How Safe is your Treestand?

By Dan Turner

August 10th. It’s hot. And humid. Iowa has turned into a sauna. You surf the web in the A/C after dinner and the 10-day forecast has the first major cold front of the season in it with a high of 65. Instantly your thoughts turn to what the cool weather represents: hunting season!!

If you are anything like me, I like to get everything ready ahead of time, ESPECIALLY my deerstands. I want to make a low impact into my hunting areas, so I prep and set all my stands no less than 30 days ahead of season. Whether you leave stands up all year long or pull them down after every season we must ensure they are structurally sound and safe. Just because its metal doesn’t mean it won’t fail.

Many of us all have the thought or occasional feeing of, “It’ll be fine, I won’t get hurt. That other person was dumb, that’s why they got hurt.” In 20 years of working professionally in the fire service and EMS I can guarantee that you won’t be fine, you can get hurt, and being dumb has nothing to do with making minor mistakes that can result in tragedy. If it’s possible, it will happen.

A recent study at Duke University showed that 27% of all spinal incidents happen from treestand falls. Out of all the car wrecks, assaults, diving accidents, etc., over one forth of spinal injuries are hunters. In fact, the majority of hunting accidents are not from firearms but rather from falling out of tree stands. It stands to reason that if so much emphasis is put on gun safety, we should put as much or more emphasis on treestand safety.

Before I get too far, here is the liability statement and possibly the most important part of this whole article: Only buy products with thorough safety testing and follow the manufacturer instructions and expiration dates explicitly. While everything in this article is focused on safety, I cannot possibly address all the different types and brands of treestands and safety products, so follow the manufacturers instructions.

Before we go climbing trees we must first do some ground work. And anytime we are dealing with potentially dangerous situations (and yes, climbing trees is always dangerous), we must double and even triple check every tool, every piece of equipment (soft or hard), and every move we make. All it takes is a moment of carelessness or a moment of thinking “it’ll be fine” for accidents to happen. When using brand new equipment, it is a little easier as there is no wear and tear to inspect for, but we still must make sure we assemble our stands EXACTLY per the instructions and use only what the manufacturer specifies (usually included in the box). Then double check everything.

Let’s start with the inspection of our tree stands. I always recommend taking them down and storing them in the off season. The weather can wear them out prematurely and the straps that secure them can succumb to weathering and animals chewing on them. After 10 months outside they might not even be secure enough for you to get in the tree to inspect them! They are cheap so never hesitate to replace them. Inspect all the metal for fatigue or rust, tighten loose bolts, check all moving parts, and replace anything that appears worn or even questionable.

Harnesses. If you don’t have one, get one!! Over 82% of people injured in treestand accidents were not wearing a harness. You can buy a basic harness that is comfortable for less than $100 with more expensive ones having more comfort and added features. Regardless of which one you buy make sure it includes a lineman’s belt. This is crucial to safely erecting stands. The lineman’s belt secures to the harness at one hip, goes around the tree, then secures to the opposite hip. As you climb the tree you move the belt up the tree with you, keeping just enough slack in it to allow your knees to bend to the next step. The tree cannot have any branches between the ground and 5’ above your stand in order to use the belt safely, so plan on trimming your trees.

And like any soft safety gear, they do have an expiration date. Most are between 5-10 years depending on the manufacturer. They also need to be used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. They should not be inspected annually, but instead every time you use it. Your harness is the key component that is preventing you from hitting the ground. Just like the treestand strap you are looking for sun bleaching, undone stitching, or any other damage. Some also include a heavy-duty carabiner that should operate smoothly and lock (and stay locked) with ease. One thing to note, if your carabiner or other metal safety components are dropped onto a hard surface, such as concrete, they should be considered out of service. They can develop micro cracks in the metal and fail, so don’t ever hesitate to replace them. Most treestands also come with some sort of webbing or strapping to secure the stand to the tree. This also falls under the same inspection process as your harness.

Most accidents occur while getting in or out of the treestand because it is difficult to be tied off while climbing. A product that eliminates this problem are climbing systems. This product is very important for every treestand because it keeps you tied off from ground-to-stand-to-ground. It includes a 25-30’ kernmantle safety rope and prussic hitch. From the ground you tie your harness off to the prussic hitch and as you climb you move the hitch with you. If you should fall the rope will arrest your fall. I don’t put up a treestand without one of these.
Another important thing to mention is that if your safety equipment is ever “engaged” or supports your weight from a fall then it must be destroyed and never used again. It’s all relatively cheap compared to a hospital bill and missing work so don’t hesitate to replace it.

Once everything is inspected, we can install the stand. Hang on stands are the safest stands to use, both statistically and in my own opinion. I believe the reason for this is that ladderstands make people “too comfortable” and they become lackluster in safety. I also feel that ladderstands are more difficult to erect by yourself safely because it is difficult to erect the stand and be safely tied off yourself. Please use 2 or more people when erecting ladderstands. I have found that the best way to erect ladderstands is to erect climbing sticks on the opposite side of tree that I want the stand, then raise the stand. Raise the stand by putting the ladder against the base of the tree, then 2 people walk the stand to an upright position. While holding the stand upright against the tree, walk the bottom of the ladder out from the tree until it is at about a 70-degree angle. Step on ladder to sink ladder into the ground, then install the ladder brace. While one person holds the stand against the tree, the 2nd person climbs up the climbing sticks on opposite side of the tree, utilizing the lineman’s belt all the way up, then secure the stand with the manufacturer’s straps. Under no circumstance should you climb a ladderstand that is not secured to the tree by the top strap!!

Hang-on treestands are much simpler and safer to erect, especially if you are by yourself. Erect your climbing sticks all the way up the tree (with your lineman’s belt). Back on the ground, secure one side of the securement strap to the stand. Then tie a 20’ cord to your stand (I use paracord and it stays on my stand all season to use as a weapon hoist). Take the loose end of the cord back up the tree (using the lineman’s belt) and hoist up the stand. Secure the stand with the manufacturer’s straps, then install your climbing system.
Climbing stands are a different breed entirely. While you are attached to the tree by two points the whole time you must still tie off to the tree once you have reached your desired height.

Regardless of what type of stand you choose, whenever you leave the ground always have a backup and never rely on one method of defying gravity. Here’s what I mean by that: When climbing the ladderstand or climbing sticks, be tied off to your back-up (climbing system or lineman’s belt). When in the stand, be tied off to your back-up (climbing system). When climbing down from the ladderstand or ladder sticks, be tied off to your back-up (climbing system or lineman’s belt). See the pattern here? ALWAYS be tied off!

A few other tips for using tree stands:
• NEVER, and I mean never wear you harness on the outside of bulky, cold weather clothing. Always wear it against your base layer and feed the harness strap out of your clothing near the back of your neck. Many coats now include a hole built into the back to feed the harness strap through. Wearing a harness outside of bulky clothing does not insure it will catch you safely; you could slip out.

• Always secure the treestand with a second strap (back-up). I use a 10,000-pound rachet strap.

• Buy a climber’s screw-lock carabiner for your harness. It comes in super handy to attach your harness to you climbing system or lineman’s belt. Most can be bought for less than $15.

• Never go up the tree without a cell phone in your pocket. Should the worst happen at least you can call 911.

• Have a rescue strap velcro’d to your harness at all times (your harness should include this). If you should fall and can’t reach the ladder, you can tie the strap around the tree, tie a loop in the strap and step into the loop. This will make it more comfortable until help arrives. It may be an hour or more until rescue personnel can find and help you.

• Anticipate disaster. Never move your foot or make any movement when you’re off the ground without thinking ahead and ensuring its safe.

• Always ensure 3 points of contact when climbing a ladder. Only one foot or one hand should move at a time. Either two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand should always be touching the ladder.

• Do not screw equipment hooks into the tree below your shoulders. If you should fall, the hooks can cause further injury. This is a reason I never use or suggest screw in steps. They can kill you by penetration wounds on the way down if you fall, even with a harness on.

In closing, remember to follow the instructions on your equipment, inspect frequently, always be tied off when you’re off the ground, and stay safety conscious. Follow these guidelines and your chances of seeing a Boone and Crockett buck will be much higher than you becoming a safety statistic.