When I started taking horseback riding lessons many years ago, my biggest fear was falling. My instructor finally set me straight.
“There are two types of riders,” she said, as I tried to sit to the trot, my knees squeezing the horse in a death grip. “Those who have fallen off, and those who will fall off.”
The same could be said of hunters who use tree stands. According to extensive surveys done by “Deer & Deer Hunting” magazine, at least one-third of us have fallen. Unreported are the “near misses,” those heart-stopping slips, trips and broken grips that many of us have experienced.
And yet, although about 70 percent of the hunters who responded to the surveys said they were concerned about safety (and you have to wonder why it wasn’t 100 percent), more than 80 percent of those hunters weren’t wearing a safety belt when they fell.
Wearing a safety belt whenever you leave the ground is the No. 1 way to prevent a tree stand accident. But that is far from a catch-all, no pun intended. Based on interviews with manufacturers’ reps, guides, hunters and even cameramen, I’ve come up with many tips for tree stand safety. Some of the tips involve you spending money, less than $100, to ensure a safe hunting season. Maybe you think you don’t want to spend the money, but you have to consider the alternatives.
“The best advice I can offer hunters is to invest in a good safety harness,” said M.R. James, former editor of “Bowhunter” magazine. “They’re not cheap but don’t cost as much as a wheelchair or coffin.”
Example A: Western Maine, where I live, has relatively low deer densities per square mile. Seeing two bucks on the same afternoon was a rare occurrence, and I didn’t want to screw it up. Neither had come within range, and it was past legal shooting, but I could still hear them walking around, not far away. So I waited in my climber, long past dark, for them to leave the area. By the time I started down, I was stiff with cold and in a hurry.
Instead of putting my boots in the foot holder straps, I duck-footed them into the side arms of the bottom of the climber. After just a few increments of sit-down, stand-up progress down, I dropped the bottom. No problem, that had happened before, that’s why I kept the two parts joined with a sturdy rope. I braced myself, but this time, there was no welcoming tug, no twirling foot climber to retrieve. I heard it land in the brush below me.
Example B: I was climbing up sections of steps, and caught the front of my fanny pack belt on one of the steps. My fanny pack is growing old, and the belt part doesn’t always click firmly together. In just a split second the pack had let go and without thinking I was reaching behind me to grab it. I very nearly followed it to the ground, fighting for a grip (I was wearing my release).
Example C: Mike Devine of Oklahoma has worked as a cameraman on assignment for the NRA (a safety video) and Jolly’s Outdoor Visions (deer hunting video for Ol’ Man Treestands). During a typical season, he spends at least 400 hours in tree stands, plus he hangs countless stands.
“I have fallen a few feet from a live oak in Texas while hanging a stand. I was standing on a branch and it broke out from under me. I was lucky, I ended up with nothing worse than scraped arms.”
Example D: A near-miss from Dave Samuel, of this website: “I’ve never fallen or come close to falling from the stand, but I did slip on a tree step descending from a bear stand. It was only 12 feet high and I was almost halfway down when I slipped. It was raining and I must have misstepped. I caught a limb before I fell.”
In these four examples, the hunters learned some important safety tips. They were warned, and have adapted.
Example A — Check Your Equipment
I had been away on a hunting trip, and my hunting buddy Billy had used my climber while I was gone. I had actually broken two rules: 1. I hadn’t gone over the use of the stand with Billy, and he’d removed the connecting rope because it seemed to be in the way when he put the stand on the tree. He thought the rope was there to keep the stand together when packing it in. 2. I hadn’t checked the stand over before using it. (I became a tree hugger, by the way.)
“Some of the most common mistakes include not using the product correctly — most people never read the instructions nor do they realize that tree stands operate differently and have unique safety equipment,” said John Louk of Ol’ Man Treestands. “You should inspect the stand before each use, and never loan the stand to someone else without giving them the proper instructions on how to use the product.”
Ouch! How would I have felt if my hunting buddy Billy had been injured using my stand? I guess I could have told his wife and kids that I was in a hurry that day.
James suggested that hunters take a little warm-up period before descending, whether in a climber or from a fixed-position stand.
“People forget how cold, wait-stiffened muscles don’t function as well as they should,” he said. “It’s downright dumb to sit for hours, then stand up and immediately start to come down.”
Alabama hunter Tes Jolly (Jolly’s Outdoor Visions) was alert enough to save herself from a possible tree stand accident.
“I was climbing down out of a fixed-position stand and noticed that two ends of the ratchet strap buckle on the top section were not firmly seated together,” she said. “I would have fallen a long way on that one if my weight had caused them to unclasp — now I regularly check connections.”
Find more tree stand safety tips in Part 2.