oldest skillset. With that said, the modern day forager can get a lot of wonderful things out of a wide variety of apps.

From navigating the backwoods to quickly saving your secret spots, we’re going to cover all the ways foragers can use apps to make the most out of their time in the field.

Before we get started, here are a few quick things to keep in mind:

Never Trust an App for Plant Identification. Apps that identify plants seem to be all the rage these days, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to use them as the foundation of your identification process. Take the time to learn how to positively identify edible plants the hard way, as it is totally worth the extra effort. Leaving your safety up to machine-learning AI is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Maybe there’s a future where apps can be trusted to greatly assist in plant identification, but we’re not there yet.

Apps are Best Used as Tools, not as Sources of Truth. Whether you’re navigating public lands or using a schedule to time the different harvests, know that you’re fully responsible for yourself while foraging. Even if the app told you that you were on public land, it’s your job to avoid trespassing on others’ land. So remember to treat your apps as merely tools to assist with your foraging.

Think Outside the Box About How Apps Can Help You Forage. There are many more functions than identifying plants that our suite of modern apps can help us with. From timing the seasons perfectly to remembering the location of your secret spot for beaked hazelnuts, the modern forager has a lot on their plate. Use apps to make the little stuff more manageable.

Different Kinds of Apps You Can Use for Foraging

Before we get to the actual apps later on in the post, I thought it would be helpful first to cover what types of functions were looking to cover with our choice of apps. The way that I see it, this breaks down into several different categories.

Navigational and Public Access Mapping Applications

First things first, most foragers will be spending a lot of time on public lands, and they’ll likely spend some time navigating the woods. There are really two parts of that statement that need to be addressed. First, any foragers should be very interested in understanding what public lands are available to them in their local area.

There’s no other way to put it: the more public land you can access, the more potential spots you have at your disposal. The second part of this is regarding navigation. If you’re going to have to travel to spots that are a good distance from your car, you’re going to want to do everything you can to ensure your safe return.

Even if you’re only navigating on trails, it’s just a good idea to have an app that you can use to navigate if you needed it in an emergency. Whether or not you need a navigational app can depend on your setting as navigating a field is very different from navigating a mature forest.

Apps for Organizing Your Spots

You might not think of this right away, but there’s a lot of utility and looking for apps that have the ability to save you time on the little things. What am I talking about here? Think about all the things that you need to successfully execute to have that perfect foraging season. From remembering the locations of all your secret spots to getting in the field, scouting out those spots at the perfect time of year, there are a lot of things that apps can help you with. Just because you don’t end up using your phone to identify the plants you’re gathering doesn’t mean that the phone’s utility ends there. From saving the GPS location and a plant’s identity with a quick snap of a photo to automating reminders about the upcoming seasons, apps can really help us stay on top of our game with little effort.

Local Habitat and Soil Information

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use apps to identify the plants you’ll be foraging. Plant identification is complicated and best not left up to the chance that your photo is clear enough. With that said, there are a few apps that we can use in the field to help us at least get in the ballpark.

Here’s the bottom line: scientists have spent decades gathering data about a variety of aspects about the natural world. From native plant associations to soil maps to habitat ranges of all sorts of plants, we can our phone to quickly pull up the information relevant to our exact area.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we know exactly what to expect when we step onto a new piece of land, but it can help us get a better understanding of the big picture. Any forager that is looking to make the most out of their time in nature should always be looking to learn more about how everything relates to each other. With enough practice and the right information at the right time, a forager can learn to anticipate certain plants in new land.

Best Foraging Apps for Land Access and Navigation

Safely navigating the woods is one of the less-appreciated challenges of foraging. Sure, you can stick to foraging only along established trails, but we both know that eventually you’ll be drawn off-trail in search of some delicious wild edible.

Keeping that in mind, let’s allow technology to help us accomplish two main objectives when we’re out in the field. First, let’s have it help us return safely home. Ideally we won’t need to use our phone in order to navigate home, but it can easily serve as a tremendously valuable backup. Second, let’s use technology to ensure that we’re following the laws and only foraging on public lands or lands we have permission to.

OnX Maps: a Boon to the Forager

Before we dive into why I think OnX Maps can be incredible valuable to the forager, I do have to confess that this is a hunting app. It’s branded as a hunting app and the functionality is geared around what hunters need to navigate public lands. I’m a hunter that uses OnX and I understand that this might make some people comfortable, but I would like you to hear me out.

Almost every single feature on OnX Maps is equally valuable to the forager as it is to the hunter. Here’s the biggest reason why every forager that utilizes public land should consider OnX Maps: they have, by far, the cleanest way to quickly assess what public lands around you might be open to foraging. Here are some of the different types of land you can find in a single layer in OnX:

  • National Forests
  • Bureau of Land Management land (BLM)
  • State Parks
  • Land owned by State DNRs (or similar agency)
  • County and City-owned Land

Not only that, but OnX has a layer with the property boundaries of private lands available for quick access. So if you’ve got a buddy with some land and they’re cool with you foraging on it, you can easily stay within the property lines without constantly being a hassle.

From a navigation perspective, OnX covers the basics really well and it offers a clean interface. You can easily record a track, save waypoints, and it even allows you to manage your maps easily from a desktop computer.

There are many, many things that I could say about why OnX Maps is an almost necessary app for any forager that spends a serious amount of time on public lands. Here are some of the top things to keep in mind:

  • You can easily see all of the public lands from all sorts of sources
  • Information such as logging records from the U.S. Forest Service is cleanly integrated into the app
  • Get the following information about a private parcel of land: acreage, owner name, shape, etc.
  • Easily measure the distance of a trail or the size of a shape you draw
  • Quickly pull up local weather information
  • Check integrated trail maps that allow for both mileages and an approximate slope
  • Check the radar or look for active wildfires in your region

The caveat to all of this is obviously that this is a paid application with a yearly subscription. As of current writing in October 2020, the cost is pretty reasonable at $29.99 a year for one state’s data. You’re allowed access to all 50 states with a yearly fee of $99.99, but I don’t think many foragers would cover that much ground to cover the price.

With all that said, here’s an example of what kind of information you can pull up in OnX:

screenshot of the onx maps hunt app showing public land areas in northern wisconsin

The parcels that you see outlined are all publicly owned land that is almost certainly open for recreation. Each of the different color overlays represents a different type of owner (state DNR, National Forest, local city, etc.) and it’s easy to pull up the information associated with each parcel just by tapping on the screen. For example, by clicking on this parcel I can see the following information:

screenshot of the onx hunt app showing ownership information for public lands in northern wisconsin

As you can probably see, this is incredibly useful information to have when scouting for new locations to forage. The reality is that residents of the United States have hundreds of millions of acres of forestland that is open for foraging. A tool like OnX Maps does a fantastic job lowering the barrier to entry, as it effortlessly solves the main question of “where” exactly can we forage.

So while I understand that you might not have anticipated adopting a hunting app, I think it is well worth your serious consideration. It can only improve your time spent foraging, and it has the chance to make a great impact.

BackCountry Navigator TOPO GPS PRO

I like this app for a few simple reasons. First, a disclaimer: I’ve been using this app for almost a decade and I’m also a creature of habit. So I don’t necessarily know if this truly is the best pure navigational app out there, but I do like it.

The main reason I like this app so much is that it offers a rich library of map layers complemented by a powerful navigational interface. This interface isn’t as user-friendly as OnX Maps, but it offers a lot of functionality.

There are several different layers of satellite imagery available, so you can switch them up to find one that suits your needs best. The app also has a variety of topographic maps available, including custom topo maps from the U.S. Forest Service.

Also, there are a ton of options that allow you to customize your main screen, which can be really useful for those looking to make their screen just right. I’ve also found that the tracks are more accurately represented on the screen when compared to OnX.

Here’s where this app is available:

Avenza Maps: Your Best Source for Official Map Layers

While I don’t personally use Avenza Maps much for navigation, it does offer the best collection of freely available maps for use when navigating the wild.

Featuring maps from local counties, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks system, ATV/UTV trails, and so much more, every forager should check out what they have to offer in their local area.

Think of it this way: Avenza Maps is the best option for you to bridge the gap between that paper map with all of the detailed information you love and navigation in real life.

It’s hard to summarize what’s all available in Avenza Maps, because it is so specific to your local area. Either way, I suggest that you at least give it a try and check out what free maps they have available. Many of the apps for download are paid maps, but there’s still a lot of great value to be had in the free section.

Here’s where this app is available:

Best Foraging Apps for Keeping Yourself Organized

I’m assuming you are like me: you probably started foraging for something easy like blackberries and then it was only a matter of time before you had a dozen different seasons to keep track of.

