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Updated June 2022
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Buying guide for best tree field guides

Have you ever found yourself on a camping trip, day hike, or in your neighborhood staring at a tree and wondering what kind it is? If so, you might want to add a tree field guide to your shopping list.

These inexpensive guides provide a handy way to identify hundreds of different species of trees. Many are compact enough to slip into a pocket or backpack, and they usually contain keys, range maps, and images to help you quickly identify even the most obscure tree species.

Tree field guides differ in terms of the number of species they contain, the way the species are arranged, the types of images, which are important for identification, and price. Our buying guide provides the information you need to pick up the right guide for your camping, hiking, or neighborhood strolling needs. We also highlight a number of our favorites, those guides that we recommend based on their quality and value.

tree field guides
There are more than 1,000 tree species of trees in North America.

Key considerations

Geographic range

Your first consideration when buying a tree field guide should be does it cover the specific geographic range in which you want to use it. While most tree field guides cover a pretty large range (all of North America is common), some guides focus on a specific area, such as the Northeast, or specific states, such as Ohio. If you buy a guide designed for a different region from the one where you plan to use it, you won’t be able to identify many trees.

Organization

Field guides use different methods to arrange or group trees so you can easily use the information. Two common arrangements are features and taxonomy.

Features: Most tree field guides are arranged according to specific characteristics of the tree. With this method, you start with a feature, such as leaf shape or fruit, and then examine the trees that share this feature until you narrow your search to the right tree.

Taxonomy: These field guides arrange the trees by type. You start with a broad category, such as pine trees, and then narrow it down by geographic range and characteristics. This is how many bird field guides are organized.

Species

Tree field guides vary as to the number of trees they contain. There are some 1,000 species of trees in North America, and over 60,000 in the world. Some guides contain 700 or more tree species, while others contain 350. The more species a field guide contains, the more trees you’ll be able to identify.

Size

Generally, the more species the tree field guide covers, the larger the guide tends to be. Physical size, whether the number of pages or the dimensions of the guide, determine how portable the field guide is. You don’t want to lug a coffee-table book into the wild to identify trees!

The number of pages in tree field guides ranges anywhere from 250 to 500 or more. The more pages, the heavier the guide, which also affects how useful it is in the field, particularly on extended, multi-day hikes.

Some tree field guides concentrate on native species. For the best identifying results, be sure that the guide you choose contains both native and introduced species.

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Features

Introduction

Some tree field guides include a short introduction, usually just a few pointers for how to use the guide before diving in. Others include much more information about identifying trees, in addition to a broader examination of everything from ecology to forest types.

Identification keys

Identification keys, also called reference guides or dichotomous keys, offer a visual way to narrow down your choices when trying to identify a tree. While not all tree field guides include an identification key (and not all keys are of equal quality), a high-quality identification key is a real plus and something to look for in a tree field guide.

Descriptions

All tree field guides have some descriptive text for each species included. This can vary quite a bit from guide to guide. Guides geared toward novices offer less detail than guides for more serious users.

In addition to the common and scientific names for each species, the descriptions often cover information such as unique tree characteristics, tree history, the tree’s importance to its ecosystem, and other relevant information.

Illustrations vs. photographs

Nothing divides field guide owners as much as whether the images used to identify the trees or birds or wildflowers should be illustrations or photographs. While the choice between photographs and illustrations is often a matter of personal preference, they both have their benefits.

Photos: A great photo of a tree is better than an illustration, hands down. The problem is that it’s difficult to take consistently great photos even of something stationary like a tree. Lighting can affect clarity, as can the background. If the photos are black and white, you can miss certain characteristics like the color of the bark, flowers, or leaves.

Illustrations: Illustrations don’t have to rely on factors such as background or lighting conditions, which gives them an edge over photographs. Illustrations can more accurately depict tree features such as the texture of the bark, the shape of the leaves, and the type and color of the fruit, which can also help in identification. But because illustrations are more labor intensive to produce, there are far fewer images in those field guides that use them.

