How to tap a maple tree (plus a giveaway!)

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

Oh, yes. It's that time again.

While the snow is still on the ground but the days have started to warm, the maple sap begins to rise. 

And we tap.

Somehow every year it feels like hope becomes something tangible and real in the form of the steady drip-drip-drip of sap into bucket.

"Yes. Spring will come again," it says.

And every year it does.

This year we're just tapping a few trees close to our house. This summer we'll mark lots more maples in our woods and build a simple maple sap cooker. But for now we're going easy and slow.

In my life-before-motherhood-and-LuSa I was a naturalist. In that role I've tapped lots of maple trees with lots of school groups. It's easy, educational, and ridiculously rewarding. And so we've also done it as a family almost every year since before Sage was born.

If you haven't made maple syrup with your family I urge you give it a go! Even in town you can surely find a tree or two to tap on your own property or with a friendly neighbor. (In Viroqua we tapped a friends' tree with the agreement to share the syrup we produced.)

If you're new to maple tapping or just need a refresher, here is how to do it. Really it's as simple as: drill, tap, collect, and cook. But I've explained it in more detail below!

How to Tap a Maple Tree

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

1. Gather supplies

All you need is a spile (or tap), a hammer, drill with appropriate bit, and a bucket and lid. And a tree, of course. But we'll get to that in a moment.

In years past we modified random buckets by cutting a hole in the side and adding a loop of wire to suspend it from the spile. This year we bought proper maple pails, found locally and made by Tap my Trees in Canada.

Either option works. Ideally you will have a lid to keep out bits of bark and leaves, but this, too, can be improvised.

Tap my Trees is also generously sending me a set of metal buckets to try this season and is offing the same to you in a giveaway at the bottom of this post, so be sure to read all the way through!

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

2. Find your tree

Sugar maples are best but in a pinch we've even tapped our birch trees, a Norway maple, and a silver maple. Sugar maple have the most sugar of all, but the others still make great syrup. (Surprising but true!)

You will, of course, need some basic skills in tree identification. If this isn't your forte ask a competent friend to help, visit a local nature center for assistance (bring in a branch from your tree if you wish), or get a simple tree ID book like this winter tree field guide from your library. Or use this fabulously simple on-line key in the summer and mark your tree for next year.

Maples are – in my opinion – one of the easiest deciduous trees to identify in any season because of their opposite branching, but if you're unsure get help! 

3. Timing

To tap your trees, first pick the right time of year. Tap in late winter/early spring when the daytime temperatures are above freezing but the nights are still cold. This is when the sap begins to rise and is the only time to capture a bit for yourself. (Here in Western Wisconsin that's usually late February or early March.)

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

4. Tap

Tap by choosing a drill bit the same diameter or a smidge narrower than your spile near the widest part before the hook. (Usually 5/16" or 7/16".) Drill a hole at chest height on the south (sunny) side of the tree at a slight angle downward from the trunk. (Your bit will be angled upward just a touch.)

Drill to the depth required for your spile. You can mark that spot on your drill with a piece of masking tape if you wish.

Insert the spile into the hole and tap firmly into place with your hammer. On a good warm day the sap will begin to flow immediately with a few satisfying drips into your pail (or mouth).

Hang your bucked and place your lid.

Large trees can handle two (possibly three) taps, depending on size. More information on tree diameter for multiple taps can be found here.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

4. Check your pails

Each day check your pails and empty any collected sap. I pour mine through a fine mesh towel to remove any bits that have found their way into the sap. If there is a puck of ice on the top of your pail you can remove and discard it. It is almost all water and you can reduce your cooking time by pulling it out.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

5. Cook your sap

We normally cook as we go, keeping a pot of sap cooking away on the stove, on and off throughout mapling season.

If you are cooking outside or if you aren't collecting much sap, gather it in a large pail or pan until you have enough to cook down, being sure to keep your collected sap cold while you gather more. Cook your sap withing seven days to be sure it is still fresh.

Cook down your syrup on a fire outside or -  for small amounts – on your kitchen stove.

