Archery Talk: Tree Stand Safety

Avoid becoming a statistic, consider safety priority one when bowhunting from the trees.

Back in the late ‘80s, when tree stand hunting really caught on here in Alberta, as well as BC, Manitoba and even Saskatchewan, relatively few hunters wore safety belts. Leap forward a couple decades and, along with the pandemic movement toward safe everything almost everyone is using some type of fall arrest system.

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Early versions equated to little more than a safety belt worn around the waist or chest. Savvy, safety conscious gurus eventually evolved to a more contemporary chest harnesses and, in turn, the only logical eventuality — the full body harness. A variety of harness systems are available today, which provide security while not only sitting on stand but also while ascending and descending the tree. I can’t help but wonder what they might come up with next.

While tree stands offer archers an undisputed advantage, this benefit comes with risk and occasionally great cost. It happens every year; hunters across North America fall from their stands. If lucky, they escape injury. Some experience minor injuries and yes, a few are paralyzed or worse; these are the facts.

As I write this column, I’m also researching tree stand fall statistics. Surprising but true, definitive data is difficult, in fact nearly impossible to find, but what I am learning is that approximately one in three bowhunters will, at some point in time, fall from a tree stand. I don’t know about you, but that number makes me very uncomfortable.

As I see it, it’s really all about awareness and due diligence. Simple odds suggest the more we hunt from stands, the greater the chance we’ll fall. I know that on average I put up, take down, and hunt from 20 tree stands each year. Doing the math, this puts me at risk, big time! One snap of a branch, slip of a hand or foot, and gravity determines your fate. My solution — make safety priority one and minimize the potential for a fall by taking all necessary precautions.

If you don’t know anyone personally who has fallen from a stand, I’ll bet you’ve heard of someone who has. Even more sobering, you likely know of someone who has suffered an injury as a result of a tree stand fall. In my small social circle I know a fellow who is now bound to a wheelchair because of a tree stand fall.

Now for a sobering moment of truth; I myself fell from a stand 19 years ago. Young, naïve and misguided by the fallacy of perceived invincibility, I wasn’t wearing a safety harness of any sort. As I installed a homemade stand, the base kicked away from the tree and I went airborne. Fortunately I was able to grab for the stand and catch myself mid-fall. Dangling precariously from high up in the tree, I was able to swing my legs, wrap them around the tree and eventually regain full support. That was indeed a lesson I will never forget.

As bowhunters, we should take precautions to minimize the chances of a fall – we must take extra care to select a safe tree, we need to use approved climbing systems and stands and most importantly we should always use a full-body harness.

Choose a Safe Tree

The first step to hunting safely from a stand is selecting the right tree. Dead trees are not an option. Poplars can work well as long as they are big enough and strong enough. When available, old-growth spruce trees are my first choice.

The type and size of the tree will have some bearing on how safe it is. Although seemingly obvious, always use bigger diameter live trees; ones that are as straight as possible. Canada’s geography, topography and forest cover is diverse. Different regions offer variable tree options. Whenever possible select a tree with at least a 30-centimetre (12-inch) diameter. Bigger is usually better. In my opinion, big healthy spruce or pine trees with a trunk diameter of at least that at a height of five metres (16 feet) are most ideal.

Securely mounting the stand to the tree is paramount. No stand should ever be loose. While most manufacturers have a reasonable mounting system, perhaps in the form of a T-bolt and ratchet strap, I always add a little insurance by reinforcing my stands with at least one, and usually two, additional custom-made heavy duty ratchets. Once the stand is in place, consider mounting a tow cord and drop it down for easy access at the bottom of the tree.

Approved Climbing System

As we all know, risk enters the equation long before the stand is mounted to the tree. Safety must be the first consideration the moment your feet leave the ground. As a rule, I always use an approved step system. Options are plentiful but the most common include screw in steps, pole climbers, climbing rails, climbing sticks and ladders. Regardless of which system you use, make sure that each step or section is mounted securely to the tree so no unsafe reaching or uncomfortable stretching is required to advance up or down the tree or as you climb into, or get out of, the stand.

I can’t stress enough, the importance of using a climbing harness as well. Rock and ice climbers have used similar systems for years and really only in the latter half of the last decade have bowhunters begun to employ similar harness systems for installing and climbing in and out of tree strands. Stateside, this practice is catching on big time, but for some reason, here in Canada the uptake has been slow. In most situations there is no excuse for not using a climbing harness — it just makes sense.

Use a Full-Body Safety Harness System

According to the Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA), North America’s designated authority for establishing treestand safety standards, safety belts are obsolete, and in fact have not even been available for at least six years. What is now required, by US law at least, is the inclusion of a full-body harness within the packaging of each commercial treestand. In my view, that says it all.

Today, every bowhunter should be using a TMA approved fall arrest system. One of the best I’ve found to date is made by Hunter Safety Systems (HSS). As a professional outfitter, I am constantly drilling into my guests, the importance of safety and that regardless of which harness system is used, a hunter’s first priority upon stepping into the stand, is to clip their safety harness to the tree belt.

Additional Precautions

Before climbing the tree, remove bulky clothing, your backpack and bow. Always use the tow cord to pull your gear up to the stand. Regular rope works, but I recently discovered a handy piece of equipment called the Speed Winder Hoist Rope made by Tink’s (www.tinks69.com) and it’s now a regular item in my daypack. Bulky clothing or gear can snag on branches and cause accidents. Prior to taking your first step, make certain that your gear is fastened to the cord and move it to the opposite side of the tree. By doing this, you move the tow cord out of the way of the steps or rungs on the ladder.

As for climbing, slow and easy is best. Always maintain at least two points of contact; three is better. Climb securely and safely. Calculate each step. Place each hand and foot carefully and as close to the tree as possible to avoid slipping. Likewise, if you choose to use tree branches as steps, remember the strongest part is where the branch joins the trunk; the further away from the trunk you place your weight, the greater the chance of breakage. The same rules apply to climbing on to the tree stand platform or stepping off of the platform as you begin your descent.

For more information on stand safety and treestand safety guidelines, visit www.tmastands.com. This site is loaded with safety tips, a listing of certified products, product recall information, standards, and more.

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