Carving your initials into a tree is trashy – so quit it!

Heart drawn on a log
Carving your initials into a tree can harm the tree and encourage others to do the same, impacting forests for everyone who wants to enjoy them (Image credit: Nuria Camps Curtiada)

It’s amazing how many times I’ve hiked for miles, deep into the wilderness, only to be confronted by graffiti carved into trees. To get to places that should be truly untouched except for the lightest tread of hiking boots and discover that some camping knife-wielding yahoo before me has staked their claim on an unsuspecting beech tree, or worse, declared their undying (but more likely already dead) love for 'JC', is an affront to nature. Worse still, in these hard-to-reach places, I can only imagine the offenders probably consider themselves nature lovers. I often wish that these trees were the angry apple trees in the Wizard of Oz that slap Dorothy for picking an apple then hurl their apples at her in revenge, but alas, they’re defenseless against the blade of your knife.

In fairness, the act of making carvings in trees, known as 'arborglyphs', goes back centuries, and even I must admit that the naked ladies carved into the aspens just outside of Vail are quite artistic, but that’s no longer the point. If you're thinking about carving your initials into a tree, please keep reading to understand why it’s trashy and a bad idea for the trees, for you and for your fellow hikers.

Tree damaged by carved initials

I often wish that these trees were the angry apple trees in the Wizard of Oz that slap Dorothy for picking an apple (Image credit: John M. Chase)

1. It can harm the tree 

Kind of like how your skin isn’t just a covering, but an organ that forms an essential part of your immune system, a tree’s bark plays an important role in its health. According to the US Forest Service, a tree’s outer bark helps regulate moisture, provides insulation, and wards off attacking insects. If you chisel deeply enough into a tree’s bark, or if it’s a tree with very thin bark such as a beech, you can interfere with these processes, and leave the tree vulnerable to disease and insects, according to Friends of the Forest. In worst case scenarios, it could eventually result in the death of the tree. Remember, trees give us oxygen, store our carbon, and stabilize the earth with their roots – we need them to be healthy. Quit it, OK?!

Tree trunk with a carved heart and initials in Biogradska Gora park

In worst case scenarios, this could eventually result in the death of the tree (Image credit: Nadtochiy)

2. It goes against the principles of Leave No Trace

If you’re a hiker, trail runner or rock climber, you’re automatically subscribed to the principle of Leave No Trace, whether you like it or not. Though your trail running shoes and climbing rope are bound to leave some hopefully invisible mark on the soil and the rock, never mind how your presence impacts local wildlife, the idea is that there’s virtually no sign of your visit after you leave. That means no orange peel or running gel packets on the trail, no traumatized birds in the trees, and definitely no initials carved into the bark of a tree. Got it?

3. You could end up in jail 

There might not be a specific act detailing the carving of initials into trees as illegal, but certainly in US National Parks and National Forests, as well as other protected spaces, vandalism is illegal and punishable by fines of up to $500 and even jail time, which would make for a pretty disastrous first date. Though it's probably where you belong if you don't put that knife away.

Close-up of an American beech tree trunk damaged by multiple carved initials into the bark over several years

You could end up in jail for vandalizing a tree in a National Forest (Image credit: John M. Chase)

4. It can encourage copycat behavior

It really might seem harmless enough. After all, what’s one tiny “R + S 4eva” hidden away in a giant forest? Well, humans are known to have a bit of a herd mentality, and your tagline might inspire others who wouldn’t have thought of it – or been so bold – otherwise. Chances are, if you carve your initials into an untouched tree, they’ll be joined by many more within a few years. Set a good example, and keep your knife in your backpack for when you need to perform emergency repairs only.

5. It ruins other people’s enjoyment of nature

Those of us who adventure in nature do so because we love wild spaces. They provide a respite from the hectic pace of modern life and help us find calm and happiness. Graffiti carved into trees can pull us out of this experience and remind us of everything we’re trying to escape. You know, like the fact that there are people in the world who carve their initials into trees. So stop it and let us enjoy our wild spaces.

Tree bark in public park with carved initials and dates

Graffiti carved into trees can pull us out of this experience and remind us of everything we’re trying to escape (Image credit: Joanna Sokolowska)

6. It’s permanent

While spray paint on the rocks in National Parks can be cleaned off, at the taxpayers' expense anyway, we shouldn’t have to point out that carving anything into a tree is permanent. Now, we’re certainly not advocating for spray painting instead, but remember that no one can clean up the damage that you do to a tree, and although they do regenerate their outer bark from the inner bark, once a tree has been graffitied it will stay that way forever. What seems fun for a few minutes for you leaves a scar in the forest for decades. Do a little dance in the forest instead if you want some diversion.

Camping knife stuck in mossy log in forest

What seems fun for a few minutes for you leaves a scar in the forest for decades (Image credit: Getty)

7. You might live to regret it

Finally, your 'romantic' gesture may easily live longer than your relationship, and if you’re carving a tree on a trail that you visit frequently, you might live to regret it. Your declaration of love might feel stupid or embarrassing in the future, or your new hiking partner might be able to identify you by your initials and not be so keen on hanging out with you anymore. Save yourself the awkwardness and leave the trees alone. If you want to show off to your date, plant a tree or pick up that discarded water bottle instead.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.