Tree Stand And Blind Maintenance

Many tree stand accidents are caused by worn parts and materials and improper maintenance. Here's how you can avoid falls, injury and even death while hunting this season.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

For many years, hunting from elevated tree stands was a technique dominated by bowhunters. Not any more! Today, tree stands are used by rifle and blackpowder hunters (where legal) and as the popularity of crossbows has increased, so has the use of tree stands.

In fact, the use of tree stands is on the increase across the country in all segments of the sport. The reasons for this are many. Among other things, the height advantage helps keep human scent above approaching game, and puts hunters above the quarry's normal field of view. It also makes it easier to spot game from a distance, allowing more time to prepare for the shot, a distinct advantage for bowhunters.

Most of the original "tree stands" were permanent structures made of wood. Portables or commercial ladder stands are the standard these days and are the only types allowed by law on public land in most areas. Things have evolved to the point that it is difficult to imagine not hunting above the ground these days.

UNSAFE AT ANY HEIGHT?

Unfortunately, as more hunters make the climb into tree stands each season, accidents from falls resulting in severe bodily injury and even death increase. A recent study conducted in just two states by the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) reported 269 tree stand injuries, 29 of which resulted in death!

Some reports indicate as many as 500 hunters are killed annually across North America due to accidents involving tree stands. Another 5,000 to 7,000 are disabled permanently. Some 10,000 to 15,000 hunters suffer painful lesser injuries.

It is estimated that one in every three hunters (37 percent) who hunt from tree stands will experience some kind of fall during their hunting career, and some 3 percent of those will sustain long-term crippling injuries.

Several states report the number of tree stand falls now rivals firearms incidents as the leading cause of severe bodily injury while hunting.

None of this is meant to alarm hunters or put an end to the use of tree stands. But the sad truth is that a majority of these incidents could have been avoided if the victims had read their manufacturer's product manual and obeyed a few basic safety rules.

Always wearing a safely belt or harness when hunting from a stand, for example, including while ascending and descending the tree, could easily cut the number of injuries in half, yet few hunters do so.

The results from one recent survey showed that 51 percent of all tree stand injuries occur as a hunter ascends into his stand, is in the process of leaving the seat and stepping onto the ladder or steps to descend, or is actually descending to the ground. One survey indicated that only 7 percent of respondents use a belt or harness at those times.

The statistics suggest that relatively new stands, particularly portable models, are the newest designs. Stands built in the 1970s have been routinely cited for slippage and structural flaws. The newer models, however, particularly those manufactured by members of the Tree Stand Manufacturer's Association (TMA), are designed to be stronger and more reliable, and are tested to prevent such mishaps.

The rules for safe tree-stand hunting are many, but, based on the above, worth discussing. Always use a haul line to elevate or descend bows and unloaded firearms. Let someone know where your stand is located and what time you expect to return home. Carry a cell phone or radio in case of an incident. Hunt from the ground in bad weather, especially in windy conditions. Make sure there are no dead limbs overhead. Stay alert and awake while in a stand. Never use tree limbs as steps or grips while ascending or descending a stand. Never climb into a permanent stand you have not built yourself before giving it a careful inspection; never use a tree too big or too small for your stand. Always stand up slowly and check your balance.

All of these should be part of your standard tree-stand procedure.

When hanging stands prior to the season, doing so with a friend is a good idea as well. Keep in mind that every time you put up a stand or use a stand, you risk injury and even death. It only takes one mistake for a mishap to take place, and it happens fast.

To avoid a disaster, pick your stand tree carefully, take your time while hanging or using a stand, think about every step and move before you make it, especially when ascending and descending.

When using screw-in or locking steps and portable stands, it is much safer to make your last two steps even. Doing so allows you to hang and take down your stand while maintaining your balance.

PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE

Equally important is to make sure any stand you use is in good repair. Like too many hunters, I never gave much thought to stand maintenance, and used the same stand season after season without inspecting it for signs of wear or other problems.

