Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tree Planter Training 13 - Planting Gear

Although this blog is predominantly focused on my music and DJ’ing career, I also want to share some information about my other career:  Canadian Reforestation.

The information in this post is part of a training series from the website.  More information can be found at this link:

I’ll put the text and audio download link from this training module below, but let’s start with the YouTube video for the module:

Section 13 - “Planting Gear”

In this section, we're going to talk about Planting Equipment.  You'll need planting bags to carry your seedlings comfortably and efficiently.  You'll need a shovel to plant the trees.  On some contracts, you may need silvicool inserts to protect the trees on hot days.  And finally, you'll need a plot cord to measure your own density, to keep your efforts on track.

Planting Bags

Your planting bags are your personal planting gear.  You'll use them every day until they start to rot and fall apart, although the smart planters buy newer bags before that point, to maximize comfort.  It still amazes me that some people will try to save $80 by using a tattered old set of bags, held together with rope and duct tape, instead of buying a new set with good straps and comfortable padding.  You're going to be wearing your bags for probably 600 or 700 hours in a season.  That's not much more than ten cents an hour if you use them for a single season, or five cents an hour if you use them for two seasons.  To me, it makes sense to spend a few pennies per hour to be more comfortable.  You can also buy new padding if you don't want to invest in an entirely new set of bags.

Planting bags usually have three pouches fastened to a waist strap.  The waist strap should have a piece of padding on it, to cushion the weight of the bags on your hips.  There's a plastic buckle on the front of the bags to strap yourself in and to prevent the bags from shifting and sliding around.  They also have a set of shoulder straps, to help redistribute some of the weight and take it off your hips.  It's also possible to buy a set of bags with four pouches instead of just three.  These are usually called "four-baggers" instead of "three-baggers."  There are advantages and disadvantages to getting four-baggers.  They distribute the weight around your waist somewhat more evenly, so they're slightly more comfortable.  The extra pouch sometimes makes it easier to carry extra gear with you, such as raincoats, or extra trees.  However, they also weigh a tiny bit more than three-baggers.  Not much more, just a few ounces, but every ounce counts when you're strapping on a full load of trees.  Four-baggers are more expensive, probably by an extra $30 or so.  Four-baggers used to be virtually unknown in the Interior for many years, although a very large percentage of coastal planters have always used them because they're especially handy when planting multiple species.  In the past couple of years, more Interior planters have discovered that they can be pretty convenient.

Make sure that all the buckles are adjusted properly when you get your bags.  Many first year planters assume that they're set up properly by the manufacturer.  However, everyone's body is different.  The waist strap can obviously be adjusted in size.  Also, there are four buckles attached to the shoulder straps, two on the front and two on the back, which you should play with.  Make sure everything fits fairly snugly, with no loose or floppy straps.  Make sure the left and right straps are even on both the front and the back.  If you have problems with your waist buckle popping open when you bend over, which may start to happen more frequently after you've had the bags for quite a while, you can buy replacement plastic buckles, or you can go to a junk yard and buy an old seat belt buckle to replace the buckle that comes with the bags.

It's important right now to talk about your back.  You'll get a sore back from planting trees.  It's inevitable.  Your back muscles are just like any other muscles, and they need a workout to become stronger.  After a week or two, once the muscles get a lot stronger, your back won't hurt so much.  One of the problems for your back is bending over.  You'll be bending over at least a thousand times a day at the start, and several thousand times per day once you get faster.  That's a lot of bending for your back.  But that's ok, because your back is designed for that.  However, your bags can cause a problem.  If your shoulder straps are adjusted properly and they fit snugly on your body when you stand up, they can put extra strain on your back when you bend over.  Also, as you're walking around, if there's a lot of weight on your shoulder straps, this weight will act unevenly on your spine as you move.  That makes your lower back sore.

There's a solution.  You can really tighten up your waist belt, and put a lot more weight on your hips.  Loosen your shoulder straps a bit, which takes some of the pressure off your upper body.  The drawback with doing this is that your upper legs have to work a lot harder.  Your legs will become sore, instead of your back.  It's basically a balancing act.  You can put all the pressure on your hips and legs if you want, by not wearing shoulder straps at all.  You can put a lot of pressure on your upper body, which gives a bit of relief to your upper legs.  Or you can do a mix of both, so neither part of your body is taking all the workload.  Obviously, no matter what, your legs still have to carry all the weight, regardless of how you have things set up.  It just feels heavier on your legs if you have no weight on your shoulder straps.  If you're getting a sore lower back when you start planting, don't worry, that's normal.  But if it's really bothering you, get rid of the shoulder straps right away and see if your back starts to feel better after a couple days.  Incidentally, in many cases, the best remedy for a sore back is more exercise, if the soreness is caused solely by tight muscles that are getting a new workout.

Females have different body shapes than males.  For females, the breasts usually get in the way of the shoulder straps a bit more.  There's an upper cross-strap on your bags that goes across your chest.  Most females leave this very loose, or don't use it, to keep their shoulder straps from rubbing against their chest so much.  Also, many females naturally have stronger upper legs than guys.  Female planters are more likely than males to avoid using shoulder straps all together.  Do whatever is most comfortable for you.

As you bend over with a load of trees, there isn't usually a lot of strain on your back from the weight in your side bags. However, any weight in your back bag on a three-bagger needs to be lifted more when you bend over.  For this reason, you should really try to avoid putting much weight in your back bag if you're having back issues.  Four baggers are a bit better on the back, because each of the two back bags are offset, instead of putting all the weight in the center of your back.

