Don't Fall - But Don't Leave Yourself Hanging When It Comes to Safety and Treestands
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Note: Includes video. A shorter version of this article ran in my Sept. 26, 2019 outdoors column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper.
Deer season is coming. You have friends and family who care about you. So, please, quit taking shortcuts when it comes to safety as you hunt from treestands. I readily admit to taking shortcuts when I was younger, but some close calls of my own and the experiences of friends who had harrowing, life-threatening experiences reaffirmed that treestand safety is paramount.
Spend enough time in the woods and you see it all. I’ve seen ladder stands that haven’t been maintained for years, with brittle, moss-covered ratchet straps. Some ladders are hyper-extended with slipped or nonexistent support braces because the tree has grown. On some stands, I didn’t find a rope dangling down so I could safely hoist a pack, firearm or bow and safely to the stand. There were a few days when I reluctantly climbed ladder stands without any fall-restraint system, knowing well that it takes a second to slip or lose your grip, especially on mornings with a frosty glaze on the ladder.
Research data compiled by the Treestand Safety Awareness Foundation shows ladder stands account for about 20 percent of all falls, with another 13 percent involving people putting up or taking down stands.
Glen Mayhew of the TSSA told me the industry standard calls for at least three people to set up or take down a ladder stand. Two people help stabilize the stand while the third person ascends and secures the stand.
Some friends favor “lock-on” stands, often setting them up alone. Mayhew said this is safer with two people, but whoever is setting climbing sticks or other ascent tools on that tree needs to be attached to that tree throughout the process. Attaching a stand is always a tricky maneuver. Lineman’s belts and ropes are good tools and a number of manufacturers offer them.
Many deer hunters use climbing stands. Back in our younger days, nothing short of thick overhead limbs limited how high we might climb. We fooled a lot of deer that way, especially the ones that were getting conditioned to seeing hunters perched 12-15 feet up in a tree. But, it’s a long way to the ground and we don’t bounce like we used to. We’ve gotten generally smarter about using safety harnesses, but sometimes people get impatient impatient and don’t attach our safety tether to the tree until they reach the height where they're going to sit. That’s a mistake.
Let me share one friend’s story from last year. Doug has hunted for several decades and when he bought his first climber, he’d sometimes go as high as 40 feet. He used to weld his own stands “back in the day” before buying a Loggy Bayou climber. “Sometimes, I would go as high as 40 feet up,” he said.
Doug was bowhunting on the last day of the season. He climbed a tree and then realized there was there was a tree closer to the trail he was watching. "There had been a 10-point buck spotted in this area and it looked like does were really using this trail, so I figured it would be a good spot,” he said. He relocated to that better tree, climbing 35 feet. After settling in, he noticed a couple small beech tree limbs, probably no bigger around than your little finger, interfering with his vision to the left. His bow hung from a hook to his right. “I started tugging on them,” Doug explained. “When they finally gave, my weight shifted so much that I went out of the stand, which remained firmly attached to the tree,” he said.
The good news is he only fell 18 inches, the length between his safety strap from his waist to the tree.
“I was actually hanging there, watching my bow fall, hitting the ground with arrows going everywhere. I climbed back up, got back into the stand and then climbed down to get my bow,” he said.
Doug says he’s a bit “old school” and still prefers a waist belt over the safer and, often, more comfortable, full-torso vest or full-body systems. He said he specifically limits the length of the strap between his waist and the tree to 18 inches. “I want to stop the fall quickly. I’ve seen some safety straps that might let you drop 4 feet. My belt doesn’t tighten at all if you fall. I don’t want to fall below the treestand. If the stand is still on the tree, I want to be able to try to get back in,” he said.
Mayhew said TSSA doesn’t support using single belts or chest harnesses. What they recommend are full-body harnesses that meet ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards recognized by the Treestand Manufacturers Association. Harnesses are increasingly available in varied styles ranging from full vests with pockets to lightweight models with padded straps.
“Most men are top heavy,” Mayhew said. “A waist belt may cause the person to invert and slip out of the device when a fall occurs or the belt may slip up to the chest level which may significantly affect breathing,” Mayhew said. “During a fall arrest, a chest harness will often times slip upwards putting additional pressure on the chest and neck areas which may lead to breathing compromise.”
Hunter Safety Systems - Lifeline, full vest harness and lightweight X-1 harness
The key with any full-body harness that might include a three or four-foot tether is to attach it high above you so that if you do fall, you don’t have a significant drop. Position it as high as you can reach so that it feels fairly taut while you’re in a sitting position and leaning forward. You will have plenty of slack if you need to stand for a bowhunting shot. The short drop, should you slip or fall helps your body stay accessible to the stand, if the stand remains attached to the tree. One key point about positioning if you are using climbing sticks or screw-in steps on the tree. These can be sharp and easily cause a puncture wound. Position you tether's terminal end such that it might help ensure if you do fall you don't end up with a severe wound to your legs or lower extremities.
If the stand has slipped or fallen, you need to get down quickly to avoid suspension trauma, a condition that occurs from hanging too long with your blood circulation cut off. The straps supporting your weight exert considerable pressure as you hang suspended from the tree trunk. Suspension trauma has numerous synonyms: harness hang syndrome, orthostatic shock while suspended, or orthostatic intolerance among them. Compressed leg arteries can keep blood from flowing back to the heart. Blood pooling in your lower extremities starves your brain. You will die. One solution is to carry a suspension-relief strap in an easily accessed pocket. Many vests have metal rings where a strap could be attached. You then step into the stirrup-like opening at the other end and stand up, relieving the pressure on your legs and arteries. Rotate legs between the strap as often as needed until you can self-rescue and either get back into the stand or down the tree.
Getting down the tree while hanging in a harness can be a major challenge, especially if you're excited, winded or slightly injured. If you can't reach the ladder or steps or platform, you need to extricate yourself from the harness and shinny down the tree. Or, you have other options. For added safety, 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. These lifeline ropes are designed to keep you connected to the tree as you climb and descend but they can also help with a controlled descent during an accident. Another
option is a new device by Primal Treestands called The Descender gives you a controlled descent from heights to 25 feet. The tool, designed for people between 120 to 300 pound, uses friction braking to provide a controlled descent. It connects your tether to the strap attached to the tree. The thing about this product is once you start falling you're not stopping until you hit the ground, albeit in a nice, controlled descent. We tested this product last week, having our brave volunteer step off a 15-foot ladder. Apprehensive at first, he happily eased to the ground (see 12-second video below). The Descender weighs about 2 pounds. I can see definite applicability here for hunting from ladder stands or lock-ons, especially those stands with narrow platforms that are easier to fall from. With climbing stands, you will have no way to retrieve the gear or stands should it remain in the tree. Still, you're safe on the ground after a potentially dangerous mishap. The MSRP is $50 but it can be found via online retailers for considerably less.
Accidents will Happen!
Other than using a non-approved waist belt as a restraint, Doug is exceptionally safety conscious. He knows a lot can go wrong when you are climbing or sitting high in a tree. He has had seats malfunction or tear, platforms that slipped and more. “I don’t care what kind of safety system you have, but you have to use something. “You get in a tree, relax and the next thing you know you’re getting sleepy. That’s how some people fall out of trees. I’ve had a couple friends fall from stands," Doug shared. "It didn’t kill or paralyze them, but it certainly didn’t help them. They tore rotator cuffs; one had a broken pelvis. They didn’t have safety belts or harnesses.
Doug has even has told friends who disregard bringing safety equipment that they’re finished as hunting partners if they don’t pay more attention to their own welfare. He said one buddy jokes that he always wakes up before he falls. I told him, “Think about your family. You may be the only person working, providing for a family. If you get injured or killed…how will you and your family survive?”
“Eventually, something is going to happen,” Doug declared. “You better have some kind of safety system on. Plus, I always carries a small backpack with emergency gear and tools, including flashlight, compass, GPS unit, limb cutters and more."
Mayhew shared good news that treestand safety seems to be improving. Data from 2018 shows an estimated 3,001 mishaps required emergency department visit, a 46.5 percent decrease since 2010. Still, based on anecdotal stories hunters share, the number of near-misses an minor mishaps not resulting in serious injury is likely tenfold or more the rate of accidents requiring emergency treatment.
Treestand Safety Terminology
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 www.tmastands.com.