Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tent Camps versus Motel Shows

A Comparison of Accommodation Types for Tree Planting Employment

Many planters argue about what type of work is better:  planting where you’re living in a tent in a bush camp, or planting where you’re living in a motel.  I’m not going to say which is better, because it depends entirely upon the individual.  I do both types of work every year, with approximately three months doing work in a tent camp in the Interior, and approximately three months (spring/fall) doing planting on Vancouver Island’s north coast.  Admittedly, I stay in a half-condemned camper trailer when I’m in a tent camp, but let’s overlook that luxury for now.  There are pros and cons to both situations, so let me try to illustrate the differences.

There are three main areas on which to compare the two situations:  planting earnings, cost of living, and miscellaneous non-financial considerations.  Planting earnings are highly variable, and depend on the person.  This is where the majority of dissent and even outrage from readers will be generated, from people who don’t agree with my opinions.  However, when it comes to Cost of Living and Miscellaneous Non-Financial Considerations, the facts are pretty straightforward, and hard to argue.  Let’s get the most contentious part out of the way first then.

Planting Earnings

This is going to be the most contentious section of this post.  Most planters tend to defend the regions that they’re working on, because they don’t like to believe/admit that they’re not getting a good deal for themselves.  Many planters also criticize people planting for other companies and/or in other parts of western Canada, without a full understanding of how a particular company operates or what current conditions are on a particular contract.  Some companies improve, others become less professional over time, or start making mistakes that will ultimately have a negative effect upon their reputation as a good company to work for.

A lot of planters look at the western Canadian planting industry in a very simplistic sense, of north vs. south.  I’ve seen hundreds of people commenting over the years about “how it is” in the industry, and many of these people have only ever worked for one or two companies.    I’m not sure how these people can consider themselves to be experts.  Look at me:  I spend a few months each summer supervising for a large northern company, working in northern BC and Alberta, and I also spend a few months each year doing coastal planting, typically spring and fall work on the north Island.  I’ve also worked for about fifteen different companies during my career.  Despite all this, I don’t even consider myself to be an expert!  I don’t think anyone can be.  Having said that, I’m going to give you my reasoned opinions on everything.

I’ve tracked my earnings as a planter for more than a decade, at a number of companies, and dozens of contracts, in varied regions and under a huge diversity of planting styles and contract specs.  To be fair, when I’m planting for the company that I also work as a camp supervisor for, I don’t typically get a lot of planting days in a season; typically only about ten to sixteen days.  Sometimes this is an extra small contract in August that a half dozen of us do together.  Sometimes it is a few days of planting here and there in my own camp, on days off and when special missions need to be done.  For those projects, I need to make adjustments to ignore the part days (because my supervising responsibilities take priority), and I usually only consider full days, to get less biased data.  Also, if I’m planting during the season, I rarely plant full days on a regular block; that just doesn’t make sense.  If I do plant during my regular season, it’s usually because I’m dealing with scraps, holes, problems, or special missions.  So most of my planting data at that company comes from August projects, because I’ve been able to plant full-time on five the last six of those projects).

Here’s the part that will probably cause a lot of people to start arguing:  I make more money planting per day at my northern rookie mill company than I do planting on a good contact on the coast.

Now, before everyone starts screaming in disbelief, let me remind you that this statement is based upon years of spreadsheet data that I’ve collected.  My typical daily earnings on the coast are around $330 per day.  My typical daily planting earnings at the northern company are around $370 per full day.  And the interesting thing is that these numbers have been very consistent from season to season over the past decade.  I’m past the point of improving my production due to additional experience.  If that’s happening, it’s being offset by the fact that I’ve planted for so long I don’t care about numbers anymore.  Now to be fair, we usually plant for an hour longer per day up north, so my average planting time works out to about 8.5 hours per day on the coast, and up north works out to about 9.5 hours per day.  When you break my daily averages out on a hourly basis, they are almost exactly the same, no matter where I work ($38.80 to $38.90).  Even more interesting, I consistently find that I earn almost exactly the same amount per hour whether I’m planting 20 cent trees on the coast, 30 cent trees on the coast, 45 cent trees on the coast, or 11 cent trees in northern Alberta.

Please note that this is all based on data from 2010-2018 inclusive, a period of relatively stagnant earnings.  These numbers may seem outdated to readers a few years from now, if prices and earnings actually start to rise significantly with the expected demand for planting labour in 2019-2021.

Based upon my personal experience, and based upon discussions with dozens of planters, foremen, and supervisors at twenty other companies over the past few years, this is my gut feeling about prices throughout western Canada:

Northern BC & Alberta:  Earnings are decent for a planter with a few years of experience, albeit living conditions are tough.  This area takes the most criticism (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) but probably gets more than it deserves.  A lot of 5-10 year vets who move to other areas say that they made terrible money when they planted up north.  Well of course they did.  If they started between 2007 and 2012, the money WAS terrible, as the economic recession hit this region much harder than the others.  And they were much less skilled planters than they are now.

Northern Coastal work:  Earnings are decent, albeit you need quite a few years of experience to get a job.  Planting is very difficult, but you don’t have to stay in a camp.  If you can get remote work with one of the top companies (Rainforest, Stephen, some of the other small operators), earnings can be stellar.

South/Central Island Coastal:  Prices have been under a LOT of pressure over the past decade.  My daily earnings always drop when I get down to Campbell River, Courtney, Comox, or further south.  This may be due to a large number of planters who live at home in those areas.  Labour supply goes up, prices decrease.  This is probably the worst area to work.

Southern Interior BC:  Prices at most of the smaller companies are quite good.  There’s still great money to be made here.  Living in motels is great, especially once you’ve been planting for several years and the tenting lifestyle no longer appeals to you.  The only real drawback (which is not a drawback to some people) is that the seasons down there are much shorter than northern BC or Alberta.

