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!