The landmark Deer & Deer Hunting tree-stand safety surveys found that about 49 percent of all tree stand falls began from the stand, including 20 percent that occurred while the hunter entered or left the stand; 29 percent occurred while the hunter ascended the tree; and 22 percent occurred while the hunter descended the tree.
In addition, the Center for Disease Control found that the average stand was placed 16 feet above the ground. Our survey put the average at 16.55 feet. Bottom line: Although ours wasn’t a scientific study, we think the survey provides reasonably accurate data that will prove enlightening to all deer hunters.
It’s nearly impossible to precisely state how many of North America’s approximately 11 million deer hunters hunt from tree stands. But if our previous marketing research is any indication, almost 87 percent of them, or 9.47 million, hunt at least occasionally from a tree or elevated device. Alarmingly, our tree stand survey found that more than one in three hunters who use tree stands or other elevated devices will some day fall from their trees or the stands themselves, and about 3 percent of those who fall will suffer permanently crippling injuries.
Our survey wasn’t capable of documenting how many falls end in death. For obvious reasons, only survivors could fill it out. Likewise, state-by-state records on fatal falls from tree stands are incomplete and inconsistent.
If the above numbers are accurate, we can make these projections: Of the 9.47 million hunters who use tree stands or other elevated devices, about 3.5 million will eventually fall. Of those, about 105,000 will be permanently crippled. In other words, out of 100 hunters who use tree stands or other elevated devices, one will eventually be crippled.
However, it’s important to note that those numbers are based on past and current data, which hunters can make irrelevant if they take safety more seriously. No doubt, many falls and resulting injuries would be prevented or reduced if all hunters used safety belts and followed manufacturers’ instructions to the letter.
Unfortunately, even though almost half of the hunters in our survey report they always wear a safety belt while in the stand, only about 20 percent ever wear them when they’re most likely to fall ascending, descending, or entering or leaving the stand. Worse, only 7 percent of the respondents always use a safety belt or harness while ascending or descending; and 66 percent never wear a safety device when ascending or descending.
We couldn’t begin to guess how many articles appear each year in magazines and newspapers that rehash tips on tree-stand safety. Nor could we tell you how many times editors of these publications are chewed out by sharp-eyed readers who find a supposed safety hazard in one of the publications’ photos or articles. Despite all this attention and awareness, hunters continually refuse to “buckle up” when hunting above the ground. In fact, our survey found that about 4.5 percent of the respondents weren’t concerned about tree stand safety, even though 99.5 percent of the respondents hunt above the ground at least occasionally.
Our guess is that experienced hunters quickly tire of reading articles that force-feed them the same safety tips. Therefore, we thought they needed new food for thought, some fresh information that comes straight from their fellow hunters. While we don’t believe it’s possible to ‘scare people straight” – as was attempted in the old educational movies on social diseases or drunken driving – we do think the survey shows tree-stand accidents can happen to anyone. The victims in our survey ranged from youths who were first-year hunters, to veteran construction workers who spend their careers working high above the ground. The victims also included well known hunters such as Greg Miller of Bloomer, Wis. Miller has taken two falls, one when a tree step popped out, and the other when an aspen branch broke as he used it for a step. He suffered only minor injuries in the 10- and 12-foot falls, but one tumble momentarily scared him into thinking he was paralyzed. Miller candidly admits to carelessness, the first step in realizing we’re all vulnerable.
In most cases, the victims walked away with just a few scratches, bruises, strained ligaments or broken fingernails. In other cases, they suffered permanent injuries that eventually cost them their jobs, businesses, marriages and/or mobility.
When we compiled this survey, we also hoped it would provide some clear-cut evidence on what style of tree stands are safest. Unfortunately, our survey demonstrated that tree stand tumbles result from an infinite variety of factors, and each style of stand presents its own set of variables. For instance, while ladder stands are often considered the safest and easiest to use, several readers reported falling after one side of the ladder sunk into the ground as they ascended or descended. Obviously, that isn’t a problem with climbing stands, but self-climbers can sometimes slip down the tree, something that normally doesn’t happen with pin-on or hang-on portable stands. But with hang-on stands, hunters run the risk of slipping on or breaking a branch or screw-in step that helps them reach the stand, or falling while installing the stand. And with permanent stands, any number of slips, missteps or structural failures can send hunters plunging.
While today’s stands feature practical designs and sophisticated technology that make them inherently safer than their predecessors, sportsmen often fall before or after they hunt from the stand; or they ignore, bypass or alter the stand’s safety features.
One thing the survey was not designed to do is provide a consumer evaluation of all the commercial stands now available. Just because some hunters fall while using a stand made by a certain manufacturer doesn’t necessarily mean it is inherently dangerous or of lower quality than a competitor’s.
Based on the survey’s responses, though, we can say the early pioneers in portable tree stands don’t measure up to today’s standards. Time and again the 1970s-vintage models were cited for slips and structural failures. We don’t think it was just coincidence. We believe today’s major tree stand manufacturers are producing the best, most reliable stands ever. If nothing else, a fear of lawsuits and rising insurance costs spurred major improvements in the engineering and production of tree stands. Companies that didn’t adapt were driven from the marketplace. And while almost all of today’s manufacturers were named at least once by a victim, they collectively didn’t receive nearly as many black marks as companies that saw their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Further, certain combinations of stands, trees and weather conditions made some situations inherently more unsafe than others. When reading the surveys, we quickly learned to fill in the blanks or finish the story when reading such opening lines as, “While adjusting my portable stand in an aspen tree after a rainstorm…” or, “While ascending a young hickory tree with my (1970s-vintage) climbing stand…. or, “After settling into a permanent stand I had never hunted before…”
In short, you’re asking for trouble when you combine slick bark with rain and poorly designed home-made or old-style commercial stands, or you rely on a stand that’s been in the woods indefinitely. These combinations can be cripplers, even killers.
While we could begin to predict some conditions that prove consistently unsafe, we did not look into some of the human factors, such as the hunter’s weight, agility, coordination and strength. All hunters must evaluate these things for themselves, and hunt stands and situations that address their limitations. If they don’t, they might be accidents waiting to happen.
We were amazed to see there is no apparent shortage of causes for tree stand tumbles. Some would be comical if they weren’t so tragic. Take, for example, this account from Buck Kline, 36, from Virginia. Kline was building a stand at the time.
“My pants were baggy and kept slipping down,” Kline wrote. “I tried to pull them up with one hand and tried to assemble the stand with the other. It doesn’t work very well. When I tried to climb higher, I couldn’t fully extend my leg to reach one of the steps, and I fell 10 feet.” Kline broke his collar bone in that fall, and now has difficulty doing such things as throwing a ball.
Another reader said our survey didn’t begin to consider all the possible ways to get hurt in a stand. Mark S. Ludescher of Michigan wrote: “I feel at least one other area should be considered: location. My tree stand is a permanent fixture in the Michigan North Woods. Great care was taken in the design, construction, material and safety it would afford. … I learned about the location of tree stands the hard way. A dead tree from the swamp fell into my stand. The only thing that remained was where I was sitting. My bow was resting on my lap as I watched the swamp. After the tree hit, my bow was broken, and my arrow and rattling antlers were missing. I got out as fast as I could. The failing tree missed me by inches. I will rebuild, modify and again use the stand this fall. I will also chain-saw every dead tree within 100 yards of my stand.”
Rest assured, Mark, if we ever do another survey on tree stands, we’ll be sure to ask about unprovoked attacks from trees! Seriously, though, Ludescher raises an important point: Hunters must be totally aware of their surroundings. Still, we think he would be safe if he spared dead trees more than 30 yards from his stand.
So, what causes falls? The survey broke down the origin of falls into five categories: Ascending to or with the stand, entering the stand, in the stand, departing the stand, or descending from or with the stand. Our survey found that less than one-third of the falls, 29 percent, began when the victim was actually hunting from the stand. Almost a full 20 percent of the falls occurred while hunters entered or left their stands. Further, almost 29 percent of the falls occurred while hunters ascended the tree, and another 22 percent occurred while descending.
Contrary to what many people believe, the leading cause of tree stand tumbles isn’t falling asleep while in the stand. Only 4 percent of the survey victims fell because they dozed off.
Still, it happens. Just ask Larry Roemeling of Minnesota, who wrote: “This has now happened twice to me. The first time … I fell asleep and awoke as I was falling. Talk about scared! I did not know what to do besides throw the bow away from me so I didn’t get any arrows stuck in me when I landed. I received cuts on my face from hitting branches on the way down. I now own a safety belt and use it.”
Or consider this note from 12-year-old Chris Sullivan of Alabama: “I was in my stand and fell asleep, and then just fell. It hurt me pretty bad. I broke one hand and seven of my fingers. I was 11 when I fell. I can’t use my left hand much anymore.”
Other hunters who fell asleep in their stands didn’t get a chance to learn from their mistake.
Larry Lucas of Kentucky wrote: “It was 8 o’clock in the morning when I fell asleep in my stand. I fell and landed on my head and shoulders, breaking my neck and severing my spinal cord. I laid for 12 hours till I was found. I still hunt by means of a six-wheeled ATV and a stand specially made for handicapped hunters.”
What were the leading causes of falls? The single-most common reason was a structural failure of some sort on the stand, ladder or tree steps. In all, 23 percent of the tumbles resulted from rotted wood; loose nails; nails pulling through boards; or broken bands, bolts, ropes or attaching chains. Other leading causes were tree branches that broke, slipping blades or bands on climbing stands — especially old-style climbers; and faulty or slippery climbing gear, such as climbing belts and spurs.
Structural failures were especially common in older stands, whether they were permanent or portable. Commercially built stands from the 1970s and early 1980s were cited often. Neil Strandberg, a hunter safety instructor in Wisconsin, wrote: “I was climbing a tree by the sit down/stand up method. I just barely got started when the steel band, which wraps around the tree, broke. I went off the lower stand backward and head first. My right shoulder took the main force of the fall, but I saw stars on impact. The steel band on the old seat climber must have had a stress crack.”
Commercially manufactured screw-in tree steps were also cited by several readers for breaking. In some cases, the victims took some responsibility for the breakage, admitting they had screwed in the steps at an improper angle, which didn’t allow the bottom of the step to anchor itself against the tree. But that wasn’t the case for Tony Naismith, a 275-pound Michigan hunter, who was 20 feet up a tree when a defective step snapped. The manufacturer has since changed to a wider, stronger step.
Naismith wrote: “I had one foot on my stand when the step snapped. I fell head first for six feet, but a screw-in step below dug into my pants and leg and held. I was hanging there upside down. Getting down from that position is a story in itself, but I made it.”
Then there’s Danny West of Illinois: ‘I was climbing into my tree with screw-in steps when one broke. I fell straight down and caught a lower step in the stomach. It didn’t penetrate, but it hurt like hell and left a bad bruise.”
More common problems with tree steps, however, occur when hunters use them on dead, rotting trees; screw them in at too steep of an angle, which doesn’t allow the screw-in portion to bite deeply into the tree; or leave them in place for months or years at a time, which tends to cause the surrounding wood to rot. All these reasons, of course, are tied to improper use of the steps.
Sometimes hunters might feel forced to use a dead tree because it offers the best possible stand site. But Ohne Raascb, a Wisconsin hunter, related that this can cause a lifelong scare, even if it only results in a 6-foot fall that leaves no serious injuries: “The only tree that would work was dead. I thought it would be OK, but as I was standing on the screw-in steps while putting up my stand, the step pulled out and I landed on my back.”
Paul Torre of New Jersey had a similar experience when one of his steps was screwed into a soft spot on a tree trunk: “The step pulled out when my full weight was on it,” Torre said. “Fortunately, I was only four feet off the ground when it happened. This taught me to be sure my steps are truly secured and well-tested. Check and double-check. I was lucky!”
Another reader, a K.W. from Wisconsin, fell 28 feet when one of his steps pulled out after the wood rotted away around it. He has since switched to ladder stands. Ladder stands are sometimes cited as the safest choice for most hunters, but even they have caused falls after a structural failure. The most common breakage occurred to the straps or chains that secure the top of the ladder stand to the tree. For example, Peter Wawryk of Rhode Island plunged to the ground shortly after standing up on his ladder stand to begin his descent. A link snapped on the manufacturer-supplied chain, causing the stand to slip sideways on the tree and pivot away from it. The stand was only two years old at the time. Wawryk wasn’t seriously hurt in his 10-foot fall, and he immediately replaced the twist-link chain with welded-link chain.
William Malkow of Wisconsin wasn’t so lucky. He was descending from his commercially made ladder stand when the plastic belt-buckle broke on the stand’s securing strap. The 52year-old hunter fell backward and crushed a vertebra. He now has difficulty walking any long distance, and he’s constantly in pain.
Malkow wrote: “Hunting the sport I loved so much is not much fun any more. The boys at the gun club have a different attitude about tree stand safety since I got hurt.”
Breaking chains and connecting bolts were commonly cited as the cause of falls with both homemade and commercially manufactured portable stands. Therefore, hunters should inspect these connecting devices each time before using the stand. Because stress points are fairly easy to identify, the inspection shouldn’t take long.
That isn’t the case with permanent stands and ladders, especially those made by someone else. Remember, permanent stands are not required to meet building codes or industry standards. At times, you might find a permanent stand built by a skilled craftsman. It might even be inspected and repaired regularly. More likely, though, the stand was built and maintained by a person with the carpentry skills of a fashion model and the inspection training of a slumlord.
Further, this person likely built the stand with wood that would be better used for kindling. Our survey continually turned up frightening incidents of structural failures in permanent steps and stands.
That’s probably no great surprise given wood’s tendency to rot and split, and a nail’s tendency to rust and break as they continually move and collect moisture in the elements.
We could fill a book with stories of rails, floors, steps and walls that gave way under a hunter’s weight. These comments from Philip J. Trapold II of Pennsylvania were typical: “After hunting on the ground, I decided to move to a nearby permanent stand that looked in good shape. I climbed in and got comfortable. After three hours of sitting in the rain, I decided to leave. As I placed my feet on the second step and my hands on the first step, I heard a loud crack, and the step in my hands let go from the tree. I was about 20 feet up. When I hit the ground, I heard another crack, which was my wrist snapping. I also broke my foot.”
Or consider these words from Phil Calbreth of North Carolina: “I climbed up to a stand in a tall pine. Upon stepping on the stand, it collapsed without warning. I fell about 18 feet, crushing the bones in my left ankle, and splitting the leg bone and fracturing the bones in my right ankle. If I had checked the stand more carefully, I would have seen its wood had rotted.”
Homemade portable stands whether hang-ons, climbing or ladder stands — also accounted for a wide variety of structural failures. One of the biggest risks of homemade portable stands is that builders often don’t know the strength ratings for materials they use. The survey revealed many cases where chains, bolts, S-links, cables and strap assemblies simply weren’t strong enough for the job.
James L. Rice of South Carolina wrote: “I used S-links, not realizing they weren’t strong enough. One bent, allowing the stand’s chain to slip. The stand fell sideways off the tree, dumping me 12 feet to the ground. I broke my right arm just above the wrist, and cut up my head.”
Then there is Missouri’s Curtis A. Mack, who wrote: “I had just finished fastening my-stand to a tree with a ratchet band. I had it secured and was trying it out. The stand was homemade, and it was the first portable I had ever used. I sat on my seat and bounced to see how secure it was. I then stood up. The next thing I knew, the fastener ratchet broke and I fell 10 feet. Luckily, I was not hurt.”
A Wisconsin reader had this story: “I was pulling up my bow when the cable holding my platform slipped through the cable clamps. The platform flipped down like a trap door, and I was on my way down before I could grab for anything. I broke my back and spent three weeks in the hospital.”
Other common structural failures occurred when hunters tried to “improve” their commercially made stands. Richard B. Laehn of Wisconsin, for instance, thought it took too long and caused too much noise when fastening the securing rope on his manufactured seat. He decided to add a metal hook to its loop end.
“I learned the hard way that the snap was made of a soft white metal, and 1 overestimated its strength under pressure,” Laehn wrote. “The snap broke and I fell forward 15 feet. I was heavily bruised, and I broke six ribs and my pelvis, and punctured one lung.”
After structural failures, the next leading cause of falls was slips and missteps. When combined, these miscues accounted for 24 percent of the falls. These type of accidents often involved some type of precipitation. As a whole, weather wasn’t cited as a cause or contributing factor in about two-thirds of the accidents. When it was cited, wind and cold temperatures accounted for only 12 percent of the accidents. Meanwhile, precipitation — rain, sleet, snow or ice — contributed to or caused nearly one-third of the falls. In many cases, readers told of mud-packed or rain-slicked boots sliding off tree branches, steps or platforms.
Dale Brooks, a 49-year-old bow hunter from Virginia, told the story of her fall: “After a thunderstorm, I was climbing up to my stand, which is made of salt-treated lumber that gets slick when wet. I was wearing rubbersoled boots, and put my foot on a slanted board to reach the top of the stand. My foot slipped, knocking me off balance. I landed on roots at the base of the tree, breaking my back and pelvis.” Brooks wore a body brace for five months, but she still returned to the woods and killed a doe that year.
And Andrew W. Hill of New Jersey fell 31 feet after slipping on wet bark while-, entering his stand. He had momentarily focused his attention on a deer, which likely contributed to his fall. The plunge collapsed one of Hill’s lungs, and caused internal bleeding in his kidneys and near his spleen. Hill now stays on the ground in foul weather, believing wet conditions are too hazardous for elevated stands.
Still other readers merely slipped, stumbled or lost their balance. Moisture wasn’t a factor. Jerry W. Bailey of Virginia wrote: “As I turned to come down my ladder stand, I lost my balance and fell 12 feet straight down, landing on my feet first and then my rear end. Being 6 feet tall and weighing 230 pounds, it was a severe jolt. I suffered a 50 percent compressed fracture of the No. I lumbar, and I was on medication for 2 1/2 years.”
Hunters who ascend a tree by climbing on its branches, or occasionally substituting a branch for a screw-in step, also suffered many falls. In most cases, the hunters thought the branches were solid and capable of supporting their weight. Unfortunately, many branches failed the actual test. Ron Geib Sr. of Maryland was departing his permanent stand at dusk one day when a limb broke under him. He wrote: “The first step out of my stand was a 2-inch diameter limb that broke off right at the tree trunk. I fell 12 feet, and my left foot hit a root on the surface. I broke the tibia and fibula, shattered my ankle, tore my Achilles’ tendon, and tore the nerve trunk to the bottom of my foot. After seven hours of surgery, I now have 14 pins and two steel plates in my foot and leg.”
As we saw in cases where the hunters’ feet slipped on their stands or steps, precipitation can create unsafe conditions. Wet trees and slick bark were continually cited when climbing stands slipped unexpectedly. Sometimes the stands went all the way to the ground, with or without the hunter, before stopping. Therefore, during or after rain, think twice before using your climbing stand. And don’t use it at all on smoothbarked trees such as aspens, and young maples and hickories, when they’re wet. This is also true of loose-barked trees, such as jack pine and mature hickories.
This story from Donald Spencer of North Carolina is fairly typical for this type of accident. The woods were wet when Spencer attached his hand climber and climbing seat to a hickory tree. le wrote: “Near the top of my climb, I stood up to raise the seat, and the foot platform slipped. Neither climbing device caught, and I fell all the way to the ground with the stand. I was in the seat when the foot platform hit bottom. I crushed two vertebrae and fractured my left knee. That ended my 1992 hunting, but I should be able to hunt this fall.”
Charlie Brown, a Virginia hunter related this story from a hunt in 1978: “I climbed a tree with a hand-climber and (foot platform), and then secured my safetv belt. I was settling in when the stand dropped like a trap door, and I was hanging 12 feet in the air. The hand-climber then fell on my head and flattened my wire-rimmed glasses to my nose.”
Brown then explains what contributed to his bad experience: “I got down and recovered my breath, reset the stand to the proper size of the tree. and climbed back up.” With climbing stands, it’s imperative that all adjustments are properly made, and that weather conditions and the tree itself are suitable.
Tim Shirley of Alabama drives home those points in discussing his fall with a climbing stand: “I searched the edge of clearcut for an adequate tree to climb, but couldn’t find one that was straight. So, I climbed one that had a 20-degree angle about halfway up. This tree also had very hard bark. Soon after, it began raining. When I started my descent, my stand slipped and I fell for eight feet before it caught. Unfortunately, I continued through the stand and became wedged between the stand and the tree.”
Although some hunters would have blamed the weather, the tree or the stand for the mishap, Shirley blamed himself, saying he misused the stand.
Another problem, especially with the older climbing stands, is that the hunter’s weight must be perfectly distributed to keep adequate pressure on the climbing device. In recent years, manufacturers have greatly improved the contact points on their stands, and engineered platforms that naturally keep the hunter’s weight better distributed. This causes the stands to lock up more tightly and securely on the tree.
Douglas Tinker of Georgia relates his experience: “I was climbing the tree with my stand, hugging it without using a hand climber. About 10 feet up, one of the climber’s blades didn’t bite into the tree. When I let go of the tree to rise up, the stand turned loose and fell. I was trying to grab the tree to stop my fall, and I cut, skinned and bruised my arms, legs, chest and hands. After falling eight feet, the stand caught on the tree and I pitched over backward, which left me hanging upside down with one leg in the foot holder and one hanging. I was still two feet from the ground. I had to pull myself up, get my left leg out of the stand, and drop to the ground. This very easily could have been my last hunt.”
As you can see, it’s tough to single out one or two primary reasons for falls. After hunters leave the ground, almost anything can happen to bring them crashing back to earth. As a result, we simply can’t say, “If we eliminate this problem or that device, or if we use elevated stands only under specific circumstances, we’ll eliminate a guaranteed percentage of accidents.” For example, even though it plays a relatively significant role in some accidents, weather wasn’t a factor in two-thirds of the mishaps. Further, pre-dawn or twilight darkness apparently wasn’t an overriding factor, either. More than 70 percent of the accidents occurred in full daylight. It’s also unlikely that we could ever get everyone to agree on the safest style of stand. Again, the survey demonstrated that while one style might have some advantages over another, it also has at least one risk peculiar to its design.
Granted, when certain styles of stands are used in specific circumstances, they create situations inherently more dangerous than others. Still, we must accept that our safety ultimately rests with us. The most important factor in staying safe is knowing that tree stand accidents can happen anywhere at any time to anyone under any circumstance. Therefore, because it’s difficult to totally eliminate all the root causes of accidents, we must take the next step: Always use a strong, well-designed safety belt. Many good belts are now available that allow you security the entire time you’re off the ground. You might still be one of the unlucky hunters who takes a fall, but if you’re wearing a good safety belt, your tumble will end inches from where it started.
Tree Stand Survey Results
What is your age? Average, 41 years old.
What was your age at the time of your fall? Average, 34 years old
When hunting from a stand, do you use: Permanent stands, 56.5 % Homemade portable stands, 47 % Commercially made portable stands, 80 % (Many hunters use all three types of stands)
If you were in the stand at the time you fell, what kind of stand was it? Commercially made portable stand, 37 % Permanent stand, 26 % Homemade portable stand, 19 % Other (Hunting from tree limb, semi-permanent stands, etc.) 18 %
How many portable tree stands do you use? One stand, 21 % Two stands, 23 % Three stands, 17 % Four stands, 10 % Five or more stands, 22 % None, 6.5 %
If you own commercially manufactured stands, did they come with instructions for assembly and use? Yes, 81 % No, 9 % Some did, some didn’t, 10 %
If instructions were included were they: Thorough and easy to understand, 46 % Adequate, 44 % Confusing, 3 %
How do you reach your stand? Commercially manufactured steps, 52 % Self-climbing devices/other methods, 30.5 % Homemade steps, 28 % Homemade ladder, 27 % Climb the tree by using branches, 23.5 % Commercially made ladder, 19 % Other (Ladder stands, climbing spurs, shinning, etc.), 18 %
How concerned are you with elevated-stand safety? Very concerned, 68 % Somewhat concerned, 28 % Not concerned, 4.5 %
What time was it when you fell? Afternoon, 41 % Morning, 30 % Dusk, 18 % Pre-dawn, 12 %
What weather factors contributed to your fall? