10 Things Writers Don’t Know About The Woods

10 things writers don't know about the woodsIt’s hard to put a number on how many books I’ve read that feature characters in the woods. Sometimes they’re fleeing, sometimes chasing, sometimes just looking for something to eat.

As someone who spends a lot of time in the woods, I should tell you that most authors get it wrong. Here are ten realities about the woods that every writer should know.

1. A forest has more than just trees

When writing about the woods, many authors focus on just one thing: the type of trees and how many there are. In a mature deciduous forest, there are typically at least four layers of plants:

  • the woods layers

    The layers of woods

    The top canopy, formed by the tall trees, begins 20 or 30 feet overhead and goes much higher.

  • Below that you’ll often have a second canopy from saplings and smaller trees, like dogwoods and cedars.
  • The third layer, called the understory, comprises shrubs and bushes, like honeysuckle.
  • Lastly, there’s the ground cover of forest herbs: weeds, wildflowers, and other things that grow quickly in spring before the deciduous trees get their leaves.

All of this must be negotiated by someone on the ground. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Running often isn’t possible.

Nothing throws me out of a book faster than a character running (or worse, galloping) full-tilt through a dense forest. If you only had the big tree trunks to worry about, you’d be fine. It’s the understory that’s the problem: dense, shoulder high thickets are almost impossible to traverse quickly. And if it’s a patch of evergreens, forget it. They’re hard to even walk through, because they can grow so closely together with branches that hang almost to the ground.

Running or riding a horse at top speed is also pretty much begging for a broken ankle. Holes, stumps, and fallen logs all lurk beneath a deceptively placid layer of fallen leaves. I admit that there’s a scene in The Rogue Retrieval where the main character rides a horse at full speed through the woods, but it’s on a clear trail (and he’s kind of being chased by a dragon).

3. It’s hard to move quietly

Woods in early fall

Woods in Early Fall

Having stalked many animals in the woods, I can tell you that most of them are pretty quiet. They have to be, in order to survive. The loudest thing in the woods by far is a human being. Most hunters sneak into the woods well before the animals are moving about, and they find a place to sit very, very still. We don’t walk around, because it’s nearly impossible to sneak up on game.

What this means for any kind of a forest chase is that a person running through the woods would be easy to hear coming from a long way off, and easy to follow, too. There’s one time when a person can move through the forest both quietly and at a decent speed: when the ground is wet, either from heavy dew or recent rainfall. You still have to avoid snapping twigs and kicking branches, but otherwise you can find stealth.

4. Visibility is generally poor

Woods in summer

The Woods in Summer

The visibility in a forest depends on a few factors, the most important of which is the season. Visibility is poorest in late spring and summer. Because of the undergrowth and the greenery, you usually won’t be able to see more than 20 or 30 yards in any direction. Also, someone on the ground usually can’t see the sky, the clouds, or the stars at night because of the top canopy. So yeah, that whole navigating-by-the-stars thing won’t happen in a dense forest.

Woods in winter

Woods in Winter

Visibility is strikingly different after the leaves fall. The woods are a very different place, then. You might be able to see 50 or 100 yards, depending on the terrain. Snow on the ground makes a difference, too: the contrast makes animals and people stand out at a distance, especially when they’re moving.

Ironically, better visibility doesn’t always help the hunter, because it works just as well for the animals.

5. Getting lost is easy

Woods canopy in summer

Top Canopy in Summer

It is very, very easy to become disoriented in the forest. Here are some of the reasons:

  • You don’t walk in a straight line. There are thickets and fallen trees to skirt around, ridges to cross, and game trails to follow.
  • You can’t count on the sun or moon, because they’re often hard to see through the canopy or when it’s cloudy.
  • Deep in the woods, everything starts to look the same. You think you know where you are, but you might be wrong.

Even when I’m hunting an area I know well, I never enter the woods without my GPS and an extra set of batteries for it.

6. The best way to hide

Humans (as well as predators and many bird species) have excellent perceptive vision, meaning that they can easily spot movement.

Lush summer woods

Lush woods of summer

Thus, the best way for anyone or anything to hide in the forest is to keep absolutely still. Movement, even swatting a mosquito (which are voracious in the forest, by the way), will give you away.

Wearing the right colors helps, too. Blue, red, and bright orange are colors you won’t often see in the woods, so they stand out like neon signs. A hunter in full camouflage, sitting still with his back to something that breaks up his outline (like a wide tree) is virtually invisible. That same hunter walking back to the truck is easy to spot.

If I were fleeing someone in the woods, I’d go to ground as quickly as possible and lay still.

7. The truth about tracking

The concept of “tracking people” in the woods in fantasy literature has always bothered me. You know, the old “Ah-ha! This twig is snapped here, so they went in this direction.” Most of the time, unless someone is in view, you’ll have little idea which way they went. The ground is hard and strewn with fallen leaves. Twenty guys might have walked through the same stretch of woods half an hour before me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell.

winter woods snow

Snow provides better contrast

Following someone on a trail will help, though, since it may have been worn down to mud that can hold a footprint. Other things that would help:

  • If the quarry is bleeding. Blood stands out on the forest floor, and falls in a pattern that usually indicates direction.
  • If there’s snow on the ground. Nothing reveals tracks better than half an inch or more of snow on the ground. Not only are all tracks visible, but you can tell old ones from new ones.
  • The two above things combined — tracking someone/something that’s bleeding through snow-covered woods — represents the base-case scenario. Of course, clever quarry might think of ways to turn that against would-be pursuers.

I have tracked wounded deer through the woods on a few occasions. When fleeing danger, animals (including humans) have certain tendencies. They prefer to flee downhill, and via the path of least resistance. They run largely in one direction. And they avoid open areas whenever possible.

8. Expect strange noises

Often when I’m sitting in the woods, there’s not much to look at (even with my hunting binoculars), so I use my ears instead. Sound usually travels farther than I can see. There are many familiar noises: crows, woodpeckers, crickets, that sort of thing. And let me tell you, I have heard some strange noises. One that I hear somewhat often is a squeaky-squeaky kind of creaking noise; I suspect it’s some kind of bird. Other noises are less common, yet more puzzling.

Here’s a good example. Once while hunting on a wooded island along the river, I heard this whooshing sound. It would happen once every 15 or 20 minutes. It almost sounded like a bellows, but I was 5 miles from any civilization. Then I came to an open patch of sky, and I saw what it was: a flock of small birds, flying in unison. I think they were teal, and they flew like little stunt planes. The whooshing sound happened when they all made a sharp turn at the same time. I wouldn’t have guessed that in a hundred years.

Other strange noises I’ve heard remain mysteries. Once I heard something that sounded like a baby crying in long, plaintive wails. That one still haunts me.

9. The woods are beautiful, if you’re into that sort of thing

Despite all the bugs and tripping hazards and briar patches (and poison ivy!), the woods tend to be a peaceful place. I might spend eight hours without seeing another person. Away from the rush and noise of modern life. Time passes more slowly. Twilight seems to last longer. The tranquility of the deep woods, with the sigh of wind through the treetops, is something we outdoorsmen (and outdoorswomen) cherish.

10. There are exceptions to challenges of the woods

Obviously, none of these problems (stealth, visibility, and getting lost) apply to elvenkind. Or the Dúnedain.

More Articles Like This

This article is part of Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy, a blog series in which we tackle scientific, historical, and other concepts of speculative fiction writing with help from experts in the field. Join my e-mail list to receive notice when new articles are posted.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this excellent article. In my current novel a lot of action takes place in the forest, both on foot and on horseback. I’m happy to see I got a number of details right. I’ll be making notes about which parts need correcting. Much appreciated!

  2. Cassie says

    Thank you very much for this! I don’t hunt, but I do horseback ride a lot, and I go on a lot of walks in the woods around my house. For horseback riding in the forest (especially in mountains or foothills) – you’re LUCKY if you can get a slow trot, and then it’ll be on a trail for a very short distance. A slow walk’s more typical, and horses can’t navigate the same terrain as humans (riding a horse off trail is begging for a broken ankle. You can maaayyybeee slowly lead one if you’re careful and preferably if you can see the ground well. And most deer trails are too small/narrow/rocky for anything other than leading your horse). Other fantasy mounts – dire wolves, giant elks – that’re actually adapted to forests I’d be more willing to accept, but they still won’t be going all that fast for very long. Galloping through the forest is beyond ridiculous – the only safe place to gallop is in a large dirt clearing, really.

    The lack of undergrowth applies in a very small handful of cases – sun and water-hungry trees like redwoods tend to keep the area around them clear, but you’ll still be dealing with ferns covering unexpected potholes and uneven terrain. Some very old growth forests have next to no undergrowth (again typically of larger trees that block sunlight). And forests that experience very frequent fires will almost definitely not have a ton of saplings or undergrowth or leaves. Otherwise? Yeah no. And even without undergrowth to deal with, you still won’t be able to go in a straight line

    Some forests (typically the well-watered ones) are actually borderline impassable in the spring/summer, because of bushes, saplings, and spiders. Nobody ever mentions how many spiders there are in forests, especially not the ones that love building their webs over trails

    • dankoboldt says

      Cassie,

      Thanks for commenting; these are all great points! I appreciate getting perspective from an equestrian. And I seriously thought about putting spiderwebs on the list… they drive me crazy! Somehow they’re always at face-level.

    • amanda says

      I live in an area with frequent summer fires that burn out most/all of the undergrowth of the forests but don’t kill the larger trees (sometimes). The undergrowth that affects visibility, like small saplings and shrubs, actually really grows back fast. Within a season, MAYBE two. I know that all forests are different, but I thought that I’d share.

    • Kitty says

      Yeah, those 8-legged critters are one reason I’m very careful where I walk in the woods! If I was stuck in the woods overnight, I’d be too afraid to move for fear of running into them!

    • says

      Well, you can canter – if the horse knows the woods better than you do, hates you, and wants to scrape you off its back in pieces by going through two trees narrow enough to serve as simultaneous scratching posts…

      Yeah, ask me how I know. Never got my feet out of stirrups so fast, or laid out parallel to a horse’s spine while cantering before or since. Never wished so much misery on any creature as I did for the first couple of minutes after the dismount, either. Beware of the woods, on horseback. 🙂

      As for spiders – ever notice how, if you shine a light on a clearing after dark, there are little sparkles out there? Eyes. Spiders’ eyes are…reflective. Creepy little arachnids. ::shudder::

    • H Ryan says

      You can certainly canter in the woods along trails. I do so every summer when I go home to the UK (but over relatively short distances). Some of the trails are really narrow too, but they are known trails we are using.
      Also as a kid we often went off the trails on our ponies through the woods, and have followed deer paths too, one on a very steep bank (it was a bit scary) and the horses were fantastic at picking their way along it.
      And lastly we used to let the horses have their head and canter under trees along trails, at times we would be riding with our heads bent forward along the horses necks. (I’m not saying it’s safe, or even sensible, but it can be done). One time I was taken by surprise and had to lie back along the horses back to avoid a low branch. Woods and forests are different around the world, so don’t dismiss something just because it’s something you would never do.

  3. says

    I AM a writer of fantasy, and your comments cracked me up. But of course elves can do all these impossible things! Hee. Seriously, this is great info. I live in the National Forest and I didn’t know half this stuff. Then again, I could never track and kill a deer in the woods, tho I have no prob with hunters doing so. Thank you for this!

  4. Jennifer says

    No one mentioned ticks, ugh! Often times GPS won’t work in the woods, in Oregon it gets that thick and one needs to rely on the old standby of map and compass.
    When whites first came to this country it was said that the Native Americans practiced cleansing burns. This cleared brush, killed ticks and made it easier to hunt game. Also, there were no earthworms here so any foliage that dropped covered the forest floor and prevented overgrowth. Worms came on plants that the first colonists brought from the old world.

    • dankoboldt says

      I agree, ticks are the worst! And thanks for bringing up GPS coverage (lack thereof) under a heavy canopy. I’ve experienced that, and it’s no fun (especially when mosquitoes swarm you if you try to stand still).

    • forest_kodama says

      Re: Your earthworm comment

      Only about a third of the earthworms in North America are invasive. It’s true the big worms that most people associate with earthworms are not native, but we do have some indigenous worms. They are smaller, not as productive, and can now only be found in the deep, deep woods, but they are there. Their distribution patterns heavily mirror the non-glaciated areas. It’s some fascinating biology, and a bit sad.

  5. says

    I have to tell you a story.