Of course, all of the above considerations are very general observations.  Certainly, experiences can vary tremendously from company to company, and from contract to contract.

It always amuses me to hear 20-year coastal vets saying that they don’t like working up north because they don’t want to have to bend over 3000 times in a day.  I can respect that.  But then I hear dozens of 2nd and 3rd year vets, who have only ever worked at one or two companies, parroting the same line.  Personally, I don’t mind bending over 3000 (or 4000) times in a day.  What I hate is climbing up steep hills and over giant carpets of slash.  I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t like bending over 3000 times is wrong.  I’m just saying that everyone can have their own opinion that matches what their body prefers.  There is no right or wrong.  If some of those northern planters spent a day on some of the tough coastal blocks that I’ve worked on, they might quickly run back to their Alberta farm fields.  I’ve worked on many coastal blocks where I’ve thought how much easier it would be to plant five Alberta trees at 11 cents each than it would be to plant one coastal tree at 35 cents.

Anyway, the point of this section is that planting earnings can vary widely depending on where you’re working.  Prices are generally much higher in the Southern Interior and on the coast than they are in northern BC or in Alberta.  Despite this, higher prices do not necessarily translate to higher earnings.  In the end, it is my daily earnings that matter the most to me.  I do believe that earnings can generally be higher in the Southern Interior than in northern BC or Alberta.  But I also believe that most people need at least four to five years of experience before they’re truly ready for the more technical ground that many small Southern Interior companies specialize in.

Cost of Living

I’ve addressed this issue before, in other discussions on Replant, but it’s an important consideration.  In a camp, you typically pay camp costs of $25 per day (usually $27 to $34 per day if you work in Alberta).  You usually only pay those on planting days, when meals are provided.  On days off, you are responsible for feeding yourself, in town, at your own expense.

When working on a motel contract, you typically pay $25 per day in ‘camp costs’ to cover a portion of the cost of your motel room (the employer subsidizes the rest).  This cost is incurred every night, regardless of whether or not it is a work day.  In addition, you have to pay for your own food.  My experience, based upon a decade of tracking personal food costs for groceries while working on the coast, has been that I need to budget about $20/day to feed myself (that’s under a cost-conscious regime where I don’t eat fast food or eat meals at restaurants).  That expense, naturally, also needs to be paid regardless of whether or not it is a work day.

Let’s compare these costs under the assumption of a 3&1 shift schedule.  In a bush camp in BC, you’d pay $25/day for three days (camp costs) and $20/day on the fourth day (food in town), which works out to a total of about $95 for the shift.  This breaks down to $23.75 per calendar day for living expenses.  If you wisely account for this against your planting earnings, this cost of $95/shift, set against three days of planting, means that the first $31.67 of each day’s planting earnings go towards your cost of living.

In a motel, you’ll be paying $45 per day for the first three days ($25 motel plus $20 food), and then exactly the same thing on the day off.  The total is therefore $180 for the shift.  This breaks down to $45.00 per calendar day for living expenses (as opposed to $23.75 in a camp).  If you wisely account for this against your planting earnings, this cost of $180/shift, set against your three days of planting, means that the first $60.00 of each day’s planting earnings go towards your cost of living (as opposed to $31.67 in a camp).

Obviously, surrendering your first $60.00 of each day’s earnings to your cost of living is a pretty steep price to pay for being a tree planter.  By living in a camp, you can save yourself approximately $28.33 per day.  This is one reason why daily earnings MUST be higher for motel jobs; because your cost of living is also higher.

In this analysis, I’ve neglected the impact of income taxes.  Your planting earnings are taxed, but your food and camp cost expenditures are deducted from after-tax income, which skews the numbers even more in favor of tent camps and against motel accommodations.  Luckily, in some cases, planters are able to used T2200’s or Remote Work Allowance (RWA) to negate the taxation implications.

In this analysis, I’ve neglected the impact of slightly higher camp costs in Alberta (which are due to food costs being higher in Alberta).  Of course, some of the companies working in Alberta are more likely to have 4&1 work shifts, which counterbalances the higher camp costs.  Also, my daily food costs may be higher or lower than your own circumstances.  I admittedly do eat a lot, but again, I stay away from restaurants and other high-cost food items in order to stretch my food budget.  Rice and pasta help in that respect.

Bottom line, anyone reading this that wants more accurate numbers could re-do my calculations based upon the precise camp costs at your own company, based upon your own eating/cooking habits, and based upon your personal tax situation.

Sample Analysis Assessing Earnings and Cost of Living

Now that you have an understanding of how earnings and cost of living can vary, let’s do a sample analysis.  Let’s say that you’re a moderately decent third-year planter, working for a northern BC company, and you usually average about $275/day in a 66 day season, with shifts of 4&1.  Let’s say that you think you could average $350 per day if you worked for a high-end Southern Interior company for their spring season, but you’d be living in a motel and working 3&1’s.  You expect that you’d get about 44 planting days at that company (because they start April 26th and have work until June 21st, which is common for those companies).

Northern Company:
66 Planting Days @ $275 = $18,150
Less Camp Costs of 66 Planting Days @ $25 = -$1,650
Less Food on Days off (24 @ $20) = -$480  (allowing for some extra days off on camp moves)
  Total NET earnings for Season:  $16,020

Southern Company:
44 Planting Days @ $350 = $15,400
Less Motel Costs of 58 Calendar Days @ $25 = -$1,450
Less Food Costs for 58 Calendar Days @ $20 = -$1,160
  Total NET earnings for Season:  $12,790

In these two examples, it’s obvious that although your average daily earnings are higher at the Southern company, your total season earnings are higher at the Northern company.  This is common.  However, this doesn’t factor in the non-financial benefit of having five extra weeks off in late June and July.  For university students, the total earnings are usually the most important consideration.  For non-students, who often work in the early spring too, the appeal of planting in July is not a big selling point.