This can be a lot of fun, but at some point it becomes easy to miss a season or forget to process your foraged goods in sufficient time. Here’s where we allow technology to the rescue. From scheduling alerts of upcoming seasons to tracking the exact locations of all your secret spots, there’s a lot of ways technology can benefit us.

Google Photos or Photos for iOS

Before I get into why this functionality is so helpful and so valuable, I do have to confess that I resisted this for a very long time on the creepiness factor alone. Here’s the deal: I have no social media presence, I’m quite skeptical of the ways our phones are mined for information, and I’m constantly this close to going back to a flip phone.

With all of that said: man, is it convenient for a forager when you can snap a picture of a newly found plant and have the exact GPS attached directly to your photo. Is it a bit creepy? You bet.

Find a cluster of American hazelnut bushes? Snap a quick picture. Come across serviceberry bushes but it’s a bit too early in the season? Grab a picture. It’s just so easy and so terribly useful.

The real beauty is that the convenience doesn’t have to end in the field. It’s easy enough to add that picture to an album dedicated to that plant species when you get back home. Now, with a photo stored in the correct album and the exact GPS coordinates attached to it, you can easily remember that secret spot any time in the future without any additional work.

Here’s a rundown of how I use Google Photos to keep track of my foraging spots. When I’m in the field I snap a picture of any plant that I want to remember later for foraging. Usually this plant does not have the fruit or nut ripe at this point, as I’m merely saving this location for later in the season. Once I open the app, I scroll down to the pictures that I took when out and about and then tap on the image I’m going to open:

screenshot of pictures of plants in the google photos mobile app

After the image opens up, I go up to the top of the screen and tap the ‘3 dot’ icon to get additional information:

image in google photos app with red arrow pointing to three dot icon to find more options

This then changes the screen to look like the following:

screenshot of google photos app with the button for adding a photo an album highlighted and also gps coordinates highlighted in bottom

I’m interested in two different things when I open up this screen. First, I want to confirm that GPS coordinates were attached to this image. You can see at the bottom of the screenshot that this is the case.

Second, I want to then add this picture into the appropriate album. As you might expect, I organize my foraging pictures by plant species, so I would put this image in the ‘Blackberry’ album. You can do this by clicking the ‘Add to album’ button that is highlighted on the left side of the screenshot. This will pull up a page that allows you to select an existing album or create a new album. I’m going to create a new album, and it’s as simple as clicking this button and then entering a name:

screenshot of creating new album in google photos app

I’m not actually going to create an album for wild blackberries here, as almost every trail in our area is absolutely crawling with them. To find an existing album, go back to the main menu for Google Photos and click the ‘Library’ button at the bottom of the screen:

screenshot of library tab in google photos app showing different plant species organized by album

As you can see in the above screenshot, I have a variety of albums for different species of plants. I’m happy with the simplicity of this approach from a data collection standpoint, but I am looking into better ways to utilize that data once I need it.

I’d love to see an option to pull up a map with pins for all of the different pictures found in an album, but that doesn’t seem to be possible in the Google Photos app. I think it’s possible to extract this data with code, but I think it would require working with an API.

Here’s where this app (or a similar app) is available:

Google Sheets: Free Option for Storing Data

I’ve spent a lot of time working with Google Sheets for a variety of reasons, but I haven’t used it much for foraging. Sheets has a lot of interesting capabilities, and I think it could be very valuable for a forager looking to manage their foraging data if they tend to geek out like me and take a technical approach.

Google Sheets is great for many reasons, but here is a quick summary for those that aren’t familiar with it:

  • Using Google Sheets is free and has a very user-friendly interface
  • The vast majority of people don’t need a separate application on their computer for spreadsheets: an in-browser experience is more than fine
  • A lot of things are possible once you consider integration into the Google suite of apps

Some might be concerned about giving Google too much information, and I understand that concern. However, I don’t fear Google learning about my secret spot for beaked hazelnuts, so I’m comfortable with the trade-off.

Here’s where this app is available:

Notion: an Intriguing Option Worth Exploring

I’ve used productivity and workflow apps in the past (Trello being a good example), but Notion is the first app that I’ve actually managed to use more than a week.

Before I discuss why I think it’s helpful, I think it’s important to state that, yes, Notion can be a little intimidating when you start from scratch. The best and worst part about Notion is that it is basically a blank slate, so there are a million things that you can do with it.

Here’s the deal: if you are interested in using an app to help you better stay on top of the mountain of assorted tasks that come with a great foraging season, Notion might be a great solution for you. It truly is a do-it-all app: everything from note taking to task management to data storage is possible.

I’ve only spent the last month using Notion to manage my work-related tasks and projects, so I have yet to explore how to best use it to manage my foraging headaches. I can promise you that I will be experimenting with this in the future, and I’ll report back with any interesting ideas or thoughts in a future post.

Here’s where this app is available:

Best Foraging Apps for Learning About the Local Environment

While we shouldn’t allow apps to take over our identification of the plants we forage, we can use technology to quickly get the science that we need for our specific location.

SoilWeb: Gain Insights About Your Local Soil

At first glance this app might seem a bit too technical for most people, but hang in there for a minute. The SoilWeb app was developed by the California Soil Resource Lab at UC-Davis, and it’s job is to quickly provide you information about the soil in your current location.

Why might this be useful to the average forager? One of the types of information you can find in this app is referred to as the ‘Use and Vegetation’ sections, which may explain a great amount about your local habitat.

It’s probably easiest to just get to it and show you how to use it. Fortunately, this is perhaps the simplest interface I’ve ever found. When you load the app you should see a screen like the following:

screenshot of the soilweb mobile app with an arrow pointing to the get soil data button at the top

This will come as no surprise, but we’re going to simply click the ‘Get Soil Data’ button the arrow is pointing to in the above screenshot. What this will do is pull your location data (you may need to grant the app permission before it does that) and then it will pull up a screen that may look something like this:

screenshot of possible results from soilweb app query

Let’s quickly walk through what this is saying. First, the soil in my current location consists of two different soil types: Plainfield and Watseka. Second, you can see that the dominant soil type in my location is Plainfield, as it contributes 94%.

The best thing we can do next is to explore the data associated with the soil types that contribute to the majority of our local soil. In my case this means that I’m only interested in the Plainfield soil type, but it’s very possible that you may have two (or possibly three) different soil types to look up depending on your location. Once I click the blue box towards the top of the screen that shows the soil type name and the percent, I’ll be taken to a screen that looks like this:

screenshot of the text description of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

As you can see at the top, there are three different tabs that contain information:

  • Description
  • Details
  • Links

We’ll have some use for all three sections, but you’ll probably get the most use out of the Description and Details sections.

The majority of the Description tab will only be useful to soil scientists, but there are a few sections that we can make use of. Most important to us is the ‘Use and Vegetation’ section, which is near the bottom and looks something like this:

screenshot of the use and vegetation section of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

If you take a minute to read over the text you’ll quickly realize why this information could be valuable to a forager. Included in the text are the following bits of information:

  • Common ways this type of soil is planted with agricultural crops
  • Approximate areas of distribution of this soil type
  • Specific trees that are commonly present with this soil type

While the screenshot above only contains trees that are commonly present, many other soil types offer a more expansive list of plant species. Needless to say, this app can be a great opportunity to get a quick understanding of what you might expect on a piece of land with only the click of a button.

The other parts of the Description tab that may be useful are the following:

  • Distribution and Extent
  • Geographic Setting
  • Introduction (just the first paragraph at the top)

We can leave everything else to the scientists. Regarding the Details tab, the most valuable information for our purposes is probably in the Forest Productivity and Soil Suitability Ratings sections, as they are the most relevant.

The Links tab contains just that: links to two different soil applications that are designed to show the extent of the currently selected soil type. I’ve found some value in these mapping applications, but the outlines aren’t specific enough for us to really get a whole lot of use out of them. Also, while these browser-based applications can run on a mobile device, you’re probably going to want to switch to a desktop for a better experience.

So while the reality is that the SoilWeb app really only does one trick, it does that trick very well and is often very helpful for our purposes.

Here’s where this app is available:

Any App Featuring Satellite Imagery

I’ve covered this in greater detail in this post, but you can trust me when I say that satellite imagery is a wonderful friend to the forager. From easily finding groves of oak trees to finding a hidden ramps spot that’s just a thick carpet of greens every spring, there’s a lot you can do with the right satellite images.

There isn’t really a clear cut app that can do everything that I’m looking for in regards to satellite imagery, but my point is that you should merely leverage the satellite images on your existing apps.