It takes 50-plus quarts of sap to make a quart of syrup so that's a lot of boiling and evaporation!

Pour your sap into a large, preferably wide cooking pot. As the sap cooks down it begins to darken and become sweet. As this concentration occurs transfer your syrup to a smaller pan to prevent scorching.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

When you see a darker color beginning to develop reduce your heat to a low simmer. Stir often at this stage and watch closely. When it looks (and tastes) like syrup you are done!

6. Remove your taps

In two to three weeks, when your nights are no longer cold it's time to pull the taps. (The sap develops and off flavor if you don't.) Carefully clean your equipment and store it away until next year.

How to tap a maple tree. | Clean.

Easy, simple, and sweet. What could be better?

How about a chance to win your own starter kit?

Tap my Trees is offering one lucky winner a maple tapping starter kit containing all you need to tap up to three of your own maple trees. The kit contains three aluminum buckets and lids, three spiles, a drill bit, and more.




To enter simply leave a comment on this post. I'll choose one winner next week!

The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Ana who said,

"It's a bit colder in northern WI, but we plan on tapping soon! Hope it's a good sap year! Cheers!"




(Main post originally published in 2013.)

53 thoughts on “How to tap a maple tree (plus a giveaway!)

  1. Caron says:

    What a generous giveaway! Thank you! I’ve seen a few trees already tapped here in NH and can believe it’s already time. Yay for spring!

  2. Molly Dery says:

    We were just talking about this! I wonder about our Ohio weather this winter, though- we have been up and down in temps so much I wonder if it is already too late? I am going to probably test it out this year anyway 🙂 And I was looking for kits that weren’t plastic, so this is perfect 🙂

  3. Elizabeth says:

    My seven year old has been talking about doing this for weeks. Do you know if it can be done in Alabama? Maple syrup always seems to come from up North, so we weren’t sure. If so, we would love to win and try it out.

  4. Sarah Di Padova says:

    Thank you for the tutorial! You make it look so easy. I am excited to give it a try for the first time this year since we just moved from the city to our land in the country. We love our maple syrup, but something tells me doing it ourselves will make it taste that much sweeter!

  5. Shell ~ says:

    ~ You can taste the syrup from your images. YUM. ~
    What magic the trees give us.
    Do you think the trees are giggling at our delight of the syrup?
    Shell ~

  6. Amber says:

    This is such a great, streamlined tutorial! This is a project that my dad and my oldest son have had in mind for awhile now – time to remind them!

  7. Robin Hiney says:

    Thank you for the info! My family and I want to try tapping trees this season at our new home. The previous owners tapped 7-10 trees every season. I can’t wait to have homemade maple syrup.

  8. Grace says:

    We had our first go at syrup making last year when we realized a spot where we’d cut down a branch was dripping sweet sap. I saw the opportunity for a fun homeschool project, so we put a bucket underneath the cut and boiled it down into just enough syrup for a couple of family pancake breakfasts! With five big maples on our city plot, I’d love to give it a more organized try this year!

  9. Holly Smallwood says:

    Getting the kids involved outdoors is so important. It prepares them for so many life skills. Your post taught me how to do this and I can’t wait to teach my own kids how to adapt to their environment while enjoying it also! Thank you for sharing.

  10. Michelle says:

    Our woodlot is flled with Box Elder. I have some taps and line but I have yet to tap a tree. In due time i plan to do this . Those pails would be just the ticket. I am heading to that website now. And from Canada? bonus, as our dollar is so stinkin’ low right now. Thanks Rachel.

  11. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the chance! This would be awesome and living in northern Wisconsin there is still time this season! BTW, my daughter loved the magnet words that came with my order!!(and I loved my order!)

  12. Kimberly says:

    It would be amazing to tab our maple trees and have our own maple syrup. It would be a great homeschool project! Love your blog!

  13. Erin VL says:

    Oh how fun and wonderful! Thanks for the tutorial and thanks to Tap my Trees for the give-away. Yeah for maple syrup!