Now that you have a good understanding of how to consider all of the financial ramifications of various options, let’s look at the non-financial considerations.  For some planters, these are the points that are the most important.  It’s not always all about the money, even though your earnings are important.

Miscellaneous Non-Financial Considerations

For some people, money is not the most important deciding factor.  If you’ve ever studied Organizational Behaviour (or a few dozen other academic subjects), you’ve probably read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  There are safety, behavioural, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs that can be considered in your decision:

Tent Camp Advantages
-        More active social life
-        Having meals cooked for you
-        Some people really enjoy camping
-        Can sometimes be situated quite close to the blocks (contract dependent)
-        Usually fairly good gender balance
-        And as mentioned above, lower cost of living and longer work days

Tent Camp Disadvantages
-        Living in a tent sucks during bad weather
-        Camp moves are painful (although so are moves to a new motel)
-        Less privacy, unless your tent is far away from everyone else
-        Hard to sleep on the night off, if everyone is partying
-        Less likely to shower on a daily basis

Motel Advantages
-        Showering nightly, with no lineup
-        Get to choose your own diet
-        More privacy, and easier to sleep on the night off
-        A dry bed during poor weather conditions
-        And as mentioned above, shorter work days

Motel Disadvantages
-        Really sucks if you don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at cooking
-        Drives to the blocks tend to be longer, on average
-        Social activities are unlikely to involve the whole crew
-        Gender balance frequently skewed towards heavily male dominated
-        And as mentioned above, you pay for your food and motel, 7 days per week


The strength of our industry is the diversity.  There is no “best” type of accommodation or planting solution, otherwise, every single company would adopt that.  The industry needs the high priced motel shows and highly technical planting that attract highly experienced planters.  The industry needs the large tent camps full of planters with less than three or four years of experience, who can quickly learn to plant well on easy ground.  The industry needs small shoulder seasons of work in February/March/April and again in the fall on the coast, to retain highly experienced planters in the industry.  The industry needs the vast majority of the work to be easier ground that falls into the May/June/July window, so it can be performed by college and university students seeking temporary summer employment, but who generally have no interest or desire in a long-term career as a planter.  In short, the industry needs to have as much variety as possible, because tree planters’ needs and motivations are so varied.

So there you have it.  There is no universal “best situation” that fits all users.  Tree planters are diverse, tree planting contracts are diverse, tree planting companies are diverse, and peoples’ desires are diverse.  You should make a decision about what is best for you based on your own desires, not based upon what other people tell you is best.

How To Poop In The Woods

One thing that has often amused me about the start of a planting season is that I sometimes get questions from [very embarrassed] first-year tree planters about the rules for "using the washroom" when there is no washroom.  After I tell them that there are no real rules, other than "bury your mess afterward," some are brave enough to ask for advice on the best way to go through the motions.  So for those of you who have never gone on a long camping trip, and are looking forward to (or are terrified of) your first poop in the woods, I've decided to write this post.  Be forewarned, this post has demonstration photos, therefore you may want to be careful if you're reading this at work ...

If you'd prefer to read a different post on a completely different website that uses graphics instead of photos, here's one option:

Now to be honest, what I'm about to teach you is a very abridged version of defecation methodology when compared to a detailed analysis written by Kathleen Meyer: buy link:

If this blog post whets your appetite for further research, head to Amazon and order a copy of Kathleen's book.

In the meantime, let's look at some of the most popular and time-tested poses.  Since a picture paints a thousand words, I've put together some demonstration photos.

The Squat

This pose is great when you don't have any props nearby (such as tree trucks or slash).  While all of these pooping positions are unisex, I believe that this position is slightly more suited for women, since they generally have stronger upper legs.  I suspect that your body structure also matters; I find that I'm constantly on the verge of tipping over backwards in this position, which would unquestionably be a disaster.  I believe that you can stretch your arms straight out in front of you while in this position, in order to steady your center of balance.

Leaning Against a Wall

We don't really have walls out in the bush, but we have lots of sturdy tree trucks.  Make sure you pick a trembling aspen, or a similar species with smooth bark and no protruding lower branches.  This position requires no ongoing muscular effort, as it relies on gravity, and can be held comfortably for long periods.  I find that this position is good during heavy rain.  After all, if you've gotta go, you've gotta go.

Living On the Edge

This is my favorite position.  If you can find something smooth to sit against, it's very comfortable.  Any piece of slash will do if the top is at least a foot above ground level, although 2-3 feet is obviously preferable.  Again, looking for a trembling aspen (or a very old dried fallen tree which has lost all of its bark) is best to ensure you don't imprint bark dimples into your behind.  Key technique:  Make sure you're sitting quite far forward!

Hanging Out

When the bark of an upright tree is rough, you may prefer this position rather than leaning backwards against the trunk.  This position is best held with two hands at the same time, although it's quite possible to manage with just one hand.  This position, like the squat, has the advantage of giving your muscles a bit of a workout while you're doing your thing.  If you alternate between this and squatting, you'll be able to work out both your arms and upper legs on a regular basis.  Mind you, if you're a tree planter, you probably don't need to worry about working out.

The Danger Zone

This is not a position that I'd recommend, unless you're a driver and you have your own truck.  I think you'll find that if you start doing this with the crew truck, you'll quickly become a social outcast.  Nobody likes to walk around to the back of the truck to throw their gear in at the end of the day, and find a sudden surprise waiting for them.  Also, as mentioned earlier, you should always bury your mess after you do your thing.  Roads are generally fairly hard-packed, so it's much more difficult to dig up a bit of dirt to bury your mess than when you relieve yourself out on the block.  The value of this option is simply to remind you that you can be creative with finding a useful prop.

Well, there you have it.  I'm sure there are more positions that I've overlooked (I haven't read Kathleen's book in over a decade), but I think this portfolio of poo poses should be plenty to get you started.

Good luck with your tree planting, or with whatever it is that made you decide to learn how to poop in the woods!

Also, if you're wondering what's driving all the traffic to this post, it's because I've linked to it from my book about tree planting training, called "Step By Step, A Tree Planter's Handbook."

Here's a link with more info:

(and from that page, you can find a link to allow you to download the book for free)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Backroad Mapbooks for Tree Planters

A lot of tree planters like to use the Avenza GPS/mapping app for finding their way around in the bush.  The Avenza app is free to download and use (three simultaneous maps at a time maximum with the free version, unlimited maps with the annual subscription), and it is available for both Android and iOS devices.  It's also very easy to use.

Typically, planters get maps from foresters, or from their camp supervisor, or shared online for free.  The only maps that work in this app are ones that are set up as "georeferenced" maps.  The file format for these maps is generally a PDF or a TIFF, and if the map is georeferenced, that means that it has latitude and longitude info embedded into the file.  When combined with a device that contains a GPS (ie. all modern smart phones, and any modern cell-connected tablet), a user can load a georeferenced map into the Avenza app, and when the map is displayed on the screen, your location "on the map" is shown as a blue dot, similar to the blue dot that you see in Google Maps.  Of course, in order to see that blue dot, your device also needs to be physically located within the geographic area displayed on the map.

For the past few years, I've shared a collection of a few georeferenced forestry overview maps on my public dropbox account, so planters (in BC) can experiment with using the app.  I have about a dozen different maps there, and each can be downloaded and used by anyone who knows the link.  There are maps for Burns Lake, Fort St James, Kamloops, Lillooet, Mackenzie, Merritt, Prince George, Quesnel, Smithers, Valemont, and Williams Lake.  To find them, first go to my public dropbox at this link:

Once you're there, go into the Canadian Reforestation folder, then go into the BC Overview Maps folder, and help yourself to whatever you want.

The only problem with these maps is that each one was made by a different forester, using different layers and GIS data, and many of them don't even show publicly-maintained roads, let alone the forestry roads and back trails that many of us like to explore.  There's no consistency, and many of them are fairly poor when it comes to navigation, except in a very broad sense.  Well, look no further, there's an easy solution:

On the Backroad Mapbooks site, you can find a number of commercial map packages (for Canada) that can be purchased, downloaded, and loaded into the Avenza maps application.

There are a number of different regions available for purchase.  Within BC, for example, there are approximately six different regions.  I guess this is a drawback if you are exploring all over the province, but since many of us tend to stick to one or two regions, it's not a real problem.  Also, each package is so cheap ($19.95 USD) that it doesn't hurt to have to buy a couple of regions.  There are additional packages which cover the rest of Canada.  Of course, some other regions are not as geographically diverse as BC, so for example, a single package covers all of New Brunswick and PEI, and another covers all of Nova Scotia and PEI.  PEI gets to be included in two different packages because it's so small.  "Hey bus driver, can this bus stop on a dime?  I hope so, because we're coming up to PEI!"  Ok, PEI is a wonderful province, and before I get off onto a rant about Greyhound, let's get back to the topic at hand.

These maps are great.  However, when you buy them to use with Avenza, make sure you select the digital version, not a print mapbook!  You can then pay for the download with a credit card or PayPal, and a few seconds later, the mapbook is available in your Avenza Map Store account.  Yes, you needed to create an account on the Avenza Map Store, if you didn't already have one.  This only takes a couple minutes, and as much as I hate creating new accounts everywhere, this is quite beneficial.  You see, you can log into your account from multiple devices.  So for example, you can buy the Northern BC mapbook package on your PC, then log into your account on both your phone and tablet, and the maps will be available for both devices.  This is really helpful.  When I go exploring, I usually have my tablet mounted on my windshield, for hands-free navigation.  But if I jump out of the truck to take a few photos, I like to do it with my phone, because the camera on my phone has better resolution and more storage.  When I'm about to take a photo, I can drop an Avenza pin on my Backroads Map to show where I took it, then take the photo within the pin for later reference.  Your purchases stay in your account permanently, so even if you drop your phone into a toilet three years from now and end up installing Avenza on the new Samsung Galaxy S14, you'll still be able to access your maps.

Here's a screenshot to show some of the Northern BC maps loaded up into my phone.  This particular package contains 112 separate maps (a 775MB download, so do it while you're still in WiFi coverage at home):

Here's a screenshot showing me sitting in Prince George (I'm the blue dot).  This map is zoomed in to its maximum extent at the moment, but even so, the resolution is still usable.

Here's another screenshot, zoomed out slightly more, but still showing a small fraction of the Prince George map.

As you can see, the detail is pretty good, and considering that some of the BCTS and MOF overview maps lack much attention to detail (ie. roads), it can be handy to flip back and forth from your government forestry overview maps to the Backroads Maps while navigating.  These Backroad Mapbook maps do have a fair number of logging roads and goat trails on them, even small side branches.

To be clear, you do NOT need to be in cell service for the location-finding on these maps to work.  The "blue dot" magic happens because your device reads GPS signals from GPS satellites even when you're in remote locations, far from cell coverage.

Good luck with your exploring!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Tree Planting Outside Canada

While I can give readers a great deal of information about planting within Canada, I have no first-hand experience with tree planting in different countries.  I therefore have to rely on third-party accounts of experiences recounted by Canadians (for the most part) who have been planting abroad.

To make it easier for people to find information about planting abroad, the message board has topics set up for planting in a number of different countries/regions.  Here are the links:

  United States:

  New Zealand:

  Europe (not UK):

  United Kingdom:


If you've been planting somewhere outside of Canada, and would be willing to share information about your experiences, we'd all appreciate more posts on the message board.  You can email me at if you'd like an account set up, and that can be an anonymous account if you wish.

