In this glorious internet age, people who have never been in an actual forest are increasingly common (the trees in the community park don’t count). These folks might be tempted to describe this setting the way it’s portrayed on screen, which is almost always a mistake. There are numerous types of forests, many of which are rarely (if ever) shown in movies or videos.
Even the forests we do see are often inaccurate. They might’ve been filmed in a different part of the world from where the film takes place (i.e. American movies shot in Eastern Europe to cut down on production costs) and/or trees and other vegetation might be modified to accommodate the cast/crew/overall setting.
So how do we portray forests accurately? Through research, of course!
Here’s a basic guide to get you started:
Regardless of forest type, each one is composed of several layers.
Types of Forests
Mixing of trees and other forest composition tends to vary, but these are the basic categories:
This is the type of forest most of us probably think of first. Deciduous forests are mainly composed of trees that lose their leaves in preparation for winter. They have rich soil that encourages the growth of flowers, ferns, and mosses as well as shrubs and other plants. Creatures that live here year round must be adapted to cold winters and temperate or warm summers. Some common trees found in deciduous forests are maples, oaks, and beeches.
Usually found in areas with mild summers and moderate to cold winters, coniferous forests are dominated by cone-bearing trees. Fallen needles form a thick layer on the forest floor, and ferns and mosses are abundant. As the temperature range is narrow, wildlife species tend to be common rather than specialized. Cypress, spruce, and cedar can often be found in these forests.
These are sometimes referred to as evergreen forests, though this shouldn’t be confused with the coniferous tree that bears the same name. “Evergreen” in this case refers to the warm, humid atmosphere and consistent temperature – rainforests flourish all year around, which is why they’re home to the most species of all Earth biomes (both plant and wildlife). These forests are very dense with a thick canopy of overhead vegetation that shades the forest floor (much more than other forest types). Common tree species include palms, balsa, and cacao.
Also called Boreal forests, these can be found in harsh winter climates. Common features include a thick canopy, thin soil, and limited undergrowth. They can be considered a subset of coniferous forest as they are composed almost exclusively of that tree type, but there are a few notable differences. Insect and bird populations are much more sparse here, and most animals have thick fur to help them survive the frigid temperatures. Spruces, firs, and pines are common in these forests.
Things to keep in mind
- Consider the Senses – The typical forest is a lot to take in. If your character touches something, they may get sticky fingers from tree sap or berry juice. Briars might stick to their clothes, and the scent of decayed vegetation is often heavy in the air.
- There are inexplicable sounds in the forest. Birds are usually the source, but it could just as easily be an insect or some sort of invisible hell beast.
- Don’t forget that a forest is more than just trees!
- Running through the forest is usually a good way to wind up on the ground with a broken ankle. Coniferous forests tend to grow so densely they can be hard to even walk through, and even without that, forest floors are covered in fallen tree limbs and undergrowth just waiting to trip your character. Holes and stumps concealed by dead leaves are of particular concern if your character is riding a horse or driving a vehicle.
- It’s extremely difficult to move silently through a forest (see above). The best way to catch someone unaware in the woods is to arrive before they do and stay very still until the moment of attack. Without supernatural abilities, a human will be the most (unintentionally) noisy creature for miles around.
- Tracking in the woods is much more difficult than popular media would have you believe. In fact, doing this at all often requires special conditions such as snow, mud, and/or a bleeding quarry (unless there are dogs involved).
- Thanks to all the trees and undergrowth, you can’t see far in the forest. This is why…
- It’s easy to get lost. Things look the same, obstructions make traveling in a straight line impossible, and the sky is often not visible.
For a more up close and personal look at forests, check out these books: