Tree Stand Safety
Every year countless hunters fall victim to tree stand accidents. Fall being the operative word, using tree stands can be risky business. Unfortunate but true, no one plans to go airborne, but it happens. I know several individuals myself who have suffered injuries while putting up, sitting in, or taking down stands. The good news is that commercial tree stands have evolved plenty over the past couple decades. Furthermore, by taking a few extra precautions we can avoid, or at very least minimize, the potential for tree stand mishaps.
With each passing season, I become more acutely aware of the risks associated with hunting from the trees. Having recently reached the middle age of 40, my reflexes aren't what they once were. I put up and take down roughly 30 stands each fall and I've come realize that I'm not as comfortable doing this as I once was. I like to believe I'm in excellent physical condition, but regardless of how fit one is, there are certain realities associated with age. To be blunt, the old muscles, joints, and reflexes don't work like they once did. Climbing trees, screwing in steps, hauling ladders, carrying stands, and all things tree stand-related affirm this. In turn, I don't feel as safe as I once did. I've hunted from portable stands for over two decades. During that time, I've had one fall and several close calls. Fortunately none resulted in injury but I'm reminded of the potential dangers each time I climb into a stand. On the flipside, I've learned to take precautions to offset the risks. From choosing a safe tree, to climbing and mounting the stand, and wearing safety equipment - all considerations play a role in helping me stay safe in the tree.
Extreme caution should be exercised while climbing, mounting, sitting, and removing tree stands.
Choose a Safe Tree
Choosing the right tree in the good location can determine whether or not you'll eventually be in position for a shot opportunity. The type and size of the tree will have some bearing on how safe it is. Although seemingly obvious, always use bigger diameter live trees that are as straight as possible. Alberta's topography is diverse. Different locales offer different tree options. Whenever possible select a tree with at least a 12-inch diameter. In my opinion, big healthy spruce or pine trees with a trunk diameter of at least that, at a height of 16 feet are most ideal. Coniferous trees usually have lots of branches and that helps to add a safety buffer between you and the ground should you slip or fall. That said we all know that the world isn't perfect and those "ideal" trees in the best locations are few and far between. Poplar trees can work as long as they're big and healthy.
I once put a stand in a young spruce tree at a bear bait site. Climbing as high as possible, I could only get to about 12 feet. At that height, there was scarcely more than 10 inches of diameter to attach the stand. In my defense, that was 18 years ago, I was younger and more willing to take foolish risks. Today, I would simply move the bait site before sitting in such a tree.
But tree diameter can go the other way as well. Choosing a tree that is too large can pose its own risks. Not too many years ago, I selected a tree that I believed to be in an ideal ambush site near a heavily used deer trail. Climbing to the ideal 18 foot height, I'd painstakingly cleared the imposing branches, screwed in steps, and prepared to haul the portable stand up the tree. It didn't take long to realize that the tree diameter was literally too big. Unable to reach the strap around the tree, it took nearly 20 minutes to figure out a way to maneuver the strap into position. Finally after much ado, I was able to safely secure the stand. Taking it down presented a whole other set of safety concerns. Bottom line, choosing a safe and secure tree is one of the first and most important steps to tree stand safety.
Screw-in tree steps are portable and easy to use. Ensure that
they are securely fastened before using them to climb.
Climbing & Mounting the Stand
The next safety concern relates to climbing the tree. Whenever possible, use an approved step system along with a climbing belt if possible. Options are plentiful but the most common include screw-in steps, pole climbers, climbing rails, climbing sticks, and ladders. With the introduction of other options, less of us are using screw-in steps, but if you opt to use these be certain to mount them at even, comfortable distances. For my own use, a distance of 12-inches is most ideal and in turn - safe. Regardless of which system you use, ensure that each step or section is mounted securely to the tree so no unsafe reaching or uncomfortable stretching is required to advance up or down the tree or as you climb into or get out of the stand itself. Remember, for many of us, hanging stands is done in different clothing from what we hunt in. In turn, we're more limber and mobile. Switch to bulky hunting clothes and we are often less flexible. Keep this in mind as you set your distances between steps.
Along similar lines, securely mounting the stand to the tree is of the utmost importance. There is no reason for a stand to be loose. This means securing both the seat post and the platform. Neither should move at all if installed properly. While most manufacturers have a reasonable mounting system, i.e., in the form of a T-bolt and ratchet strap, I always reinforce my stands with at least one, and usually two, heavy duty ratchets. In fact, I have my own back-up ratchets custom-made. By using these, I reinforce the strength and stability of the stand significantly. As a professional outfitter and guide, tree stand safety is a top priority for me; I can't afford to take any safety risks whatsoever. In turn, my stands are rock solid. Once the stand is in place, consider mounting a tow cord and drop it down for easy access at the bottom of the tree. Failing to use a tow cord is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Hunters should never climb a tree with gear in hand.
Always use a tow rope to haul gear into the stand.
Guns, bows, and crossbows should always be unloaded prior.
When You Hunt
Before climbing the tree, remove bulky clothing, your backpack and your gun or bow. Always use the tow cord to pull your gear up to the stand. Regular rope works, but I recently discovered a handy piece of equipment called the Speed Winder Hoist Rope made by Tink's and it's now a regular item in my daypack. Bulky clothing or gear can snag on branches and cause accidents. Prior to taking your first step, make certain that your gear is fastened to the cord and move it to the opposite side of the tree. By doing this, your goal should be to move the tow cord itself out of the way of the steps. A tow cord can be a hazard if it gets in the way while climbing.
When the stand is up and its time to hunt, consider safety precautions associated with getting you and your gear up in the tree. Not long ago I spoke with a fellow who had a tree stand accident involving his firearm. Failing to unload before climbing, as he began his ascent, his gun fell and discharged. Fortunately the wound he received was non-fatal. Words can't describe how serious this is and how lucky he was. Although seriously injured, he lived to tell the story. The moral of this story is to always unload your firearm, and ensure broadheads are safely stored in your quiver before climbing up or down the tree. My personal recommendation is to unload and disable the action altogether before hoisting your firearm, bow, or crossbow.
As for climbing, slow and easy is a smart strategy. Always maintain at least two points of contact, three is better. Your goal should be to climb securely and safely. Calculate each step. Place each hand and foot carefully and as close to the tree as possible to avoid slipping. Likewise, if you choose to use tree branches as steps, remember the strongest point is right where the branch joins the trunk; the further away from the trunk you place your body weight, the greater the chance of breakage. Similar rules apply to climbing on to the tree stand platform or stepping off of the platform as you begin your descent. Safety and security is your priority.
Use Only TMA Approved Equipment
Last but not least, always, and I can't stress this enough - use a Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA) approved fall arrest system. Many of us still use basic safety belts but my personal recommendation is a full body harness. One company that I believe rises to the top is Hunter Safety Systems (www.huntersafetysystem.com). Your very first priority upon stepping into the stand, before doing anything else, is to clip your safety harness to the tree belt. A variety of fall arrest systems are available today and quality tree stands typically come with an approved system but many factory-issued versions lack the comfort and flexibility of specialized harnesses. There are certainly pros and cons to each. Some harnesses can be bulky but many are form-fitting and non-intrusive. They also attach to the tree in such as way as to alleviate dangerous pressure points should a fall occur.
Regardless of what tree stands or accessories you use, make sure that they are TMA approved. For more information on stand safety and why TMA approval is necessary, visit www.tmastands.com. This site is loaded with safety tips, a listing of certified products, product recall information, standards, and more.
TMA approved safety harnesses should be worn at all times while sitting in tree stands.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.