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These days, many of us deer hunters are hunting from above. Hunting from above gives us several advantages, such as remaining above a deer's normal field of view, raising our scent above our prey's nose, and increasing our range of vision. Unfortunately, as the use of tree stands increases, so does the frequency of hunters falling from their perches. I find this disturbing, especially since hunting has long been one of the safest pastimes there is, so here are some thoughts on the subject, with the goal of making the woods a safer place for us all.
How to Use Tree Stands Safely:
I've been using both ladder-type stands and self-climbing stands regularly for more than twenty years, and I've never fallen from one.
I won't use a stand if it seems unsafe to me, because I know I won't enjoy my time in it, whether the stand turns out to be sturdy or not. I'm a very cautious guy, especially when I'm putting myself at risk. Risk is not a factor to be ignored - like it or not, every time a hunter climbs a stand, he or she is at risk. It only takes a short fall to break a neck.
In an informal survey on a hunting forum, a high percentage of those hunters responding who had fallen from trees were using hang-on type stands (small platforms that strap or chain to the tree, for the hunter to stand on) and tree steps. One hunter had a strap-on tree step come loose as he climbed. Another had a screw-in tree step (illegal on many public lands; check your regulations!) pull out of the tree as he climbed. Another used an old dead branch as a step, and it broke under his weight. Still another hunter, while using a hang-on platform chained to a tree, suddenly found himself on the ground; an S-hook had straightened out and down he went.
Tree steps, which many hunters use to get up and down trees, are something I've always disliked. I much prefer to be surrounded by something solid as I climb, and I can achieve this by using my climbing stand. A climbing harness can be used as one climbs the steps, but the thought of a step ripping into me during the short fall after a slip is not appealing.
I have never used any kind of hang-on stand; they just never looked safe to me, and I know I would feel very nervous getting in and out of one.
I imagine that there are safe ways of using tree steps and hang-on stands, but a large part of hunting is enjoying our time afield, so I'll only use what I'm comfortable with.
I prefer a climber that allows you to sit down when you're pulling up the bottom section. The bottom section needs to be as large as the top, so I can stand and move around when I get up there, and the top section must surround me, while not interfering with my ability to shoot my rifle or bow. My old homemade steel and aluminum climbing stand is fairly heavy, but it's safe and I'm used to it.
Some areas have ladder stands abound. Many folks set up wood or metal ladder stands, leave them in the woods all year, and seldom use them. I have also seen as many ladder stands that I wouldn't dare climb; sometimes they're old and starting to rot, poorly anchored to the tree, or just poorly designed. Whether I'm using a stand of my own or someone else's,
I always examine it closely before trusting myself to it. Look for metal fatigue, basic design flaws like steps nailed to the wrong side of the uprights (if they're nailed to the back, then isn't my weight acting to pull the nails out?), splitting wood, rotted wood, rust, etc. Also, take a look at how it's fastened to the tree; the rope may be chafed or rotten, or the bolts holding the chain to the stand may be ready to pull out or break.
I've been told that when using a safety harness while in the stand, bruises from these can be avoided by sliding the tether up the tree until it's almost tight when you sit down. This shortens your fall should you or the stand slip.
Finally, here's some of my basic safety pointers: Be more careful than you think you should be. Don't forget where you are, and how far you are from the ground. Don't use a stand that makes you uncomfortable or nervous in the least. Don't lean much when you're in the stand. Don't trust your life to fabric straps; rely on something solid - steel is wonderful, and I have also used BarkBiter straps with success. Even when using steel, make sure to eliminate weak links such as S-hooks or worn bolts. Don't climb higher than you're comfortable being, even if you think you're too low; hunting is about enjoyment, so why force it?
And here's my final safety tip: Never, ever, ever, fall out of a tree; always make sure you control all body-to-ground contact ;-)