Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Play it safe when enjoying the advantages of hunting from on high. © Jon Marshall

Play it safe when enjoying the advantages of hunting from on high.
© Jon Marshall

October 2009

Take a stand for safety

Enjoy the advantages of hunting from high places, but know the steps to a safe climb.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Iron County, December 2, 2006 – John Walter was descending his treestand perch 25 feet up a red oak at 4:10 p.m. using his climbing stand when the butt strap broke. The sudden jolt caused the lower platform to come loose from the tree, and he dropped 12 feet before the climber grabbed hold, throwing him violently backward with his feet locked in the metal foot stirrups. After struggling for an hour, Walter was able to get his knee joints to bend 90 degrees so he could hang parallel to the tree, upside down. During his attempt to reach a sitting position, he had removed his jacket and hung it on a nearby limb. The tree limb broke and the jacket fell to the ground with his gloves and cell phone in the pockets. After 19 hours, with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees, he was found, barely alive, by DNR Warden Stuart Pfeiffer and Iron County Sheriff's Deputy Darrell Petrusha. They had begun a search when Walter's wife reported him missing after getting no response from his cell phone. Although Walter's legs were frozen from the knees down, doctors were able to save them, and after 44 days in the hospital, Walters went home.

-- Excerpted from "The Hanging Tree," Deer & Deer Hunting magazine

Treestand accidents are arguably the most common cause of hunter injuries and deaths each year. We say "arguably" because most states, including Wisconsin, don't track them as separate hunting accident statistics. Research about their prevalence and significance is confined to a few studies and hunter surveys – one done as long as 16 years ago – and anecdotal accounts covered by the media.

One such survey in 1993 by Patrick Durkin, then an outdoor writer for Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, showed that one-third of the hunters who used treestands had experienced a fall. A more recent study showed that most hunters (two-thirds) who had experienced an accident had been climbing into or out of their elevated stand, and most had not used a fall-restraint device. That 2002 study of North Carolina and Vermont hunters was conducted by Responsive Management for the International Hunter Education Association. The study also pointed out an interesting dichotomy. Although a strong majority of hunters were concerned about the possibility of an injury falling from an elevated hunting stand, most hunters believed it is not likely they would be injured in such an accident. It's only in hindsight that "most hunters who had been involved in an accident felt that they did not take as many precautions as they could have to prevent the accident."

Closer to home, a 2003 survey of Wisconsin gun deer hunters showed that more than half – roughly 325,000 – hunted from a treestand, at least during opening weekend. An alarming statistic from that survey? Although two-thirds of those hunters owned a safety harness, fewer than one-third actually used the safety harness, and more than a third never used a harness.

So what is it about treestands that makes that many hunters willing to risk life and limb?

Users maintain that treestands greatly increase their chances of seeing and harvesting deer. Treestands get the hunter off the ground, out of the line of sight and smell of deer, and they provide a bird's-eye view of the surroundings. You can see deer moving in tall grass and brush that you couldn't see from a ground blind. Seeing deer from a greater distance gives you more time to plan a better shot, and shooting at a downward angle means a stray shot will hit the ground rather than traveling a few hundred yards past your target.

But statistics and media accounts of accident victims are sobering enough for some hunters to pass up the opportunity to use them. The risks also led treestand manufacturers and dealers to develop strict standards for production and instructions for treestand use to avoid astronomical liability insurance payments and lawsuit settlements. That's also why people with a range of professional, economic and emotional motivations make it their business to promote treestand safety.

Promoting safety

Tim Lawhern's motivations are best characterized as both professional and emotional. Lawhern is DNR's hunter education administrator who is responsible for developing programs to reduce hunting accidents. He has seen improvements in treestand safety over the last 17 years.

"We'll never eliminate treestand accidents altogether," says Lawhern, "but as I read media accounts of them over the years, they have declined. Wisconsin wrote the book on treestand safety back in 1992. Hunter safety instructors at the North Bristol Sportsmen's Club recruited me to help improve their program. We knew that some of the things promoted back then were not good advice – like simple waist or belt-type straps, and five-foot tethers. A club member volunteered to demonstrate what happened when you fell out of a treestand with only a belt-type safety strap. Basically, within 30 seconds your airflow is cut off and you're unconscious. Since that time, full-body harnesses have come onto the market and we have integrated better safety practices into our hunter safety courses."

Lawhern compares the tether – used to strap hunters to the tree – to a seat belt in a car.

