I'm trying to layout the desired locations of buildings and fences on a new rural lot that's about 15 acres and heavily wooded. The plan is to have a section of woods cleared for the build sites (two houses with yards) and some room for gardening, but leave the rest of the lot wooded. We also need to plot out driveways. Given the lack of visibility, it's proving quite a challenge to figure out where a potential build site falls in relation to the rest of the lot. Much of it starts to look the same and you start to loose perspective out in the woods.

The goal is to figure out where everything will go, so I can direct the land clearing contractor to remove trees only in the locations necessary. (They charge by the day, rounded up to whole days, so getting it organized enough to do it all in one day will save a significant amount of money).

Assuming we don't want to buy the expensive equipment used by surveyors, what's a good process for planning out a lot when you have a lot of acreage and low visibility?

I was thinking it might be possible to do something that combines GPS coordinates from a cell phone or Garmin with a CAD drawing of the survey, but this seems like a lot of back and forth between the lot and my computer.

Before I reinvent the wheel, I thought I would see if anyone else has figured out a good process for laying out a site plan in a densely wooded area?

2 Answers 2


I would start with the county map of parcels and then get a Google maps aerial view.

Take those as PDFs and annotate them with your specified dimensions. Showing the driveways and building lots clearly overlayed on the county parcel map and aerial view.

You could also drive T-posts at specific points (surveyor's posts if you can find them) for the contractor to reference while working. GPS might not help since consumer level GPS is only accurate to within 5-10 feet. Not very accurate when locating a surveyor's post.

Lastly, be there on the day(s) they are working to verify they are doing what you want.

Good luck on your project!

  • The problem with the computer only approach is an areal/satellite view of the lot only shows the tops of the trees, and in order to place the homes correctly and place driveways, I need a way to walk the property to find the correct topography, while relating my current position precisely to that of the map. So I can't just use the survey and draw a building where it seems nice, I need to physically find a place where there is a downward slope leading to semi-level ground in the approximate dimensions of the yard and basement space, and then verify that it's within the boundaries and setback.
    – Nick
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 12:22

Your best bet might be to briefly hire someone with the expensive tools surveyors use, i.e. a surveyor. GPS can actually be quite tricky below the tree canopy (I used to work with folks doing forest research, and they had the fancy GPS gear...) Nothing fools a total station (the auto-ranging auto-angling computerized replacement to the theodolite.) A tool rental place might have some you can rent, but an experienced surveyor is worth more than the tools alone.

If the boundaries and actual corners are not clear to you, get those sorted until you are clear on them (I find large, colorful things placed at each corner to be helpful in spotting them through the trees - if you have helpers, you can also use them) and it's generally useful to clear any brush along the actual property lines to help get those defined - look also for blazed or marked trees along the lines.

With those sorted and your map in hand, you can define temporary placeholders by tagging trees along the lines, giving them numbers to keep them straight and noting that, say, tree 47 is 133 feet from the NW corner on the West line and about 5 feet inside the line (and recording that information on the map.) From those you can establish the location of other interior points (trees or grid stakes) by taking measurements to two known trees or corners.

If you need to get a surveyor's help to find and mark the corners & lines, it would be very little extra work with modern surveying tools to add the locations of a number of marked trees or internal grid stakes. I would also strongly suggest that once you have the lines clear, you go out and blaze them with a paint color different from those your neighbors may have used in the past, and possibly a stencil. It's good to keep lines clear without having to call in a surveyor again.

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