Here are some of the ways you can use satellite images to benefit your foraging:

  • Finding groves of oak trees based on the fall colors late in the season
  • Locating sections of land recently clear cut
  • Finding tamarack bogs when looking for associated wild edibles

There’s a lot more that could be covered here, but just understand that understanding how use satellite imagery gives you the opportunity to make the most out of your time in the field. There are few other tools with as much potential in this modern age, so take the time to explore how it can help you most in your local environment.

Sun Position: Train Your Brain to Think About the Sun’s Patterns

While I wouldn’t call this a necessary app for a forager, I think it can be a very valuable addition. As you might guess, this app allows you to use augmented reality to show the approximate path of the sun in your current location. It also has the capability to show the sun path for any other day of the year, as the path of the sun varies highly over the different seasons.

Why might you need this? This app can easily serve as a great way to quickly remind yourself about which parts of the landscape will get the most sun throughout the day. This is undoubtedly more useful to the gardener, but a forager is certainly capable of benefiting from this knowledge.

Here’s where this app (or a similar app) is available:

Final Conclusions

I hope that you enjoyed this post and that you found a few interesting ideas that might save you some time or frustration the next time you’re in the field. While apps certainly can get in the way of our enjoyment of nature, I think when they are properly used they can really help open up this world for us.

From helping us successfully navigate our way back to the car to quickly and easily storing the location of that thicket of wild plums, apps are here to make our lives better when used correctly.

If you enjoyed this piece and you’re interested in other pieces that take a deeper look into what’s possible when we use technology to make the most out of nature, check out any of these articles:

Tree Questions

Do Sycamore Trees Shed Their Bark?

I remember how much admiration I had for the giant sycamore tree at the end of our driveway when we moved into our current house. I still appreciate that tree, but I quickly learned that I had a lot to learn.

Do sycamore trees shed their bark? Sycamore trees consistently shed their bark throughout the growing seasons. This shedding is most intense in the hottest months of summer and following windstorms or heavy rains, but you can expect it to occur throughout the majority of the year.

Now that we’ve covered the quick and easy answer, let’s dive into exactly what’s going on here.

What Kind of Bark Shedding to Expect From a Sycamore Tree

There’s no way around it: sycamore trees are some of the most notorious shedders in the tree world.

How much bark you can expect a sycamore tree to shed depends upon a few different variables, but just know that a sycamore tree at maturity will shed quite a lot. Needless to say, these are not the best trees for landowners looking for a meticulous lawn and garden.

Mature Trees Shed From Branches and the Trunk

You can expect that bark will be shed on a wide range underneath your sycamore tree. This is because the bark is shed from the trunk of the tree and any branch larger than an inch or two in diameter.

As you might expect, your sycamore tree will create a consistent need for cleaning up and therefore is definitely one of the messiest trees around. The shedding is most aggressive with more mature sycamore trees, as they have a larger network of branches and a larger trunk.

If you’d like to read more about what to expect from your sycamore tree, you can read this post that goes into greater detail regarding its shedding tendencies.

A Permanent Bark May Take Over Mature Trunks From the Ground Up

You might notice some of the more mature sycamore trees in your area have a scaley bark that starts at the base of the trunk and tends to make its way up the tree. This bark doesn’t appear to shed, and it ends up covering the area that used to be covered by the previously shed multicolored plate bark.

As I mentioned earlier, this pattern is mostly visible on more mature sycamore trees, but it does seem to be a rather common occurrence once they reach a certain age. This doesn’t appear to occur until sycamore trees are reaching an older age.

Younger Trees Still Shed, Just Not Nearly as Much

All that said, younger sycamore trees do happen to shed their bark; they just don’t do it in such high volumes. Therefore you may not consider that younger sycamore tree to be that much of a nuisance from a lawn care vantage point, but you can expect that tree to quickly grow into one.

One of the reasons why sycamore trees are so frequently included in suburban landscapes is that they grow so quickly. Combined with their tolerance of environments with excessive air pollution, you can see why they’re such a commonly found tree in the suburbs. You can expect a younger sycamore tree to start shedding quite a lot by the time it’s about 25 years old.

When Sycamore Trees Shed Their Bark

Any observant owner of a sycamore tree has probably already realized this, but these trees are constantly shedding something the entire year-round. Whether they are dropping their leaves for some reason in the dead cold of winter or shedding bark and branches the rest of the year, these trees are quite messy.

You can expect your sycamore tree to primarily shed bark during the growing season. It does seem that a small amount of bark may be shed during the winter months, but it is pretty minimal. As you probably can guess, your peak shedding months will occur while growth is fastest during the hot summer months.

Shedding does occur consistently throughout these months, but you can expect an event like a windstorm or heavy rain to knock down additional pieces of bark. You’ll likely also find a variety of branches down after a major storm event like that, as the limbs of a sycamore tree are known to be rather weak. Long story short, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Shed Sycamore Bark: an Excellent Fire Kindling

For as much as I could complain about the constant shedding of the sycamore tree, I have to admit that it’s a pretty great source for kindling.

Between the shed bark and the dead branches, a mature sycamore tree provides everything you need to start an almost endless amount of backyard campfires.

Final Thoughts

Well I hope you enjoyed this post and came away having learned a thing or two about the mighty sycamore tree. It may be a bit of a pain in the butt to manage, but it’s still a pretty unique tree that gives a lot of beauty to a landscape. A big part of that is the patchwork of multi-colored bark that sheds so easily.

If you found this post interesting and you’re looking for more to learn, feel free to check out any of the below posts:

National Forests

Can You Backpack in National Forests?

Featuring almost two hundred million acres of land, the National Forests of the United States are a fantastic opportunity for backpackers.

Can you backpack in National Forests? The vast majority of the National Forests are available to backpackers looking for multi-day trips. They have a wide network of primitive camping sites and a generally open policy towards dispersed camping. Wilderness areas offer some of the best remote backpacking in the country.

I’ll show you everything you need to know about the great times you can have backpacking through the National Forest. Keep reading and you’ll learn where to get all the information you need for your next trip.

What You Need to Know About Backpacking in National Forests

No matter where you spent your time backpacking, the reality is that our National Forests are great opportunities for backpackers of all kinds. Featuring huge expanses of country and fewer people than you might expect in some of the more popular areas, National Forests really strike a great balance.

They’re open to many different kinds of hiking, and the freedom to practice dispersed camping throughout the vast majority of National Forests really opens everything up.

Learning the Rules on Backpacking in Your Local National Forest

You want to go to the National Forests website and select your specific National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right. Once you are on that specific forest’s web page, you’ll then want to click the button labeled ‘Recreation’ on the navigational menu on the left side of the screen. Next, you’ll want to find a link that says ‘Backpacking’ on the next page’s contents. Here’s about what you can expect:

screenshot of the hiking section of a us forest service site with arrows pointing to the Hiking and Backpacking links

This page is where you can expect to find much of the information you need to backpack in this National Forest. You should know that there may be a message at the top of the screen that may be expandable and contain more information. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

backpacking section of a us forest service website with an arrow pointing to the expand text link option
These expandable links are really easy to miss, so be on the lookout for more relevant information hidden here.

The links that you see near the bottom of the page show all of the areas in that National Forest that mention backpacking in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is relevant information that you can find when clicking through, but know that some backpacking is associated with those locations in some way.

Check Wilderness Areas or Existing Loops for Best Backpacking

If you’re only looking for the best opportunities for backpacking in the National Forests, your best bet is likely to check for either wilderness areas, or existing loops meant for backpacking. It’s important to note that wilderness areas are particularly valuable because these are large expanses of land that do not allow any motor or mechanical tools of any sort.

They truly are some of the best chances to get away from the crowds. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the chance to go a few days without hearing any sort of engine firing up in the middle of the woods.

Regarding loops that are known for backpacking, you’ll likely find links to these on the backpacking page for your National Forest. Simply put, these areas are some of the best possible backpacking opportunities available in our country.