Prior to the season three years ago, I set my ladder stand against an oak tree overlooking a favorite deer run. Stepping on the lowest rung to make sure the stand was imbedded in the ground, I started my climb to secure the safety straps. Three steps up, I reached for the straps running around the tree, intending to tie them off on the rungs. One of the legs suddenly sunk deeper into the ground, the stand shifted and off I went. It was something I had done hundreds of times over the years, and though it wasn't a long way to the ground and my landing resulted in no injury, the fact that it happened, and happened so fast, surprised me.

After inspecting the foot of the stand, I discovered one of the plastic end caps intended to prevent such events had fallen off, allowing the sharp metal piping to cut into the soft ground like a knife.

The incident made me think of what could have happened had I been 14 feet off the ground. I also realized that had I taken the time to inspect the stand before putting it up, the whole thing probably never would have happened.

Keep in mind that all modern tree stands are made of some kind of metal and they are all subject to stress, wear and a certain degree of annual deterioration.

Take a few minutes prior to each season for a maintenance checkup. It can save a lot of grief and perhaps even your life. Also, conduct periodic inspections during the huntin

g season. Hanging brackets and locking systems (including cables, straps, chains and ratchets) can loosen over time, particularly after a long period of windy conditions. Ladders have been known to loosen and shift over time, too. Repair or replace any parts that are worn, broken or severely rusted.

PERMANENT STANDS

One of the first stands I ever used was a permanent structure made of wood. I liked it because I built it to be comfortable and fit my needs. These days, building permanent stands is not legal everywhere, particularly on public land, so be sure to check state laws. Where such structures are legal, make sure to obtain the landowner's permission and adhere to his desires (no nails, screws, etc.).

The trouble with wood stands is they rot and become unsafe over a relatively short period of time -- and trees grow and move. Wander the woods for any length of time and you will see the remnants of many such stands in various degrees of decay. You may even wonder, as I have, how hunters dare utilize them!

I have long since made it a rule of thumb never to use a wooden stand unless I have built it, have given it a careful inspection and have seen that it is truly sturdy and safe enough to use.

Perhaps most dangerous are the wooden rungs or steps built to provide access to an elevated stand. A vast majority of tree stand injuries are the result of falls while ascending or descending ladders. Aging wood steps or rungs on permanent stands are the most hazardous of all. The supports holding the floor or base of the stand and the floor are critical as well. These components are usually most vulnerable to stress and the elements and are the first to show signs of decay.

Even if you are hunting out of a stand you built yourself with great care, make it a ritual to give any permanent stand you intend to use a careful inspection every season before the season starts. Look for signs of rot or weakness in the wood and replace any faulty part of the stand if there is the slightest question in your mind of strength and dependability.

Give particular scrutiny to the nails or screws used to hold the ladder and stand above the ground. Even galvanized hardware rusts and weakens over time. Nails and screws can also loosen or snap as trees sway in the wind and they can even be weakened or broken by the weight of winter snow and ice.

PORTABLE STANDS

Today's manufactured tree stands are designed and built better than ever using better materials. When used properly, most such stands will provide years of reliable service. They are still susceptible to normal wear, however, and it is up to the user to make sure they are properly maintained and safe to use each fall.

One of the best philosophies for tree stand users is to assume nothing and never, ever take anything for granted. Make it part of your pre-season routine to visually and physically inspect your stand before each hunting season.

To begin with, inspect and tighten all nuts and bolts. These can loosen over time. Look for wear, stress cracks or rust. If a metal part must be replaced, use replacements recommended by the manufacturer. Some parts are of a specific size, tensile strength or made from special materials designed for the job it is meant to do. Cheap parts you can pick up at the local hardware store may work temporarily, but their long-term reliability might be in question.


Some reports indicate as many as 500 hunters are killed

annually across North America due to accidents involving tree stands. Another 5,000 to 7,000 are disabled permanently.

 

Check all weld points and tacks, too. These can break or develop dangerous hairline cracks. Sometimes such cracks can be difficult to detect without careful scrutiny. Give special attention to cracks in the paint at weak points, making sure the breaks or cracks are not actually a faulty weld.

