The quantity of available water in soil is crucial for plant growth, especially after transplanting as this water will enable the growth of new roots to facilitate nutrient and water uptake. Water absorbed by a hydrogel (superabsorbent polymer) has the potential to reduce drought stress after planting and to improve seedling survival. This article provides an overview of the concepts of post-plant water stress, a review of trials that tested application of hydrogels to forest tree species, and discussion on probable reasons for failure or success in the use of hydrogels. Hydrogels applied in pot trials, under controlled conditions, tended to have a higher frequency of positive survival responses compared with field trials (14 studies of the 17 (82%) in pot trials vs 15 of the 25 (60%) in field trials). In field trials, the application of hydrogels at planting had no effect on survival in seven of the 25 (28%) trials and had a negative effect in three of the 25 (12%) field trials included in this review. In the trials showing a positive response a hydrogel and water application improved survival by 18% and across all trials by 8%. The efficiency of hydrogels was probably influenced by the (1) chemicals present in the soil, (2) hydrogel quantity applied, (3) type of polymer, (4) hydrogel particle size distribution, (5) soil texture, (6) physical restrictions to hydrogel expansion, (7) hydrophilic nature of hydrogels, (8) unsaturated hydraulic conductivity between the substrate and the hydrogel particles, (9) application method and (10) planting conditions and rewatering. Due to this complexity and interactions between these factors it is difficult to provide site-specific recommendations for successful application of hydrogels in a forestry field setting. In general, application of hydrogels has been found to be more beneficial in sand or clay soils and to be of limited benefit in loam soils. Use of a hydrogel is not a replacement for good silviculture and has limited use as insurance against short periods of low rainfall. All efforts should be made to plant when environmental conditions are favourable for tree growth (i.e. wet soil and high probability of rainfall).