September 12, 2023
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, odds are you’ve caught wind of the tree-saddle movement. If you believe even half of what you’ve likely heard about these odd contraptions, you’ve probably been led to believe they are the single-greatest invention since the digital trail camera.
Admittedly, I’ve used saddles for a while and, in fact, employed one long before the current saddle hoopla took root. After several seasons using a saddle setup in a handful of states, I definitely have an opinion based on experience. And? They’re just OK.
Surprised? Well, I am quite certain my less-than-enthusiastic opinion on them will raise a few eyebrows from the die-hard proponents of saddles. However, that’s just the way I feel about them.
In some situations, saddles are a great tool. Those situations, however, are limited and, in this bowhunter’s opinion, the time-tested portable treestand is still the king of the woods. Personally, I use both each season and have developed a solid set of conditions under which I’ll choose one or the other. Here’s how I came to my conclusion.
SADDLE PROS AND CONS
The biggest benefit of a saddle—hands-down—is its portability. Even today’s super-light, mobile-focused treestands simply can’t compete with the weight savings and hassle-free hauling characteristics of a saddle. It’s the undisputed winner in terms of mobility. It’s for this reason, and only this reason, I would ever choose a saddle over a hang-on stand.
Beyond their portability, a tree saddle allows you to hunt in trees that aren’t ideal for treestands. However, with that being said, I don’t agree that a saddle is the “any-tree-will-work” miracle their die-hard fans tout them as.
I’ve found saddles to be of most use in those giant cottonwood trees commonly lining Western creek bottoms that are tough to make work for a hang-on stand. But leaning trees cause as many, if not more, issues with saddles than with climbers.
Why? Gravity. An angled tree means you must fight the effects of gravity as you move around the tree. When on the side of the lean, you have to work to stay off the tree’s trunk. When away from the lean, it’s a bit easier but you still must deal with a strange angle.
Saddles also offer some advantages in terms of shot options over a hang-on stand, namely the option of shooting 360 degrees around the tree. That said, again I find this advantage to be a bit overstated by many. Yes, it’s true you can shoot nearly 360 degrees from a saddle. But … you can’t do so at some angles as easily as you can from a hang-on stand. “Strong” side shots from a saddle are a cinch. “Weak” side shots, on the other hand, are not.
You certainly can get plenty good at weak-side shots from a saddle with practice but, in my experience, those off-side shots require more movement, position-planning and strength to perform than off-side shots from a hang-on treestand.
As portable as saddles are, they do require a certain amount of prep prior to each hunt. Unless you leave your climbing sticks and platform in the tree at the end of a hunt, every outing requires you to deploy a climbing method, hang the platform and then attach your saddle’s tether. And deal with any accessory hangers you need for your bow, pack, etc. Truth be told, I find that those steps take longer and are much more of a hassle than dealing with a pre-set stand and are a primary reason why I will opt for a hang-on stand whenever possible.
TREESTAND PROS AND CONS
As stated above, weight, or the lack thereof, is the biggest advantage a saddle has over a hang-on stand. That said, there are some featherweight stand options available now that have made the weight difference less noticeable. Of course, these ultra-light stands come at a cost—in more ways than one.
The first is literal cost; ultra-light models are crazy expensive. Think $500-plus for a single stand.
The second cost is one of physical size. These stands are light because they’re smaller than other stands. Yes, they’re made of weight-saving aluminum, but they also have diminished overall dimensions, too.
Consider this. The Lone Wolf Custom Gear .5 model weighs about 6 pounds and features a platform that measures 23 by 16 1/2 inches. Compare that to the Novix Helo, which boasts a platform that’s 3 inches wider and weighs 9 pounds. Three inches of width may not seem like much, but it definitely is noticeable during long days in the stand, and the Helo is still what I would consider a “small” hang-on stand.
With that being said, even with smaller platforms, I simply find a hang-on stand easier to hunt from because I don’t have to worry nearly as much about whether a buck is going to approach on my weak or strong side. Shots from either side of the stand are easy because I can simply adjust my feet and position my body on the platform.
When employing a hang-on with a standard platform size, however, there is nothing that can compare in terms of comfort and stability in my mind. When hunting a location with a pre-set stand, there is minimal noise, effort and disturbance required to get set up for hunting. I simply navigate to the tree, climb up, strap in and start hunting.
This is an advantage that should not be overlooked. I have spent far too many dark mornings messing around with trying to get climbing sticks in place, mounting a platform and then tethering to not consider the ease-of-use of a pre-set stand.
But even when pulling a run-and-gun setup, I don’t find a hang-on stand to require more effort to get in place than a saddle. The difference, of course, is in the weight of the stand on my back as I travel to my chosen location.
Regardless of whether I’m going with a saddle or a hang-on stand, I need a method for climbing the tree. And, trust me, I have tried just about every method, model and process available to get up a tree.
I’ve settled on a three-stick system that I trust. Personally, I don’t have much interest in spending big money on climbing sticks, so I go with moderately priced options like the Tethrd Skeletors or the Heliums from Hawk.
I have a single-step aider I made from an extra saddle tether. I slip the aider over the bottom section of climbing stick to gain an additional 2 feet or so in height. Using the three sticks with the aider, I’m able to get up to around 15 or 16 feet, and I try to choose trees with cover that will allow me to be hidden at that height.
I don’t carry the sticks on my pack like others likely do, however. Instead, I have a sling fashioned from paracord that I use to tote the sticks with. I make sure the sticks are stacked tight together and wrapped to prevent making noise. I then slip the sling over my shoulder and head. This leaves both hands free to carry my bow, and I can easily set the sticks down whenever I want to take a break as I’m walking in.
I understand the one-stick method can save a lot of weight, but I simply don’t think it’s as safe as using three dedicated sticks. I certainly could save some pounds by upgrading to some of the uber-light (and uber-pricey) sticks on the market, but, again, I just can’t justify the cost for the weight savings.