Your Guide To Tree Stand Safety

Here's the rundown on the best techniques and gear to make your tree stand hunt a safe one.

Properly put on and secured, a fall arrest system will stop a hunter's fall and keep the hunter upright and uninjured until he can recover and either get back into the stand or onto the ground safely.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

No matter how careful we are, spending time in trees can be a risky business. The purpose of this article is simple: to examine some tools and practices that will reduce your risk to reasonable levels.

Stand Purchase And Inspection
Stand safety starts well before you hit the woods. If your stand isn't in proper working order and suited to your needs, nothing else matters.

That begins with selecting the right stand. Most hunters' first criterion is that the stand fits their wants, such as platform size, seat size and general design. Granted, this is important -- you'll tend to be safer if comfortable. Of course, price is also a big factor for many, but a number of safe stands have low sticker prices.

Several manufacturers, such as Summit Treestands, make full lines of portable tree stands of various types. Each is rigorously tested for safety and warranted against defect.

Equally important is checking the weight rating for a stand. Granted, for hunters less than 220 pounds, this really isn't an issue. However, if your weight -- including all of your gear -- is over that, weight ratings must be checked and never exceeded.

Once a stand has been purchased, it should be inspected every time before it's brought to the woods or climbed into. Cables, straps, chains, welds, nuts and any other weight-bearing components need to be looked at for signs of failing. If such signs are present, the faulty piece must be replaced before the stand is used again.

Though we'll address them in more detail later, your fall arrest system/full-body harness also must be inspected before hitting the woods. Look for ripped stitching, tears in straps, a fray in the rope or buckle damage. If there are any potential issues, the unit must be replaced. It's just not worth risking your life over.

Treestand Manufacturers Association Approval
Finally, and every bit as important as any other factor, be sure that the stand you buy comes from a manufacturer that belongs to the Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA). TMA's purpose is to promote and improve tree stand safety. TMA uses its resources to improve safety through education, safety testing and the establishment of safety and manufacturing standards its members conform to. The group also promotes the proper use of fall arrest and safety harness devices.

In a nutshell, TMA pushes its members to seek certification of conformance to association standards on all tree stand products and develop industry standards for safety that are based on testing and studies. As a result, TMA members tend to make safer stands. Look for signs of TMA membership right on the box.

Setting Your Stands
In my opinion, the single most dangerous part of hunting from any kind of an elevated stand is putting it up. For as much ink as in-stand safety gets, the risks of putting up stands are too often ignored.

Selecting the right kind of tree is a big part of safely getting stands up. Pick a healthy, live tree; never climb one that is sickly or, worse yet, dead.

Next, unless we're talking a ladder stand, the tree needs to be at least fairly straight. The hunter must either be able to climb vertically or with a slight forward lean -- never leaning backward. Of course, the tree also should be plenty big enough to support the stand and hunter. If any of this is in question, find another tree.

The next factors all relate to what kind of a stand you're using. For a climber, it's really pretty simple: The platform and seat section should be tilted slightly up when you start to climb, to compensate for the tree narrowing as one gets higher. Regardless of type, no stand's platform should tilt to the side or at a downward angle. Either scenario is just begging for an accident.

Securing the base platform to the seat or hand-climbing section is the other big issue. If you do this properly, the chances of being left hanging by your arms, or 15 feet up the tree with no platform beneath you, are greatly reduced. Obviously, before climbing, make certain that the bottom and top sections are connected together securely.

With a ladder stand, the biggest key to safe placement is having another person there to help put it up. Ladders are getting taller each year, and that makes them more challenging to get into position. Having help is almost a necessity with most designs.

Next, be certain the base of the ladder is level and firmly in place after resting it against the tree. Then attach all of the braces and stabilizing features you can before you begin to ascend. When climbing to attach the upper portions of the ladder, be sure to have the "helper" hold the base of the ladder to stabilize it. Also, while climbing, check each section to be sure it hasn't pulled apart at all.

Once you're up, immediately attach your fall arrest system/full-body harness and finish securing the ladder attachments. As you do so, be careful not to lean to either side, as that can cause a ladder to tip.

With hang-on stands, one of the most critical safety decisions is how to get into and out of the tree. First, never use branches (even big, healthy ones) as steps. The other big no-no is stepping on boards nailed to a tree. Putting nails through a board can undermine its integrity. Plus, standing anywhere off the center point of the board can cause it to break. Finally, it doesn't take boards long to rot. Avoid using them as steps at all costs.

This leaves you with three common options: continuous ladder sticks, individual climbing sticks and screw- in/strap-on steps. Continuous ladder sticks are safest but also the least flexible; they won't work if branches obstruct the path up the tree. When using them, simply be sure the base is solid, attach the straps as you work up the tree and check that the sections are fully connected as you go.

Individual climbing sticks are also easy to use, and they're more adaptable. The biggest issue with them is the fact they typically attach to the tree with a single strap. Because this strap typically is positioned approximately two-thirds of the way up the stick, the bottom of the step can be pulled away from the tree. If you are not aware of this, even minor movement of the stick can startle you, possibly leading to a fall.

Screw-in/strap-on steps are the oldest tools in the group. When using them, be sure that they are screwed far enough in to get all of the threads through the bark and deep into the wood. They should also be very slightly angled, so the point of the elbow, created where the bottom step bends out from the parallel to the tree portion, is firmly touching the tree.

Also, be sure to check local regulations before using screw-in steps. In many places -- particularly on public land -- their use is prohibited. In such situations, strap-on steps might be a viable option.

With any of these methods, there are still more factors to address. The first is to be sure that the highest step is above the platform of the stand. Stepping down onto the platform is always safer than stepping up.

Next, make sure there are two places to hold onto when getting into or out of the stand. This can be done by running the ladder or climbing sticks 5-6 feet past the platform or screwing in/strapping on two tree steps at the proper heights.

Your handholds should allow you to always have three points of contact when climbing.

Anytime you climb a tree, be it in a climber or up to a hang-on stand, use a lineman's belt. Also, never wear anything on your back when climbing, whether putting up the stand or when hunting. Instead, use a towrope to pull up your stand, pack or weapon. These items should also be placed off to the side, so you will not fall on them if you slip.

When hanging the stand, always wear a fall arrest system/full-body harness and strap it to the tree as soon as you're in place. Hanging a stand is dangerous, because you need your hands to pull up the stand and attach it to the tree. Putting up a stand is riskier than sitting in it, so logic suggests it's unsafe to wait until you're sitting in your perch to put on a fall arrest system/full-body harness.

Safety While You're Hunting
With so many advancements in fall arrest systems/safety harnesses in recent years, there's simply no excuse not to use these important and potentially life-saving tools. To drill that home, recent studies have shown that 82 percent of all serious accidents related to falls from stands involved hunters who were not wearing fall arrest system/full-body harnesses.

The single belt strap or chest restraints just won't cut it and can actually do more harm than good when a hunter falls.

There are just too many high-quality fall arrest systems/full-body harnesses to provide a list without leaving out worthy candidates. So, I'll just cover two.

Summit's Seat-O-The-Pants climbing system (www.summitstands.com) is a good example of a strap-in full-body harness. It has straps over the shoulders and under the legs, along with a midsection belt design. When worn properly, it will arrest a hunter's fall so that he remains upright and in a relatively safe, stable position from which he can recover.

Summit actually has at least three versions of its harness system. These range from the original Seat-Of-The-Pants harness to the Fastback and Deluxe Fastback systems. The last two have tangle-free mesh backs. The Deluxe Fastback also has attached pouches for carrying gear.

The advantages of Seat-Of-The-Pants and Fastback harness systems include their light weight and durability. And thanks to their lack of bulk, they won't interfere with your shooting. These advantages might not primarily be safety features, but fatigue and discomfort are contributing factors in many tree stand accidents. Gear that is light, comfortable, not bulky and strong contributes to a safe as well as enjoyable hunt.

Hunter Safety System (for details, go to www.huntersafetysystem.com) makes another popular and safe style that employs a vest design. The vest has its straps contained inside, as well as leg straps. Using heavy stitching designed to break free in controlled fashion and thus cushion the hunter's fall, this product also leaves the wearer upright and in a position to recover.

In either case, the connection to the tree should be made at a height that pulls the connecting strap or rope snug when you're sitting. Doing so greatly reduces the chances of it wrapping the strap/rope around your neck during a fall.

A real danger from a fall comes from suspension trauma, in which blood pools in the legs. This can cause blackouts and even death. The greatest trick to dealing with a fall is to first remain calm and try to get to either the climbing device or back on the stand, whichever is easier.

Experts at Summit and SOP say that if it is not possible to recover quickly, exercise your legs by repeatedly pushing away from the tree. Harness systems such as SOP and Hunter Safety System come with suspension relief straps that deploy just above your feet; you can "step" into the strap and in effect stand on it, thus relieving pressure and promoting blood flow into your legs. The strap is integrated into the harness so you remain upright.

Another option is the Rescue One 'CDS.' Made by Mountaineer Sports (www.mountaineer-sports.com), it's a controlled-descent system and full-body harness. This product is specifically designed to eliminate the risk of suspension trauma, which can occur within as little as five minutes of hanging from a harness. Should you fall, Rescue One 'CDS' lets you safely lower yourself to the ground.

Regardless of which kind of tree stand or safety system you use, always be sure someone knows exactly where you are hunting and when you expect to return. That way, if you get in a jam, your friends and family will know when and where to search.

Practice Makes Safe
One critical element for tree stand safety both with respect to tree stands and fall arrest systems/harnesses has to do with knowing how your gear works and being so familiar with it that you can use it correctly -- literally in the dark.

Tree stands and harness systems such as Summit's come with detailed instructions and tips. Guys, of course, tend to ignore written instructions, but in this case, following your "guy instincts" could get you killed. The best-designed, safest product in the world won't help if you don't use it correctly.

Read the directions, and put the tree stand on a tree at ground level and put on the safety system and take it off several times before the season starts. For new gear, do this often enough that you are as familiar with it as you were with your old stand or safety system. For any gear that is not new, this routine lets you check for wear and tear. It also allows you to make sure you still have all the parts and that the stand and its accessories are in good working order.

Handy Tools For Safer Hunting
Several items on the market can make your tree stand hunting not only more enjoyable and productive but safer. For example, the Hooyman ("HOY-mun") extendable tree saw lets you cut shooting lanes without getting off balance. The original model e

xtends to 5 feet; the latest model can reach out nearly twice that far. (See www.hooymansaws.com for details.)

Another tool that can improve stand safety is a "grabber" for retrieving dropped items. Examples include the Booger Treestand Retriever (www.walnutgrovehunting.com) and the Tree Talon (www.treetalon.com).

Anyone who has spent time in a tree stand has accidentally dropped something from it. The item then sits on the ground, at the very least spreading foreign odor. If it's something critical, you end up getting out of your stand, picking up the item and climbing back up. Not only can this disturb game, it's an inherent safety risk. The fewer times you climb in or out, the safer you are.

The Booger and Tree Talon are spring-loaded "claws" you lower on a cord to whatever you just dropped. The weight of the retriever triggers its spring, and the "fingers" on the claw pick up your item. Then you simply hoist it back up.

(Editor's Note: Steve Bartylla is the author of a book on tree stand hunting, Advanced Stand Hunting Strategies, which can be ordered from the author at the address below for $22.50, tax and shipping included. Bartylla's new book -- Bowhunting Tactics That Deliver Trophies -- sells for $30. For either or both ($50 when ordered together), send a check or money order to Steve Bartylla, 1406 St. Joseph Ave., Marshfield, WI 54449.)

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