Treestands: Favored Hunting Tool is Also Among the Most Dangerous
The view from the top is usually better!
White-tailed deer hunters who've employed treestands for at least 30 years tend to fall into two categories: those who had or nearly had a treestand mishap and those who lie and say they didn’t.
The old stands, especially the “climbers,” were fraught with design issues that left them prone to failing, slipping and falling. I recall one old climbing stand I had that used a boomerang, V-shaped blade to grasp the back of the tree - a fairly common design a couple decades ago. It routinely slipped unless you kept the pressure on it. Once, the base gave way beneath me when I was 20 feet high in a red oak. Fortunately, I had the two sections connected with a rope and, miraculously, was able to pull the darn thing up and somehow get it re-positioned.
But, not to worry; if I had fallen, that sturdy, safety belt around my waist would’ve kept me from hitting the ground. The problem, as we now know, was suspension trauma from that belt could have killed me as I hung there, cutting off my blood flow.
Many hunters are preparing for fall hunting seasons. They’re buying gear, hauling stuff out of storage, inspecting ladder stands and box blinds, checking firearms and bows checked for accuracy. Treestands, whether ladders, “lock-on’s” or climbers, are favorite deer hunting tools. A stand’s ability to get you 15-20 feet above the ground makes it a key piece of equipment. Hunter success with well-deployed stands can increase considerably. You just see so much better.
Oh, How We’ve Learned
Experience can boost success. But you still need to be ever vigilant.
A good friend of mine, Mike Earl, has hunted since his adolescence in upstate New York. Now in his mid-fifties, he counts himself fortunate he’s still around for another deer season. It’s not that he survived a
deadly illness or a fiery crash on the highway. No, he survived a terrible tumble seven years ago from his treestand.
Earl, a retired Marine Corps noncommissioned officer, hunts his Virginia countryside home in Caroline County as often as possible. Hunting from treestands has been in his repertoire since the first commercial stands arrived on the market in the 1970s.
It was a frosty, late December morning. Earl was hunting in a new location, looking for new scenery and late rutting bucks. He knew the general area, but hadn’t scouted for a precise place to place his stand prior to giving it a try. It’s a common scenario when hunting the public lands or military installations of northern Virginia. A hunter loads up his gear, puts his stand on his back and heads into the woods. You look for a promising location followed by a good tree to climb, all while trying to maintain a modicum of stealth.
“I picked out a tree in the skyline and then attached my treestand tackle on it in the dark,” Earl said. “I wear a Hunter Safety System (huntersafetysystem.com) harness vest but didn’t hook it to the tree until I reached the elevation where I would sit.” Most hunters would acknowledge this safety failure is a common practice, especially when daybreak is rapidly approaching and you’re in a hurry. After all, attaching a safety strap to the tree and then moving it up the tree while you climb is time consuming.
“I climbed a little higher than 20 feet and secured my stand and my harness to the tree. Once I ratchet strap that stand to the tree, it’s not going anyplace,” he said. “I sat for about 2 hours before I realized I really didn’t like my location and made the decision to get down and move.” Earl properly used a rope to lower his pack and shotgun to the ground. He then unhooked the ratchet strap and his safety strap.
Near Fatal Mistake
“That was my near fatal mistake,” he said grimly.
His tree stand employed a common cable system that wraps around the back of the tree and locks into the stand’s upper unit. EarI descended a few feet, then leaned back slightly, shifting the pressure on the stand. Instant terror ensured. The top portion of the climbing stand totally detached from the tree.
“I was free-falling backwards and in a second went from being upright to being upside down with my left foot still in the plastic stirrup of the unit’s base. That foot slipped out and when it did I dropped, hitting the ground with a face plant!” he explained.
The top part of the stand quickly followed and crashed into his head.“I was on the ground, seeing stars. My face was cut. I wiped away the blood and found I was able to stand. I stood there, checking things out, and then sat down by the tree for about 10 minutes before attempting to head out,” he said.
Earl knows he was lucky to be able to walk away from the accident with just bruises and minor cuts. What if the stand pulled away from the tree at 25 feet up instead of 12-14 feet high? What if his left foot remained stuck in the stirrup? His phone was below in his backpack. What if some deadfall on the ground below his stand had a stiff small branch or two capable of puncturing his skin and a vital organ? What if the falling stand struck him squarely on the head? Nobody knew precisely where he was hunting.
He doesn’t blame the stand, saying he checked it thoroughly after the accident and everything worked as designed. “I’d done this a thousand times and was confident in my ability. I knew most accidents come during ascent and descent, but still didn’t do all I could have. I have a new respect for safety harnesses.
It slows you up, moving that harness up the tree as you climb, but it’s the only way I’ll climb in the future,” Earl said. And, he double checks every connection before leaving the ground.
Hang in There – Not!
Earl’s harness might have saved him from that life-threatening situation. Much has been learned over the years about, first, safety straps, and later, safety harnesses. As noted earlier, the old safety straps that fit around your chest or waist were potential death traps, with the single strap exerting considerable pressure around your body as you hung suspended from the tree trunk. Modern safety harnesses have improved things immensely, but even with the latest harnesses it is still possible to die from what is known as suspension trauma.
Suspension trauma has numerous synonyms: harness hang syndrome, orthostatic shock while suspended, or orthostatic intolerance among them. This topic has been covered in many outdoors blogs and journals in recent years. Yet, it becomes clear from talking with fellow hunters that too many really don’t understand it and what must be done to prevent it. Hanging in a harness creates pressure from the straps around your thighs. Compressed leg arteries can keep blood from flowing back to the heart. Blood pooling in your lower extremities starves your brain.
This orthostatic intolerance can affect people even when they’re not hanging in a harness.
The "full" harness of yesteryear, as shown in the photo above was better than a waist or chest strap but could still cut off blood flow for a person hanging too long.
When I was in the military years ago, we’d sometimes have parades. One of the biggest concerns was how many troops would “fall out” of the formation as they stood at parade rest or attention for prolonged periods while some long-winded speaker droned on in the midday heat and humidity. We were taught to bend our knees or wiggle our legs imperceptibly to keep the blood flowing. Failing to do so could involve passing out – fainting - as gravity pooled and restricted blood supply to the heart. This was usually preceded by some “presyncopal” symptoms such as feeling lightheaded or weak.
Fainting actually helps the person recover because, once in a horizontal position, the heart, and brain are horizontal and at the same level as the legs. Blood flow resumes. But, when you’re stuck in a harness, hanging from a strap fixed above you on a tree trunk, you maintain an upright position. If you can keep your legs working, you may be fine, but the pressures exerted by the straps as your weight and gravity pushes you down may make leg mobility difficult. Depending on the circumstances, you could pass out within 15-20 minutes or hold out for hours. Experts cite symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and numbness of the legs as typically preceding fainting. Once you pass out, death can follow quickly as blood flow decreases to the brain.
So, what can you do to help ensure you don’t survive an initial treestand accident only to die from the suspension gear designed to save you?
First, carry a suspension relief strap in the pocket of your vest or hunting clothes. It needs to be accessible when you’re hanging from a tree. Such straps let you place your feet in them and get into a standing position that allows you to move a little and preserve circulation. As an alternative, you can carry one or two screw-in safety steps that you screw into the tree trunk and then stand on to relieve pressure. If you don’t have any such tools, try to face the tree and place your feet against the trunk and push back and “walk up” until you’re in somewhat of a sitting position. This facilitates bending knees, working legs and helping sustain blood flow.
Getting down is the main goal. You don’t want to remain hanging from the tree and 20 feet down is a big drop. If the trunk diameter is small enough, it may be possible to hug the tree and shinny down – assuming you’ve got enough reserve strength.
For added safety, though, you can attach a lifeline rope, such as those made by Hunter Safety Systems to
the base of the trunk and just above the stand once you reach your hunting height. You can also make a similar line and the Internet has multiple sites with instructions for doing so.These lifeline ropes are designed to keep you connected to the tree as you climb and descend. They can also be grabbed and used to try to manage a controlled descent should you have an accident and need to get out of the harness and on the ground. Having a knife handy or some other means to disconnect the harness from the tree is essential.
Now, I’m not a doctor and none of this is medical advice. It is just something anyone who uses treestands and safety harnesses needs to think about. Have a plan and rehearse in your mind what you would do if something bad happens while getting in and out of the stand. Consider testing your escape mechanisms from a stand at a lower height.
According to the Treestand Safety Awareness Foundation (TSSA), there are about 4,000 emergency room visits per year due to treestand falls. Of those, an average of 23 result in a death each year. A highly experienced hunter died in Virginia last year from a treestand mishap. The number of fatalities from treestand accidents is, reportedly, falling as equipment and safety awareness improves.
Get More Facts
Earl’s scenario spotlights just one of countless things that can go awry when using treestands. Statistics show that one in three hunters using stands will someday have an accident related to the stand. The near-misses never get reported. Earl’s accident didn't make it into any records because he walked away.
Many hunters have had close calls, often because of haste or taking an unnecessary risk. For example, how many hunters using climbing stands have tried to adjust the angle of the stand relative to a tree, due to the tree’s greater-than-estimated taper, while high in the air? How many have climbed ladder stands with guns slung over shoulders versus using a haul rope? How many have begun to doze off or fell asleep while in a stand?
For hunt clubs, mentors and their apprentices and others who anticipate heading into the woods, treestand safety is a good topic to discuss at your meetings. And, as you explore new gear at outdoor shows and those fall hunting catalogs, take a gut check about the quality of your existing treestand safety equipment. Upgrading could save your life when you go afield.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has good information and videos at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/education/treestand-safety/
A couple of these stands could be a little sketchy
Six Safety Tips
1. Never climb into any stand, including ladder stands, with your firearm, bow or backpack slung over your shoulder or back. Use a pull rope to hoist the hunting tools to you once you are safely in the stand.
2. Select a straight, healthy tree to climb or attach a stand and, for a climbing stand, closely look at the taper. The stand should sit level at the height where you intend to hunt. Set connecting cables accordingly. Never try to adjust connecting cables when you are climbing the tree or at your shooting height. Some stands have leveling mechanisms that allow for a minor adjustment without compromising safety.
3. Always wear your full-arrest body harness. Put it on before you begin heading into the woods in the dark. Test it at a low height to gain familiarity and confidence. Use a lifeline, as well.
4. Use a 3-point contact rule whenever climbing or descending a ladder stand. Either two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand must always be connected to ladder. When using a climbing stand, avoid overextending the space between movements up the tree.
5. Practice with your climbing stand. Learn to climb a tree in daylight, going up just a few feet and then transitioning your body around to a sitting/shooting position with your back against the tree. Then, learn how to do it in the dark. Practice retrieving your gun or bow with a rope. Archers should practice shooting from expected stand heights. Arrow trajectories vary on shots taken at steep downward angles.
6. Finally, use stands that are built to standard. The Treestand Manufacturers Association is comprised of stand manufacturers that submit their products for testing and promote a safety code. Learn more at