Find Dedicated Trails on the Interactive Visitor Map

Another great tool available for backpackers is the U.S. Forest Service’s interactive visitor map. This map allows you to pull up various layers that show you opportunities associated with different activities. We’re looking for the hiking menu, and this layer will show you all the trails open for recreation in the National Forest. You can pull up the hiking map by clicking on the following icon:

screenshot of the menu for the interactive visitor map of the us forest service with the hiking button highlighted

After clicking the hiking icon you’ll be taken to the main map. If you then open up the legend found on the left side of the screen and then zoom in to your region, you’ll see something like this:

screenshot of us forest service map with green-shaded trails open to hikers

You’ll note that some of the trails are highlighted in green; these trails are maintained specifically for hiking and are likely to be great opportunities to get away. As you can tell from the screenshot provided, not all the trails have status, but they still may have information that could be very useful when planning a trip.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains a large and widespread network of trails, so some may provide great opportunities even if they aren’t meticulously maintained. If you’re not so open to surprises, your best bet is to stick with the trails that have some sort of status associated with them.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

One of the reasons that National Forests are such a great opportunity for backpacking is the US Forest Service’s generally open policy to dispersed camping. This means that the vast majority of National Forest land is open to free camping, assuming that you follow the rules specified by each location.

If you’d like to learn more about this, you can check out this post, which goes into greater detail. As you might think, this open policy towards dispersed camping allows you the opportunity to camp in some pretty remote areas that have a lot of beauty.

Great Reasons to Backpack in National Forests

Between the smaller crowds and the beautiful natural scenery, National Forests really offer great potential to backpackers of all sorts.

Chance to Get Away From the Crowded Trails

Maybe this is just me, but I think that is National Forests offer a real sweet spot when it comes to remote backpacking and getting away from the crowds. Everyone loves and appreciates our great National Parks, but we all know how even the less known national parks tend to draw quite a crowd.

Even state parks are sometimes swarmed with people and make it difficult to get away and appreciate nature with a little solitude. National Forests are a great way to spend a couple of days on the trail without necessarily seeing many people.

Still a Great Opportunity to See Beautiful Country

Even if they haven’t reached the high status of a National Park or National Monument, our National Forests still offer plenty of opportunities to see beautiful land throughout the country.

These areas are generally less manicured than state parks or National Parks, so this is generally a great opportunity to see natural habitats where nature may get a little more say.

As discussed before, wilderness areas are designated locations that do not allow motors or mechanical equipment of any kind. This alone makes them a tremendous opportunity for the backpacker that’s maybe tired of rubbing elbows on some of the more popular trails.

Plenty of Chance for Primitive Camping

One of the best things about the forest in my mind is that they have many locations that offer some primitive camping. These sites have cleared areas for you to set up your tents, and they generally offer pit toilets in case you are a little sick of digging catholes.

Many of these primitive camping locations are set up and beautiful sites that offer easy access to two interesting landscapes like remote lakes or rivers.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and came away with a new idea or two for you next backpacking trip. Our National Forests really do have a lot to offer and I believe they are often overlooked.

If you’d like to read some more articles that dive into making the most out of our National Forests, please check any of the below articles out:


How to Find Specific Trees Using Satellite Imagery

I’ve always loved spending time in the forest, but ever since graduating from college I’ve lived in large cities. While I still get the chance to explore the woods, this meant that I would spend a lot of time dreaming about the next chance to get away.

To be honest, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at satellite imagery of the forests of my youth. I don’t know exactly what I expected to get out of all that time spent dreaming, but it means I’ve happened to stumble upon a few happy accidents along the way.

All of that brings me to this: there are many, many things that you can do with satellite imagery to make the most out of your time in the woods.

In this post I’m going to lay out everything I know about using satellite images to learn more about your forests. A big part of that is getting to know which kinds of trees live where. Fortunately, with a little luck and some help from some satellite images, we can start to make sense of our time in the woods.

Why You Would Want to Find Trees With Satellite Imagery

I’m sure there will be a few people that think this is all a bit silly. If you’re merely looking to enjoy your local forest by going for a stroll down a path, then I completely agree.

However, if you perhaps have more ambitious plans for your connection to nature, then it can massively pay off if you can get comfortable with a few modern techniques and tools.

Like it or not, we’re living in an entirely unprecedented age when it comes down to access to information. If we’re being honest, there are many downfalls associated with this ever-connected world, and, ironically, those ails are often fixed with a good-old forest bath. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, let’s find a way to use all of this technology for good and to have it help us spend more time in nature.

So, let’s get to it. Here are some of the things that are possible if we learn how to make the most out of the tremendous resource that is our rich collection of satellite imagery:

  • Identify groves of oak trees in order to find a great spot for gathering acorns
  • Locating swamps with tamarack trees, in order to find plants associated with them
  • Finding a cluster of trees that are unfamiliar to you and then identifying them in the field
  • Observing the fall colors of your nearby woods from space, in order to identify groups of like trees ripe for identification

All of these are a great opportunity to find a way to strengthen your ties and connection to your local forest. Join me as we work to make the forest a little less mysterious with some help from modern technology.

Important Things to Know Before Getting Started

Before we get started and dive into the action steps in the rest of this post, please take a little bit of time to closely read this section. The points covered below will do a lot to make this whole process a lot less confusing, and you really stand to benefit.

The Timing of the Imagery Matters a Lot

There’s no way around it; the timing of when the satellite image was taken makes a huge impact on whether or not we can actually use it. Let me explain what I mean: the satellite image of a mixed forest containing both evergreens and deciduous trees interspersed is difficult to use if it was taken during the summer months.

This makes sense as anything and everything in the woods is green come summer, so all you’re essentially looking at are a huge swath of green trees.

satellite image of forest in summer with deciduous and evergreen trees looking similar
This forest does contain a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, but satellite images from the growing season make this much more difficult to analyze.

For this reason, I much prefer to find satellite images taken anytime between mid-fall and before the leaves bloom in spring. one of the reasons that fall is okay is because we can leverage the different colors that trees turn before they lose their leaves.

For an example of why this is important, see the below screenshot of satellite imagery from Google Maps that uses growing season imagery on the left but leaves-off imagery on the right.

satellite image from google maps showing a blended section with part leaf off imagery and part leaf on imagery
You’ll occasionally run into spots like this that are blended along a border. This may be temporarily confusing, but understand that it happens with modern mapping applications.

The imagery on the right allows us to quickly understand much more about the landscape. It still is possible to draw some of the same conclusions with the imagery on the left, but the difference are much more subtle and can be hard to spot as a beginner.

We can also use the approximate order in which the different trees lose their leaves but more on that later. On another note, you rarely see satellite imagery from winter used with the snow on the ground.

Very Beneficial to Have a Basic Understanding of Your Local Habitats

The most important point that I can make in the section is that it’s precious to have some basic understanding of your local forests and what happens to your trees throughout the seasons.

I think about it like this: satellite images are merely tools that allow us to apply and search for patterns that we’ve already begun to understand.

This is maybe most clearly explained with a direct example. I spend a lot of time in northern Wisconsin in the Nicolet National Forest, and some of the more common trees up there are maple trees, northern red oaks, tamarack trees, and a variety of evergreens.

I know from experience that the maple trees that dominate the woods lose their leaves early in the season and take on a bright yellow color when they do. On the other hand, northern red oak trees in that area tend to hold onto their leaves much longer, and they have a bright orange color in the fall.

So how can we use this information? I didn’t mean to find this, but one day I was looking at satellite images for that local area, and I noticed that most of the deciduous trees had lost their leaves except for some bright orange clusters of trees.

satellite imagery of a forest in fall with yellow and orange trees scattered throughout
I can confirm that the yellow trees on the left are an evergreen swamp with many tamarack trees present, and that the surrounding trees that are orange are northern red oak trees.

The day earlier, I think it was that I had been walking through the woods and found some northern red oak trees and noticed that they still have their leaves and that they were bright orange. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I sought out to immediately confirm that all of the bright orange dots I saw on the satellite image were, in fact, northern red oak trees.

Determining Deciduous vs. Evergreen is a Great Starting Point

I understand that the above section may have gotten a little into the weeds, but let’s pull it back for a minute and get back to basics.

One of the easiest things that anybody can do when starting to use satellite imagery to better understand their forests is to always think about the deciduous versus evergreen tree question. Going from treating the forest as just a bunch of green trees to starting to think about which locations have evergreen trees versus which locations are mixed or deciduous is a crucial step to take.

leaf off satellite image showing evergreen trees, deciduous trees and national forest trails
We can glean a great deal of information from a satellite image like this. Note that in addition to seeing evergreen vs. deciduous, it’s also much easier to identify trails and the approximate tree density.

It may sound a little superficial, but it’s valuable to have this framework in mind when you’re out in the woods.

Here’s an example of why this is beneficial: if you’re hiking off-trail through the woods and you know that you’re currently in a patch of woods that is almost entirely deciduous trees but surrounded by evergreens, you’ll be able to leverage that knowledge to keep you from getting lost.

This is because you’ll know that if you ever get to a part of the woods where is the makeup of the forest around you switches from deciduous to evergreen trees, you’ve gone too far and need to turn back.

