How to Arrive Back Home Alive

By Len Hinrichs

Evan was looking forward to this hunt like none he had ever before.  The rut was in high gear and he had an entire week of hard-earned vacation ahead of him to do nothing but bowhunt for a huge buck that he had been scouting since last year.  His close friend Jerry was due to join him the next day at their lease so that they could hunt the week together, but Evan thought he would get a head start by setting one last treestand in a hardwood funnel he just knew that big buck would be crossing sometime during the week’s hunt.  As the morning dew began to burn off, Evan began assembling several climbing sticks and fastening them to the trunk of a suitable oak; alternately climbing and fastening the sections until he arrived at 20 feet.  That completed, he climbed back down and retrieved a brand new loc-on stand purchased especially for this occasion.  After a brief rest, he muscled back up the tree with the stand in tow to set it in place.  After struggling with it’s positioning for several minutes, Evan finally managed to get the stand fastened to the trunk of the tree.  He stood on the top climbing stick rung for a few moments to survey the area from his vantage point.  It was a beautiful day and he could almost taste the backstraps as he stepped up onto the treestand’s platform.  That’s where things went very wrong……..

Jerry arrived at their hunting cabin the next morning and was curiously surprised that Evan wasn’t there.  Evan was always a reliable, punctual person so it wasn’t like him to not be where they had agreed to meet.  After stowing his gear, Jerry remembered that Evan might have gone out to place that funnel stand that they had discussed, so he set out in his car to give him a hand.  Knowing the general area where they wanted to place this stand, Jerry went there and was puzzled to find Evan’s truck but not his friend.  Sensing something was not quite right, Jerry began calling and walking a grid pattern through the funnel area until, late in the morning, he came upon the sight that will never leave his memory: the broken body of his friend and hunting partner, dead at the base of that oak.

Although the story just related and the characters described are fictitious, similar scenarios happen with startling regularity throughout hunting seasons across this country.

Background

Hunting from an elevated position, or treestand, can be a highly effective method for hunters pursuing wild game such as whitetail deer, bear, hogs, elk, turkeys, etc.  The increased elevation offers several advantages over a ground-based stand: 1) it provides a higher vantage point for improved game spotting; 2) it allows the hunter to remain hidden above the game’s normal line of sight; and 3) it provides a greater level of scent control by allowing the hunter’s odor to disperse a greater distance from their stand location.  All of these advantages make treestand hunting very popular, with millions of hunters taking to the trees each year.

However, this popularity has made treestand accidents one of the most prevalent causes of serious injuries or death suffered by hunters.  Statistics show that approximately 1 out of every 3 treestand hunters will suffer a significant fall in their lifetime.  Those aren’t good odds!

The disturbing news is that most serious treestand fall accidents are experienced by hunters who either:  don’t use any form of fall protection equipment at all; use uncertified or outdated fall protection equipment; or use or install their fall protection equipment improperly.  Typical reasons that hunters give for not using fall protection are that they find it “uncomfortable” or “inconvenient” or that it doesn’t fit in with the “macho” image of hunting.  Some contend that “I never needed one before, so I don’t need it now”.  Well, it’s pretty inconvenient to be paralyzed or dead (and none too macho)! 

The good news is that the vast majority of these injuries are preventable by using proper safety precautions and equipment while installing, ascending, descending, and hunting from elevated stands. The following general guidelines will assist you in making decisions that will make treestand hunting a lifelong, rewarding, and safe experience.

Fall Restraint Systems

Always wear a fall restraint system (a.k.a. fall arrest system or safety harness ) any time you are off the ground while hunting – it is your single most important piece of hunting equipment.  A fall restraint system is any device(s) that hunters use to attach themselves to a tree or elevated position to keep them from falling to the ground in an uncontrolled manner and subsequently allows them to safely descend to the ground after falling.  A fall restraint system should be worn at all times while off the ground rather than just at final elevation, since the majority of treestand falls occur while ascending or descending the tree, and stepping across or onto the treestand platform.  The bottom line is that a safety harness can only protect you from a fall if you are actually wearing it when you fall.

Full-body harnesses with straps that encircle the torso, legs, and shoulders allowing a fallen hunter to hang in an upright position are now the only type of fall restraint system recommended by the Treestand Manufacturer’s Association (TMA) as well as other leading hunter safety organizations.  The old-style belts or chest-type harnesses that were often used by hunters in the past are no longer recommended and should not be used.  Full-body harnesses come in several designs including the standard strap and buckle harness; vests with the harness incorporated into the shell; and hybrids that are somewhere in between. With the number of styles available, it should be relatively easy for almost any hunter to find a harness that is safe, comfortable, and easy for them to use. Interestingly enough, many if not all TMA-certified treestands now include a basic full-body harness at no extra charge.  Regardless of the type of full-body harness you choose, make sure that it is properly sized to fit you and that you are within the specified weight limits for that particular harness.  A properly fitted harness will comfortably allow enough adjustment to accommodate heavier clothing worn during cold weather.

Use the following Safety Guidelines from the TMA website to guide you in the proper use and maintenance of your harness.

TMA Treestand Safety Guidelines

  • ALWAYS wear a Fall-Arrest System (FAS)/Full Body Harness meeting TMA Standards even during ascent and descent.  Be aware that single strap belts and chest harnesses are no longer the preferred Fall-Arrest devices and should not be used.  Failure to use a FAS could result in serious injury or death.
  • ALWAYS read and understand the manufacturer’s WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS before using the treestand each season.  Practice with the treestand at ground level prior to using at elevated positions.  Maintain the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS for later review as needed, for instructions on usage to anyone borrowing your stand, or to pass on when selling the treestand.  Use all safety devices provided with your treestand.  Never exceed the weight limit specified by the manufacturer.  If you have any questions after reviewing the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS, please contact the manufacturer.
  • ALWAYS inspect the treestand and the Fall-Arrest System for signs of wear or damage before each use.  Contact the manufacturer for replacement parts.  Destroy all products that cannot be repaired by the manufacturer and/or exceed recommended expiration date, or if the manufacturer no longer exists.  The FAS should be discarded and replaced after a fall has occurred.
  • ALWAYS practice in your Full Body Harness in the presence of a responsible adult, learning what it feels like to hang suspended in it at ground level.
  • ALWAYS attach your Full Body Harness in the manner and method described by the manufacturer.  Failure to do so may result in suspension without the ability to recover into your treestand.  Be aware of the hazards associated with Full Body Harnesses and the fact that prolonged suspension in a harness may be fatal.  Have in place a plan for rescue, including the use of cell phones or signal devices that may be easily reached and used while suspended.  If rescue personnel cannot be notified, you must have a plan for recover/escape.  If you have to hang suspended for a period of time before help arrives, exercise your legs by pushing against the tree or doing any other form of continuous motion.  Failure to recover in a timely manner could result in serious injury or death.  If you do not have the ability to recover/escape, hunt from the ground.
  • ALWAYS hunt with a plan and if possible a buddy. Before you leave home, let others know your exact hunting location, when you plan to return and who is with you.
  • ALWAYS carry emergency signal devices such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie, whistle, signal flare, PLD (personal locator device) and flashlight on your person at all times and within reach even while you are suspended in your FAS.  Watch for changing weather conditions.  In the event of an accident, remain calm and seek help immediately.
  • ALWAYS select the proper tree for use with your treestand.  Select a live straight tree that fits within the size limits recommended in your treestand’s instructions.  Do not climb or place a treestand against a leaning tree.  Never leave a treestand installed for more than two weeks since damage could result from changing weather conditions and/or from other factors not obvious with a visual inspection.
  • ALWAYS use a haul line to pull up your gear and unloaded firearm or bow to your treestand once you have reached your desired hunting height.  Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back.  Prior to descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.
  • ALWAYS know your physical limitations.  Don’t take chances.  If you start thinking about how high you are, don’t go any higher.
  • NEVER use homemade or permanently elevated stands or make modifications to a purchased treestand without the manufacturer’s written permission.  Only purchase and use treestands and Fall-Arrest Systems meeting or exceeding TMA standards.  For a detailed list of certified products, contact the TMA office or refer to the TMA web site at http://www.tmastands.com.
  • NEVER hurry!!  While climbing with a treestand, make slow, even movements of no more than ten to twelve inches at a time.  Make sure you have proper contact with the tree and/or treestand every time you move.  On ladder-type treestands, maintain three points of contact with each step.

In addition, you should keep your safety harness clean and dry and store it out of direct sunlight, away from chemicals and possible ozone sources.

Additional Tips for Use of a Fall Restraint System

There are several methods for safely attaching your fall restraint system while ascending and/or descending your selected tree.  Each has it’s specific uses depending on the task being performed.

  • Lineman style ropes which fasten around the tree and directly to D-loops on the harness belt are used to ascend and descend the tree while still allowing the climber to keep his/her hands free.  This is particularly useful for hanging loc-on stands, placing tree steps, or trimming branches.
  • Top-fastened tree ropes are attached to the tree at stand height and hang down to near ground level.  The safety harness tether is attached to the the tree rope via a small sling tied into a special Prussic knot.  The Prussic knot it designed to be slid up or down the tree rope with minimal effort, but locks to the tree rope in the event of a fall.  This setup is useful for ascending/descending ladder stands and loc-on stands that are semi-permanent or already in position.
  • Mechanical retractors are attached to the tree at stand height and consist of a mechanical reel-type retractor similar to an automatic seat belt retractor.  The safety harness tether is attached to the free end of retractor when standing on the ground and as the tree is climbed, the retractor automatically takes up the slack belt.  In the event of a fall, the retractor immediately and automatically locks thereby arresting the fall.
  • Standard tree straps and ropes are attached by looping them around the tree to be climbed then fastening them directly to the safety harness tether.  The tree strap/rope is pushed up/down the tree and snugged up with each step.  These are predominantly used while ascending trees using climbing style treestands.

No matter which type of safety harness attachment system is used, the safety tether should always be kept as short as possible and should be fastened above head height while standing in the treestand.  This will minimize the distance that you can drop if you you lose your balance and fall from the stand platform.  It will also allow a better opportunity for you to crawl back into your stand should you experience a fall.

Make sure when setting stands that you extend your tree steps or ladder system at least 3 feet above the platform level of the stand so that you can step down onto the platform when transitioning to the stand.  This makes it much easier to get into your stand in the dark or during inclement weather.

Always use a pull-up rope to hoist weapons or equipment into your stand.  Make sure all weapons are unloaded and securely fastened before hoisting.

If You Do Fall While Wearing a Fall Restraint System

If the worst happens and you do fall from your stand or while ascending/descending a tree while wearing an appropriate fall restraint system, what do you do next?  The first thing is DON’T PANIC!  Assuming you’re conscious and not seriously injured, you need to make an effort to get yourself either back onto your platform or to the ground as quickly as you safely can.  Even though your harness has kept you from falling to the ground, you may now be in danger of another serious condition called “suspension trauma”.  If you are allowed to hang from your harness for even a relatively short time (i.e., less than 15 minutes), blood will begin to  pool in your lower extremities, thereby starving your central core area and brain for needed oxygen, causing you to pass out and eventually die.  It is imperative that you quickly alleviate this situation in one of several ways. 

  • Crawl back onto your stand platform.  This is possible if you attached your safety tether high and short enough that your fall was minimal and you can easily reach the platform.
  • You may have to descend the tree.  To facilitate this it is recommended that you carry an extra screw-in tree step or a length of sturdy rope sufficient to go around the tree you’re climbing in an easily accessible pocket on your person.  In the event of a fall, you can then insert the tree step or loop and fasten the rope around the tree in order to give you a place to step up to take your weight off the harness.  By alternating moving the step/rope and hanging in your harness, hopefully you can safely descend to the ground.
  • If you can’t immediately extricate yourself by climbing back onto your stand platform or safely descending the tree, exercise your legs by pushing against the tree or doing any other form of continuous motion with your body and legs.  This will help to keep blood circulating from your legs to the rest of your body.  Remember, this is only a stopgap method.  You still need to continue to try and either climb back onto the stand platform or descend the tree as soon as possible.
  • Only as a last resort, you may have to cut your tether and hopefully climb/slide down the tree trunk in a controlled fashion, minimizing injury.  For this you should always carry a knife or shielded strap cutter that is readily accessible or fastened to your harness so that you can reach it easily.  Remember that your full weight will come to bear once you cut your safety tether so hang onto the tree tightly or be prepared for a quick descent!

Summary

Hunting from an elevated treestand can enhance your opportunities as a hunter to see and kill more game.  However, these opportunities are tempered by the many risks associated with the use of treestands that should not be ignored.  Proper use of a certified fall restraint system and thoughtful installation and use of your treestand and accessories can go a long ways towards ensuring that you have a safe and successful hunt.  Remember to arrive back home alive!