Hunters Urged to Include Tree stand Safety in Hunting Season Preparations

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With the opening of archery deer hunting season fast approaching, the Missouri Department of Conservation urges bowhunters to take precautions to avoid crippling or fatal injuries.

One appealing aspect of archery deer hunting is the sport's excellent safety record. While Missouri has averaged 7.6 nonfatal accidents and 1.4 fatal accidents annually during firearms deer season over the past five years, reported bowhunting accidents are almost unheard of.

This is partly due to the nature of bowhunting, which requires participants to get very close to deer with no obstructions to have any hope of success. The much smaller number of bowhunters also is a factor in keeping archery deer season safe.

Archers do share one risk with firearms hunters-falls from tree stands.

The Conservation Department only investigates accidents involving firearms or bows. However, a study conducted by the International Hunter Education Association found that 7 percent of the hunters using elevated tree stands had experienced an accident in the previous 10 years. Twenty-two percent of the accident victims required medical treatment.

A 1993 survey conducted by Deer and Deer Hunting magazine found that more than a third of tree stand hunters will at some time fall from a stand, and that about 3 percent of them will suffer crippling injuries.

The severity of injuries tends to increase with distance the victim falls. For this reason, it makes sense to place stands as near the ground as practical. However, even short falls can cause spinal injuries and paralysis or death.

Both studies found the majority of falls occurred when hunters were entering or leaving their stands. Furthermore, improper installation and careless use of tree stands and safety belts were among the major causes of tree stand accidents.

Hunter Education Program Coordinator Rick Flint said these findings prove the wisdom of checking equipment before the hunting season starts. Check moving parts of portable stands for wear, tighten loose nuts and bolts and replace worn or rusty hardware.

"Most portable tree stands are well-designed and made of sturdy materials," said Flint, "but they still require maintenance. Anchor straps and safety chains can get worn. Sometimes you even find cracks in metal or plastic parts. You should inspect every part of every stand before climbing into it the first time, and then check it periodically throughout the season."

Flint said the same is true of permanent tree stands. Wood eventually rots, and nails rust and work loose.

"If you find that part of your stand is deteriorating, don't just shrug it off and tell yourself it's good enough for one more season. Ask yourself if the time you save by not fixing it right then is worth the chance of being paralyzed for the rest of your life. That's what you are really talking about."

Flint said hunters should pay special attention to steps and ladders.

"You are going to be climbing up and down those rungs in the dark, in heavy clothing, sometimes in bad weather," said Flint. "That is not the time you want to discover that a step is faulty."

Flint recommended adding a non-slip covering to tree stand decks and to the upper surfaces of steps. This will help prevent loss of traction with muddy boots or in rain or snow.

The next pre-season check should involve your safety equipment. Inspect your safety harness for wear. Look over clasps to ensure they work properly. Check to be sure you have "haul rope" in your hunting gear so you can climb into your stand with hands free, and then pull your equipment up after you.

If you do not own a safety harness, invest in one. Flint said a full-body harness is the only type that provides real protection.

"Belts and chest harnesses can be worse than no protection at all in some cases. They can constrict breathing and cause suffocation, or turn you upside down and make it impossible to right yourself and get loose.

"A good, full-body harness isn't cheap, but when you compare it to the cost of your rifle, ammunition, hunting clothes, a pickup truck or ATV and all the other things hunters use, it's a very minor investment. Anyone who values their life should consider a high-quality full-body harness a necessary piece of hunting gear."

Flint also stressed the importance of following instructions that come with harnesses. Particularly critical, he said, is the length of the strap that connects the harness to the tree. He said this tether should be kept as short as practical. This is because the violent jerk that results when a hunter reaches the end of a long tether can cause injuries as severe as hitting the ground. The tether should be tied to the tree with only enough slack to permit necessary movements on the stand.

Once you have checked and refurbished your stand and safety equipment, you should practice using them under conditions similar to what you'll experience in the field.

If you use a portable stand, start by mounting it to a tree trunk at ground level. Repeat this over the course of several days until the process is second-nature. Then put on your hunting clothes and practice climbing into and out of your stand.

Always wear your safety harness when putting your stand up in the field. If possible, also keep your harness tethered to the tree when climbing up to and down from the stand and when entering and leaving your stand. Studies of tree-stand accidents show that many falls occur at these times.

To further reduce your risk of tree-stand falls, observe the following rules. --Use only equipment that has been certified as safe by the Treestand Manufacturer's Association. Certification is given only to stands that have been tested by independent labs and found to be structurally sound. --Closely follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing and using your stand. --Choose the location of your stand carefully. Avoid trees that are leaning, dead or dying. Also avoid those with leaves, vines or other features that will prevent proper use of your stand. --Always use a safety chain with portable stands. --Don't leave equipment on the ground directly under you while climbing up or down. You could fall on an arrow or other item, worsening your injuries. --Never hunt without telling someone where you will hunt and when you will return. --Carry survival gear, including food, water, a whistle or air horn to signal for help, a blanket and matches.

Hunters should review local regulations before installing tree stands on public lands. Use of portable stands is allowed on conservation areas (CAs) from Sept. 1 to Jan. 31. Unattended stands must be identified with the conservation number or the full name and address of the owner. Hunters must remove stands from CAs by Feb. 1 following the hunting season. Use of nails or any material that would damage trees is prohibited.