Examining Camp Costs within the BC Tree Planting Industry

This is a very long read, probably around fifteen minutes for the average reader.

For years, we've heard discussions about the value of charging “camp costs” within the tree planting industry.  This is a very complex topic, and one which many planters have not been properly informed about, so I’m going to try to point out some of the nuances of the current camp cost system.  I’ll preface by stating that I’m neither strongly for nor strongly against the long-term continuation of the current system.  I’m simply trying to look at camp costs from all points of view, to try to figure out what will ultimately be best for all planters.
Tl;dr:  I think that if we were to adopt a psychological mindset, it makes sense to eliminate camp costs.  If we were to simply analyze the net economic benefits, eliminating camp costs [in the absence of new revenue] doesn't provide a net gain to planters as a whole.  But these assessments will make more sense when you read everything below.

How Do Camp Costs Work?

For any readers who don’t know what camp costs are, it’s a daily charge levied by an employer to all workers to help subsidize the cost of running a bush camp operation, and of feeding the workers within this camp.  In most companies, camp costs are charged on a “per work day” basis, ie. planters have to pay this cost for each planting day, but if the camp is on a day off with no work available, no camp costs are charged.  Some variations do exist; a few companies charge camp costs on days off (often at a reduced rate) and some link camp costs to meals provided, ie. if the planters work for a full day, but no dinner is available, then that day’s camp costs are reduced significantly.

In BC, legislation is in place to cap the maximum amount allowed to be charged for camp costs at $25.00 per day, plus GST.^1  No such legislation exists in Alberta, and camp costs there are frequently higher than in BC, sometimes as high as $34.00 per day.  The higher camp costs can be somewhat justified because food costs are generally higher in Alberta than in BC.

Camp costs are not restricted solely to camp-based operations.  Employers also charge camp costs when tree planters are staying in motels (when the contractor/employer pays for the motel charges).  In such a situation, when operating in BC, the camp costs are still generally capped at $25.00 per day, but there are exceptions.  The exact rule, as taken from the BC Silviculture Workers’ Fact Sheet, states that, ”If a silviculture worker agrees in writing, the employer may charge for camp costs or other accommodation. The amount charged cannot exceed $25 per day for camp costs, or if the worker is lodged in a motel, the actual cost for the motel room.  The problem is that the “actual cost” for the room is hard to determine.  If a planter is in a 2-person room, and one of the planters goes away for a few days (perhaps to attend a funeral), is the employer allowed to charge the full room rate to the remaining planter during that period?  Even more vague, if you read “motel accommodations” as being a separate situation, then when motel costs are LESS than $25/day, the employer probably should not be allowed to charge $25/day.  Yet companies often charge $25/day per person even when they are getting a cheaper rate by paying for the room per month.  It’s all in the interpretation of the rule.  This is a minor argument; what is significant is that when a planter is being charged camp costs in a motel, only their room is paid for.  Their food is not paid for, which means that it is different than a mobile camp situation.

Free Lunch

In a perfect world (for planters and planting companies), there would be no such thing as camp costs.  However, a common saying comes to mind:  “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  In order to eliminate camp costs, someone needs to find a way to pay for the expense.  Currently, planters pay this.  Can the expense be shifted onto the employer?  Sure, but it means that there is less money for wages.  Can the expense be shifted onto the licensees?  In theory, but what forester is going to accept that kind of hit to his/her budget simply because they feel sorry for the planters?  Grocery stores won’t donate free food.  Motels won’t offer free rooms.  The government isn’t about to step in and volunteer to open the public coffers.  If a decision is made that the planters no longer pay camp costs, the money inevitably will add to a company’s operating costs.  This means that they have to reduce money somewhere else (wages or profits), or else suffer financial losses.  Operating at a loss (or foregoing any profit) can be sustained for a short time, but not in perpetuity.  Therefore, the only long term solution for a company to compensate for the loss of camp costs charges is to reduce wages.

If a planting contractor reduces wages, and tries to perfectly offset the loss of camp cost charges, then the AVERAGE employee will lose exactly what they would have previously lost as a camp cost charge.  So taking a simple example, if camp costs were $25, and a planting company no longer charged the workers that $25, they could simply pay $25/day less in wages, and the company would be able to sustain operations on an ongoing basis, exactly as before.  This is what's known as a "zero-sum solution":  the planter would not really benefit from the elimination of camp costs, because their take-home pay (gross wages less camp costs fees) would be the same as it was before.

This is where things get tricky.  In any other industry, a systemic change could happen, and all employees would be affected equitably.  It would be fair to everyone, with everyone’s net pay changing equally.  And to be fair, IF compensation for tree planting was determined the same way as any other industry (ie. hourly pay or day rates), this change would have happened decades ago, with full support from all planting companies and all employees.
It’s important to remember that camp costs are not charged in any other camp-based industry.  If you work in a logging camp, or mining camp, or oil & gas camp, the company that employs you also covers your camp costs.  So why do those industries not have camp costs, yet the planting industry keeps them?  It’s quite simple really.  It’s because our compensation system is completely different.  In all of the other industries, workers get hourly pay, and get treated equally (if performing the same duties, and having the same skills and qualifications and seniority).  This is not the case in tree planting.  Planters are paid via a piece-rate compensation system, earning a certain amount per tree planted.  The harder one works, the higher the compensation.  And here’s where the whole problem lies.

Let’s say that a company needs to “recover” $25.00 per day per person to offset camp cost expenses.  To do that, the company reduces the tree price.  The company only needs to figure out the average production per person per day, in order to determine how much the tree prices need to be reduced to cover that $25.00.  I’ll try to keep the math simple, and say that in our hypothetical company, the average planter is able to plant 2500 trees per day.  Therefore, if the average planter got paid one penny less per tree, than would be 2500 fewer pennies paid out in wages.  In other words, each worker would get a $25.00 reduction in wages, and this money would make up for the lack of a $25.00 camp cost fee deduction.  Simple, right?