    A couple of years ago a friend and I were in the break room at work talking about a neighbor from my childhood who wouldn’t take a shortcut home after dark because he was certain the bobcats would get him.

    We were laughing at the idea when a young man at the next table jumped in to say that, no, we were wrong. The woods were very dangerous, especially at night. (You have to understand here that this kid was NOT joking. He was absolutely serious and adamant in his opinions.)

    We told him reasonably that the animals are more afraid of him than he is of them and that he’s highly unlikely to even see a bobcat, let alone find one lying in wait for him. Finally he conceded that point.

    But, he insisted, the woods were still deadly because “freaky things happen all the time” and in the dark you can’t see what’s there. “Say you hear a twig snap,” he argued. “Sure, it might just be an animal. But it could also be a guy on a unicycle!”

    I have never laughed so hard in my life. More than two years later he still won’t speak to me unless he absolutely has to.

    • Shelly says

      That poor guy shouldn’t be freaked out by a guy on a unicycle in the woods! Unicyclists are friendly. Many like to mountain unicycle on trails and such. In fact, my son an I just returned from the North American Unicycling Competition and Convention in Minnesota where they held several muni (mountain unicycle) events. Over 50 riders competed in a cross country race through the woods. Can you imagine if your poor coworker ran into that group, he’d be traumatized. Here’s a link to the competition description in case you think I’m making it up. (Many people think I’m joking when I say I’m going to a national unicycling competition!) http://naucc2014.com/competitions/muni/

  6. Thitenum says

    The “baby-wailings” can be foxes. Their cries are almost never heard, but they can (and will) make a few different shouts and cries like those, to find a mate, alert others of a danger, etc. Check it out on youtube, a few videos show their cries!

      • Esther says

        I stayed in Scotland for couple of months, and my B&B was situated behind a large wooded park. At night sometimes I heard what sounded like babies crying in the moors. my landlady told me it was a family of foxes that had a den somewhere in the park. Man was it ever eerie!

  7. Howard Bannister says

    Spot-on article. As somebody who’s lived out in the woods my whole life, this is one of those tropes that always, always makes my eyes roll. Almost as bad as a movie-hacker.

    The baby-wailing noises: bobcats or fishers also make noises in that range. Those guys can freak me right out when I hear them.

  8. Watsonian says

    [Disclaimer: not even slightly an expert, I just go for walks behind my house sometimes] Speaking for the type of woods you find in Maine, running is possible, but only if you keep your eyes pretty firmly fixed on the next couple places you want to put your feet. Meaning that if you’re not familiar with the area, you’re liable to end up running in bouncy, jagged circles while staring at the ground. And even if you do know the area, you’re not going to go faster than a light jog unless you’re in a particularly clear area, and even *then* you’re at risk for a fall or a sprain because of the uneven terrain, so all in all it’s a pretty inefficient way to travel 😛

    It’s also possible to navigate with the sun, but only if you’re at least a couple hours away from noon and the skies are clear, and you can only really get a vague sense of the cardinal directions – “the sun is thataway, so the road must be somewhere over there in the opposite direction.”

    Lastly, I can sometimes retrace my steps by looking at scruffed-up leaves, but probably just because I’m a careless walker 😛 It’s pretty unreliable even so.

    This is a really helpful guide, definitely going to be referencing it in the future :3

  9. MysticalChicken says

    I’ve lived in Oregon my whole life and grew up in the country, and when I was a kid I used to play with the neighbor kid down the road, and once when I was about seven (this was waaaay back in the mid-’80s) he invited me to come play in the woods in his backyard. I agreed and followed him into the forest of Douglas firs, where he bounded ahead. I got a little nervous after going in and yelled to him that I was going back. “You can’t go back,” he said. “There’s just more forest. I did that once, and my dad had to come and get me.” Those were his exact words and I still remember them twenty-eight years later and probably will until the day I die. I was kind of a naive kid, so I believed him and didn’t bother to look back and see that no, miles of trees had NOT in fact sprung up behind me. By this time he had gone far enough ahead that I couldn’t see him, and I yelled for him but he either didn’t answer or I didn’t hear him. I had not yet heard of the “hug a tree” adage (is that still a thing?), so I went farther into the forest to look for him. This. Was a bad. Idea. I probably spent AT LEAST an hour wandering aimlessly around, trying to avoid spiderwebs (I remember grabbing a stick to knock any down that were in my way) and calling his name repeatedly. Also, I’m approximately 99.8% sure I cried. (I was only a seven-year-old girl, after all.) Finally, after what seemed like forever, I heard his voice. I called out to him and he yelled back, and I followed his voice and finally found him, but I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t. Anyway, he did, of course, finally lead me out of the forest, and I remember it being only a few minutes before I heard my mom’s “come back home” whistle. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d heard that while I was still lost, but my mom probably would have come down to the neighbors’ to see why I wasn’t answering her, although I don’t know if she would have tried to find me herself.

  10. Lauren says

    I’ve ran through the woods, but it takes patience and quick thinking. And a resignation to the fact that you ‘ll most likely sprain an ankle or get slapped in the face with branches…and thorns. Omg the thorns. I look for the damned things and still get torn up. I swear they reach out for unsuspecting humans, just cuz they’re jerks.

    I think the quiet stalking depends on the forest? I’ve accidentally come upon so many deer in my life it’s not funny. I’m not trying to be quiet, I’m just enjoying my walk when I hear crashing or snorting and nearly pee myself til I see the deer looking at me. This was at my grandpa’s old house. The woods were fairly old and full of soft dirt and heavily trampled leaves due to the various critters around. The woods closer to home are full of dry crunchy leaves. Much harder to be quiet in them.

    As for the crying, mountain lions make crying and screaming sounds sometimes. I’ve not heard one in real life thank goodness, just on TV or the internet, and let me tell you just that much raises the hair on my neck, it’s freaky.

    My big peeve is the sound. No one pays attention to the sounds. Woodland critters will adapt to the same person coming in and out of their section of woods, and will go about their various noises and movements. When someone new enters, they get quiet and still. It’s an easy way to tell if someone is coming up on you. Very hard to sneak up on someone when it falls silent.

    • Renee' says

      Lauren – What you said last – about how the forest falls silent on a newcomer’s entrance – is an awesome piece of info. I never thought about it, but that makes a LOT of sense. This will be very helpful in the story I’m currently writing. Thanks!

