In “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Clark Griswold, a patriarch as hapless as he is filled with the holiday spirit, forces his severely frostbitten family (“Dad, I can’t feel my leg …”) to trudge through a snow-covered forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

Long story short, Clark finds it — just as Audrey’s eyelids are sealed shut with ice — with the help of a beam of light magically cast down from the heavens. “It’s not big, it’s just … full,” Clark explains as his family stares down a plus-sized fir that, as they later find out, comes complete with a resident squirrel.

While the scene is obviously comedic in nature, there is a bit of truth to the whole ridiculous scenario. Just like Clark and the Griswold clan, you can indeed enter a forest — well, a national forest, not private property — and chop down a tree during the holiday season. Of course, acquiring a U.S. Forest Service-issued permit is required before doing so, which naturally seems like something that Clark Griswold would have failed to do.

A majority of the permits — most cost in the $5 to $10 range — issued thorough the Forest Service’s holiday tree-cutting program become available in mid to late November and, in many cases, are limited. Depending on the forest, they tend to get snatched up pretty quickly. For example, all 400 available permits were sold out by Nov. 29 — just four days after they became available — at Tahoe National Forest’s Sierraville Ranger District in California.

Cutting down a Christmas tree in a national forestPermits are free to families of fourth-grade students at participating national forests through the Every Kid in a Park initiative.

As for the procrastinators out there holding out for the freshest tree possible, there are still permits — limit two per household — available in numerous national forests such as Minnesota’s Superior National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest in California. Most permits, if not sold out, are available up until just a couple of days before Christmas.

“It's a great way to get kill two birds with one stone,” Superior National forest spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach tells the Duluth News Tribune. "You get to go out and have fun in the forest and get a Christmas tree for a great price.”

Considering that in this particular instance we’re dealing with a 3 million acre forest in northern Minnesota in the middle of December, safety and common sense should always come before fun.

While specifics vary from national forest to national forest, the forest service offers general guidelines to consider before obtaining a permit and heading out into the vast, open wilderness in search of the perfect Christmas tree. That is, unless you’re looking to celebrate Christmas more like the Donner party than the Griswold family. Or a combination of the two.

Most of the forest service’s tips are common sense. Before venturing out — map, compass and saw in hand — check for any road closures or specific warnings that might impact your expedition. Just as you would before venturing into the woods on any occasion, tell a friend or loved one who isn’t joining along where you're going and when you expect to return. Aside from tree-cutting implements, bringing along a first-aid kit and extra water is also a smart idea.

And it goes without saying, check the weather and dress appropriately — the conditions out there are likely to be a wee bit different than at the pop-up Christmas tree lot at your local Safeway.

Tagged Christmas tree in national forest Permits to cut your own Christmas tree in a national forest start at around $5 — a bundle less than what you'd pay for a farmed tree at a supermarket lot. (Photo: Huron-Manistee National Forests/flickr)

The 6-inch rule

In terms of tree-selection specifics, this can vary from forest to forest, although the U.S. Forest Service does off some basic rules of thumb: trees must be located 200 feet away from roadways, campgrounds and recreation sites and at a reasonable distance away from rivers, streams and lakes. Pay mind to restricted areas and focus your hunt on “overstocked areas” and thickets. And while cutting dead or downed trees may seem like a good way to avoid some of the grunt work while still being able to claim that you journeyed deep into the forest and emerged with a Christmas tree, check in with the local ranger district regarding this as downed and dead trees often serve as valuable animal habitats.

Unless noted by a specific ranger district, there’s no height limit when it comes to Christmas tree cutting within national forests, although tree trunks must be less than 6 inches in diameter — something that aspiring Clark Griswolds should certainly keep in mind. Trees must be cut no more than 6 inches from the ground and cutting the tops off of tall trees is strictly verboten as is reselling them — the trees are for personal harvest only.

In the Pacific Northwest, a region where sprawling u-cut Christmas tree farms rule supreme, national forests are a venturesome — but often overlooked — alternative.

“It is exciting, the adventure of going out and cutting your own tree down," Stephen Baker, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region office, tells OregonLive. “A lot of people probably aren't aware that you can do that.”

And indeed they aren’t.

In Oregon, 32,000 Christmas tree permits were sold last year with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest being far and away the most popular spot for DIY tannenbaum harvesting. This may seem like a high figure, but when you consider that commercial Christmas tree farms in Oregon are set to produce a staggering 3.2 million tinsel- and ornament-ready tree specimens this year, it becomes apparent how many folks are erring on the non-adventurous side.

This, of course, is fine as not all families are as loving and tolerant as Ellen, Rusty and Audrey. I’m certain that if my father had driven my younger brother and I to a national forest in lieu of the standard tree farm as kids, I would have insisted on waiting in the car. After all, my father does have a touch of Clark Griswold in him. (Deviations from the norm in the not-so-distant past have involved fishing line and small rodents.)

How the pros do it

For those who’d rather stick to u-cut tree farms and lots and save their forest-bound excursions for warmer warmer, Great Big Story recently visited one of the the largest wholesale Christmas tree farm in the world, Holiday Tree Farms near Corvallis, Oregon, for a fantastic inside look (above) at how the Christmas tree sausage gets made. Hint: it involves helicopters.

As reported by to the Chicago Tribune, commercial Christmas tree farms like Holiday Tree Farms have struggled in recent years as, somewhat surprisingly, artificial trees have surged in popularity.

"The reality is that there has been some loss in market share, if you will, to the artificial tree," Tim O'Connor, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, tells the Tribune. "(Farmers) want to fight that, they want to get in the battle and win customers back." Functioning as a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Christmas Tree Promotion Board has launched a national "Keep it Real" campaign to help woe Christmas tree buyers away from the dark/faux side.

Inset photo: brian gatreau/flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.