Whitetails 365: A Life Changing Fall: Treestand Safety from an Injured Hunter

By Noel Gandy

“You’re so young that I don’t really want to do back surgery, but, be prepared to make some adjustments to how you live your life”.

These were the words that were uttered to me by a specialist at Southern Bone and Joint in Hattiesburg, MS at the young age of 17 years old. This statement came just a few days after I had fallen from an antiquated climbing treestand in the piney woods of South Mississippi. Nearly 20 years later, I still have to live my life with quite a few “adjustments”.

Out of all of the articles and commentary that I’ve submitted to The Iowa Sportsman Magazine over the years, I believe this has been far and away the most personal topic I’ve ever shared. Every day when I wake up until the time that I lay back down I am aware that something just isn’t right in regard to my body. I often wonder how my life might be different had I not been so clueless to treestand safety during my senior year of high school.

Let me be clear, I have a wonderful and fruitful life! My story is still ongoing and wasn’t ended that Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving. I was fortunate to be able to walk myself out of the woods that day. I, like many, was in much better shape at 17 years old than at nearly 37 so the impact that took place from a careless fall was withstood quite a bit better than I imagine it would now. However, 20 years later, I’m feeling it! Over the course of the years, I have had no less than 4 rounds of physical therapy that would last 3-6 months each. I’ve taken nearly a dozen steroid injections to my back and hips to try to have some pain relieved. More recently, and with fairly successful results (knock on wood), I have turned to having a Rhizotomy and Radiofrequency ablations for pain in my lower half.

As far as limitations: I can’t sit very long. I can’t stand very long. I can’t raise my right leg much over a foot off of the ground. I can’t sleep on my back. The bed can’t be too soft, either. It’s a pain! I can’t bend over very well. I certainly don’t need to be lifting heavy things. If something doesn’t go just right, the ol’ back will catch and I’ll be down for a couple of days at a time: all because I was careless when it came to climbing a tree to go deer hunting. Now, has any of that stopped me from living? Heck no! Deer hunting is still far and away my passion outside of Christ. I still try to golf. I try not to miss things with my kids. Understandably, though, I have to always keep in the back of my mind my limitations. The crux of the message that I hope to convey today is: just be careful when it comes to climbing a tree!

Plan For The Worst, Hope For The Best
Often times, treestand safety is an afterthought. For guys, we can tend to be a bit macho and think that we are invincible. I certainly did! However, things happen. I guarantee that not a single person who has been in an accident involving a treestand went out thinking that something harmful was going to happen to them. A good mantra to follow: plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Let’s take a bottom-up approach and give a refresher course on how to be careful whilst ascending/descending a tree!

Let Someone Know
I’m pretty secretive with my deer hunting ground. Sometimes, it is very difficult to come by a great spot and us hunters can be a little stingy. However, before you ever leave for your hunting area, you should let someone know your exact whereabouts in case an accident occurs. In the instance above, by the grace of God, I was able to walk away from a fall. Had that not been the case, though, I’m pretty sure that no one would have found me for a while because I was somewhere I had never been. Today, there are tons of apps and other bits of technology that could allow someone to know your whereabouts. Use them. If nothing else, give someone a general idea of where you plan to be and when you plan to be home.

On the Ground
Before I ever even look at ascending a tree anymore, I always am strapped into an up-to-date full body safety harness. To me, this piece of equipment is as essential as my archery tackle. As you purchase your safety harness, be sure that you have a proper fit. These things have size and weight limits. They should fit comfortably and be able to support more than your body weight.

Understand that many safety harnesses have expiration dates. It is not wise to continue using an old safety harness. Threads wear out. Attachments fray. A fall is not usually very gentle so imagine that a great force will be applied if a fall occurs. You want something that will support you and not put you in an even more precarious situation. I encourage every reader to understand proper assembly and safely use your harness before you head to the woods.

The Treestand
Last year I made a jaunt out to my hunting property to give my treestands a safety inspection. I like to do that before the season begins just in case there are any issues. I like to grab onto the climbing mechanism (ladder, climbing sticks, etc.) and give them a good tug from the base of the tree while I’m still on the ground. On one treestand in particular, I gave a great tug to the ladder and to my amazement the ratchet strap at the top broke completely off. It was only a year old! Come to find out, a squirrel had gnawed on the back side of the strap and had completely loosened it. Thank goodness I checked before deer season or, not only might I have fallen, I would have made some kind of racket in my deer woods.

Always make sure that your stands are nice and secure to whatever tree you are ascending. Whether it be a ladder or a lock on type of stand I encourage you to make sure you have fresh straps attached from stand to tree. Personally, if it recommends one strap, I’ll put two.

Different studies have shown that about half of treestand falls occur while on stand. That means the other half have to come while ascending or descending your ladder or steps. Treestand safety is not just important while in the tree. It is imperative that you always be attached to the tree while going up and down to and from your perch.

Lifelines and lineman ropes are your best friends in this situation. As you initially ascend a tree you should have your safety harness securely attached to a lineman’s rope. This moves up the tree as you move up the tree. Once to your stand location, a lifeline can be attached about two feet above the highest point of your stand. This will give you the ability to remain attached to the tree at all times in case of a fall. Many lifelines today have descension mechanisms that allow for an easy descent in an emergency.

Three Points of Contact
As you are climbing a ladder or a step, I highly encourage you to maintain three points of contact at all times. That looks like two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand constantly in contact with a stand or step. Two are better than one and three are better than two in this case. This means that you should never ascend or descend while holding on to a weapon or a bag. Rope is cheap. Use a pull-up rope to bring equipment to you.

On the Platform
Once you have made it to your perch safely, all attached to your lifeline, you should attach to the tree in a more secure way. Many safety harness manufacturers will offer a rope or strap to attach to the tree while you are hanging out. Be sure that you place this well above your head and take out any tension that might be in the strap. Never loosen from the lifeline until you are attached to your safety strap. I know this can be tedious and a bit cumbersome, however, you’d rather fall two inches than two feet. Take it from someone who has fallen while attached to the tree (I’ll save that story for another day); those harnesses don’t feel very good when they cinch up tight!

In preparation for this article, I read that one in three hunters will likely fall from a treestand during their hunting career. I’ve fallen twice in 30 years so folks like me probably don’t help the statistics. There was a major difference between my first fall and my second, though: attached safely vs. not attached at all. I was able to walk away from my second fall with little more than rattled nerves as opposed to my first fall which cost tens of thousands of dollars in doctor bills and a lifetime of continued discomfort and pain.

You owe it to yourself and to your family to come home. There is no deer worth your life or livelihood and I hope that you’ll heed this advice to attach yourself every single time you head to a treestand.
What I’ve had to say today certainly is not exhaustive. There has been plenty of fine detail of safety omitted due to space issues. I’d like to encourage you, however, to check out websites like www.standsafety.com and www.tmastands.com to gather more thorough information on how you can protect yourself and your loved ones when it comes to treestand safety.