    • says

      In my experience, the forest does’t become silent *right away* when someone enters. First there’s a flurry of activity as they exit the area. If you know the difference between the local birds’ alarm calls vs. their other calls, that can make it really easy to tell when somebody’s approaching. Squirrels are another good indicator, and they typically don’t settle down for quite a while.

      • Lauren says

        Hah I’m rereading this article because I forgot I read it a while back.

        When I used to play in the woods, the creatures would get quiet with new things. The squirrels didn’t get too chatty unless they saw a cat or some big bird that wants to eat them.

        Birds wouldn’t do much either unless another predator showed up, like a hawk. Then they’d raise a ruckus. Otherwise, they’d get quiet if something new came along.

        Mind you these are just my observations. The creatures I encountered could be really used to people, whereas you go elsewhere, they’re not and will react differently. I wouldn’t mess with any critter, so the forest as a whole would ignore me after going out there so much.

        One peeve I forgot to mention in my last comment was smell. Most creatures have a better sense of smell than us humans. You don’t want your character going hunting while wearing perfume or after washing in smelly soap and putting on deodorant.

        Works for people tracking people too. Everyone has a smell, normal BO plus perfume/deodorant plus whatever they showered with plus extra like cigarette smoke or frying grease, or whatever random smell they might be around constantly. All this can factor into finding someone by smell. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but it can be done, especially if your character relies on smell more than a human usually does.

        For instance I scared my husband once by tracking him by smell. He’d gone outside to hide and scare me one night, but I could smell his cologne, and the cigarette he lit up from wherever he was hiding. It was hilarious to me. Out in the woods, perfume and cigarette smoke would be very unusual and a possible warning you’re not alone, or your quarry is close by (assuming you hunt humans, or deer wearing perfume to cover up their smoking habit).

        Humans can also smell water, storm fronts, snow, rain, roads ways (smell for tarmac and car exhaust) and all kinds of other stuff. We don’t give our nose enough credit, I think.

  11. Penelope says

    I can nod to much of this. I live close to a (tiny) wood and when I was younger I really wondered about how the the characters in my books always could move through the forest without making a single sound. But I don’t get the hiding thing, nr. 6. Are there really authors who don’t get this point? Cause I learned that from a book and it really helped me when I was playing hide-n-seek with my friends.

  12. pencilears says

    oh, I know what sounds like a wailing baby in the woods, a cougar!

    I’ve heard them, it’s pretty freaky and sound doesn’t travel real well in the woods either.

    • dankoboldt says

      Really? I’ll have to get some recordings on that one! We don’t get them in eastern Missouri. If we did I’d probably be a little freaked out right now.

  13. says

    Great post. Although I don’t hunt, I grew up playing in the woods. You’re absolutely right that you can’t run in there, and it’s easy to get lost. I did once–went too far from an area I was familiar with and ended up all the way on the other side of town and stuck in a place where I couldn’t cross the creek alone. I yelled until someone from a nearby farm heard me and came and rescued me. Totes embarrassing!

  14. Meghan says

    Another candidate for your mysterious crying sound: rabbits. Its uncommon, especially in wild rabbits (who obviously want to be as quiet as possible) can make some baby-like “cries.” A quick Google search turns up a few videos of “crying” rabbits, so that might be your culprit.

    Thanks for the article! I learned a few things from it, and I’m a semi-competent outdoorsman, myself. I laughed at the bit about getting lost–I was a camp counselor when I was younger, and one time I decided to take a quick “shortcut” through the brush. I ended up completely lost, and the first bit of trail I found was at the back of a campsite, where a full group of Scouts was making lunch. I emerged, like Bigfoot, to some very strange looks!

    • dankoboldt says

      Meghan,

      I used to own rabbits, and I’ve heard the panicked sound. It’s as unnerving as it is surprising that rabbits can even make that scream.

      That story was hilarious! Reminds me of when I got lost as a scout… a buddy and I were also trying to take a “shortcut.”

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Mercy says

      Yes, I breed rabbits and they do “scream” sometimes at other rabbits if you leave multiple in the same cage or if they are being attacked. It sounds very human if you don’t know what it is.

      This article is so helpful! I write alot of characters that live in the forest and I never thought of these things. 🙂

  15. Laura says

    I love being in the bush myself and I have to say that your article is completely, however on the subject of tracking – it is perfectly to track someone by looking at broken sticks and the like, the trail that a human makes is quite a lot different from an animal and if you shift aside the leaf litter you can see impressions from where a person has stepped, or the sharp edge of their shoe or tread pattern (you won’t see a sharp edge like that in the dirt from anything natural). Remember that scene in lord of the rings where aragorn looks at the ground and figures out exactly what happened to the hobbits? That’s not fiction, that’s perfectly possible though I can say from my own experience in search and rescue that it is very, very hard and requires a lot of concentration and practice!
    Also footprints aren’t the only things to track a person by – you can see scrapes in the mud where they might have slid down a bank (it’s easier to track when the ground is wet, fyi, because the mud holds sign better) and you can also see in dense bush where the branches have been pushed aside as a person goes through and they’re sitting unnaturally.

    tl;dr tracking a person without obvious footprints is perfectly possible but it takes years of practice to get good at, it’s really finnicky on the small details and it’s really slow – picking out each footprint one by one just slows you down and gives the person you’re tracking a huge head start.

    • dankoboldt says

      Laura, thanks for mentioning the slip-in-mud sign; that’s a good point. As for Aragorn, as I said, these rules don’t apply to the Dunedain!

  16. Kitty says

    These are great! I’ve always thought the idea of running through the woods sounded wrong – I’ve been in some woods where you can’t even see the ground. I wouldn’t dare try running through that. And at night? No way!

    Re: Noises…I was once accompanying a friend who is very much a woodsman, through a county park looking for some friends who’d gone off the trail. We heard this really loud noise that he thought was a grouse. We were both surprised to find the sound was actually coming from a chipmunk! Little bugger just sat there and kept on with it, too.

