Playing it safe with tree stands

by Alex Gouthro | September 13, 2013

tree stand accidents - a person climbing a tree stand

Hunting from a tree stand offers several advantages over ground hunting. It raises you off the forest floor for a bird’s eye view of the surroundings, lifts your tell-tale scent away from game, and enables you to see animals moving in brush, which gives you more time to plan your shot. And, because you fire at downward angles, stray or pass-through shots land safely in the ground.

The trade-off for these advantages though, is the risk of accidents that can result in serious injury or death.
Statistics reveal that about one third of all hunting injuries in the U.S. are related to tree stands, with about 50% of these in stands of the homemade variety. The Tree Stand Manufacturers Association (TMA) points out that over 80% of hunters involved in reported incidents were not wearing fall restraint systems, and that most accidents occurred when individuals were hurrying and ignored the safety rules.

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Lesson learned
I can relate to these statistics. One evening, while about halfway down a tree stand near Rainy River, I couldn’t find the step and decided to trust a branch instead. Big mistake! The branch gave way and I fell backwards 11 feet to the ground. I could hardly breathe or move for about 20 minutes, and thought I had broken my back. A hunting buddy eventually heard my shouts and helped me to my vehicle. Fortunately, except for a torn rotator cuff and a few bruises, I was OK.

Ray Eggleston, a friend of mine from Michigan, wasn’t so lucky. Ray was climbing into his tree stand about 20 feet up when he lost his balance. He tried to grab the seat, but it was the revolving type, and it just spun around, making it impossible to hang on. Not wearing any kind of safety harness, Ray fell the full 20 feet to the ground and suffered tremendous injuries. His back was broken in two places, he had nine broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken femur, a badly damaged knee, and a severe concussion. Thankfully his hunting partner heard Ray falling and called an ambulance to the site using his cell phone. Ray almost didn’t make it. Seven surgeries and nearly a year of rehab later, Ray knew he would never hunt again.

While some falls cause the type of injuries suffered by Ray and I, others can result in permanent neurological damage, paralysis, and death. Every year, 15 to 20 hunters in the U.S. are found dead hanging from their safety harnesses after a fall.
The severity of injuries from tree stand falls is not surprising, considering that stands are often placed 12 to 30 feet in the air. Hunters falling from such heights can reach speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour, and can collide with objects such as tree limbs and tree steps on the way down. Further compounding the danger is the final impact of hard ground, rocks, logs, or the hunter’s own equipment.

Best of both worlds
Tree stand hunting is effective and addictive. It can also be safe. Experts agree that virtually all tree stand related accidents can be prevented by following some basic safety rules — 100% of the time. Enjoy your hunt, but be safe out there!

In case of a fall

Getting down
Controlled descent systems allow you to lower yourself to the ground after a fall. Some, like the Tree Spider Livewire Descent System are one-time-use, hands-free devices. Others, such as the Hunter Rescue Self Recovery Fall Arrest System, can be re-used, but require you to operate them by hand.

Avoid dangling
A Suspension Relief Strap (SRS) is a web or rope harness attachment that will allow you to stand in the harness. This will be useful should you find yourself hanging from an FBHAS after a fall. An SRS helps avoid suspension trauma by taking pressure off the groin area, and maintaining circulation in your legs until help arrives. It may even allow you to screw in a couple of tree steps so you can climb back into your stand

What to know to stay safe

Each type of tree stand has its own safety issues.

Lock-on/hang-on tree stands
These are the most difficult and dangerous to put up and take down. Most accidents occur when placing or taking down the stand, climbing up to it or down from it, and while transferring between the climbing aids and the stand.

  1.  Always use a Full Body Harness Arrest System (FBHAS, see page 72) and Climbing Lineman Belt when installing or removing fixed-position stands or related climbing aids. Note that the belt doesn’t offer fall protection, but provides stability, leaving both hands free to perform a task.
  2. Always use a haul line when raising or lowering the tree stand to and from its fixed position.
  3. Ensure that the stand’s platform is level and that all contact points of the stand (cables, chains, straps, etc.) are in place and securely tightened before stepping into the stand.
  4. Install climbing steps or ladders so that they extend above the tree stand platform. That way, you can climb above the platform and step down into the stand.
  5. Stay connected to the tree or prusik-knot lifeline at all times, from the time you leave the ground to the time you get back to the ground.
  6. Use a 3-point contact technique when climbing or descending; always have ‘2 hands and 1 foot’ or ‘2 feet and 1 hand’ solidly gripping the steps before making a move with the free foot or hand.

Self-climbing tree stands
These offer the highest mobility in getting set up for the hunt quickly, but require the most strength and stamina to use safely. They are only suitable for straight trees with no limbs or shaggy bark.

  1. Before using a climbing tree stand, connect the seating and standing platforms together with a safety strap or rope so they can’t become separated when climbing or descending.
  2. Because climbing tree stands are constantly being moved, fully inspect all connector pins, bolts, etc. before each use.
  3. Tree trunks normally narrow as you go up. Compensate for this by starting the climb with both the seat and standing platforms sloping upwards; they will level out as you climb. If either platform is sloping down once you’ve reached the desired height, you will likely have to descend, make angle adjustments, and repeat the process until they are level. Note: some climbing stands now have levelling systems to allow the adjustment of platforms when above the ground. Practice this move close to the ground before attempting any adjustments at higher heights.
  4. Once at the desired height, use the attachment apparatus provided by the manufacturer to lock the seat in place to prevent it from sliding down the trunk.
  5. Starting at the ground, have your FBHAS attached to the tree at all times. This will involve moving the tether and tree strap to stay above the seat platform as you climb or descend with the tree stand.
  6. Don’t rush! When climbing or descending take shorter steps and make sure that the contact points of both platforms are solidly seated before moving either platform.

Ladder tree stands
Because the attached seating platform is braced both to the tree and to the ground by the ladder, properly set up ladder tree stands are the most stable; and, provided the hunter uses the three-point-contact climbing technique, are the easiest and safest to use. However, ladder tree stands are bulky and heavy, and are the least portable option, requiring full assembly before putting them in place against a tree. Three people are needed to safely set up and take down most ladder stands.

  1. Before using, ensure that the ladder sections and platform are properly attached and secure. Use the fasteners/devices supplied by the manufacturer.
  2. Before installing the ladder stand, ensure that the ground is level and firm where both legs of the ladder will sit, and that the bottom of the ladder is firmly anchored into the ground before attempting to raise the stand into position or climbing to the platform.

Arrest your fall
An FBHAS (Full Body Harness Arrest System) consists of a full body harness, tree strap, and tether that attaches the harness to the tree strap. It’s designed to stop a fall and make sure your weight is distributed throughout the shoulders, chest, waist, and legs. It also keeps your body upright in a fall. Older chest-style and waist-belt systems are no longer approved as they can cut off breathing, cause severe back injuries, and flip a hunter upside down, making it almost impossible to climb back into a tree stand.

An FBHAS has its limitations. It is meant to prevent injury, but is just a temporary fix in a dangerous situation. Prolonged hanging puts undue pressure on the groin area, cuts off circulation and causes blood pooling in your legs. This can lead to heart failure and even death, through a process called suspension trauma.

The FBHAS should be attached to the tree or to a prusik knot lifeline from the time you leave the ground to the time you are back on the ground.