How to Wrap Trees With Outdoor Lights

lights on tree
Lisa Hallett Taylor
Overview
  • Total Time: 60 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $10 - $50 per tree

Trees decorated with light strings always look festive for the holidays, and they can be just as fun and magical any other time of the year. During warm weather, there's nothing more inviting than a comfortable outdoor space bejeweled with twinkling lights.

Lighting is suitable for most types of trees, including evergreens, deciduous trees, palm trees, and even yucca. Often, bare leafless trees provide the ideal framework for hanging lights, especially horizontal-spreading varieties. Palm tree trunks wrapped with white or red lights show off their vertical, upright forms, drawing the eye upward toward the night sky.

The best outdoor lights to use are LED lights. LEDs are not only 75 percent more energy efficient than standard incandescent bulbs, they also last many times longer. LED lights cost quite a bit more than incandescent, but because LEDs cost less to run, they pay for themselves long before they burn out.

For the color of the lights, warm white LEDs provide a nice, warm glow reminiscent of the incandescents that everyone loves (and with which so many traditionalists have trouble parting). Cool white offers a bluish glow, and colored lights are either multicolored or one color. White is universal and is suitable for any time of the year. Colored lights usually are best for the holidays. In any case, it looks best if you choose the same lights in each color, such as all warm or all cool whites.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Ladder
  • Outdoor-rated extension cord
  • Cardboard (optional)

Materials

  • Outdoor light strands
  • Twine or plant tape (optional)

Steps to Make It

  1. Choose the Trees for Lighting

    Select the tree or trees you would like to light up. Start with one that creates a natural focal point in your landscape. Ideally, it will also have an interesting form and elegant branches that will look especially striking when illuminated. Odd shapes of branches and limbs can become magical in the evening when electrified with twinkling lights.

    A very large tree can have a lot of "wow" factor, but the bigger (and taller) it is, the more lights it will need. What you don't want is a big tree that is sparsely lighted, so choose the right size for the amount of lights you have or are willing to buy.

  2. Test the Light Strands

    Test each strand of lights by plugging it in and making sure all of the lights are working. It's important to do this before hanging the lights, especially if you won't have the lights on while you work. You don't want to put up all of the lights only to discover that a strand in the middle is on the fritz.

    If desired, connect multiple light strings (after testing them) by plugging them together end-to-end. Wind the resulting long string around a flat piece of cardboard. This makes it easy to handle a long string without having to fight a tangled mess.

    test light strand
    Lisa Hallett Taylor
  3. Lay Out the Cord

    Extend an outdoor-rated extension cord to the base of the tree. Because the cord will be outdoors and may get wet, it must have GFCI (ground-fault circuit-interrupter) protection to protect against shock hazards. To ensure protection, plug the cord into a GFCI outlet or use a GFCI-protected outdoor cord.

    Decide where the visible base of the tree is—this is the point where the tree becomes visible from the street or from the house. In addition, tall grasses, rocks, and other landscaping features might cover or obscure the very bottom of the trunk. Walk to the curb or out to the street, and make a mental note as to where the trunk is visible. Position the cord end at this point. If desired, you can wrap the cord around the base of the tree to secure it.

    Plug the first strand of lights into the extension cord. You can plug the cord into the outlet, if desired, or wait until you're finished.

    start cord at bottom of tree
    Lisa Hallett Taylor
  4. Wind Up the Trunk

    Begin wrapping the lights around the tree's trunk, moving upward with each winding. To ensure even spacing, check the distance between windings with your hand. Use about four fingers to get consistent spacing between each wrap around the tree trunk. Aim for uniform spacing to make the finished project look its best.

    wrapping tree with lights
    Lisa Hallett Taylor
  5. Run Up and Down the Limbs

    Wrap the lights up each limb or large branch, making sure you have several extra feet of string. Space the wraps about two hands (eight fingers) apart. When you reach the end of the limb, reverse direction and wind the string back down, winding between the upward wraps so that the resulting spacing is one hand width.

    wrap tree with lights
    Lisa Hallett Taylor
  6. Use a Ladder

    Use a ladder to reach high areas. Never climb a tree to hang lights. You can use a freestanding stepladder for relatively low heights, but for higher areas, use an extension ladder. Always follow standard ladder safety procedures, making sure the ladder is evenly supported at the top and bottom and that it angles at about 75 degrees (15 degrees from vertical). If you need to climb more than about 6 feet high, have a helper hold the base of the ladder and to "spot" the lighting from the ground while you're up on the ladder.

    ladder for hanging lights
    Lisa Hallett Taylor
  7. Secure the String

    Secure the end of the light string, as needed, to complete the installation. You can simply tuck the end into a crook of branches to keep it from coming loose, or you can tie the string to the tree with a piece of natural twine or planting tape. Don't use metal wire, which could create a shock or fire hazard if the metal cuts through the light's wire insulation. You can also use a plastic zip tie, as long as you remember to cut it off before long. A strong zip tie could girdle the tree and cause damage if it's not removed.

Tips for Hanging Tree Lights

When determining how many lights or strands of lights to use, don't follow the old saying, "A little goes a long way." It just doesn't apply in this case. Depending on the circumference of the trunk, each wrap can easily use up 20 or 30 lights. And a tree that is wrapped only partway up its trunk simply does not look festive or complete. Plan and budget for lights accordingly. You can always start small and add more lights each year.