    Thanks for these tips! Going to bookmark this page 😀

  17. says

    Thanks for writing a great, practical article! I loved it! I grew up in rural Missouri, and practically lived out in the woods from spring ’til fall. We have an invasive species of red cedar in my area. The trees grow incredibly close together and the branches that are close to the ground are usually dead and very sharp. The live, upper branches are so dense that they effectively shut out most of the light. About the only times I’ve ever been seriously confused in the woods were the times when I was trying to navigate big stands of cedar. I’ve never read a book with a character who gets lost in a cedar grove, but let me tell you, it could happen!

    As a writer, I’ve begun to realize that it really pays off to understand your territory. This knowledge will not only add layers of depth and credibility to your story, but also offer possibilities for character and plot development. Your Missouri farm kid will know how to navigate the cedar woods without getting disoriented or losing an eye. Someone who grew up in another part of the country won’t fare so well. Know your ground, and use that knowledge wisely.

  18. says

    This is great! I’m pinning on Pinterest as a reference at least for the four-book fantasy series I plan to write. Woods definitely play a big role in the first part of the characters’ journey. Thank you for such an outstanding article from an experienced hunter to the inexperienced writer. 🙂

  19. Kelsey says

    Thanks, I hope many writers read this. I would like to add a couple things. Depending on what part of the world your in the forest changes. For instance, the forests in europe well more northern europe do not have a lot of undergrowth. So things like running though the woods is possible, but it will still be a very loud thing to do. Forests in south east asia are in fact rain forests. Rain forests are so thick with undergrowth that there are places where it is impassable. At these places you have to go around. That is why many places in south east asia are still not fully explored. In these forests there are quite a few dangers and many people try to avoid going in them at all. However if you are like me (stupid) and go in anyway, you have to be carful of snakes, leaches, parasites, insects, and the larger wild animals like tigers and elephants.
    The last forest area I want to mention is the african woods (generally). There are not a lot of wooded areas in africa but when there are you have a lot of undergrowth and a lot of spiked plants. Some of these plant can have up to 3 inch spikes.
    Sorry I only wanted to mention the differences in forests found these places because a lot of books reference a place then have the wrong climate forest.

    Thanks

    • Tiffani says

      This is a great point! It’s worth noting that even within the US there are huge variations in types of forest as well. In the Northwest where I’m from, there aren’t usually so many layers to the forest, because it’s almost entirely evergreens. You know how forests in New England turn orange in the fall and visibility increases in the winter? That doesn’t happen in the Northwest. There are the damp regions, which have the main layer of very tall evergreens, then a few random other trees, then a very thick underbrush of bushes and ferns. In dryer regions, there is almost no underbrush. It’s still there, but not nearly as thick, and some places the only thing on the forest floor is a bed of dry pine needles. Running still might not be ideal, but it’s completely doable in this kind of forest, especially since the branches on most of the pine trees are so high they won’t get in your way.

  20. says

    So glad I saw this article (on Pinterest). I’m re-pinning, direct link, with your byline.

    I write young adult novels, usually with teen girl protags, and I always try to incorporate woods and outdoors. You’ve listed great reminders and insights.

    Funny, I wrote about the creaking and squeaking sound trees make in upstate NY winter, and my southern editor was like, “Whaaat? Trees make sounds in the cold?”

    Research is necessary (and fun), but it doesn’t give you the scents, the sounds, the, er, potential personal discomfort. There’s really no substitute for experience, is there?

    Thanks again for this article. Best wishes for your writing, and may the force be with you. 🙂

    • Kitty says

      Trees absolutely make noises in winter! There’s something eerie and yet poignant about that creaking noise. It’s like the trees are talking among themselves (probably wondering what the daft humans are doing wandering around in the woods in frigid weather!)

  21. Bailey says

    Great advice! I live surrounded by woods so I’m used to most of the sounds so it’s great to have someone point out the odd noises I’m used to! The sound like a baby crying that you heard may be a bobcat depending on where you are. My grandparents have bobcats around their house and have heard the baby crying sound only to go check it out and find bobcats and bobcat prints. Maybe that solves your mystery! Thanks for the great advice!

  22. April C says

    The mystery sounds got me. Once when my husband and I were camping in a tent, we heard sounds outside that concerned us. It sounded just like people were walking around the tent and campsite; the footsteps sound was “unmistakeable”. We turned on the lantern and unzipped the door, not sure what we might find. We were very surprised to see two armadillo’s snuffling through the undergrowth around the tent. They ignored us and went on about their business. We had a good laugh.

    I have to agree with Lauren about coming on animals unaware happening more often than you’d think. I’ve come up on many different animals that didn’t seem to hear me coming even though I wasn’t trying to be quiet. When I think back, it often happened at dusk, when the nocturnal animals were rousing. Maybe they didn’t notice me as they were busy with their “morning routine” so to speak. I’ve come up on possums, foxes, and deer like this.

    Lastly, when I was very small, I once heard a panther scream at night. Talk about a frightening sound!
    Loved the article. I’m from SW Missouri, so the descriptions were spot on.

  23. Jessica says

    Excellent! I’m glad to see I kept a lot of this in mind.
    Could the wailing baby have been a raven? This past spring I had a raven nesting in a tall pine near my house and I kept hearing a baby crying, so I started checking out their calls. They also make sounds that have me reaching for glasses of water thanks to the aliens in Signs. All clicky and creepy! Anyways, thank you this post, it’s a great thing to keep handy 🙂

  24. Jen says

    It definitely depends on the forest you’re in. Having grown up in California with arid pine/oak forests and lived in giant redwood forests, I was really surprised at how much undergrowth there was in the forests in New York state when I visited. I could probably run through the redwoods near my house with no problem as long as I don’t trip over a fern or stick, especially in the deeper woods since the understory trees and shrubs tend to be more on the edges and in clearings.

  25. Melissa says

    Found this through Pintrest. Very good, most of which I figured was true, but I’m glad to hear it from so many others.
    I live in Arizona and about 5 miles from my house is the mountains. They hit all zones, so from entering the mountains to reaching the top is like traveling from Mexico to Canada. Cacti and scrub on the bottom, towering pines at the top and everything in between. With some raspberry, boysenberry and gooseberry patches sprinkled here and there.
    It catches fire at least once every year so they take care to clean up much of the undergrowth. There are very few saplings and only a few large ferns here and there. As a kid though, you had a better chance of hurting yourself by stepping on a pine cone and rolling your ankle than stepping in a hole or a jutting rock.
    I love to sit up there and listen/watch the squirrels run around and rain pine cones down from the trees.