No.  The problem is that everyone produces a different amount, depending on their skill, experience, motivation, intelligence, sleep deprivation, the day’s temperature and precipitation, the difficulty of the piece they’re in, how much coffee they drank at breakfast, and hundreds of other factors.  In general though, more experienced planters are faster planters, and plant more trees in a day.  So let’s compare two planters:  One, whom we’ll call “Johnny Highballer,” usually plants 3500 trees per day.  Another, whom we’ll call “Sammy Slowpoke,” usually plants 1500 trees per day.

If these two planters were working on a contract where trees were 11 cents apiece, and $25.00 camp costs were charged, their daily earnings would normally be:

   Johnny = (3500*$0.11) - $25.00 = $360.00
               Sammy = (1500*$0.11) - $25.00 = $140.00

Under the hypothetical new system, where no camp costs were charged (and tree prices were adjusted downward to exactly offset the money), the daily earnings would change as follows:

               Johnny = (3500*$0.10) - $0.00 = $350.00
               Sammy = (1500*$0.10) - $0.00 = $150.00

So you can see that under both systems, the total amount that the planting company pays out is the exact same ($500), but there has been a shift, or wealth redistribution, that hurts Johnny Highballer and benefits Sammy Slowpoke.

Anyone who has studied camp costs in any depth in the past should already know how this works, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise.  Eliminating camp costs, in the absence of any other magical source of new funding to offset the lost fees, will hurt high-production workers, and help low-production workers.  The net overall effect to the system will be a wash, ie. no overall financial difference.

Should We Eliminate Camp Costs?

Why then, if there is no adverse financial effect to planting companies of eliminating camp costs and compensating by lowering prices, has no company been bold enough to do this yet?  There are two main reasons.  First, the people who make decisions (company owners) don’t want to make a systemic change that is detrimental to the very people whom they value the most: the highest producers.  Second, unless the entire industry moves to eliminate camp costs in lock-step, it could create perceived inequalities (lower tree prices at a company without camp costs might cause workers to migrate to companies with higher prices).  [Note that some companies did eliminate camp costs in 2019, but after a few years opted to return to the previous economic model, presumably due to planters at those companies complaining about tree prices being too low compared to industry peers and employee retention suffered].

What are companies striving for?  If you’re going to champion financial equality for your work force, a much better change would be to simply start paying everyone an hourly rate.  Of course, if someone tried that, it would destroy the modern planting industry.  Certainly, there are situations where equal hourly or daily pay is appropriate.  We see it in hourly rates or day-rates for some checkers, trees runners, support staff, supervisory staff, and also on certain projects where it just makes sense for everyone to earn a set amount per day (used in some types of specialty planting, such as reclamation projects or oil lease planting, etc.).  But is the industry ready for a broad-scale shift to general hourly wages?  I don't think so.

The entire planting industry was built upon a piece-rate mentality, and that’s what initially made it so appealing to so many people.  An individual could work harder than their co-workers, and would be recognized for this hard work in the form of increased financial compensation.  Motivation and work ethic was rewarded, and forced people to push themselves harder than they ever thought capable.  If planters were paid by hourly rates, almost nobody would exert themselves as hard as they do for piece-rate wages.  The industry as a whole would be less efficient, and overall earnings would be diminished as per capita production decreased.

My first take-away lesson is that eliminating camp costs, and indirectly penalizing high production workers, would run completely contrary to the entire mindset of piece-rate compensation, and to the ethos of the western Canadian tree planting industry.

Having said that, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done.  All I’ve done so far is to try to help planters understand the shift in compensation that would need to accompany the elimination of camp costs.  Let’s look at some nuances next.

Does the negative impact on high-production workers, and the positive impact on low-production workers, occur solely within each company, or does it occur between companies?  The answer is:  both.  We’ll call the impact “within any given company” the micro impact, and “between companies in the industry” the macro impact.

In terms of the macro impact, one would expect that companies who attract a high level of highly experienced planters (presumably coastal and some southern Interior companies) would be reluctant to eliminate camp costs.  At the same time, one would expect that companies who have lower average experience levels (northern “rookie mills”) would embrace an industry-wide elimination of camp costs.  However, I haven’t seen any evidence to support this.  Many owners seem to be either undecided about whether such a move would be a good idea, or are acting contrary to expectations.  Some owners of large northern companies are currently reluctant to endorse such a change, whereas other smaller company owners down south would support it.  Camp-based operators have to swallow much larger subsidies to workers than motel-based operators, which may offer some rationale behind the dichotomy.

In terms of the micro impact, however, real-world results mirror expectations.  Most company owners want to do what is best for their most experienced workers.  Why is this?  In a word:  retention.  They want to retain their best people.  And this brings up a key point:  Even though individual companies want to retain their best workers, what does the industry as an abstract whole want?  They want overall retention too.  However, perhaps increasing the retention of less skilled workers is a goal that is too often ignored.

My second take-away lesson is that eliminating camp costs should theoretically improve retention of new and inexperienced workers (giving the greatest benefits to companies who hire large numbers of inexperienced planters).  However, keeping the existing camp cost system in place will theoretically maximize retention of skilled employees (giving the greatest benefits to vet-heavy companies).  Considering these theories, and ignoring the short-term and medium-term horizon, which approach will be best for the industry as a whole when we think ten years ahead?

Camp Operations vs. Motel Shows

Let’s examine another divide now:  the difference between camp costs and motel costs.  At the moment, it is FAR cheaper for a planter to work in a camp-based environment (from the planter’s point-of-view).  Let’s quickly look at a 3&1 shift rotation, with camp costs (or motel costs) at $25/day, and the planters being able to feed themselves for approximately $20/day (regardless of whether this is long-term grocery shopping and cooking for oneself in a motel, or eating snacks & fast food on a day off).  Unfortunately, it's becoming increasingly impossible to feed oneself for $20/day, but let's stick with that number for now.  These numbers will all presented from the perspective of the planters, not from the perspective of the planting company.

