We were 25 feet up a tree in southwestern Kentucky overlooking a creek that divided a patch of CRP from a big beanfield. It was a sunny day in mid-November and we were going to sit as long as we could. Chuck was going to film me for one of those cable TV shows.
A hardhead like few I’ve ever met, he refused to wear a safety harness. He was behind me and the sun was starting to warm us up nicely after about six hours on stand when I sensed it before I felt it. Chuck had dozed off and was on the verge of toppling backwards out of his seat. I was able to reach back and grab him just enough that he woke up and grabbed a stout limb before it was too late.
Knowing that a lecture was fruitless, I just said something like, “Please don’t make me be the one that has to tell your wife you’re crippled — or dead,” then I climbed down. I refused to hunt up a tree with him again until he agreed to use a harness.
It’s hard to find definitive nationwide statistics on treestand accidents. The Treestand Manufacturers Association reports that upwards of 75 percent of treestand accidents happen when climbing up or down. A commonly quoted statistic is that one-third of all treestand hunters will fall from a stand sometime during their lives, and that about 3 percent of them will suffer crippling injuries.
A medical researcher in Pennsylvania found that from 1987 to 2001, nearly 300 Keystone State hunters sustained injuries from treestand falls. Common injuries included spinal cord fractures. Three percent of the injuries caused permanent disability. Another study in West Virginia found that of 90 hunters surveyed, 36 percent had a spinal fracture from treestand falls. There also were brain damage injuries.
I know that every year more hunters are injured in treestand accidents than from gun shots or errant arrows. None of us want to be a statistic. Here are 10 safety tips you should always follow when utilizing a treestand for any purpose.
10. Check it out
Before using it, inspect your stands for defects, wear and tear or broken parts. This includes new stands! Then familiarize yourself with the nuances of setting up that specific stand. The last thing you want to do is be rushed in the dark on opening day trying to set a stand you are not experienced with.
9. Choose a live, straight tree
You don’t need to hang a stand at a 30-degree angle and then try and hunt comfortably and safely out of it. And the last thing you need is for a dead tree to topple over in a strong breeze while you’re aboard.
8. Be connected at all times
You must be tethered in some fashion at any time you don’t have at least one foot on the ground. Too many people wait until they are actually in the treestand before securing themselves. That won’t help you if you fall during your climb. Several manufacturers offer climbing belts or tether lines for their stands. The Lifeline from Hunter Safety Systems is an excellent choice.
7. Make stepping easy
Whether you use screw-in tree steps or climbing sticks, make sure that the lowest step is low enough so you don’t have to stretch to reach it going up, or have to jump down when descending. Similarly, place steps at a comfortable distance apart up the tree. The further you have to reach for one, the greater the chance of a fall. Lastly, place your highest step at, or preferably just slightly above, the level of the treestand’s platform. You should be able to comfortably step over and back from your stand, rather than having to climb into it.
6. Several stands? Employ several tree straps
Some safety systems utilize a tree strap and carabiner to connect the harness to the tree. If you hunt out of multiple treestands, purchase extra straps and carabiners so that you can leave one rig attached to each tree you may use. That way you can quickly connect your harness as soon as you get into your stand, instead of having to fumble in the dark and cold trying to thread your harness strap through the tree strap prior to attaching to the tree.
5. Keep three points of contact when climbing
Nearly 75 percent of all treestand accidents occur while climbing up to or down from the stand. It’s important to always keep three points of contact with your hands and feet on the ladder while climbing. This is doubly important in wet or snowy weather, when the steps can get slippery and your boots greased with mud.
4. Use a pull rope
Never carry firearms or bows up and down trees. Always use a pull rope to raise and lower all gear. Make sure your firearm is unloaded.
3. Have a plan in case you fall
After your harness catches you, it’s important to have a plan if you fall from the treestand. Acting quickly is the key. The longer you hang in the harness, the harder it will be to climb back to your stand. In a harness pocket within easy reach, keep your cell phone and a knife sharp and stout enough to cut through your harness straps if necessary. A screw-in step can also be valuable if you can screw it into the tree while hanging, then step onto it to help both relieve the pressure of the harness and help you gain the leverage needed to get back onto your steps and back into the stand. And always tell someone where you’ll be hunting.
2. Don’t get complacent
Yeah, I know, you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, and a tough guy. You can monkey around trees like you did the jungle gym when you were in grade school. Why should you worry about safety? Here’s why. Because you can be a gorilla for decades, but it only takes one “Oh S&*t!” moment for your life to be ruined. Always think ahead and anticipate what might go wrong, and what you’ll do if it does. And remember the old carpenter’s mantra: “Measure twice, cut once.”
1. Always have one
Never, ever hunt without a full-body harness that is in good working order, you’ve inspected before the season, you know how to get in and out of quickly and fits you properly. Ever!
You can get more info on treestand safety from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, www.projectstand.net, the International Hunter Education Association and Treestand Manufacturers Association.
Featured image: Summit Treestands