  26. Ashes says

    Hey I know this article is a bit old now but I just want to belatedly say that I really enjoyed it, and have thought about it several times since initially reading it.

    I REALLY want to know, though: since you have such experience with the realities of true forests, can you give me some of your favorite authors (bonus points for any fantasy authors, as I love reading that) that have most impressed you with their descriptions of forests and other wild lands?

    Thanks again for the great article and I really hope to hear from ya!

  27. Vana says

    I think the squeaky creaking sound might have been what my family always called “kissing trees”. I’m not actually sure what it is, although I can recognize it when I hear it, but it has to do with the movement of the trees, so, well, if that helps. It does sound a bit like a really weird type of bird.

    Another thing that really gets me whenever I see stories set in the woods is characters walking in the woods BAREFOOT. While I guess that could happen depending on which woods you’re in and how experienced you are, there’s just so many branches, rocks, thorned plants, and everything that would be really, really painful to step on barefoot. I guess it could be done, but it’d take some really painful practice time and insanely ideal woods.

    • Nate says

      I’ve seen documentaries in which rain forest natives wonder the rainforest barefoot. I certainly couldn’t do it, but it seems as though feet can get tough enough to withstand it.

    • April C says

      I don’t think I could do it now, but when I was a child we never wore shoes. I always went barefoot whether we were playing out in the field, along the creek bank, or in the hay in the barn. It didn’t seem to be a problem as my feet were tough. Of course, it didn’t stop us from stepping on thorns, “sticker bushes”, and once even a rake hidden under the hay. That one went right through my cousin’s foot from bottom to top.

  28. helen says

    I love this article it has some really good points. I do agree with the above comment about the creaking sound being the trees. I live in Virginia and hear it all the time. I do want to point out that it totally depend on what type of wood your running in as to if you can run or not. I am an avid runner and if I am paying attention to what I am doing can run through the woods. although this running also involves jumping over brush and fallen trees something that can be very difficult and dangerous. I would like to say though to the comment above mine. I run barefoot a lot and in the woods in areas not always on trail. Yes it can be very dangerous for your feet but it can most certainly be done if the person knows what they are doing. Me and my brother went running after a hurricane hit are area pretty bad and there were trees down everywhere, and lots of leaves covering the ground. We were both barefoot and we were fine that is until we nearly ran on a copperhead in our way sunning himself. The snakes can be the worst I have run into a few of them literally on the tail and in open woods. I hate that they are never mentioned in books. Lastly I would like to respectfully disagree with your comment about not being able to sneak up on animals in the woods, I don’t know about anyone else but I can’t count the number of times I have come up on sleeping deer in the woods still bedded down. Anyways this article is wonderful and I really appreciate all the other articles you have done they are really informative.

  29. Gabriel says

    As a backwoods Vermonter, I remember being completely out of my depth when I started reading, because characters kept wandering off into what they insisted on calling “forests”, which clearly…weren’t. (Well, at age 7 I decided to chalk much of it up to all the fantasy being based on Europe, where I decided ecology must be fundamentally different. The biggest reason for this was grass, which many authors insisted was covering the ground deep under ancient oak trees. That grass was just about an existential crisis for me before I developed the Europe theory, because I, barely having seen a lawn, couldn’t imagine such a thing.)
    This article reminded me amusingly of that, and struck me as solid advice for authors to start with. I did want to add a few cents to the response you’ve gotten to the noises. I could go on for ages about animal culprits, but to keep it short(er) and speak for the often forgotten, I’m agreeing with Vana on a lot of noise coming from the trees. The creaking noises–as well as cracks, almost gun-crack pops in the springtime, and sometimes a rubbing/scraping/sliding sound that can almost reach a wet-finger-on-glass kind of ringing–can all come from trees. Not only do they move in the wind/shape it around them, or if one has fallen against another, rub (Vana called mentioned ‘trees kissing’, which I’ve heard for that before), but the wood itself reacts to the weather, drying and cracking in heat or expanding and cracking if it freezes in winter. That frozen wood then gets shockingly loud come spring: Here you know that the sap’s running (for syruping) by that shotgun crack of thawing wood. With beetled (hideously noisy), and rot and all kinds of other things, trees talk more than a fair few people do. If you or your character are in the woods in winter anywhere north, you’ll hear a lot of that (and be scared out of your mind, if you don’t know there isn’t really a maniac with a gun behind you. Unless there is.)

  30. Ace says

    >Once I heard something that sounded like a baby crying in long, plaintive wails. That one still haunts me.

    Likely a baby jackrabbit. They make an eerie sound.

  31. says

    I love this. I grew up on a rare one acres wooded lot in suburbia. Despite the fact that half the property was carefully maintained as a clearing and our neighbors on one side had developed their property, there was still no way to run through our woods even in the middle of winter. Our single acres had briers and gullies galore that a kid and a dog struggled to claw our way through.

  32. Alicia says

    Pinterest brought me here… It’s odd that I lived the first 18 years of my life in countryside and walked a lot in the forest paths, and yet I have never paid attention in how writers kind of fail to describe forest activities. Heck, even I have made the mistake of making one of my characters run in a pathless forest!

    Also I’d like to add that I live in the northern Europe and where I live there is barely any undergrowth (especially in pine woods since they’re dry areas anyway), just moss and maybe some grass or ferns. However the forest can still be so thick that it’s hard to walk in there because of dead trees and those young growing trees that are still smaller than you. And then when you go above the Arctic circle there are areas where the trees are really small and there’s just moss and lichen. And reindeers. And freakishly big mosquitos. So it’s all about the location.

    Oh, and when the winter is starting to turn to spring the snow can become so thick that you can just walk on it and you don’t have to wade through knee-high snow. It’s the best thing ever but last time I was light enough to do that I was like twelve. Kids do have the pleasure of doing things that adults cannot!

    I used to love walks in the forest (and still do) but I don’t do that very much anymore. There are some wolves and bobcats where I used to live. My friend has actually seen wolves from far away multiple times during wintertime. However it’s the bears that really bother me. There’s always been bears and even though I wasn’t really bothered by the possibility of running into them when I was younger now I start to panic very easily if I’m alone in the woods. Didn’t really help that couple of years ago a bear had attacked a horse less than half a mile from my parent’s place. And last summer I even saw bear tracks on a muddy path in the woods. I’d feel safer if I walked in the forests during wintertime when the bears are asleep but there’s usually way too much snow to do that…

  33. Addy says

    The forest I grew up living in (in Poland) is different. We could full out run through it, though we’d often fall on the tree roots. As a kid we just hopped back up without a care. But my point is, forests are all different. The one I grew up in could definitely fit the ones authors seem to talk about.