Scenario 1:  Camp
3 days of camp costs ($25/day) plus 1 day of buying food in town on day off ($20) = $95 in 4 days.
This works out to $23.75 per calendar day, or $31.67 total cost to live per work day.

Scenario 2:  Motel
4 days of motel costs ($25/day, remember that you still pay for the motel on the day off) plus 4 days of buying groceries and cooking for yourself ($20/day) = $180 in 4 days.
This works out to $45.00 per calendar day, or $60.00 total cost to live per work day.

As you can see, there is absolutely no question that earnings need to be higher in a motel-based accommodation situation, simply to be able to cover the higher cost of living.

What happens if camp costs are eliminated?  How do the above scenarios change?

Scenario 1:  Camp
3 days of free living plus 1 day of buying food in town on day off ($20) = $20 in 4 days.
This works out to $5.00 per calendar day, or $6.67 total cost to live per work day.

Scenario 2:  Motel
No motel costs but you still have 4 days of buying groceries & cooking = $80.00 in 4 days.
This works out to $20.00 per calendar day, or $26.67 total cost to live per work day.

In either situation, with or without camp costs, it is cheaper for a planter to stay in a planting camp.  The advantage would be slightly reduced with the elimination of camp costs, but it would not be eliminated.  Of course, if companies using motel accommodation began to provide their planters’ food, then the industry would be able to start having a conversation that started with a more consistent baseline between companies.

At this point, I should also remind planters that camp cost expenses for a company are much higher than what planters pay.  For camp-based operations, it would depend on the complexity of the camp and equipment therein, and for motel-based operations, it would depend on the establishment that workers are lodged in.  Either way, my guess is that most motel operations cost companies at least $40 per day, and most camp operations cost significantly more than that, so in both cases, the planters are only subsidizing a portion of the true costs of housing and/or feeding the planters.

Minor Nuances

There are other nuances to consider, when looking hypothetically about what would happen with the elimination of camp costs.  Let’s look at some of those:

Minimum Wage Top-Up
Assuming a closed economic system, such that if camp costs were eliminated, 100% of that change would be offset by a decrease in overall wages within the system, what happens with regard to low earners?  In BC, according to employment standards legislation, anyone who does not earn minimum wage during any given pay period (by virtue of their piece-rate earnings) must be topped up to the amount that they would have earned if paid minimum wage for the hours worked.  Of course, some companies still shirk this regulation regularly, but let’s for a moment assume that they will get caught eventually, and in the long term, the system will start to work as originally intended.  Minimum wage top-up is calculated on gross wages, not on gross wages less camp costs.  Therefore, if tree prices went down slightly to offset an elimination of camp costs, the companies that pay minimum wage top-up legitimately would end up paying greater amounts of top-up.

Income Taxes
If workers’ wages are reduced slightly, then their tax obligation is also reduced, so there is something of a claw-back for anyone who actually earns enough to pay income taxes.  Eliminating camp costs might be considered a taxable benefit, if meals and/or lodging are provided at no cost to workers, so the income tax obligation to workers might remain unchanged.  Of course, if companies didn’t recognize this obligation immediately, and it was caught a few years later during an audit, the workers might get a nasty tax bill that they weren’t expecting.

These are related to income taxes, as noted above.  Some companies issue either a Remote Worksite Allowance (RWA) or a T2200 (Declaration of Conditions of Employment) form.  Either of these may reduce a planter’s income tax obligations.  There are some limitations (which are best suited for a different post), such as the requirement under RWA to maintain a separate self-contained domicile elsewhere during the period of employment.  Either way, the elimination of camp cost fees would possibly affect eligibility for either of these forms, and certainly would affect total eligible deductions.  Incidentally, you may eventually have some questions about taxes.  If so, bookmark this link:

Employment Insurance
A fairly significant number of tree planters draw employment insurance (EI) benefits when not planting.  This is the nature of seasonal work.  If gross wages drop slightly when camp costs are eliminated, this would hurt anyone who draws EI because it would also reduce their weekly benefits.  Of course, this is a complicated situation because of weekly maximums and other rules for EI claimants.  The number of EI claimants in the large northern companies is quite low, probably less than ten percent in my experience (many of these people attend college or university from September to April and therefore don’t open EI claims).  However, the number of seasonal EI claimants at the coastal and southern Interior companies that I have worked at is quite high, often exceeding two-thirds of the workforce.  Therefore, eliminating camp costs would have much more of a negative impact on the workers in the smaller coastal & southern companies, with respect to this specific issue.

Anyone seeking a loan or a mortgage generally has to show the bank some sort of verification of recent historical income.  If your annual income is reduced by a couple thousand dollars due to the elimination of eighty days’ worth of camp costs, it will reduce the amount of any loan you’ll be allowed to carry.

Student Loans
A lower gross income that would accompany lower wages would be of benefit to many workers at northern companies who rely on student loans to get them through college/university.

Management Pay
At some companies, crew bosses and camp supervisors are paid by commission, rather than by day rates or salaries.  In those companies, if camp costs were eliminated and wages went down, that would have a negative impact on commission earnings for the foremen and supervisors.  They might ask for slightly higher commission percentages to offset their pay cut.

Some people were paying camp costs of close to $25 per day back in the early 1990's.  Just as the impact of inflation has slowly eroded earnings, inflation has also made the negative impact of camp costs less severe for planters every year (thanks to BC's $25.00/day cap).  If inflation continues and tree prices double over the next two decades, but camp costs remain capped at $25.00, their impact will be even less severe.  By the way, if I'm still planting in twenty years, somebody please shoot me and put me out of my misery.

