The real story of life and death in the deer woods is that hunters are still falling from tree stands and dying. They don’t have to.
By Jacob Edson
On opening day of bow season 2008, my life almost changed forever … or ended. Luckily for me and my family, it was instead simply the day I changed the way I deer hunt. What happened that beautiful fall afternoon was something that one in three white-tailed deer hunters experiences. I was luckier than many.
A Day Like Many
The afternoon started like so many other blue-sky fall days. The temperature had dropped a few degrees and was forecast to continue falling into evening. Deer & Deer Hunting magazine Editor in Chief Daniel E. Schmidt and I decided to duck out of the office early to try a deer lease we had been monitoring. I would serve as cameraman, hopefully capturing Schmidt’s hunt for D&DH TV.
Schmidt and I reached the lease, checked the wind, and quickly decided to hunt a double-hung set on the far side of the property. We misted our boots and equipment with Scent Shield spray and then snuck along an old logging trail toward the stands. It was our first time hunting the property for the year, and our excitement was at an all-time high.
Upon reaching the stand, Schmidt and I again sprayed down and then donned our ScentBlocker suits and safety harnesses.
I would climb the tree first, using the first stand at about 20 feet to access the tree steps to the camera stand an additional 5 feet up the maple. I quickly shimmied up the tree and climbed into the lower stand. I had never hunted the set before. It had been hung by a friend. I took a second to survey the clover plot in front of the set, then I turned toward the camera stand. As I climbed from the final tree step to the stand platform, I was already thinking about reaching in my pocket for my safety harness tree strap. That was the last second of normalcy to our afternoon.
Without warning, the stand platform dropped beneath me like a trap door. As I plummeted 25 feet toward the ground, I had time for one thought: ‘There’s nothing you can do — go limp.’
My right foot struck first, and I let it buckle upward as I rolled to the right. Underneath me, the rotten log I landed on exploded.
At first, there wasn’t much pain. I was jarred by the impact, but I quickly popped up to my feet. I was shocked that everything worked.
Then I looked at Schmidt. He was white, slack-jawed with eyes blank and bulging.
“I, I thought that was a limb,” He stammered. “Then I saw it was you.”
His eyes focused on mine. “I thought you were dead.”
Schmidt and I examined the rotten log and decided it had likely saved my life. We also examined the stand (which was still hanging in place by one strap) from the ground. It appeared as though the ratchet strap that had held the top of the stand against the tree had broken or slipped free, allowing the stand — which had been in place since the previous year — to tip down and forward. Neither of us was brave enough to climb the tree again to inspect it.
Although I quickly started to develop a bruise on my aching thigh and Schmidt was almost too shaken to hunt, I convinced him we should stay the evening at our backup location.
When we reached that stand, I climbed the tree with shaking knees. But I also did it correctly: I used my lineman’s climbing belt to keep my safety harness connected to the tree the entire time my feet were not touching the ground.
In 1993, Deer & Deer Hunting magazine published a first-of-its-kind survey on tree-stand safety. Among it’s many important findings, the survey revealed that 37 percent of deer hunters are likely to fall while climbing or hunting from a tree. The survey earned D&DH a prestigious “Industry Award” from the Hunter Education Association. In 1999, the magazine followed up with a second survey.
The 1999 survey showed some improvement. Still, nearly 32 percent of respondents had fallen from a tree at some point in their lives. The number of hunters who reported “usually, or always” wearing safety restraints in their tree stands increased from 66.3 percent in 1993 to 78.4 percent in 1999. Yet, the fall rate barely dropped. Why?
According to the survey, in 1993, not quite 30 percent of falls occurred while the hunter was on the stand. By 1999, only 15 percent of falls occurred while the hunter was on stand. The study confirmed hunters are twice as likely to fall while they are ascending or descending. In fact, the 1999 survey revealed that most falls occurred while hunters are climbing up, 20.7 percent; or descending, 20.5 percent.
Further, 13 percent fell while installing a stand, 5.8 percent fell while getting into the stand, and 8.7 percent fell while leaving the stand. Many surveyed hunters commented that it was not always convenient or practical to stay fastened onto something while climbing or descending.
D&DH’s studies were ground-breaking, and they helped bring about many shifts in the tree stand and safety harness industry, including the formation of the Treestand Manufacturers Association.
Today, the TMA enforces strict guidelines among its members that include shipping all stands with mandatory fall arrest systems/full-body harness devices and educational brochures and DVDs on safe climbing and hunting. Commercial stands and harnesses are also subject to strict product testing, and certification is performed by designated independent testing firms.
Have Falls Decreased?
More recent studies have shown mixed results according to the National Bowhunting Education Foundation. A 2002 study by Responsive Management showed a 9 percent fall rate in North Carolina. Yet, in Vermont that same year 57 percent of respondents reported falling at some point.
In 2007, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources surveyed bow-hunters who hunted during a special limited entry hunt at the Camp Ripley military installation. Of these dedicated bow-hunters, 11 percent reported they had fallen at some point. Most reported they do not climb attached to the tree, although 80 percent reported they are concerned with safety.
Reason for Concern
A study by Ohio State University Medical Center was published recently in the journal The American Surgeon. It confirmed that falls from tree stands — not shooting related accidents — are the leading cause of hunting-related injuries in Ohio that require Level 1 trauma center admission.
Critical care and trauma researchers sought to debunk the stereotype that most hunting injuries are gunshot wounds, typically associated with alcohol or drug use, and are accidentally self-inflicted or caused by a fellow hunter. Specifically, they wanted to identify the causes of hunting-related injuries and to characterize trauma-associated injury patterns.
“Observations and experience from working in a Level 1 trauma center led us to the hypothesis that in our geographic region, falls, not firearms, are responsible for a significant proportion of hunting-related injuries,” said Dr. Charles Cook, a trauma surgeon at Ohio State’s Medical Center and lead author of the study.
During a period of 10 years, Dr. Cook and other researchers in the division of critical care, trauma and burn at OSU Medical Center, analyzed trauma databases from two Level 1 trauma centers in Ohio and identified 130 patients who suffered hunting-related injuries. Fifty percent of injuries resulted from falls and 92 percent of the falls were from tree stands — whereas 29 percent of the injuries were attributed to gunshot wounds.
The level of severity for tree stand falls was high, with 59 percent of the victims suffering fractures. Surgery was required for 81 percent of fall-related injuries and 8.2 percent of the victims suffered permanent neurological damage.
The researchers also concluded that individual stands are probably not the root cause; the problem stemmed from the hunter’s themselves.
“We’ve been asking the patients we treat from hunting accidents if they were wearing a safety harness and the majority of them that have fallen, at least from a significant height, were not,” Dr. Cook said.
The researchers indicated hunter education regarding proper and safe use of tree stands is critical to decreasing the incidence of hunting-related injuries.
The Technology Exists
When I fell, I had the means to prevent it with me — a safety harness and climbing belt.
Yes, the tree stand failed — but only when I used it incorrectly. The stand should have been retrieved following the previous season, and re-hung that fall after a thorough inspection. Even failing that, had I simply retrieved the lineman’s belt from my pocket before leaving the ground, I would have prevented the fall.
Today, the equipment exists to prevent nearly every single tree stand fall. Full body harnesses, such as those supplied with modern tree stands, or the new ultra-easy-to-use Tree Spider, are the first line of defense. Old style safety belts that were worn around the waist or chest are no longer considered safe. If you have one, throw it out!
However, as D&DH’s surveys revealed more than a decade ago, just wearing the harness does not ensure safety. The harness must be connected to the tree to have any impact, and since the majority of falls occur while climbing or descending, the harness must be connected from the time you leave the ground to the time you return.
To do this, hunters can find two inexpensive, easy-to-use options: the lineman’s climbing belt and ascent/descent line.
The lineman’s climbing belt is a simple rope or strap that attaches to loops or buckles on each side of the full-body harness. Most, if not all, safety harness providers offer this attachment. It is meant to be wrapped around the tree and slid upward as you climb or downward as you descend. It’s simple to use, with the only drawback being it can get hung up on low branches. It might slow extremely quick climbers, but only by a matter of seconds.
An ascent/descent line is attached above the stand at the same height as the full-body harness’ supplied tree strap. It hangs down the tree next to the climbing ladder or steps. (It’s helpful to also attach the line at the base of the tree, but not necessary for safety.) The tether of the full-body harness is attached to the ascent/descent line using a carabineer and prusik knot, or a similar mechanical device that can slide up and down the line but catches in place with a sudden application of pressure. Ascent/descent lines are extremely easy to use, but it should be noted that a lineman’s belt is also needed because you must climb the tree at least once to attach the top of the ascent/decent line.
When combined with modern full-body harnesses and TMA certified stands, these two products make tree stand hunting almost as safe as hunting from the ground … almost.
Full-body harnesses keep you from hitting the ground if you fall. They are also designed to disperse the impact of the restraint, making them much less likely to cause internal injury than old-style belts. However, many hunters are unaware that a fall that is arrested by a harness can also be dangerous if the hunter is unable to soon return to the tree or ground.
The problem is called suspension trauma. It is caused by the body’s weight pushing down on the harness leg straps so hard that it stops the blood in your legs from returning to your heart. Up to half of your total blood volume can pool in your legs, causing a major loss in blood pressure. The problem is exponential, because as the heart senses the loss in volume, it increases its rate and pumps harder to try to keep the pressure up. This pushes even more blood into the legs. If you cannot relieve the constriction, your blood pressure will drop until you pass out. From there, your body will quickly run out of oxygen and you will die.
This information is not license to stop wearing full-body harnesses. Statistics show they do much more good than harm. Hunters should be connected to the tree from the time they leave the ground, until the time they get back down. However, they must also be prepared for a situation where they fall and become suspended in their harness.
The first step is to attach your harness tree strap up the tree as far as you can reach while standing on your stand. This will help ensure that if you do fall, you can still get back up onto your stand.
Second is to provide a means of either returning to your stand, the ground, or relieving the pressure on your legs.
The TMA now requires that a suspension relief strap (SRS) be available with each harness. This strap allows a suspended hunter to stand up in his harness even if he is unable to return to his feet. Standing on the SRS lessens the pressure of the leg straps and allows blood to begin circulating back up to the heart. For it to work correctly, the hunter must keep his legs moving.
Another option — and possibly the best — is to use a self-rescue device, such as the Tree Spider Livewire system. This one-fall-use system is attached at the tree strap and forms a bridge between the harness tether and the tree.
If the hunter falls, the Livewire pouch plays out a descent line, allowing the hunter to slowly return to the ground in a controlled descent. This is tree safety functioning at its highest level.
Tree stand safety has come a long way since the industry first began studying it in 1993. Groups such as TMA and NBEF have pushed manufacturers to make tree stands and tree stand hunting as safe as possible. Today’s safety products are better than ever before. The rest is up to the hunters who make life and death choices in the deer woods.
We must do our part to make tree stand safety a priority. We must make the decision to wear a TMA certified harness every time we hunt from an elevated stand. Further, we must connect that harness to the tree from the very second we leave the ground. Finally, we must prepare for a fall, so that we can return to the ground safely.
If we all take these steps, we can eliminate what has become the most dangerous part of a relatively safe pursuit.
Jacob Edson is managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting.
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