Your Shovel

Shovels come in a variety of styles, lengths, and weights.  When it comes to choosing a shovel, you essentially have two choices, what's called a D-Handle or what's called a Staff handle.

A staff handle is essentially a straight handle.  This used to be a common shovel in Ontario, although planters in Ontario have mainly switched to using D-Handle shovels.  A staff shovel is taller and therefore heavier than a D-Handle.  There are a few minor advantages to staff handles.  The length gives you a bit more leverage when trying to wiggle the shovel blade into rocky ground.  It may be used as a walking stick for better balance on difficult ground.  Also, its design means that it reduces the impact to the wrist and arms, especially on rocky sites or compact soils.

However, even though the staff handle offers advantages to the wrist and arms in rocky ground, those advantages may be more than offset by the strain of the additional weight of the shovel compared to a D-Handle.  The D-Handle is short and lighter, therefore, carrying it around all day causes less strain on the arm.  It's slightly easier when doing helicopter work, because the handle can be clipped through the belt buckle on your planting bags, to make sure it doesn't fall out of a sling.  Also, with the proper tools, the shovel length can still be adjusted quite easily.  You'll find that about 99% of planters in BC use D-Handle shovels.

There's another type of shovel called the "Ergonomic D-Handle" which has a slanted handle, shaped differently than the traditional D-Handle.  Although this shovel handle should be more effective than a regular D-Handle at minimizing potential MSI's, very few planters seem to use this type of handle.  In addition, there's one major problem with this type of shovel:  I always recommend that new planters learn to plant ambidextrously, and that isn't possible with the Ergonomic D-Handle.

Once you've picked your style, you can look at the length and weight of the shovel.  Many planters say that lighter is better, while others suggest that a bit of extra weight can help increase the momentum required to drive the shovel into hard ground.  Some people remove the kicker from one side of their shovel to save a few extra grams of weight.  I personally don't see a huge benefit in this, and sometimes it's nice to have both of your kickers available, but you can make that decision on your own.  If you want to learn to plant ambidextrously, you definitely shouldn't remove either of the kickers.

If you shorten the shaft, that will save a few ounces of weight.  Make sure that you have the proper hacksaw blade for the job.  Some shovel shafts are metal, and some are fiberglass.  Most camp supervisors should have all the tools required to take a shovel apart to shorten it.  Don't cut too much off at once!  Cut a couple inches and try it out for a few days.  You can always cut more off later if you think it's still too long, but if you cut too much off the first time, you can't lengthen it!  Not everybody shortens their shovel.

Your foreman and your trainer can show you more in person, and can perhaps let you try holding a couple of different shovels.  When you go to buy gear, your foreman will probably accompany you to make sure you get the right items.

Miscellaneous Planting Gear

You may need silvicool inserts for any bag that you might use to carry trees.  You'll want at least two inserts, and I'd recommend three.  If you have four-baggers, you don't necessarily need four inserts unless you're positive you're going to carry trees in all four pouches.  I usually use one of the four pouches just for things like small water bottles, plot cord, a waterproof pack with anti-histamines, and my raincoat.  Of course, an insert can keep these things a bit more clean and dry.  Inserts are not required on all contracts.  Ask your foreman or trainer for advice.

You need a plot cord.  These are cheap, only around ten dollars or so, and made out of clothesline.  Some people try to save money by making a plot cord out of rope.  That usually doesn't work so well.  It might disappear from your bags when someone uses it to tie up their tent.  Just buy a plot cord.  Every planter should carry a plot cord in their bags all the time when you're on the block.  Throw several quick plots on yourself to check your density regularly.  It takes less than a minute to throw a quick density plot on yourself, and it's a good time investment.  I usually throw four to six plots on myself each day, because I'd rather do that than spend hours replanting.  For your first couple weeks when you're starting out, you'll need to throw a lot more than just four plots on yourself each day.

You can buy a small water-proof tally book which costs very little.  The cool thing about this is that you can write on it in the rain with a pencil.  The paper in it is waterproof paper, often called "duck back" paper.  That's duck, like the bird, not duct, like the tape.  A lot of planters carry a small tupperware container in their day bag with their tally book, a few pencils, and anti-histamines and/or painkillers.

Non-Planting Gear

You'll need an extensive list of non-planting gear, both in terms of clothing and other things.  I already touched on this briefly in the section on PPE.  For clothing, you'll need boots, socks, pants, long underwear for when it's cold, long-sleeve shirts, t-shirts, gloves, and rain gear.  Also, a sun hat and a good fleece both come in pretty handy.  You may also want a set of "town boots" such as a light pair of hikers, so you don't have to wear your heavy work boots on days off.

Other items that planters often own include things like a knife, duct tape, a wind-up flashlight, toiletries, sun screen, fingernail clippers, a tent, sleeping bag, a foamie for under your sleeping bag, a day-bag or backpack, insect repellent, an alarm clock, and so on.  Obviously, not all of these are items that you'll bring to the block each day.

Your best bet for learning more about gear is to go to websites like or and check out the recommended gear lists there.  The online message boards have very lengthy discussions about the best gear to bring, and the best brands.  I wouldn't want to presume to tell you what to bring and what not to bring.  Everyone seems to have wildly different opinions on the best stuff to pack for a season of planting.


Here’s an Audio version of this material, in case you want to listen while you’re driving, running, at work, or otherwise unable to read or watch video:

Click on the down-arrow icon in the upper right corner of the SoundCloud widget to download the mp3.

Once again, for further information about this series of tree planter training information, visit:

I encourage you to share this information with anyone else who might be interested.  Thanks for your interest and support!

-          Jonathan “Scooter” Clark