At the same time, inspect for rust. Any weld, bolt, nut, chain, surface area or mechanical apparatus showing rust is weaker than when it was new. If necessary, replace any rusted component, or after sanding rusted surfaces (to the bare metal), check for severity and use a quality primer and repaint as needed.

Safety chains can rust, as can wire cables. Most cables, such as those designed to hold seats and standing platforms on portable stands, are typically covered with a vinyl coating designed to protect them from the elements and to reduce noise. Over time, the vinyl will crack or chip away, exposing the cable inside making it susceptible to damage or rust. Again, any area showing rust is weaker than when the item was new, so check for severity and strength.

Examine mechanical devices, too, such as ratchets used in conjunction with chains, straps or cables. Straps can sometimes fray or suffer cuts or nicks, making them weaker and less reliable. Check and repair or replace stitching in straps, harnesses, supports and seats.

Points where chains and cables attach to the stand should be scrutinized closely, as should any swivel points on seats and standing platforms. There is a great deal of pressure placed on those points, and over time anchor screws and bolts can weaken due to rust or normal wear. It is extremely important to ensure that all anchor screws or bolts are in good condition and that they tighten securely.

Make sure any ratchets used with straps are in good operating condition. It is especially important for ratchets to snap and lock securely. Be sure they are free of rust and the clinch straps are wound on properly. Many locking systems also use S-hooks to help secure ladders and stands to the tree. Be sure all such hooks or rings are free of rust and have no nicks or wear marks.

Also, make sure every point in the stand or ladder intended for snap pins or locking pins has them in place, and make sure the pins are in good repair and working properly.

The crimps where extension ladders join are important, too. They should fit tightly, and pin holes should line up properly once the sections are fully seated. Make sure the holes are round, and have not been worn to an oval shape from wear. Check all such connections on stands and ladders as well as ladder support bars.

ACCESS SYSTEMS

Several different types of systems have become popular and are used to access stands other than ladders, particularly screw-in steps (where legal) and climbing sticks. The biggest problem I have noticed with screw-in steps is the threads sometimes become coated with sap and sawdust after repeated use. Make sure the threads are clean to ensure ease of installation and a solid grip.

Some screw-in steps are designed to fold after use. The pivot point is the most crucial here. If a pin is involved, make sure it is in good condition and free of rust.


Keep in mind that ev

ery time you put up a stand or use a stand, you risk injury and even death.

 

Where screw-in steps are prohibited, steps or climbing sticks (with ropes that have to be tied to the stand or tree) or straps equipped with ratchets must be used to secure the steps to the tree.

Be sure ropes or straps are not frayed or cut and that all components are good condition, and test ratchets to be sure they operate smoothly and lock securely.

On climbing sticks featuring steps welded to a main frame, inspect the welded connections for breaks or cracks, as you should on ladders and stands.

Finally, keep in mind that it is best to store stands and other metal components in a dry place after the season. Doing so will help protect the metal and fabric parts from the degradations of the elements and help ensure that they will provide years of reliable service.

GROUND BLINDS

Many sportsmen hunt from the ground these days using some kind of ground blind. I built a simple hiding place on my property a few years ago using materials collected on or near the site, and have taken several deer from it.

But even blinds made of natural materials require refurbishing each year. Most such blinds have no floor, so I clear away leaves and other debris that have collected between seasons and move rocks, roots and other troublesome obstacles.

Two seasons ago, I purchased some camouflage fabric and made a portable blind that can easily be set up and taken down, and stores easily in a dry corner of the garage after the season ends.

Modern pop-up blinds are compact and portable, and most are built with materials that are practically maintenance free. Most offer a water-resistant nylon outer shell, an interior shadow guard and several mesh-covered shooting ports. Some are even wheelchair accessible.

A hunting buddy of mine owns one and said the only things you might want to inspect prior to the season are the frames that make them pop up or erect properly, and after a few seasons of service, the outer shell may need a fresh treatment of waterproofing.

Maintenance is not the most popular word in the sportsman's lexicon and often is interpreted to mean a lot of time-consuming work, but most routine stand and blind repairs take only a few minutes. Remember, proper maintenance is important -- it can prevent you from becoming another statistic, perhaps even save your life!

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