Whether you decide on a guide with photographs or illustrations, the images should be large enough that you can easily make out the tree’s identifying characteristics, and the images should be annotated so that you know what you’re looking at. The number of images in the guide is also important. Tree field guides typically contain over 1,000 images. The more images, the greater your odds of successfully identifying a tree.

Range maps

Range maps are another important feature of tree field guides. These maps show you where each tree species can be found. These are particularly important for more general range guides, like those that cover North America, and they can be a big help in narrowing down the possibilities when you’re trying to identify a tree. Most tree field guides include anywhere from 150 to 400 or more range maps.

tree field guides
DID YOU KNOW?
Trees from the same species are defined as those trees in the same genus (sharing fundamental traits) that also share a variety of lesser traits.
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Pricing

Inexpensive: Tree field guides in the $10 to $15 range tend to include fewer species, fewer range maps, and limited or nonexistent identification keys. Guides in this range are often geared toward beginners or younger audiences, and cover a limited geographical range, such as a single state.

Mid-range: In the $15 to $20 range, tree field guides include more species (often 400 to 500) and more range maps. Identification keys are more robust, and these guides tend to be more durable, with thicker pages and perhaps a laminated cover to repel water.

Expensive: If you spend lots of time in the field, you should focus on tree field guides in the $20 to $30 and more range. Guides at this price are designed to better withstand the elements. The geographic range is greater here, often covering all of North America, with the most species (often 700 or more) and range maps. Visual identification keys are top-notch in these guides, greatly reducing the time it takes to identify a tree.

Be sure the tree field guide you buy includes both deciduous and evergreen trees. Some guides focus on one or the other.

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Tips

  • Check the guide’s organization. Guides that include the species description, images, and maps all together tend to be easier to use than guides that require you to consult several different sections for all the information.
  • Choose a lightweight field guide. If you’re more interested in a guide you can easily tuck into a backpack for extended trips, consider picking up a folding pocket guide. While these typically contain fewer trees and much less detail, they can be a handy and portable way to identify the trees you might see when hiking or camping.
  • Choose a field guide that covers a small geographical area. It limits the guide’s use to a specific location, but it provides much more information and detail than a guide that covers a larger area.
  • Choose a durable field guide. If you plan to use your tree field guide extensively outdoors, find a guide that’s printed on thick paper and has a durable, waterproof cover, which will hold up better in the field.
  • Familiarize yourself with the guide before you use it outdoors. Before taking your guide out into the field, spend some time with it so you know how it’s arranged and what information it includes. This can eliminate much of the frustration you might feel when first using it to try to identify a tree.
  • Look carefully at the features of the tree. To successfully use any field guide, take a few minutes to observe the tree you’re trying to identify before turning to the guide. Note features such as leaf shape and color, bark color and texture, and the characteristics of any cones, fruit, or seeds around the tree.
tree field guides
Some guides include a laminated or waterproof cover to hold up better in the field. If yours doesn’t have one, consider buying a vinyl cover for it.

FAQ

Q. Are these guides primarily for beginners or for those with more experience?

A. That depends on the tree field guide you buy. Some that are more user-friendly and conversational target beginners who just want to identify a tree occasionally. Other guides have much more scientific information for those interested in a deeper dive into the species. Decide what you want in a tree field guide and then limit your shopping to those guides that target your level of interest.

Q. Will a tree field guide help me identify trees in the winter?

A. Successfully identifying trees after they’ve shed their leaves can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. With no leaves or seeds to help in identification, you’re pretty much left with the shape of the tree and the look of the bark to identify the tree. Field guides that focus on such characteristics can greatly help in your efforts, but you still have your work cut out for you.

Q. Do these guides also cover shrubs and other plants?

A. While some do, this is rare. Tree field guides typically concentrate solely on trees, although some include shrubs and clearly note this on the cover. There are many other guides available that cover other plant types, such as wildflowers, wild plants, and wild mushrooms.

 

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