Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

What’s the difference between ‘windthrow’ and ‘windsnap’ in trees?

And how can they help me find my way in the woods?

Finding your way with windthrow trees
Windthrow in a yew tree

Both ‘windthrow’ and ‘windsnap’ are names given by foresters to trees that have been seriously damaged by wind.

Windthrow refers to trees that have been blown down completely, tilting at the root base. This is very common after storms, even in healthy trees.

Windsnap refers to trees that have broken at the stem/trunk. It is most common in trees with structural weakness, often from fungal decay.

After windthrow, trees normally survive, but start growing in new ways. Conifers grow from their tip and deciduous trees grow from their lowest surviving branch.

Windsnap trees fare less well, but were often in trouble before the wind damage.

Both types of damage can be used for natural navigation. The method is similar to using the effects of prevailing winds, but subtly different. It is important to know the direction of the storm’s wind that did the damage; this may or may not be the same as the prevailing wind.

The best method is to look for trends – there will usually be plenty of windthrown trees in any substantial wood and the direction they have been blown down is the key. Make a mental note of it and it can form a helpful natural compass. Like many tree techniques, it is best to use a sample and not rely too heavily on any individual tree.

For example in many UK woods, there are hundreds of trees that have come down from gales from the southwest, including plenty from the great storm of 1987. All other things being equal, these trees ‘point’ from southwest (root ball) to northeast (tip). In the picture at the top of the windthrow yew tree, we are looking east.

For more detail on these methods and other related tree ones please see the Books and Library page. (I have written about more than 20 methods for finding your way using trees.)

Navigating with storm damaged trees
Windsnap in a spruce tree

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How to Find Direction Using Tree Bark

How to Navigate Using Snow Strips

Identifying Trees at Risk from Ice and Wind