Using Static Satellite Imagery From Common Applications

We’ll start with the simplest approach before we get into some of the lesser-known methods. As you probably can figure out, the easiest way to start using satellite imagery to identify trees is too visually explore the imagery you find on the mapping applications you already use every day.

For most people it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than opening up Google Maps and toggling on the satellite image option in the bottom left corner of the screen. Now, it’s really beneficial for us to branch out and checks some different applications as well. Here’s a list of some of the mapping applications that are worth checking out for satellite imagery:

The mechanics of all this is straightforward. Just load the mapping application and zoom into the forests that you’re interested in learning about. What you want to see is what type of satellite images they employ.

Of the options that I listed above, I find myself using the Zoom.Earth application most often when I’m looking to quickly check out some satellite images without wanting to load a separate application like Google Earth Pro.

There are a couple of reasons why I prefer their tool. First, the default view when you load the app is recent satellite images. There’s not really a whole lot we can do with this, but I think it’s a pretty neat feature. For example, when I’m loading this on October 5th, 2020 you can see that it indicates that the fall colors in northern Wisconsin are definitely underway:

screenshot of application with near real time satellite imagery of northern wisconsin in october

Unfortunately this is as far zoomed in as this recent satellite imagery will allow us, but I think it’s still kind of cool. On the other hand, once we zoom past this point we are met with the best feature of this application. Here we want to look at the upper left portion of the screen, where we can see something similar to this:

screenshot of application showing buttons to toggle on different satellite imagery layers

You’ll notice that we have two different options available, and we can see that we have the ‘May 2017’ option enabled by default. As you can probably guess, this indicates the time frame in which this layer of satellite imagery was taken. If you look at the layer not toggled on in that screenshot, you’ll notice that you may get a time range that isn’t helpful (5 years, really?). That doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we can easily switch between the different views available. Here’s what it looks like when I switch to the ‘April 2011 – Oct 2016’ layer:

screenshot of application showing leaf off imagery of a local forest

By my guess we’re looking at mostly maple trees (as the leaves are gone) with northern red oak trees scattered throughout. There are a smattering of yellow trees shown, but I would guess only those in the lower right are tamarack trees. The yellow trees in the middle of the screenshot are likely a different type of tree, and I would consider this an opportunity to lace up my boots and try some identification come the fall.

Consider Any and All Online Applications That Offer Satellite Layers

Besides the navigation apps used for driving around, you might also want to consider navigation or exploring apps that you use for various activities like hiking or hunting. These apps will almost always have satellite imagery available as a layer, and they might use a different source. You may notice that a few of the different sources use the same imagery in your location.

This Method is a Game of Luck but Worth a Shot

This method is very much, just a game of luck. The kind of satellite imagery you get from these free resources tends to be very high, and it will vary across a landscape.

For example, here you can see a single screenshot from a Google Maps satellite image, where they’ve clearly blended two different image sources here. The portion on the right is from sometime early in the spring, and the portion on the left appears to be summer when everything is green.

screenshot of google maps satellite imagery with blended area between leaf off and leaf on images

This is why it’s important to check out different satellite imagery sources as merely moving over a couple of miles might greatly change what kind of value you can derive from this approach.

Google Earth is Worth a Shot With the Timelapse Feature

While still a free option, you’ll need to download Google Earth if you want to get the most out of it. As all of Google Earth is focused on satellite imagery, there is a lot of potential to gain valuable insight by exploring their library of images.

You may already know this, but at the top toolbar, they have a time-lapse feature that allows you to explore previous satellite images associated with your area. The images do start to appear in black and white the further you go back, but we can still leverage the ability to view a single habitat throughout a couple of different seasons. Here’s what the time-lapse tool bar looks like:

screenshot of google earth highlighting the timelapse button with its slider bar below

The left hand side of the toolbar has a button that allows you to navigate back towards previous layers, and there are hash-marks on the slider where they have satellite images from. I’ve had mixed results with this tool, but it does occasionally come in handy.

Finding Near-Real-Time Imagery of Local Forests

I have to be honest here: I searched for this functionality for a long time, and I didn’t really ever think that I would find it for free. Needless to say, I was very excited to see that a tool managed by the U.S. Forest Service offered the ability to look up nearly real-time satellite images across the entire United States. To me, this is a game-changer, and I plan on using it a lot going forward.

This functionality is found in a tool called ForWarn II, and I have a separate post that goes into great detail as to how to use this tool most effectively. You don’t necessarily have to read that much about using this tool, as we’ll be employing a straightforward method that doesn’t get into any of the other science.

This tool has a couple of different data layers that allow you to view recent satellite imagery. In my experience, the highest quality images come from a layer referred to as ‘ Imagery’ data layer. Unfortunately, this layer is only available to the following seven states located in the Midwest region: IL, IA, IN, KS, NE, OH, WI, ND, SD.

If you happen to live in one of these seven states, you can use the following link to open up this tool with that layer already loaded. Everyone else will use a layer called ‘High-Resolution Sentinel Imagery’, which does a good job though it may not be as high quality. You can open the tool with that option by opening this link.

One thing to keep in mind when checking this near real-time satellite imagery is that you may occasionally run into issues from clouds. If that’s the case, you may want to toggle on and off a couple of the other different layers as they may offer a better solution that is it blocked from clouds. There’s another layer of recent satellite imagery called the ‘Medium-Resolution Landsat 8 Imagery’ layer. As you probably can deduce, it’s not as clear of imagery as the previous two layers.

Recall earlier where we got a distant view of the fall colors from the Zoom.Earth application? Here’s a much closer example of what we can find with the Imagery layer:

screenshot of satellite imagery data layer in forwarn ii application

This is much closer and is much more useful for us, but do note that the date highlighted above indicates that this image is at least a week old.

Practical Examples of What You Can Do With This

All of this being said, the point of this entire exercise isn’t just to sit here on the computer and look at the outdoors through some fancy tool. Doing that defeats the whole purpose of even being interested in the outdoors in the first place.

Instead, we want to make it easier to discover the outdoors and ultimately make sense of it. To do that, we’re going to cover a few real-life examples of how we can use satellite imagery to make discoveries out in nature.

Finding Groves of Northern Red Oak Trees via Orange Fall Foliage

Like I mentioned earlier in the post, I’ve used basic satellite imagery from Bing Maps to identify locations that had large groves of northern red oak trees.

This works because the satellite image I was looking at was taken and compiled after the leaves on maple trees had fallen and before the leaves for northern red oak trees fell to the ground. This meant that every northern oak tree in the area popped with a bright orange color that made clusters of them easily identifiable in satellite photos.

screenshot of satellite imagery showing trees with red fall colors
I can confirm that much of this area is northern red oak trees.

So what can we do with this? Personally, I’ve got a minor addiction to foraging out in the woods, so I’m mainly using this as a way to identify excellent sources for acorns.

Avoid Hiking Through Dense Brush By Using Leaf-Off Imagery

Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy hiking off-trail in a National Forest. Here’s some advice that I highly hope you consider: do what you can to identify the approximate density of the woods you’ll be navigating.

What do I mean by density? I’m mostly referring to how tightly packed a forest feels at the ground level. For example, a young forest that consists of a dense thicket of quaking aspen trees will be almost un-navigable almost any time of year. The left side of the below satellite image is a good example of what this may look like:

close up screenshot of google maps satellite imagery with a dense forest on the left and a mature forest on the right

As you can see on the left side, it’s very difficult to see the individual trees, so you can expect a dense thicket. However, on the right side you can see not only individual trees, but we can make the following observations:

  • The size of the tree trunks are noticeably larger
  • The space between the trees is much greater

As such, I would guess that it would be significantly easier to navigate through the right side. You don’t have to always use this method, but I think it’s important to keep in mind when you’re doing something like hiking off-trail.

I’ve found that Google Maps has the satellite imagery that is most suitable for this kind of up-close zooming, but your results may vary. As you can probably guess, this type of analysis is much easier to do if you have leaf-off imagery like above, as it’s then easier to get an idea of how many deciduous trees are in a location.

Explore Your Local Forests in Fall as the Leaves Change

Using the near real-time satellite imagery from the ForWarn II tool mentioned earlier, We can look for any interesting patterns happening in the forest. At the same time, the trees have their leaves change color.

screenshot of satellite images with trees changing colors in the fall, as seen from the forwarn ii application
If searching this during the fall, you’ll be able to see clusters of trees that are changing colors. This is particularly useful in the early and late portions of fall, as brightly colored trees stand out more.

One of the easiest things to do is find clusters of trees that all look approximately the same in color and then visit those trees to identify them. All in all, it’s simply a great excuse to get out into the woods and learn something while you’re at it.

Finding Tamarack Swamps From Yellow Fall Foliage

Tamaracks are a fascinating tree, as they are, as far as I know, the only deciduous conifer out there. Yes, that means that they lose their leaves every single year. When they do happen to lose their leaves in the fall, the leaves turn a bright yellow, and they are straightforward to spot if you know where to look.

Tamarack trees prefer wet feet and thrive and swampy locations where they may compete amongst evergreen trees. As such, you can expect satellite imagery of tamarack trees in the fall to show them as a bright yellow tree surrounded by evergreens. Here’s about what you can expect an up-close cluster of tamarack trees to look like in the fall:

screenshot of satellite image in fall with tamarack trees turning yellow and surrounded by evergreen trees with a creek running through

As you can see, it’s effortless to identify them, and if we zoom out will usually be a to spot a few additional clusters, like so in the below screenshot:

screenshot of satellite image with clusters of yellow tamarack trees pointed out with red arrows

Final Thoughts

While this post may have been a bit of a bear to get through, I hope you found value in this approach. I think satellite imagery is a relatively straightforward way to draw some pretty neat conclusions in the right hands.

I hope that by writing this more people start to look differently at the forests around them. Only by digging around and pushing ourselves to learn unfamiliar and new things can we take advantage of such great resources.

If you liked this article, you may find these related articles to be an interesting read:

Berries Foraging

When to Pick Wild Raspberries

A favorite mid-summer activity of mine, I’m always down to go exploring through a thicket of wild raspberries in search of that tiny, delicious fruit.

When can you pick wild raspberries? Most climates will have the season for wild raspberries peak around July. Some warmer regions may have seasons that start in June, and the latest you can expect to find a decent amount of wild raspberries is in mid-August. Different levels of light access will also impact when the fruit are ripe.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more to consider when you’re getting ready to dive into wild raspberry season.

When Can You Pick Wild Raspberries

As you might expect, the exact seasons of when you can pick wild raspberries depend on a few different variables. Not just only about which climate you live in, it’s also relevant to consider which type of spots you’re visiting.

In this post, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about figuring out when you can go picking wild raspberries.

The Start of the Season Varies Based On Your Location

The most important variable when figuring out when you’re wild raspberry picking season starts is your climate. Simply put, hotter climates that have raspberries present will tend to have earlier seasons. It’s also worth considering what types of spots you’re visiting to find your wild raspberries.

One of the most prolific plants in existence, wild raspberries, can grow just about anywhere and everywhere. Because of that, you can have plants that are growing along a trail in a mature forest just as easily as you can have a field of wild raspberries on some recently logged land.

As you may guess, the recently logged land allows for significantly more light to penetrate down to the raspberries, and you would expect them to mature quicker.

Wild Raspberries on a Single Cane Ripen Progressively

The other thing to think about is that the berries present on a single cane will ripen progressively throughout the season. This means that each time you visit a cane, it may have different berries that are just about ripe.

You can expect an individual wild raspberry cane to have fruit present on it for at least a month and potentially longer. This is one of the more enjoyable aspects of raspberry picking from my perspective, as it easily turns into something you can make a habit out of.

Weekly trips are a great option for those looking to stay on top of their local wild raspberries but don’t want to go too crazy with it.

Late June through Early August is Likely Your Best Time

All right, so what are the actual months of the year in which you’re going to be surrounded by wild raspberries ripe on the cane? This may vary slightly based on your location, but I would estimate that late June through early August is likely going to be the best time for you to be picking wild raspberries.

Most will find that July is their most productive month, as the plants can tend to stop producing once they get to the late summer heat of August. It’s worth noting that the wild raspberry season tends to run earlier than wild blackberries by about a month.

Blackberries will generally peak around late July and August. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re looking for buckets and buckets of wild raspberries, your best bet is to find locations with lots of sunlight that are dominated by wild raspberry plants.

Wild raspberries, unfortunately, aren’t as prolific as wild blackberries, so every blackberry plant that you see makes you walk further to the next raspberry plant.

Consider Changing Your Approach Throughout the Season

One thing to keep in mind is that you may have to look in different spots when your raspberry picking throughout the season. As we discussed earlier, different plants receive different amounts of sunlight, and the more sunlight is received, the sooner the fruit ripens.

When the season is just starting, you’ll likely have your best luck looking for raspberry canes with the best exposure to southern light. Once you get into the middle of the season, there’s no other way to put it: these things are just about everywhere, so you won’t have to worried about exact strategies.

However, at the end of the season, you can expect that the canes with the most exposure to light are now burnt out and without fruit. At this time of the season, you’ll likely have the best luck by looking in shady areas that have been protected from the summer heat.

How to Tell if a Wild Raspberry is Ripe

Now that we’ve covered when you can fix wild raspberries from a calendar perspective, it’s probably worth touching on what to look for when picking for ripe fruit. First things first, wild raspberry fruit is truly ripe when the fruit itself is soft to the touch.

Ideally, you want a fruit that feels like it might smush if you applied a modest amount of pressure. A good way to tell that a fruit is ripe when you’re picking them is that the wild raspberry fruit doesn’t have to be physically “pulled” off the cane. If you happen to be too late, you may notice that the fruit is starting to come apart on the plant, or other critters may start to eat it.

The fruit of wild raspberry plants are noticeably better when they are the right level of ripeness but understand that the clock is ticking as soon as you pick them. Soft fruits like raspberries and blackberries don’t last long, and wild raspberries are no exception to this. If anything, they may start to develop mold quicker than their domestic counterparts.

Raspberries, Black Caps, and Blackberries: What’s the Deal?

We won’t get too deep into the weeds regarding the differences between these different kinds of wild raspberries and blackberries, but it’s good to go over a couple of high-level details.

As you might expect, black cap raspberries are much more similar regarding their plant structure to a wild raspberry plant, but the fruit turns black when ripe. On the other hand, wild blackberries are much more prolific per plant and have an entirely different plant structure that you should notice in the field without much training.

And on top of that, the reality is that each of these groups has different varieties and slightly different species, which complicates things further. The good news is that they are all delicious and more than easy enough to identify.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and came away with a new idea or two. I always enjoy wild raspberry season and it’s always great to look forward to awesome picking in those summer months.

If you need more articles that get into the nitty-gritty details of foraging, then check these out:


USDA Web Soil Survey: A Complete How-To Guide

I’m not exactly sure how it ended up this way, but it appears that one of my pastimes is playing around with freely available GIS tools.

While it may be a tad clunky in a few ways, the Web Soil Survey application provided by the United States Department of Agriculture can provide a lot of value to a wide variety of people. So, let’s dive in: this post will go into great detail as to how regular people can get great value out of this humble little tool.

Who Should Be Interested in This Application

I’m not going to lie: this will end up being a pretty long post, with many, many screenshots. The truth is that this kind of post won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s totally fine. There will be a few slightly technical parts of this post, but we’ll leave the vast majority of the technical stuff for the scientists.

So, let’s cut right to the chase. Here are some real life scenarios that this tool is very well equipped to help with:

  • Identifying the locations where you’re more likely to find a certain native plant growing (foragers, I’m talking to you)
  • Finding a list of recommended trees to plant for your specific type of soil
  • Being able to quickly assess the soil type and other soil information regarding a prospective land purchase
  • Discovering the approximate height a specific tree would reach at maturity on your soil
  • Comparing the yearly rate of wood production for different tree species on different soils

And so on. If any of those ideas are interesting to you, this post should help get you started with the Web Soil Survey application.

Making Sense of the Screen Before We Dive In

Before we start clicking around and navigating all over this thing, I think it makes sense to quickly cover a few aspects of how this is setup. It really isn’t too unique of a setup, but there are a few quirks.

Important: Notice the Tabbed Setup at the Top

The first thing you should really notice is that there is a series of five tabs over the top of the screen. You’ll see these tabs highlighted in the screenshot below:

web soil survey application with area of interest tab highlighted
There’s a menu above this, but that mostly has links that we won’t need for our purposes.

We’ll cover this in more detail later, but understand that this tool is setup for us to navigate the tabs from the left to the right. In other words, we can’t move on to the ‘Soil Map’ or ‘Soil Data Explorer’ tabs until we’ve specified our Area of Interest (AOI).

The AOI is exactly what you think it is: it merely gives the tool a specific area of land to run the reports on. Many of these reports pull in a lot of different information, so they could be quite computationally intensive if we didn’t have to narrow our focus.

Navigating the Map With the Toolbar

It might look like there’s a lot going on with the toolbar, but there’s really only two things that we’re going to focus on: defining you AOI and moving around the map.

First, defining your Area of Interest simply requires that you activate on of the two following buttons:

web soil survey application with the two area of interest buttons highlighted

The square button on the left allows you to select a rectangular AOI, while while the right button allows you to get creative and create your own polygon AOI. Pretty straightforward.

Regarding how you move around the map; I have some bad news here. The unfortunate reality is that we’re going to have to go back to the days of MapQuest. Remember them?

What I’m trying to say is that you won’t be able to move the map or adjust the zoom with merely a dragging click and the scroll of your mouse wheel. Here we’ll need to have the zoom in button activated to zoom in, and we’ll need the same for zooming out.

Moving the map around by dragging is possible, it’s just that you’ll need to first activate the pan button (the white glove) and then you can pan.

You do have the ability to zoom in to a specific area by dragging a box over it while the zoom in button is toggled on. Still, in order to zoom out you’ll need to click individually to back further and further out. Just expect a bit of a retro experience and you’ll be fine.

Information and Reports are on the Left Panel

You’ll notice that the left side of the screen contains a section where you can find a variety of reports or additional layers to include. Here’s what I’m talking about:

web soil survey application with the quick navigation menu items shown on the left side of the screen

Depending on which tab of the tool you’re currently in, this section will display what is available to you. The available reports and layers may vary based on the AOI that you choose, so be aware that things are a bit flexible.

You can expand and then collapse a section by clicking on the downward arrow buttons on the right side of the window. When you expand a window you’ll possibly encounter buttons or drop-down menus relevant to your section. Understand that the map will not change until you click one of the buttons associated with the section.

Here’s an example: if I want to add a layer to the map showing the Headwaters Wilderness are in Wisconsin I’ll need to find it with the drop-down menus and then click one of the ‘View’ buttons like below:

web soil survey application with button to show land owned and operated by the united states forest service

Again, this is easy enough, but it might save you a little time and frustration if you don’t have to discover this one entirely on your own.

Results of a Report Show Up Below the Mapped Area

Until you run a report on your AOI there won’t be anything under the mapped area. However, as soon as you run a report you’ll be able to scroll down and see the table of information that corresponds to that specific report for your AOI. Below is an example of what I mean:

web soil survey application with an area of interest shown that provides soil map unit information

Scroll to the very bottom and you’ll likely get a box of information that provides background on the report that you’re seeing. Here’s an example of what you might expect:

description of the Forestland Planting and Harvesting report from the web soil survey application

This section is actually really helpful and I’d strongly encourage you to get in the habit of scrolling all the way down to the bottom before digging into your results table. Taking a little extra time to learn about what you’re seeing may save you some time on this journey.

Basic Overview of How It Works

Now that we’ve covered the anatomy of the screen, it’s time to start talking about how this tool actually works.

Define Your Area of Interest (AOI)

As discussed briefly above, your job when defining an Area of Interest is to tell the tool which land you want soil information on. Before we designate an AOI, there are two important things for you to keep in mind:

  • AOIs are limited to 100,00 acres in size
  • It’s possible that you’ll define an AOI that requires two different soil data sources

In either case you’ll be notified with a popup window stating as much.

To define your AOI you’ll first need to verify that one of the last two toolbar buttons are activated, like so:

web soil survey application with the area of interest button pressed and highlighted
The shading will indicate which button on the toolbar is toggle on.

Next, you’ll click and drag your mouse to define a region to set as the AOI, like this:

selecting an area of interest in the web soil survey application
Note that the mouse isn’t captured in this screenshot.

After your AOI is selected you should have a map with a box that has diagonal lines running across it, like so:

box with diagonal lines showing a selected area of interest in the web soil survey application

At this point you’ve selected your AOI, but you just haven’t done anything with it.

Switch to the Soil Map Tab to Pull Up Your Information

Now that you’ve found your AOI, we’re going to turn that box with horizontal lines into an actually beneficial map.

To do that we’re simply going to scroll back up to the top of the screen and click on the ‘Soil Map’ tab, which is the second tab. This should change our map into something like this:

close up view of an area of interest with soil map units in web soil survey application
It might be difficult to read, but this is where your AOI is broken into different soil types.

Success! Hopefully you’re now starting to get a better picture of what’s going on here. Just to pull up a map that’s a little less intimidating, here’s a section of the above area where I’ve zoomed in:

very close up view of soil map units in web soil survey application

While they may look like jibberish at this point in time for you, each of the symbols on the map corresponds to a unique type of soil. For example, there’s a puzzle-piece shape of soil on the left side with the ‘VsD’ label. If we scroll down on the window on the left, we’ll find more information about what type of soil this is:

close up of soil map unit with corresponding description on left side of screen in web soil survey application

You can click on the link in order to bring up a window with more information on this specific soil type, but I think most of that data is a little too scientific for our needs. If you’re a gardener you may already have some familiarity with what ‘loamy sand’ could represent, but others don’t need to worry.

Soil Data Explorer: Tabs Within Tabs

We’re really playing with fire now that we’ve made it to the ‘Soil Data Explorer’ tab. This is where all the magic happens. Congrats on making it this far!

There’s a lot of different things going on here, but here’s what you need to know: you’ll now see that we now have a second layer of tabs underneath our original tabs.

closeup of the soil data explorer tab in web soil survey application

I’ll go through each of the tabs in sections below.

Intro to Soils

This tab is mostly useful if you’re looking for more in-depth explanations about what many of these things mean. They have the educational content split apart nicely, it just happens to be a bit of a pain in the butt to navigate.

Either way, you’ll be able to check the boxes of the sections you want to show, and then click the ‘View Selected Topics’ button to update the screen. Feel free to come back to this section if you’ve decided that you would really like to develop a better understanding of soil science.

Suitabilities and Limitations for Use

Many of the reports in this section are geared towards commercial operations like construction companies and large-scale farming operations, so you’ll likely be able to skip over most of this.

There are, however, a few interesting areas that average people might be able to make use of. As there are a million reports found throughout the menu, I’ll just list the menu groupings in this tab that appear to have some value:

  • Land Management
  • Soil Health
  • Vegetative Productivity

Soil Properties and Qualities

There’s no way around it: this section’s for the scientists. Short of you having a degree in soil science, you can feel free to skip over this section and move onto the actually valuable stuff.

Soil Reports: Full of Useful Information

Last and certainly not least, we’ve finally arrived at the tab that can provide the most value for the average person.

There are a ton of really valuable reports that you can find in this part of the tool. I could spend a bunch of time going over all of the different options, but I think the best choice is to cover all of the best reports in the following section.

Download Soils Data and Shopping Cart

I think it’s nice that the tool allows for you to download soil data and prepare a custom report on your Area of Interest, I just don’t know if most people would get any value out of them. Both of these areas are quite self-explanatory, but I think they are more tailored to the academic types.

Practical Examples of How to Use This Tool

We’ve gotten past the boring how-to and we’ve arrived at the part of the post where I actually get into the good stuff. Let’s find some practical applications for all of this!

Finding Common Understory Vegetation for Forests

Without a doubt, this is my favorite application of this tool. I think there’s no reason to hide it, I love bumming around the woods looking for new edible plants to identify and learn about.

What you can do with this is identify which types of plants occupy the understory of a forest. Here’s where we can find this report:

  1. Go to the ‘Soil Reports’ tab in the ‘Soil Data Explorer’
  2. Expand the ‘Vegetative Productivity’ report group
  3. Find the ‘Rangeland and Forest Vegetation Classification, Productivity, and Plant Composition’ report at the bottom
  4. Click the ‘View Soil Report’ button to generate your report

Once the report has loaded you’ll have access to a variety of data fields associated with each soil type. We’re only really focusing on one field here, the ‘Characteristic rangeland or forest understory vegetation’ field in the middle.

What’s the best way for a forager to think about this in real life? Here’s how I approach it: I establish my AOI as a nearby area with a lot of public land that I’m interested in foraging in. Once I set my AOI, I can just skip right to the ‘Soil Data Explorer’ tab and run the report that I need.

Here’s about what my screen will look like once I’ve done all of that:

screenshot showing the soil reports tab in the soil data explorer section of the web soil survey application

Admittedly, there’s a lot going on in this screenshot and it might take a bit to process. Just from the maroon colored tabs and report at the bottom, you can quickly get a good idea of where we are in this tool. The map shows the soil types for our entire AOI, and the section below that is where our report outputted. Towards the right of the report you can see the ‘Characteristic rangeland or…’ section: this is the column that we will be interested in.