  34. Lisa Terry says

    This is a great article with many good points. I’ve never had any of my characters running through woods. As a general rule, I’d say that is actually is impossible to take a cute little morning jog through the woods without a trail.
    But I have ran through the woods. Wait until you hear my story before shaking your head. I’ve always lived in the panhandle of Florida, always with at least mile-deep woods behind my house. I used to be big on “exploring” them. I was cured.
    Those spiders that the above commenters have spoken of…imagine the garden spider, the yellow kind as big as your fist, appearing on your leg. I repeat, on your leg. I was about 13 and thought I was going to die. Yes, I ran through the woods screaming and crying. I sprained my ankle on one of many falls, and I ripped my clothes nearly completely off of me (some of it was branches tearing them, some of it was me trying to get out of the clothes that spider could still be on). But when you are running for your life, you can run through the woods. You trip a lot on the underbrush, you get many branches in the face and scraping your legs and arms. Oh, and young cabbage palms don’t just scratch you, they cut. However, you can group a 13-year-old girl with a spider on her as superhuman because while I was running I didn’t feel a sprained ankle or cuts or scratches, I didn’t get tired of running…as a matter of fact I couldn’t stop running once in my yard. I imagine it had a lot to do with the adrenaline rush that coincides with fearing for your life.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Terrified girl becomes superhuman and runs through forest. But if I can do that, and this is a true story, then I think that some of the instances of a character, when running from a bad guy and pumped up on adrenaline, could run through the woods as long as you have her trip over vines, fall over roots, get scratched by branches…as long as she doesn’t come out injury-free, then it’s not so unrealistic.

  35. E H Young says

    This is an excellent article! A few scenes/stories I’ve written take place in forests (of various kinds), so my heart started beating a little faster when I saw the title of this article, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see I’ve done pretty much everything right. I’ve walked and nearly gotten lost in forests from California to Ireland to Norway but I’d never consider myself an outdoorsman. I even got Lyme disease (I should write about that happening to a character, because it’s terrible) out of it, but I guess it was worth it because I can write about my experiences. Thanks for the great article!

  36. says

    Running on deer/goat trails here in NZ is possible, but our terrain is very higgledy piggledy and I’ve sprained my ankles too many times to count ;p
    Also, re animals running through the woods. Yes, they can, yes they can do it at top speed too, but I have also witnessed my dog running full sprint into a tree…

  37. says

    A few things I tend to tangle with in the woods a lot are blackberry vines, wild raspberry vines, and nettles. Lots and lots of nettles. It’s important to wear long pants and long sleeves to protect from being stung or scratched. There are also a lot of maple trees mixed in with fir trees and pine trees, so sneaking around the woods can be difficult because of branches and fallen leaves.

    When I’m trying to be quiet in the woods, I tend to slow down and pick each step carefully. I also take into account the type of shoes I’m wearing. The softer the sole of the shoe, the softer the footsteps, (usually). I tend to rely on the soft loam on the woodland floor and green/soft grass, and wet moss for places to step quietly. Fallen logs aren’t difficult to navigate, because they tend to be smaller. If they are big they are fun to climb. When sneaking through the woods, I also look for rocks I can step on, because the sound it makes is also quiet. (there is a lot of granite in my neck of the woods)

    I don’t remember ever getting lost in the woods, because I usually stick to trails unless the woods I’m in are very familiar. There is moss, fallen logs, rocks, and burnt or rotten stumps to use as landmarks, so navigation isn’t very difficult. Each stump is different, some are burnt, some have berry bushes growing out of them, etc. Some trees are bent funny because of the wind storms, and some have been hit by lightning, some have grown together, some have ivy growing on them, some trees are sick, some are healthy and strong. The list of characteristics goes on and on.

    I’m going to stop before this post goes on forever! Lol!

  38. Marsha says

    I live on my family’s ancestral property – I walk through the woods every night to my cousin’s house. I and my aunt and my grandfather have all been bitten by rattlesnakes. I have also been bitten by other snakes, including rat snakes – look up sometime and pay attention, they are not completely nocturnal and they hunt in trees as well as on ground, birds and bats and eggs. Don’t worry – they might attack viciously and strike multiple times but they are not venomous. It feels like getting hit on the leg with a baseball, (at least mine did – he was about four feet long, so he was strong – a rattlesnake feels like a gunshot, I assume – I’ve never been shot with a gun, but I think that’s how it would feel). The rat snake bites were not very painful, but a little sore and bruised. It was tender and stung at the bite sites and it made me a little nauseous. Snakes strike low, almost always – so protect your legs and especially feet and ankles.

    As for spiders, walking through webbing is one thing; I have seen trees so enveloped in webbing that they appear enchanted and glitter in the light. Every step sent dozens scurrying in the underbrush – it was like gazing at an ant hill, the more I stared, the more I saw. Hundreds. Thousands. If people knew how many spiders were in an average acre of land, they would never shriek when they saw a single little spider in the house. They would think it was amazing that there was only one.

  39. Joan says

    A lot of people are giving their opinions on what the crying noise you heard was, so I will too.

    My grandparents told me a story once about one time, at night, they heard something that souned like a baby crying in their yard. They lived near a woodsy area. My grandparents went out to investigate and found a young porcupine stuck rather uncomfortably in between two branches of one of their small trees in the front yard, and it was crying just like a baby. There were some other porcupines in the tree, too. My grandfather put on some thick leather gloves and rescued the stuck porcupine.

    So, if where you live has porcupines, it could’ve been one of them!

  40. says

    Hi! Great article!
    I have a question. In a scene I’m writing my character has to run away from ten men on horses so she enters the forest. She is faster than a normal human being though, and used to nature. Would this still be credible? Any tips on how making it sound more realistic?

    • says

      What kind of forest is it? How dense is the forest? How “forest savvy” are these men? Sometimes horses spook in unfamiliar circumstances, and can become nervous if they haven’t been around the woods a lot. (I once owned a horse, and I help out at my friends barn.)