"The purpose is to keep you in your stand, not catch you after you've fallen four or five feet," he says. "That would be like designing a seat belt that would catch you after you've gone through the windshield and are out by the hood ornament!"

Lawhern also sees the emotional reasons to promote treestand safety. He sees and hears stories of haste, misinformation and just plain carelessness in treestand use and the sometimes devastating consequences that result.

"In 1996, we did a public service advertisement with a gentleman who is now in a wheelchair," Lawhern recalls. "He had been a tree arborist by profession and wore a full-body harness every day at work. Bowhunting season came around and on this particular day, he was running late, skipped lunch and raced to his hunting site. His harness was in the truck, but he decided he didn't need it. He rushed to his tree, climbed the ladder and when he got to the top got light-headed and fell. He made a split second decision that changed his life.

"I wish I knew the secret to making people realize that it could happen to them in an instant, that they're not immune to accident," says Lawhern. "I've tried telling people, ‘If you love your spouse, give them a safety harness as a gift and don't let them leave home without it!' The only thing we can do is continue to put the message out there in hopes that eventually everyone will hear it and take it to heart."

Big economic incentives also motivate a host of retailers, manufacturers, insurance companies and agencies to promote safe treestand use. Some 62 of them are represented by the nonprofit Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA), based in Hattiesburg, Miss. that devotes its resources to improving treestand safety through educating hunters in proper use, developing manufacturing standards, product testing, manufacturing quality control and promoting mandatory use of fall arrest systems and full body harness devices.

The TMA website maintains a list of all treestands that have been tested and meet their manufacturing standards (visit Promoting Treestand Safety and click on "Certified Products"). Hunters should look for the TMA logo displayed on the box of all certified treestands and pay attention to load limits for each type of stand.

Hunting from high places

Lawhern points out that many hunters improve their perspective by hunting from other elevated places, not just trees. "It could be the second floor of the barn or house, or from a silo, front-end loader or hay wagon," he says. "And of course there are the free-standing, homemade Taj Mahals that you see dotting the landscape. Basically, we use the term ‘hunting from an elevated position' when talking about all these methods."

Hunters who use these alternative structures should follow the same safety advice as for treestands — use a full-body harness, secure yourself to the structure by a short tether, maintain three points of contact if using a vertical ladder to get to an elevated stand, and use a haul line to raise and lower your unloaded firearm.

Aside from those other structures, there are two basic kinds of elevated stands – permanent and portable. Permanent stands are usually homemade, require frequent repair due to weather, can damage trees and don't have to conform to anybody's standards but the owner's. They are illegal on public land and not recommended under most safety guidelines.

Portable stands can be one of four types: fixed position, self-climbing, ladder treestands or free-standing towers. "Each has its own peculiarities and limits," said Lawhern, "and hunters need to understand them in order to be safe. I don't recommend or endorse any kind of stand. Everybody who decides to use one needs to do their homework and take responsibility for their own safety."

Fixed position, or hanging treestands – These portable stands are compact, lightweight and easy to pack into the woods, with a single platform the hunter fixes to the tree with belts or chains. Because of their simplicity, they restrict movement and cause fatigue, which in turn increases the risk of falls. They require the hunter to carry separate climbing devices, like sectional ladders or steps, which should be installed to a height above the seating platform so the hunter can step down onto the platform. Never step up to your stand from a climbing device.

Self-climbing treestands – These have two platforms and require a good amount of physical strength and coordination because they allow the hunter to "walk" up the tree without having to use any other climbing gear. All climbing stands work under the basic premise that putting downward pressure on the platform will bite or drive supporting grips into the tree and keep the stand secure. Depending on the model, the hunter sits or stands on one of the platforms and moves the free platform incrementally up or down the tree to the desired height. These stands must be used on straight, limbless trees and aren't suited for trees with shaggy bark, like some pines or hickories. Before beginning a climb, be sure both platforms are connected so they don't separate during the climb and leave you stranded. Don't jump or bounce on the platform to seat it to the tree.

Ladder treestands – These stands have a seat attached to the top of a tall ladder that is secured to the tree with safety restraints. Ladder stands are big, bulky, and heavy and therefore not as portable as fixed or climbing stands. That makes them less popular for use on public land. The hunter is limited to a fixed height, but the platform and seat are usually more comfortable and are easy to shoot from. When installing a ladder stand, check that the ground under the stand is firm and level. Ladder stands require three people to install or remove them correctly; don't attempt it yourself. Check before climbing to be sure the sections are securely held together with pins or clips.

Free-standing towers – These towers – which are platforms standing on three or four legs – are well-suited for areas without many trees to support a stand. Like ladder stands, they tend to be bulky and heavy.

It happens in an instant

It's just as important to follow safety guidelines when making annual checks of permanent stands or hanging new stands before the season starts. Just ask Steve Erickson.

Erickson is an avid sportsman. He hunts and fishes in all seasons and guides for others who might not have the time or inclination to find the perfect spot to find turkeys or whitetails. He hangs many portable treestands on private property near his home in the Stoughton area each year, to give his clients the perspective he believes they need.

"I get more pleasure in putting somebody in a stand, somebody who doesn't get out to do much hunting, so they can see deer and have an opportunity to shoot one. That feels a heck of a lot better than shooting one myself. I hang each stand up and take each one of them down every year," said Erickson. "I use probably 25 stands each year. I'm in the woods all the time."

It was on one of those trips to the woods in 1992 that his accident happened.

"I fell 23 feet and broke my back in two places – lumbar one and lumbar seven. I went through multiple surgeries, the halo thing, all of that," recalled Erickson. "I was out of work for a year."

Recalling how it happened, Erickson said he had climbed a ladder 15 or 18 feet and used screw-in steps the rest of the way. The last two steps he took before attaching the stand were on two tree limbs.

"They were live branches and seemed strong. I stood on them the whole time I was putting up the stand. Just as I was getting ready to come down, one limb broke and I fell to the ground. But that was back before I used to use a harness. Now I harness-in whenever I'm putting up my stands."

Erickson warns that the chance of accident is even greater when putting up stands before the season than during hunting. "You're spending more time hanging, reaching, tightening belts and cutting those shooting lanes to get your shot. Now I use a full-body harness that hooks into a D-ring. You strap it to the tree and just keep moving your belt up as you go."

Erickson also advises that the main thing for a person to consider is their comfort level. "I go up 20 feet or higher, but everybody is different. If a person isn't comfortable at that height, they shouldn't be there. If they're shaking and constantly reaching for a tree limb, that's when accidents happen."

Which makes this height-conscious author feel a lot better about my belief that feet planted on good old terra firma is as good a vantage place as any from which to hunt.

Kathryn A. Kahler hunts and crafts features from Madison.

Take these steps to a safe climb
  • Always use a fall arrest system/full body harness that distributes your weight throughout your shoulders, chest, waist and legs.
  • When climbing a ladder, maintain three points of contact at all times – one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot.
  • With a companion, practice using your harness and tether at ground level to experience what it feels like to hang suspended.
  • Maintain a short tether with no slack when sitting. The tether should be fastened to the tree at eye level or above.
  • Never climb with anything on your back or in your hand. Use a haul line to raise and lower an unloaded firearm, bow, backpack or treestand that you are in the process of hanging.
  • Inspect all equipment – sectional ladders, climbing aids, chains, cables, straps, all types of stands and full-body harnesses – for signs of wear or weather before climbing.
  • Never support your weight with a tree limb. It can break.
  • Never use wood steps attached to the tree with nails or spikes. They can rust causing the step to twist or come loose. Check local laws, hunting regulations and landowner preferences before screwing steps into a tree.
  • Use all safety devices provided by the manufacturer according to their instructions.
  • Always carry an emergency signaling device – two-way radio, cell phone, whistle, flashlight or signaling mirror – on your person and within reach at all times.
  • Always let someone know your hunting plans before you leave home, or leave them on the dashboard of your vehicle. Be specific about the location of your treestand, when you plan to return and who is with you.
  • When selecting a tree for your stand, pick one that is straight, healthy and without a lot of lower branches. Never select one that is dead, leaning, diseased or has loose bark.
  • Never climb a stand if you are feeling ill, sleepy, dizzy or nauseated, or after using alcohol or drugs. If you start to feel sleepy while in your stand, move your arms rapidly until you feel alert.
  • Know your physical limitations and don’t take chances by climbing higher than your comfort level. Take your time and never hurry.
  • Remove your treestand at the end of the season to avoid damage from weather.
  • Don't use a treestand during inclement weather such as rain, lightning, windstorms or icy conditions.

Note: Only portable treestands may be used when hunting public property in Wisconsin, and they must be removed at the end of each day. Be sure to check hunting regulations on the property you will be hunting before installing a portable stand.

Treestand safety course online

Learn the basics of treestand safety from the comfort of your home, at your convenience. "It's free, fun and the information could save your life," says Tim Lawhern, DNR's hunter education administrator. Go to Treestand Safety Course.