Safety is more often discussed in hunting circles now than it has ever been in any time in the history of hunting. As land, especially in the eastern half of the United States, is sub-divided more and more hunters are getting away from the deer drives of the past and employing the use of elevated stands to give themselves a visibility advantage and help conceal them from deer’s line of sight. With the ascent comes inevitable risks. The good thing is that the safety equipment that is being produced by outdoors manufacturers has never been simpler to use or as efficient as it is today. The safety equipment you should be utilizing will vary depending on the type of stand you are using, but regardless of the style you choose, any time you are elevated, you should be using the right equipment that will ensure you make it home after the hunt. Below, we’ll break down the equipment needed for climbing trees and hunting out of different types of stands and touch on some methods and tips for each.
1. Fixed position stands (including ladder stands)- If you have a place pre-scouted, as is often the case in lease situations or when you’ve purchased your own recreational property, its likely that you are going to want to have some pre-hung stands in place. The advantage of these stand sets is that there is a lot less work involved to get into the tree and start hunting, and with that comes less noise. These stands can be hung or set up well before hunting season starts so that the area has time to recover after your intrusion. In these situations, it’s advisable for a hunter to select larger, more comfortable stands, especially if the location is in a travel corridor that provides a promising, all day rut hunt. Furthermore, weight isn’t as much of an issue, and because they are set before season, the noise created from setting up a larger, bulky stand isn’t as concerning as when you are setting a truly mobile stand in the middle of season. Likewise, the commotion of carrying the pieces of a heavy ladder stand into the timber with your hunting buddy isn’t as concerning in July or August as it would be in September or October.
When setting up a fixed position stand it is important to utilize a safety harness that comes with loops along the waistline to incorporate a lineman’s belt or lineman’s rope system. This system will allow you climb up a stick ladder while still being secured to the tree. The lineman’s belt will allow you to use two hands to attach buckles and set the stand platform on the tree. A lineman’s belt will not completely restrict a fall, but if used properly it will keep you from falling the whole way to the ground. By making sure that your lineman’s belt is always above waist height at its contact point with the tree, you can reduce the distance you will fall if an accident happens. Your lineman’s rope or belt should be connected to your harness via a locking carabiner. It is important that the carabiner have a threaded locking feature to prevent it from accidentally opening, potentially causing an accidental fall.
Be sure to set your tree stand platform below the last steps on your climbing sticks so that you can step directly across, or down, onto the platform from the stick ladder. You should also have your lineman’s belt above the treestand, so that you do not have to unhook it to climb into the stand. This keeps you connected to the tree at all times and protects you from your own, human error as well as possible stand failures. Once in your stand, a safety line can be attached to the tree above your head and dropped to the ground. These life lines utilize a prusik knot system that allows you to slide the knot up and down the rope as long as tension is not applied to the knot. With your safety harness tether connected to the prusik knot, a fall from the stand would result in the knot tightening around the lifeline and the friction on the rope will keep the knot from sliding. Once your tether is connected to the prusik knot on the life line rope, you can remove your lineman’s belt.
Ladder stands provide their own challenges and hunters should avoid setting ladder stands by themselves. Stands can rotate and roll on a tree trunk, or, if not properly angled, they can easily tip over backward as the hunter climbs up to secure the ratchet straps around the tree. Using a rope system around the ladder portion and connecting it to the tree trunk can help to keep the ladder against the tree. It will not, however, completely eliminate the stands propensity to roll from side to side. For this reason, it is imperative to have someone securing the bottom of the stand when you are climbing for the first time. A safer option is to use a set of portable climbing sticks to climb the tree trunk and ratchet the stand tight to the tree before you climb it for the first time. You can also drop a safety line at this time and climb the ladder stand fully secured to the tree. Some manufacturers produce ladder stands with a hinging mechanism which grips the trunk of the tree when the weight of the stand rests against the hinge bar. This is one example of the many safety improvements and innovations that are being made within the outdoor industry, but it is still advisable to have a hunting buddy present to steady the stand, even if you bought a ladder stand with this feature. Once installed, ladder stands are some of the safest and most comfortable treestands available. Many of them feature cushioned or sling seats, arm rests and shooting rails.
Climbing stands– Climbing treestands can be some of the safest and most comfortable treestands to use. Many manufacturers offer several different models of climbing stands, featuring a wide range of options. It’s important to remember that if used incorrectly, climbers, like any treestand, can present some dangers. Hunters using climbing stands will be selecting trees without branches and this cuts down on the number of safety steps needed, considerably. Attaching your tree strap or tree rope to your safety harness tether before climbing onto the platform of your climber may seem like overkill, but it is the best way to stay safe. Even a 2.5-3 ft. fall can be severe, depending on how a hunter contacts the ground. Once you begin your ascent, make sure to keep the harness tether and tree strap above your head, moving it up as your climb. The tether should not hang across your neck or face, or go under your arm. Keeping the tether and rope assembly above you as you climb limits the distance you will fall if your climber slips on the tree or you lose your balance and fall during your climb.
Once you reach hunting height, set your tree rope so that your tether has the slightest bit of slack when you are sitting down. This will ensure that you will not experience a big impact and shock if you were to doze off while sitting in the stand and fell out. It will also reduce (as much as possible) the distance it will take to engage the tether if you fall while standing. Thirdly, this will keep the harness tether out of your way and make it easy to duck your head under it and/or pass your bow from one side of the tree to the other, if you must make such an adjustment when a shot presents itself.