      I hope this helps! 🙂

    • E. H. Young says

      Can she run and climb over stumps and rocks without tripping and falling? If the forest is dense and has no paths horses might not be able to go in since they generally need flat ground to walk on.

  41. L.Turner says

    For years I’d spent days even weeks at a time in the dense forests foothills of Mt.Rainier and it’s beautiful park. You have very valid points for the realities of being in the woods. However it is possible to walk quietly in the forest depending on seasons and conditions. Like early spring thru early summer. Everything is new, moist and soft. Late summer dry leaves start falling covering everything with what can be compared to layers of news papers and bubble wrap. Tracking people at least within a day or two is easy in the PNW. People are not as graceful as our animal friends. Our big shoes and low long strides trample and drag everything in the direction we went. On a nice wide trail the tread of our shoes will be imprinted in some dirt at some point. Giving up not only our direction but also the nice trail we took. Long story short I can always tell if someone was there before me and which way. Might not be able to tell ya who they were, where they started, or where they ended up, but I can tell ya which direction. AND YES! Expect strange noises! I don’t care how well u think you know your native animals. An unidentifiable noise does happen. Animals make many sounds most of them known. But let’s face it no one really knows every sound that every critter makes in every situation, everytime. But a crying baby is either a cougar, a bobcat, a distressed baby deer, or a crying baby. Probably not the latter. You also hit Visibility on the nose! Unless it’s moving, out in the open, or colorful your not gonna see it. Good news is same rules apply for them. Your right. It’s really easy to get lost in unfamiliar ground. What I learned along my travels, avoid areas of thick brush taller than your chest if at all possible go around. If ya can’t see over it or past it, don’t go thru it. If you’re really really lost, go down hill and try to keep a distance from streams or rivers so u can listen for cars on a distant road, people nearby, and what’s lurking in your surroundings. They can also switchback several times further confusing you. After the 5th time u crossed the same creek. All in all I like what you wrote, and they way you put it all into context. I just wanted to add my 2 cents worth. Last but not least never go into the woods without a pocket knife, and a lighter. Thank You!

  42. says

    I can help you with the baby crying noise you heard. We live on a mountain surrounded by thick woods and hear it all the time. It’s a fisher cat’s cry. The first time I heard it freaked me out. But that’s what it was…a fisher cat. Excellent post. These things bother me too, in books.

  43. says

    Thank you for writing this. I’m writing a story at the moment that involves my MC fleeing into and surviving in the woods for a while. I am not often in the woods myself, and when I do find myself there it is on very gentle and well maintained paths. Due to a disability I am unlikely to find myself becoming any more familiar with forests. But I want to accurately write about that kind of terrain, so thank you! Your descriptions in this blog has helped me picture much better what it would be like out there 🙂

  44. Tim says

    Not a hunter. Did grow up on an Alaskan homestead ‘where the roads stop.’ In my younger days, I spent a lot of time out in the woods.

    At one point or another, I have had to deal with all of the points listed. Maintaining a straight line is almost impossible. Toss something 20 feet into the summer woods – even if brightly colored, odds of finding it again are not good. Tracking…not easy. And lots of noises.

  45. says

    Man, that is super helpful for anyone who hasn’t been in a forest in a while. It’s easy to forget some of that stuff. I can’t thank you enough for this fact in fantasy series, Dan. Super. Freaking. Helpful.

  46. Calypso Brillhart says

    The baby crying sounds like a fisher cat. We had them in the woods behind my old house. Truly terrifying, fisher cats.

  47. Calypso Brillhart says

    Although, after reading the other comments, or seems that most big cats can wail like that.

    Thanks for the help with my story! It might even satisfy my mother, who’s the worst critic yet. XD

  48. Jane says

    Good stuff. Interestingly, the rules can be very different for coniferous forests. I grew up in Idaho, close to Yellowstone, and now live in Kentucky, so I have been able to see the big differences between the types of forests. Movement and visibility are greatly increased in coniferous forests, which are usually in more arid climates, resulting in a lot less undergrowth. Many pine forests just have small grasses and wildflowers scattered throughout treed areas (this could also be due to what pine roots emit into the soil, changing th pH so fewer plant species can grow close to them, but I think lack of rain/humidity plays a major part).

    Another plus (where the characters are concerned) about coniferous forests, with their lack of undergrowth, is there are not nearly as many good hiding places for snakes and spiders, so the “creepy crawly” factor is also greatly diminished.

    I’m glad to hear your write-up on “tracking,” though. That always seemed like the writers were cheating…

    Heard something in a New Mexico arroyo one time in the middle of the night… sounded just like a grown man shrieking. Still not sure if it was a coyote or other critter… or actually a man scrraming.

  49. Amy Ruth says

    Wow thanks so much, this will some in handy in the last part of my novel! I do have an idea regarding the squeaky/creaky birds. I have often watched woodpeckers (particularly Hairy woodpeckers) make a sound like a squeaky clothesline pulley. A really weird sound if you aren’t used to some one hanging laundry outside 🙂

  50. says

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve been working for a long time on a epic fantasy book. It’s so long because I really want to get as much right as I can. As with most epic fantasy stories, there are lot of wooded areas involved. I now have some new ideas to go back and add into my story and to use as I continue to write it. This was super helpful!

  51. Lacey says

    That baby wailing might have been a bobcat or lynx type animal in heat. I heard the same thing outside my house one night and was flipping out cause i had recently read about an escaped convict who lured people out of their houses with baby cries. I eventually figured out it was a neighborhood cat. Lol

  52. Brad says

    It depends on the forest. One of my books takes place primarily in forest but I know these areas well enough to write in detail s. Really great points!

  53. says

    Hi to All: You have not mentioned anything about crows. I have had crows who mimic just like some parrots. The clothes line creaking was one our crows did in our backyard in south Ottawa, Canada. I also heard them in a camp ground on the Manitoba/Ontario border. A gentleman, chef from Louisiana who happened to love crows and myself had many a fun time discussing their antics.

  54. Lucie says

    So much awesome information. I often go on hikes and see all the issues you describe but I’ve never gone out in winter. I’m currently writing something that requires a chase on foot – at night – through snowy woods – which would be almost impossible in the real world, I imagine. You wouldn’t know where to place your feet…Are there any other pittfalls you would suggest?

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