The Ins And Outs Of Tree Stands

Some tree stands are better suited to some applications than others. Are you missing the right tool for your hunting job?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Thirty years ago, my father packed me off to college with the usual array of clothes, school supplies and spending money, but in the trunk of my little VW Bug, he placed my first portable tree stand for those free mornings and afternoons when the Oconee National Forest beckoned.

He'd built two or three of them in his basement shop soon after he and a handful of co-workers discovered the joys of archery hunting -- specifically, that it gave you a month's head start on the guys who stuck to rifles and shotguns.

And my first one wasn't just a tree stand, but a climber with a heavy plywood platform, strong angle-iron supports and an old, discarded, sharpened lawn mower blade to cut into the tree trunk and help hold the stand in place.

A pair of straps screwed into the platform served two purposes -- I could slide the toes of my boots into them and pull the stand up the tree trunk while hanging onto my hand climber, or I could fit my arms through the straps and carry it into the woods on my back -- like a huge backpack.

The stand weighed a ton, but for several years, it was my ticket to getting off the forest floor and up where I could see what was going on below. And it was stable; I never feared falling when I stood to nock an arrow or slip off the safety of my rifle.

Portable tree stands were a novelty back in the mid-1970s. Now, they're an integral part of a deer hunter's bag of tricks. It's hard to find someone who heads into the woods regularly who doesn't have a stand chained or belted to a white oak, who hasn't climbed into an aluminum ladder stand that was attached to a pine, slid a climber up a gum tree or set up the legs of a tripod along the edge of a cutover swamp.

Each stand has its place and time in the hunting world. Figuring out which stand to use in which situation is knowledge acquired through trial and error -- or by paying attention to long-time hunting guide David Pye of ARC Outdoors.

Pye divides manufactured stands into four basic categories: fixed-position, ladders, climbers or tripods. There is a time and place for each type of stand, he said, and situations where a certain kind of stand, well, stands out.

"Each kind of stand has its own best uses -- that's what they're made for," Pye said.

FIXED-POSITION STANDS

Normally, a fixed-position stand incorporates a solid platform and some type of seat. The stand is attached to a tree with a chain, belt or some other kind of strap that encircles the trunk.

Seat and platform types and sizes differ by manufacturer, but fixed-position stands generally allow hunters the opportunity to stay seated or stand up -- or any combination thereof.

They are generally the lightest and most compact of all portable tree stands. Hunting from a fixed-position stand generally requires a hunter to bring with him some kind of steps by which he can climb into his stand. Screw-in steps are very popular but prohibited by some states on public-hunting lands. Steps that come with some kind of strap that encircles the tree to be climbed are also very common.

Fixed-position stands, Pye notes, were once fairly uncomfortable compared with other kinds of tree stands, but manufacturers have gotten that problem worked out over the past eight or 10 years.

"They're making platforms wider and seats larger and more cushioned," Pye said. "They've come a long way from having solid wooden platforms and old 9-inch-wide seats. Tree stand manufacturers have made major leaps and bounds.

"Now, in a good fixed-position stand, you can sit for hours and hours -- the entire day. And you can stay seated or stand up and shoot."

Pye said that the advantages of a fixed-position stand are several:

First, a fixed-position stand can be hung from almost any tree. "If you find an area and there's no tree that you can really put a climber or a ladder stand on -- trees with a lot of limbs -- you can almost always find a tree where you can hang a fixed-position stand," Pye said.

"That serves two purposes. You can put it on a tree that gives you a lot of cover -- you can cut out a little place for you to sit -- or you can put it at a place that's the perfect ambush spot. You can hang a fixed-position stand in places where no other stands can go."

Fixed-position stands have long been favorites among bowhunters because of the ease in which a hunter can move around to get the shot that is presented -- straight in front, to either side, even behind the tree on which the stand is hung.

"A fixed-position stand is your basic bowhunting stand," Pye said. "You can stand up and turn around to shoot -- which is good for a bowhunter -- and it's lightweight. It doesn't take much to carry one in, and you can hang one anywhere from 8 feet to 45 feet high -- as low or high as you want to go."

Pye said that paying attention to safety is a must when hunting in a fixed-position stand. He never gets in a stand without a safety harness, and he has made a point of wearing one even when he's just preparing the stand -- screwing in the steps or hanging the stand at the height he's chosen to hunt.

"You have to be careful when you're putting one up, because a fixed-position stand is the kind that you normally fall out of -- especially when you're setting it up," he said.

"You've screwed in the steps, and you're getting it set in place, and your arms are tired, and you're trying to get it hung -- and it's real easy to fall then if you don't have a safety belt or climbing system on."

LADDER STANDS

Of all the "homemade" stands that are in the deer woods today, ladders are the most common, and it's easy to see why. Take a pair of 10-foot 2x4s, nail them together with 2x4 steps, then attach them to a platform and attach the platform to a tree trunk -- either with a lag screw or a chain/strap/belt device.

Manufacturers figured out the ease with which a ladder stand can be assembled and hung years ago, and they made them a regular part of their tree stand offerings.

Pye, who guided deer hunters for years in his native North Carolina before moving to Oklahoma to work for ARC, has used plenty of ladder stands, and for two big r

easons.

"The majority of ladder stands are put up on the edge of food plots or fields," he said. "Eighty percent of the time, when you're hunting in a ladder stand, you're overlooking a place you want to watch.

"But the other thing is, a lot of older hunters like to hunt out of ladder stands because they're easier to get into. It's an easy, convenient stand to use. You can put them up just about anywhere, and you can sit on 'em all day long.

"Now, they're making ladder stands with shooting rails that go all the way around the stand, and they've gotten to where they're a lot more comfortable than they used to be."

The shooting rail is a big advantage that ladder stands have over most fixed-position stands -- where shots are either taken offhand or with the rifle barrel resting against the trunk of the tree, shooting behind you, as it were.

So why doesn't everyone have ladder stands, or use them in all situations?

"The main drawback with a ladder stand is that you can only go up so high," Pye said. "Most of them are made to get you anywhere from 8 to 18 feet high -- maybe 20 feet. And it has to be pretty much a perfect tree. You need a tree with no branches that will stick out and get in the way of the ladder. You need to make sure the ground around the tree is good and level, and when you put up a ladder stand, you need to make sure that you've got the steps at a good angle.

"Any tree without branches can be a perfect tree for a ladder stand -- about the only one you can't use is a crooked one. And I've put them up on telephone poles and hunted there before."

Typically, the metal ladders break down into several sections, making them -- along with the platform -- reasonably easy to carry into the woods, as long as you're not having to carry it a great distance or on a daily basis.

Setup is a little more time consuming than fixed-position stands, except that the steps are built in. And in most styles, hunters have the option of hunting seated or standing up.

CLIMBING STANDS

Pye has a tremendous love of climbing stands.

"They're my favorite type of tree stand of all," he said. "They're lightweight, super safe, and you can gun hunt or bowhunt out of them. You can climb as high on the tree as the tree will allow you to climb, and anymore, you don't have to worry. The fear factor is no longer a question in a good climbing stand."

Climbers generally come in two parts -- platforms for your seat and your feet. They can be made from any number of different light but strong materials -- allowing you to carry them in and out of the woods on a daily basis without having to be a weightlifter. Hunters "shinny" up the tree using both platforms until they get to the desired height, then they secure them to the tree, sit down and wait on a big buck to stroll past. They are among the most comfortable of all portable tree stands, thanks to padded seats on many models.

"If I was buying a climbing stand, I'd look for a stand where you can sit either facing the tree or facing away from it," he said. "If you sit back against the tree, that makes for an excellent bowhunting stand. If you face the tree, you've got something to brace your rifle on. And it helps if you can stand up in the stand when you hunt with a bow. The good thing is, a lot of companies are building climbers with really big platforms now."

But there are drawbacks even to Pye's favorite climbers.

"With a climber, you're limited to the kind of tree you can climb -- you pretty much have to find pole timber: trees without any limbs. And it's hard to find a perfect tree," he said. "For that reason, I like to make sure I've found a good tree at least a day before I go hunting. You won't want to be out there before dark looking for a tree, then start to climb it and find out too late that it's dead or has branches you can't get past.

"What I like to do is find the tree from which I'm going to hunt the day before I hunt, and I like to take my stand and put it around the tree, on the ground. I'll put my safety belt on, climb only a foot or so off the ground, then stand up and kind of jump up and down on it to make sure it's going to be safe."

Pye, who is a robust 6-footer, also pays careful attention to his stands' specifics, be they ladders, fixed-position or climbers.

"You need to always make sure that the weight limit on the stand is more than your weight," he said. "Don't even buy a tree stand -- no matter how good a deal it is -- if you weigh more than the limit. If you do, it won't be a good deal."

TRIPODS

Tripod stands are perhaps the hardest to move around and set up of any "portable" stands, but they can provide hunters with an elevated shooting platform in areas where there are no other options.

"When there are no trees big enough for a ladder stand, a fixed-position stand or a climber, you can always put up a tripod," Pye said. "Whether you're hunting in a clearcut or over short bushes or whatever, you can put up a tripod, and you can get above anything and be able to look over the cover. That's what makes a tripod an effective stand."

Pye said that tripods can be put up in almost any situation where any of the other stands works, simply by assembling the legs, attaching the shooting platform and raising the stand. But it's in areas without big trees, or areas where you need to have elevation above thick cover, that tripods are at their best.

"A tripod is one of the most versatile stands you can hunt from," he said. "You can get up anywhere from 6 to 25 feet off the ground, and you can swivel the seat around. Most of the time, there's a rail all the way around the seat that makes a good rifle rest, but you can also bowhunt out of it."

Pye said that, typically, the rail that surrounds the stand is metal and needs to be insulated to keep the noise down.

"That tap-tap of metal on metal -- like your barrel on the rail -- the deer will bust you every time on that," he said. "The last five or six years, more of those stands have come out with some kind of foam covering the rail, but you can also get some of the foam insulation that covers plumbing pipes and cover the rail with that, or you can duct tape over the metal."

TREE STAND EXTRAS

Pye stresses that safety should be a tremendous concern to all hunters who use tree stands. He advises not only using a safety harness at all times while you're in the stand, but also while putting the stand up and climbing into it. And a single rope doesn't make a safety system, he said.

He also advises hunters to carry with them a kit to help set up and repair stands. It can be as little as a plastic bag or fanny pack, but there are several items that Pye said he won't go into the woods without.

"A perfect tree stand kit will have a portable hand saw or some pruning shears for cutting limbs and brush around the site, a length of rope so you can pull your bow or gun up into the stand, and extra wing nuts or bolts that fit your stand in case you need one," he said.

"Also, don't forget to take a small pair of vice-grip pliers, or maybe a Leatherman tool in your kit, some of the foam pipe-insulation in case you need to make repairs, and I like to carry a roll of duct tape in case I need to cover up any metal that I might bang into and make noise."

This year, as you scout your deer hunting sites, consider the requirements of the site, your weapon, how far in you have to get the stand and how often you have to move that stand. If you choose the right type of stand for the job, you'll be a happier, safer and, in all likelihood, a more successful deer hunter.

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