Aside from the obvious need to wear a harness at all times while climbing and hunting from a climbing style treestand, it is equally as important to set your climber on the tree correctly before you begin to climb. Most climbing stands use an adjustable cable or belt that goes around the tree. The tree stand essentially becomes a lever, and when you put weight on it, the tree cable “pulls” against the back of the tree and the V bracket of the platform “pushes” against the front of the trunk. To effectively engage this simple mechanism, the angle of the platform must be correct. Most trees are a bit larger at the bottom than they are 20-25 feet up, so you must also account for this difference in diameter. Set the belt or cable a little short so that the climber starts at a slight angle when at ground level. This will ensure that is sits level when at hunting height. If you adjust the tree belt too far in, or out, you will end up with a platform that is pitched up or down. Both scenarios can be problematic for safety, and neither is conducive to a comfortable hunt. A platform that is angled down runs the risk of rotating over, a situation where the stand platform essentially collapses downward under the weight of the hunter. A climber set with an aggressive upward angle can create an issue where enough leverage is not able to be applied to the front of the stand to get a good “bite” on the tree, or, the angle doesn’t allow the teeth in the V bracket to engage the tree bark properly. When this occurs, a hunter is at risk of experiencing a wild ride as the stand platform can, without warning, slide down the trunk of the tree.
3. Mobile Hang-On stands – The process of setting up a mobile hang-on style stand is very similar to that of a pre-hung fixed position stand. There are, however, a few minor differences that are important to note. One of the advantages of a mobile stand hang-on versus any of the other stands is their increased versatility. While they may take longer than a climber to set up, and the stand weight combined with a set of mobile climbing sticks is typically a heavier package than a streamlined climber, a hunter opens up more tree options when using one of these stands. Trees with low branches, which can provide addition cover to the elevated hunter, are now an option, as are trees that are less-than-straight. Additionally, these stands are far lighter than their more “permanent” cousins, so they require a lot less effort and wrestling to get them into a tree. This makes the stand-hanging process with these stands arguably safer than with larger, heavier fixed position stands; and it is definitely quieter.
Just as you did when hanging a fixed position stand, it is imperative to use a safety harness with lineman’s rope capabilities. The lineman’s rope should be used at all times when ascending or descending the climbing sticks. When using the kind of modular climbing sticks that are necessary for mobile hunting, a lineman’s belt adds an increased level of safety while making it easier and more convenient to set your sticks and stand. Being able to use both hands makes set up and tear down of the stand a much quicker and quieter process. Many harnesses come with a lineman’s belt included; however, few if any come with a second lineman’s belt. This is where hunters are most likely to cut corners when using a mobile hang-on stand. Because this type of stand gives you the ability to hunt trees with branches or forks, you will need a second lineman rope to stay connected to the tree at all times. When you encounter a branch, run your second lineman rope above it and connect it to your harness before you disconnect from the first belt. Avoid the temptation to simply unclip the lineman’s rope with one hand, while holding on to the climbing stick with the other hand, in order to move the rope above the branch. This is the best way to have an unnecessary accident and become a hunting statistic. Likewise, be sure to use the one lineman’s rope or belt and connect it to the tree to serve as your tree rope. Clip in to this rope with your harness’s tether before you disconnect your first lineman’s belt. When the hunt is over, you can do these steps in reverse and stay tied in at all times.
When you are hunting from an elevated position, it is always good to let someone know where you are. Dropping a location pin on your phone and sending it to a family member or trusted hunting partner can cut down on the time it takes for help to find you if you were to encounter a life threatening situation. If you are hunting in an area that has cell phone service, it is a good idea to keep your cell phone in a chest pocket of your hunting coat rather than in a backpack that hangs from your tree, or in a pants pocket. Depending on how you fall, you may not be able to reach you back pack, or the leg straps of your safety harness might make some of your pants pockets inaccessible. If a leg strap happens to be positioned over your phone, depending on the impact, your phone could be damaged in the fall.
If you properly adjust your tether, and you are reasonably fit, there is a possibility that you will be able to regain your position on your stand platform (assuming that your stand was not what failed and caused the fall). If this is impossible, you need to be aware of the possibility and dangers of suspension trauma. The same safety harness that just saved your life can become a danger if you are not prepared to take the next steps. Hanging motionless from a harness, (with the legs straps further reducing blood flow), can reduce circulation and cause blood to pool in lower extremities due to gravity and inactivity. This inhibits the circulation of a significant amount of blood volume to the rest of the body. Loss of consciousness can subsequently occur within 10-15 minutes. If this happens to a person who is merely standing on level ground, they will faint and then the horizontal positioning of their body will redistribute the blood throughout, via gravity, and they will regain consciousness. However, if you are stuck in a vertical position because of your harness and you lose consciousness, gravity will not be able to help distribute the blood throughout your body and death can occur. To help prevent this from happening, many safety harness manufacturers have begun to include a webbing strap that is connected to the harness and features a loop on the end so that the suspended hunter can put a boot in the loop and periodically take pressure off the leg straps of the harness. This movement allows circulation to occur and keeps the hunter conscious. If your harness doesn’t have this feature, be sure to find one that does and remember to continue to move extremities after a fall, so as to ward against the blood pooling effect that a static, vertical position can have on your body.
Elevated hunting is one of the most effective methods a hunter can use to kill a deer. Along with the advent and advancement of trail cameras, innovations within the competitive treestand marketplace are likely one of the things most responsible for hunters becoming more effective than ever in their pursuits of whitetail deer. The advancements within the industry have made it safer than it ever has been to hunt from an elevated position; but in order to realize the benefits of these innovations and improvements, a hunter has to be committed to the correct utilization of these tools and safety mechanisms. In short, don’t cut corners on quality when choosing treestands and treestand safety gear, and never cut corners on proven treestand safety practices in the field! Happy (safe) hunting!