This screenshot is a good example of what you can hopefully expect to see included in this report:

breakdown of the understory vegetation report for the web soil survey application

At the top you’ll see an arrow pointing to the ‘MnB’ part: this is the specific soil type that this is information is related to. Below that you’ll see an arrow pointing to ‘Menahga.’ Menahga happens to be a family of soil types, and MnB happens to be a specific variety of that soil. As you may have guessed, the ‘Mn’ portion of the MnB name is shorthand for the Menahga soil family. The ‘B’ portion simply refers to the degree of slopes found in this area, which makes sense once you see the ‘0 to 6 percent slopes’ portion of the soil type description above.

Now it’s time to get to the good stuff: the box on the right is pulling in a list of plants that are commonly associated with this family of soils. Right off the bat I notice the following values:

  • blueberry
  • hazelnut
  • juneberry

Having learned that this family of soils may have these types of wild edibles present, my next job is to go back to the map and look for Menahga soils. Like I mentioned before, the ‘Mn’ portion of the MnB soil type stood for Menahga, so I know that I can be on the lookout for each of the following soil types when I go back to the map:

  • MnA
  • MnB
  • MnC
  • MnD

Just a quick side note before we get back to the report: it seems like the Xx[A-D] soil naming convention is used in a variety of locations. What you may want to internalize is that the A-D portion refers to the severity of the slope, with D being the steepest grades.

Going back up to the map, if I zoom in I can see the following area with ‘MnX’ soil types:

closeup screenshot of the MnC soil map unit highlighted in the web soil survey application
It may be slightly difficult to read, but each of the highlighted labels is ‘MnC’

Now that I’ve located areas that might have some interesting types of wild edibles, my next job is to confirm whether or not this is public land that I have access to. This is a topic for another post, but it still is a very important step.

As you might be able to figure out, this can end up being a very valuable way for a forager to take a more targeted approach when looking for wild edibles.

Now, here comes the caveat: while I’ve had a good amount of success with these reports, I wouldn’t expect to walk into an absolute paradise of wild foods every time you use this. I’ve had many times where I got skunked when looking for something that the report mentioned, so be sure to go in with the right expectations.

I’ve had success using this approach with both mature forests and young forests taking over recently disturbed lands, so be sure to keep an open mind and lace up your hiking boots. You’ve got some hiking to do.

Identify Which Trees Might Be Present

The next report that we’ll be going over is a great way to get a decent idea about which native trees may be present on that type of soil.

This report is found in the same location as the last one, so all you need to look for is the ‘Forestland Productivity’ report in the ‘Vegetative Productivity’ grouping. Having navigated to that report and executed it, this is what my screen looks like:

highlighting the location of the forestland productivity report in the web soil survey application

The information from the report that we’re most interested in is found in the highlighted group at the bottom of the screenshot. We’ll go over each section to give you a decent idea as to what they mean.

Here’s an example of what you might see for results in the report:

report results for forestland productivity for Pence soil series in web soil survey application

Just like the last report, you can tell that the structure is that the data is associated with the name of the group of soil types (Pence in this case), and that the specific soil type is ‘PkC.’

The next column over, which refers to the ‘Common trees‘ heading, is the information that I find most valuable for my purposes. This is a list of the types of trees that you can expect to find associated with this soil type. So if I was interested in finding out where a specific tree may grow, I would use this report to start to narrow down my locations.

The following column is the ‘Site Index‘ and this is where you might see some numbers that are associated with the tree listed to their left. What does this mean? Basically, the site index in this report gives us an approximate height (measured in feet) that a tree is expected to reach after a certain amount of years. I think the length of time may vary, but you can expect something like at least 50 years. Obviously, how tall a tree can grow after X number of years is highly variable depending on a lot of other factors (light, competition, etc.). But this can still be a great way to quickly understand how suitable a certain type of soil is for a specific tree.

The last two columns can provide some interesting information, but I think they’ll mostly just apply to someone trying to manage a forestland for productivity. The column with the numbers in it is the ‘Volume of wood fiber‘ and this is an approximate measure of the volume of wood that an acre those trees would produce in a year. According to the notes below the report, that number is measured in cubic feet per acre per year. The last column is the ‘Trees to manage‘ section, which just mentions what kind of trees are worth promoting if you’re managing a forestland for lumber production.

Planting Suggestions for Bushes and Trees of Varying Heights

This report is also found in the same group as the prior two reports. You’ll want to find the second report in the ‘Vegetative Productivity’ group, which is the ‘Environmental Plantings and Windbreaks’ report. Expand that report open and click the ‘View Soil Report’ button, and your screen should look something like this:

highlighted path to the environmental plantings and windbreaks section of web soil survey application

If you look at the headings highlighted in the bottom portion of that screenshot, you’ll notice that this report is laid out rather simply.

First, you’ll have to find your soil type, but once you do you’ll hopefully see something like this:

report results for the environmental plantings and windbreaks report in web soil survey application

Like the previous two reports, you can see that the information is tied to the Menahga soil family, which is being pulled in from the MnC soil type.

Here’s what’s so valuable about this report: this is an incredibly easy way to find ideas on what kinds of trees and bushes to plant while having an understanding of how they will develop over the next 20 years.

Unlike the site index metric from the last report that talks about how tall a tree may grow after a 50+ year time frame, I feel that a time frame of 20 years is a lot more approachable for a landowner.

This tool also helps you plan for the different layers that you might find in a less mature forest. Overall, I find that this layout is very handy when trying to develop a picture in your mind about how your land might look with enough time.

In-Depth Information on Suitability of Soil For Grape Production

This last one is just for fun, although I know that some people might be able to make use of it.

First, we’ll need to navigate back up to the second layer of tabs, and we’ll need to switch to the ‘Suitabilities and Limitations for Use’ tab. Then we’ll need to expand the ‘Vegetative Productivity’ tab and find one of the reports with ‘American Wine Grape Varieties Site Desirability’ at the beginning of the name.

The area I’m exploring shows four different options, ranging from short to very long. I’ve selected the ‘short’ option and this is what I see in response:

report showing grape growing suitability for different soils in the web soil survey application

There are a few things to notice here. First, you can see that the map has added a color hue used to indicate how suitable that type of land is for growing grapes. Obviously, red areas correspond to land that is generally unsuitable for growing grapes. Looking at the screenshot above and being familiar with this area, I can tell that the red areas here represent swampy land or creeks.

The other thing to notice is that the report below the map contains a column entitled ‘Rating reasons.’ This is the part of this report that contains the most information about growing grapes, but this column is very well organized. If you scroll down to the report you may see something like this:

report results of the wine grape suitability report in web soil survey application

There are a few things to take note of here. First, notice that the soil types are organized a little differently this time around. The report is still organized by the specific soil type (PkC in this case), but that soil type now has information on composition. While the PkC soil type mostly consists of Pence soil, it also has Padus and Sayner soil present. Most people won’t need to worry about this, but it helps make sense out of the highlighted information.

Secondly, you’ll notice that the third column simply has the word ‘High’ in it. This is the overall suitability rating assigned to the PkC soil type, so this states that this soil type is highly suitable for growing grapes.

Last but not least, you can see that information in the highlighted column has numbers present. These numbers fall between a score of 0 and 1, with a higher score indicating that this type of soil is better suited for this purpose. You may notice that only the ‘Site and soil features’ number varies between the different soil classes, as the ‘Growing season length’ and the ‘Slope’ are independent of the soil class.

There are a variety of similar reports in this tool, as much of the functionality is geared towards helping people use their land for the most effective purposes. How effective land may be towards an application like growing grapes depends greatly on your soil. Obviously, it’s much easier for land owners to leverage a tool like this that is provided for free by the USDA, when compared to the alternative of learning everything you can about soil science.

If you are interested in learning more about how reports like this work, your best place to start is at the bottom of the screen below the report results. Here is what that looks like for this report:

report description of the american wine grape varieties site desirability report in web soil survey application
This continues on after the area in the screenshot. Obviously, it appears that grape growing is quite the complicated endeavor.

While the description section might get a little technical at times, I’ve found that it’s almost always written in friendly-enough language.

Final Thoughts

I know that post was a bit of a doozy, but I hope you were able to follow along and you managed to get some value out of the experience. I just can’t help myself, I love taking the time to dig into these undervalued reports and find little nuggets of gold.

If you enjoyed this piece and you’d like to see what else is possible with freely available mapping applications, feel free to check out the below article:

Everything Regular People Should Know About Using ForWarn II