• Nelson Sigelman

Hunters at Risk from Tree Stand Falls

Updated: Oct 8, 2019


A Chilmark buck is captured on a trail camera.

The much anticipated Island deer archery season began Monday, October 7. The start of hunting season brings the promise of venison for the family freezer and exciting hours spent in the woods. For many frustrated Derby fishermen, it’s a welcome opportunity to put down the rod and pick up the bow.

So you’ve spent days preparing gear and putting up tree stands. Now it’s time to hunt.

Are you ready? If you said “yes,” but you don’t have a safety line connected to your tree stand then you are not really ready — you’re at great risk of serious injury or death.

According to Newton's law of gravity, a hunter wrapped in a set of high-tech scent-minimizing camouflage clothing that costs several hundred dollars, who is not wearing a safety harness, falls from a tree stand at about the same speed as his new bow, shotgun, or black powder rifle.

Most tree stand injuries are easily preventable through the use of a safety harness and safety line, experts say. In that regard, hunters have a lot in common with fishermen. Like a PFD (personal floatation device), it must be worn if it is going to do its job.

Numerous studies and published reports reveal that falls account for the majority of hunter injuries and deaths. They do not tell a pretty picture.

Fall and break a leg and you might consider yourself lucky to have escaped a spinal injury, paralysis, or death. But landing on the ground may only be the beginning of an injured hunter's ordeal

In some cases, hunters lay injured and unable to move for long hours, often overnight, until a friend or relative found them. The lucky ones recovered.

According to Wisconsin researchers, spinal injuries account for more than half of the injuries that occur to hunters after falling from a tree stand.

A review of University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics' trauma database for tree stand-related injuries from 1999 to 2013 showed 55 percent resulted in one or more spinal injuries, according to the report.

Hunters are most at risk when entering and exiting the tree stand, researchers concluded.

A tree stand allows a hunter to get off the ground. That is a valuable advantage when attempting to overcome the deer's exceptional senses of smell, hearing, and vision and get close enough for a shot. But studies show that climbing up pegs or ladder steps 15 or 20, 25 feet up a tree and stepping onto a small metal platform carries inherent risks — and the more times you do it, and the older you get, the more the odds of a fall increase.

Hunters think little of spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a new bow or gun. A good safety vest and safety line costs under $150, but it is often the most overlooked piece of equipment.

The Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA) recommends hunters wear a full-body safety harness that supports the legs and torso. There are a number of products on the market that are easy to put on without the hopeless entanglements of cheaper products. The best are designed with breakaway stitches that prevent a sudden, jarring stop.

Hunter Safety Systems (HSS) in Alabama manufactures a variety of hunter safety vests that sell for between $100 and $160. The company has an interesting history.

The owners are John and Jerry Wydner and lifelong friend Jim Barta. All three have hunted since they were kids.

The idea for the company originated during a typical deer hunt in 2000 when John's tree stand went crashing to the rocks below, and he clung to the tree for his life. Out of that experience a multi-million dollar company was born.


This image from the HSS website shows a hunter clipping into a safety line before he climbs into his tree stand.

HSS products include a "Life Line" that addresses the fact that most falls occur when a hunter is climbing into or out of his stand. It utilizes the "Prussic knot," also known as a friction knot, that mountaineers and tree professionals use when climbing.

A carabiner-equipped Prussic knot is attached to a 30-foot section of rope. The hunter attaches his safety vest tether to the carabiner and slides the knot up the rope as he climbs. If there is a fall the Prussic cinches up against the main climbing line.

I equipped all my tree stands with lifelines. I consider it a very good investment. For my friends who work with their hands, consider how tough it would be to earn a living in a cast.

Tree stand safety tips also include: never rely on tree branches for steps; always use a rope to raise and lower all gear; check tree stand straps and connections annually; and let someone know your whereabouts and when you expect to return from hunting.


Ounce of Prevention

Dead ticks litter a sheet placed under a doe in my shed.

One other important safety reminder concerns precautions you can take to prevent tick-borne diseases. I and many of my friends now spray down our hunting and tracking clothing with permethrin.

I get it in a spray bottle. It kills ticks and lasts for multiple washings (not that any of my friends would have to be concerned with that).

When the weather is cool I hang deer in my shed. As the deer’s body cools the ticks begin to drop off.

I place an old shower curtain or cheap plastic drop cloth that I have sprayed with permethrin under the deer. The ticks die before they can crawl away — I take some pleasure in seeing that.

Stay safe.

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