Treestands are one of the most popular and effective methods of deer hunting throughout the eastern half of our country. Being perched high in a tree offers concealment from a whitetail’s sharp eyesight, helps to keep a hunter’s scent from spooking game and gets a hunter above cover for a clear view and shot.
Unfortunately, treestand falls are a common cause of injury and death among hunters. A misplaced step, a broken tie-on strap or ladder step or a falling tree can all cause catastrophic results. Proper treestand safety techniques can all but eliminate accidents, and teaching young and new hunters to follow these safety tips will result in a lifetime of safe hunting.
From the Ground Up
When teaching young hunters about treestand safety, start on the ground and work your way up. These 10 steps will help.
- Always use a full-body safety harness, whether in a fixed stand or using a climbing stand. The vast majority of treestand accidents can be prevented by simply wearing and using a correctly fitting full-body safety harness. Simple rule: The harness goes on before ever leaving the ground and goes back on before you climb out to descend (and for climbing stands, it doesn’t come off at all between going up and getting down). Get to the stand and realize you left your harness at home or in the truck? Hunt from the ground that day. No exceptions.
- Use a lifeline for fixed stands (those that use a ladder of some sort to access). Some accidents happen on the way into or out of the stand. By installing a lifeline on every fixed-position stand, be it hang-on or ladder, your young hunter can be safe as he or she climbs up or down the tree. A lifeline consists of a strong rope that runs from the ground to a secure point at the top of the stand. A loop is attached to the rope by means of a Prusik knot. The Prusik knot slides easily up and down the rope as the hunter ascends or descends the stand. In the event of a fall, the knot tightens, clamping down on the rope and stopping the hunter’s fall.You can find on-line instructional videos for making your own lifelines, such as this one from Bowhunting.com or this one from Field & Stream. You can purchase pre-made, ready-to-use versions, such as the ones from Hunter Safety System and X-Stand anywhere treestand safety gear is sold. Install the lifeline as soon as the stand is in position. When the hunter is ready to climb up or down the ladder or climbing sticks, simply attach the strap from the safety harness to the loop of the Prusik knot and slide it up or down as he or she enters or exits the stand.
You should build or purchase a lifeline and install one at each fixed-stand location you use, but you should never leave them up year-round. Take them down at the end of the season and inspect for any damage caused by chewing animals or wear from rubbing limbs and harsh weather.
- Use only TMA-certified treestands and safety gear. The TMA—Treestand Manufacturers Association—per its website, “is a nonprofit trade association that specifically devotes its resources to promoting treestand safety through education. It endeavors to improve treestand safety with the support of its members and by fostering relationships with organizations with similar goals.” Look for the TMA Certified logo on all commercially produced stands and safety products to be sure your gear has been fully tested in various hunting situations. While many older hunters grew up with homemade stands cobbled together from whatever scrap lumber was available, today’s TMA certified stands are much safer and far less likely to fail. How much do you know about treestand safety? TMA’s quiz will challenge you!
- Practice at home. Don’t let the first time your hunter experiences a treestand happen in the pre-dawn darkness while he or she is 20 feet above ground. Set up a similar stand a few feet above ground in your yard or nearby woodlot. For fixed stands, practice getting into the stand, moving the harness strap from the lifeline to the tree, then reversing the process for the post-hunt trip back down—and do it in the daylight first, then in the dark. If using a climbing stand, find a suitable tree and practice going up and down in the stand. Have the hunter move the harness tree strap up and down the trunk as they ascend and descend, instead of hooking it up only after reaching the desired height. Your new hunter should be strapped to the tree at all times to prevent an accident should the lower section of a climbing stand become detached and fall to the ground or the stand lose its grip on the trunk and start to slide.
- Carry a whistle in an easy-to-reach location, be it on a lanyard around your neck or tucked away in a pocket on your safety harness. A whistle is the best way to alert other hunters or search-and-rescue members in the event of an accident. Your harness will safely suspend you from a tree, but you may be stuck there until help arrives to get you down. A loud whistle can make that wait time shorter and make you easier to locate from a distance.
- Pick only live and sturdy trees for your stand locations. Avoid hanging or affixing stands in or even next dead or dying trees, and certainly don’t use skinny trees. A dead tree may seem sturdy from the ground, but the added weight of a stand and hunter can make them topple. Dead branches can also fall and strike a hunter from above, causing serious injury.
- Always visually inspect stands before climbing into them. Look at your treestand both from the ground and from the top step before climbing aboard. Are the straps tight? Do you see wear on any strap or cable holding the stand to the tree? Give it a shake. Does it feel tight and sturdy? For climbing stands, are all the straps and cables in good, solid shape? Is there any weakness in any of the joints of the stand pieces themselves?
- Never climb a stand with a loaded firearm. While some backpacks accommodate strapping on a firearm or bow, using them with a safety harness can be awkward, and trying to climb into a stand while loaded with heavy gear can throw off your balance, raising the possibility of a missed step. Bottom line, it’s far smarter and safer to use a pull rope to raise and lower your hunting gear, including firearms and bows.
Using a pull rope to lift your gear after you are in the stand and buckled to the tree, then lowering that same gear down to the ground (again, firearms unloaded) before you climb down at the end of your hunt is a much safer option. Firearms should always be raised and lowered with the muzzle down and the chamber open.
- Always let someone know where your stand is located or where you plan to hunt. In the event of an emergency, minutes can mean the difference between life and death. Make it easier for friends, family or other members of your hunting party to locate you in the event of an accident by telling someone where you plan to hunt.
- Always take stands down after the hunting season for a thorough examination. Do cables or straps need to be replaced before next season? Leaving a stand in the woods from one season to the next risks damage from squirrels and other chewing animals, increases wear and tear on the stand and can damage the tree which could pose a risk to your safety next season.
Kentucky native Michael Pendley has been hunting since he was old enough to say the word “rifle.” He’s been writing in the outdoor industry for the past 15 years, and his work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, Modern Pioneer, Petersen’s Hunting and others, though he is perhaps best known for his “Timber 2 Table” column on Realtree.com. When he’s not in the kitchen whipping up something mouthwatering or sampling Kentucky’s fine bourbons, he, along with his wife and photographer, Cheryl, their daughter, Michaela, and their two sons, Hunter and Nathaniel (aka Potroast), along with their basset hound, Blanton, and bloodhound, Teddy, can be found traveling the country and enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer.