Learn more about the National Bowhunter Education Foundation's Project Stand to prevent tree stand falls at projectstand.net/.
Stand up for safety
Take tree stands seriously from the start.
Hunting from heights provides great benefits including increasing your field of vision. But with those benefits, comes serious risks. In fact, one in every three hunters who hunts from a tree stand will fall at some point in their hunting career. Of those falls, 75 to 80 percent will occur while ascending or descending the tree.
An International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) study found that nationally 300 to 500 hunters are killed annually in tree stand accidents and another 6,000 will have tree stand–related injuries from not being harnessed properly including suspension trauma when the pressure of hanging motionless in leg straps can pool blood in the legs, limiting circulation, depriving organs of oxygen and leading to unconsciousness followed by death.
An article in the winter 2012 edition of the Hunter & Shooting Sports Education Journal explains that 80 percent of tree stand accident victims will require surgery, 60 percent will have fractures, 30 percent will have spinal fractures and 10 percent will have permanent disabilities or paralysis.
Last year, Wisconsin had two fatal tree stand falls, according to Jon King, DNR's hunter education administrator.
The good news, though, is that tree stand accidents are preventable.
"I see hunters spend a lot of money on a bow or gun, but then they don't want to spend money on tree stand safety gear," opines Bill Wright, a longtime Wisconsin hunter education instructor. "So, I ask them, ‘What is your life worth to you?' And I tell them that tree stand safety is just as important as firearm safety."
Wright often hears from hunter education students who say they know someone who is paralyzed from a tree stand accident. Yet, these accidents don't garner much media attention since most states, including Wisconsin, don't track them as hunting accidents unless they involve a weapon discharge.
Tree stand safety has evolved as new research and statistics have become available. What were once considered "safe" tree stand safety practices 15 years ago are simply not considered safe today.
Wright was a member of the North Bristol Sportsmen's Club, which produced one of the first tree stand safety videos in the early 1990s. Today, tree stand safety factors prominently into his hunter education classes and he brings along a duffle bag to illustrate his point. As he unpacks the contents of his bag, he meticulously explains the role of the vest and each strap and carabiner. He recites every step in the process for properly hooking up the gear and the order in which that should occur. He demonstrates the climbing moves, both up and down the tree. He reminds hunters to inspect their own gear to make sure that it — like them — is in shape.
Supplies for safety
Wright wants hunters to invest in safety, meaning that they take the time to learn how to be safe and they purchase the gear necessary, including a full–body harness, also known as a fall–arrest system (FAS) that is manufactured to Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA) standards.
"A harness will keep you in the stand if you slip or fall," Wright explains. "But you have to wear the harness for it to work."
According to TMA, 82 percent of hunters who fall from tree stands do so because they are not wearing full–body harnesses.
Never use single-strap belts or chest harnesses. Attach your FAS to the tree while at ground level and keep it attached throughout your hunt from the time you leave the ground and climb up until the time you get back down.
When climbing in and out of a tree stand, Wright recommends the following equipment:
There are four basic tree stand types:
Always inspect stands that are left up all year for dry rot and watch for rust on the mechanisms that secure the stand to the tree. Check the straps — animals may have chewed on them. Pull on the stand and move it around and see how much it moves. Inspect the seat and foot stand and make sure the nuts and bolts are tight.
If you are letting a friend use your tree stand, make sure they know how to use it and that they are safe.
And never hurry. While climbing with a tree stand, make slow, even movements of no more than 10 to 12 inches at a time. Make sure you have proper contact with the tree and/or tree stand every time you move. On ladder-type stands, that means maintaining three points of contact with each step — either two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand at all times. Keep a firm hold on the climbing system as you enter or leave a platform and don't let go until you're sure that you are secure.
Before the day of your hunt, consider the area that you will hunt and inspect the tree you plan to use. The tree should be healthy and strong. Never select a diseased or leaning tree. The tree should be substantial enough to support your weight and that of your stand. Never support your weight with a tree limb as it can break.
The day of the hunt, make sure to let someone else know where you are hunting (be specific), where you'll be parking and what time you intend to return. If possible, hunt with others. Carry a cell phone with you so that you can call for help if needed. Check the weather forecast and be prepared. Know that you are likely to be climbing into your stand when it is still dark or foggy. You may encounter slippery conditions such as snow or ice.
Fatigue is another consideration. "When you sit in the cold for hours," Wright says, "your muscles might not work the same as you would normally expect."
Hunting from a tree stand is not like riding a bike, Wright contends. Refresh yourself before you go out and practice the skills needed to maneuver in a tree stand before using it.
Natasha Kassulke is editor-in-chief of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.