Psychological Impact
Planters who don’t understand camp costs (the majority of the workforce) don’t like camp costs.  Eliminating them would make a lot of people think they’re in a better situation, regardless of whether or not that is truly the case.

Fewer Camps?
When considering the true costs of running a camp operation vs. motel lodging, it is unquestionably more expensive to run a camp (despite the recovery of camp cost charges to planters).  There are many expenses that planters don’t often think about.  Above and beyond the cost of the cooks’ wages and the food consumed, there is the purchasing/repairs/maintenance to camp structures and equipment, capital investment, fuel consumption (the generators in my camp alone burn 120 litres of gasoline per day), propane, water deliveries, fees and permitting, and much more.  Lodging is also expensive for motel-based operations, but not as expensive as running a camp, and motel operations have the advantage (to the company) of not providing food.  If camp costs were eliminated, would some companies shift away from camp operations to motel operations?  If so, this would unquestionably hurt the planters in terms of longer drives to the blocks (and therefore reduced earnings).  It would also lead to less healthy planters in situations where young workers have no real understanding of their own nutritional requirements.  Unfortunately, many young planters lack basic life skills, such as cooking properly for themselves.  Planters are high-performance athletes.  Inadequate nutrition leads to lower production, which means lower earnings.  I’ve seen this directly when my camp has temporarily moved into motels for special circumstances, and some planters foolishly move to a diet of chips, pizza, and Mr. Noodles.  Within three or four days, the production numbers for those planters inevitably dropped by 15% to 20%.

Going It Alone
What would happen if one company decided to eliminate camp costs, but the rest of the industry didn't follow suit?  Would that company have an advantage in recruiting planters?  Or would it suffer cost disadvantages that would be reflected in tree prices, and those "lower" tree prices would offset any goodwill generated by lack of camp costs?  I believe that one company in Ontario tried to operate without camp costs a few years ago.  I'm not sure what happened in that experiment.  I do know that at least one other large company in Alberta tried to remove camp costs a few years ago, but subsequently changed reinstated camp costs a few years later.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I can’t give anyone any advice about whether or not the elimination of camp costs would be good or bad for any specific person.  As you can see from the many points already covered, an individual planter’s unique personal situation will determine whether or not the elimination of camp costs would ultimately be of long-term benefit.

Another significant area of imbalance is the fact that motel-based operations rarely provide food for planters.  If owners of companies that work out of motels are in favor of radical changes to benefit their workers, maybe they should start paying for their employees’ food (the same way that camp-based operators do).  I’ve seen at least one occasion where a coastal operator rented a kitchen and hired a cook and fed his planters.  Why doesn’t this happen more frequently?

When I started planting, I was very annoyed with having to pay camp costs.  After a few years, I began to realize that I spent the same amount of money on food in town on a day off.  I also spend more than $25 per day to eat in the real world when I’m not working, but I don’t have the luxury of someone preparing my meals.  I eat very well in planting camps, and I no longer begrudge the camp costs.

I think the core argument boils down to this:  If it comes down to an industry-wide vote, company owners need to stop worrying about what is best for their own companies individually, relative to their competitors, and decide what is truly best for the industry.  That decision may boil down to a philosophical choice between psychological impact (which favors elimination of camp costs) versus doing what is consistent with the piece-rate economics of the planting industry (which favors keeping camp costs in place).
Eliminating the current camp cost framework, with the intent of improving the industry, has a major weakness.  Ultimately, the financial benefits would not be consistent for all planters.  Although some workers would be better off if camp costs were eliminated, other workers would be shortchanged (even though they might not realize it).  The overall result to the workforce would be a zero-sum change.


1.  Eliminating camp costs would be a benefit to slow planters and would penalize fast planters.  Our estimate is that the average planter in western Canada plants approximately 1650 trees per day, industry-wide.  Camp costs could therefore be eliminating at no cost to companies by dropping tree prices by 1.5 cents per tree.  But do any experienced planters want to see that happen?  If I'm a vet that averages 2200 trees per day, I'd rather pay a flat rate of $25 for camp costs instead of losing 1.5 cents per tree on 2200 trees ($33).

2.  A lot of people say that companies should just "build it into the bid price."  That's easy to say, until you're bidding against other companies.  If you raise your bid price and your competitors don't, you're not going to win any low-bid contracts and you won't have any work.  Don't hate the player; hate the game.

3.  Some people brag that their company doesn't charge camp costs.  In such a situation, one needs to ask whether the company runs bush camps.  If there's no camp, and the company is not feeding employees, I would hope that there wouldn't be any camp costs.  You need to pay to eat, and there isn't much difference between spending money to buy groceries on a motel contracts versus paying camp costs when you're being fed in camp.  Well, there's one minor difference ... you don't spend an hour or more preparing food if you're being fed in a camp.

4.  A lot of people complain that we're the only industry that charges camp costs.  In other industries (oil & gas, logging), employees get paid to stay in camps.  Well, tree planting is also the only significant industry that compensates people via a piece-rate reward system (at least when it comes to operating remote bush camps). That's the key distinction which underpins the entire economic basis for our compensation system, and is the only real reason why camp costs can and do exist.  Again, eliminating camp costs would ultimately rob from the rich (the highballers) to give to the poor (the slow planters).  While that may seem "fair," any fast planter is going to prefer to look out for their own self-interest.  If you like the idea of getting paid more based on how hard you work, you should also be in favour of keeping the current camp-cost system.

They say that a person should pick their battles.  Overall, I'm fairly indifferent.  I can think of a lot of things that I'd like to improve within the industry.  I wouldn't be upset if camp costs were eliminated.  But instead of trying to eliminate camp costs, I'd rather focus on any of the many things that would ultimately benefit ALL planters.
 - Scooter


^1:  In the past, there has been some disagreement about whether or not GST can be included in camp cost charges.  This document clarifies: