Tree Stand Safety Vital to Avoiding Injuries
Minnesota's archery deer hunting season begins Saturday, Sept. 16, followed by the deer firearms and muzzleloader seasons on Nov. 4 and Nov. 25, respectively.
Every year hundreds of hunters are seriously injured and scores killed nationally due to falls from tree stands. The majority of accidents occur because hunters do not take appropriate safety precautions when ascending or descending from an elevated hunting platform, according to safety experts with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Deer have keen senses that make it very difficult for hunters to get within shooting range, particularly in dense woods. A deer stand placed in a tree above the ground provides a hunter with a wider view and a less obstructed shot.
Tree stands range from nothing more than a homemade wooden platform fit snugly into the branches of a tree to commercial models featuring all the comforts of a lounge chair. The hunter stands or sits and waits for an animal to come into close range.
In Minnesota, no person may take deer from a constructed platform or other structure that is higher than 16 feet. This restriction does not apply to a portable stand that is chained, belted, clamped or tied with rope. However, a bad fall resulting in injuries can take place whether the stand is 10 feet up or 20 feet up a tree.
Stand manufacturers and DNR hunter education courses stress the importance of wearing a full body harness. Most hunters follow that advice. But few hunters take precautions while getting into or out of a stand, when most accidents occur.
Since 2000, at least 129 people have been seriously injured in Minnesota using deer stands and another six died, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Numbers may be higher, because hospital emergency rooms use an international coding system, and there is no code for tree stand injuries. Common injuries include broken bones, spinal cord injuries and brain damage.SAFETY FIRST
The experience of the DNR's recreational vehicle coordinator, Lt. Leland Owens, provides a classic example of a tree stand accident. He fell out of an 11-foot deer stand when he was a young hunter.
"I fell asleep with a single shot 20-gauge across my lap and woke up when I hit the ground," Owens said. "I wasn't seriously injured, but I'm very thankful I lived to tell about it."
Owens uses this example when he speaks to firearms safety classes.
Les Frieborg, 60, of Detroit Lakes, is a long-time hunter who became a huge proponent of tree stand safety following an incident in 2002. He was moving a portable stand when the top safety strap tightened against the tree.
"After a lot of effort I was able to finally get the strap to release, but the stand shifted immediately," Frieborg said. "I fell about 15 feet to the ground crushing both heels and breaking my wrist."
Frieborg was able to crawl to his truck for assistance, but his injuries required a long recovery period. He no longer treats safety as an afterthought.
"Safety first," said Frieborg. "After an incident like this you're just so much more aware that an accident can happen in a second, even to an experienced deer stand hunter."EXPERTS AGREE
There is no disagreement among hunting safety experts regarding the basic precautions hunters need to take when using a tree stand. First and foremost is the need to always stay connected to the tree.
Experts say that while a safety belt is better than nothing, in the event of a fall a belt can actually exert so much pressure that it suffocates the wearer, causing a loss of consciousness. A safety harness that distributes the shock of a fall evenly is a much better choice.
Many hunters, even those who wear a harness, are only connected while in their stand. One method of staying connected while getting into or out of a tree is to borrow a knot used by mountain climbers and tree workers. The prussic knot slides up a static rope but cinches tight when pressure is applied. By attaching the end of a harness to a prussic knot a hunter can move up a tree with some degree of safety.
Many hunters use screw-in metal peg steps to climb up to their stands. But the same steps that prove so useful can become dangerous obstacles in the event of a fall, lacerating or puncturing a hunter. Sectional climbing sticks provide a safer alternative to pegs. Hunting experts recommend maintaining a minimum of slack in the safety tether. Too much slack may add hundreds of pounds of force in the event of fall.DNR SAFETY EXPERTS SAY
- check tree stand belts and chains at the beginning of each season; stands left up for an extended period of time are subject to damaging wear
- select strong healthy trees to erect stands
- avoid using homemade platform stands
- if using tree pegs, scrape away any thick bark and screw the peg into live wood; never reuse old peg holes
- always use a haul line to pull up equipment
- never rely on branches to climb up a tree
- let family members know where your stand is located and approximately when you will be home
- carry a cell phone for emergencies.