  14. Katie Tranzilo says:

    I have tried tapping in the past, but apparently did not do it right. There were bugs and bits of this and in the sap. I strained it and cooked it outside. It did not taste right. It even tasted like wood smoke. Did I wait too long? Did I tap the right trees? The wrong cooking pot? All that work and I threw it away. I need a second chance with the right equipment and the right instructions!

  15. ️Meagan says:

    Perfect timing! We live in Michigan, and I’ve noticed folks around here are gearing up to tap. What a generous giveaway! We would LOVE the opportunity to try…as I’m eyeballing the sugar maples out front.

  16. Casey u says:

    What an amazing giveaway! We’d love to add additional trees to the handful we tap – it’s such a wonderful process, and we love the tradition abs memories involved. 🙂

  17. Nicole C says:

    What a fantastic tutorial, friendly, simple, and accessible, as always. We’ve never tapped trees because we didn’t have sugar maples on our small property, that that’s wonderful to hear that you can use other types of maples as well! And how lovely of you to host a giveaway. Wishing your family lots of sweetness during the sugaring season! Oh, and we recently tried maple syrup on snow – delicious! It made me want to try boiling the syrup to make it into candy on the snow, like in the Little Cabin in the Woods book. 🙂

  18. ~Yola says:

    This Giveaway would be awesome to win, not much chance I’d make the purchase myself, as we are way to mild a climate to do much sugaring, but I hear Big Leaf Maple syrup is pretty tasty, and I’d sure love to go through the process with my kids next year (and for many more to come)!

  19. Amanda J says:

    Wouldn’t mind replacing my hand full of milk jugs with real buckets! It’s a small stove top production here, but always satisfying.

  20. Siri Wilmoth says:

    I wish there were more sugar maples in my yard here in Montana!
    I have special memories of doing this with my dad in Northern WI where I spent my childhood.
    What an awesome, teaching moment for the next generation – to get them excited about something delicious from mother nature 😉
    Thanks for the tutorial!

  21. Jeanne Miller says:

    I just happen to have 3 maple trees in my front yard that my 8 year old daughter has been wanting to tap! I haven’t ordered the supplies yet. I was hoping to find them around town, but haven’t been able to find any. I haven’t really done much online stuff, so I guess I am procrastinating.

  22. Steph says:

    We just began our sugaring adventure last spring and loved it! The whole process was just captivating for our kiddos and their friends. We are hoping to tap more trees this year. Thank you for the giveaway and lovely tutorial!

  23. Alysa says:

    Lovely photos, as always. I’m interested in trying my in-town La Crosse maple trees.
    On another note, I loved the Valentine’s celebration post. Thanks.

  24. Shana says:

    I had the supreme blessing last year of helping my uncle make his maple syrup but that was the only part of the process I was able to get involved in. It is one of those things that sparks my childish curiosities. I would love to do the whole process from start to finish. With all the work that goes into this process I think pancakes and waffles would become my next favorite food! I also love the idea of becoming self sufficient! Thank you for showing us how to tap trees!

  25. Regan says:

    My husband and I have been talking about buying a tap kit! So fun! My in-laws have some land just outside of town that we could use! Our 2 year old would love to do this! 🙂

  26. Elizabeth S says:

    I have access to 10 maple trees at my mom’s house. We were just talking about how we want to learn to tap but we don’t have the equipment. We have a family of 6 so pure syrup gets spendy . I’m so excited about this!

  27. Meaghan Hibbard says:

    This is awesome! Thanks for the information, and for taking some of the intimidation out of it! You made it sound simple and approachable. I think I might try it! 🙂

  28. Lindsay Zweber says:

    Wow, I have wanted to do this for so long! It really seams so simple. I hope I can find a friendly neighbor with a maple tree 🙂

  29. Kelsi says:

    I’ve always wanted to try tapping trees, ever since I read Little House in the Big Woods. I didn’t realize you could use other trees, so if I win this giveaway I will use some of the trees I have in my area (Maryland) since I do t have any sugar maples nearby. And perhaps I’ll plant some for generations down the road to tap!

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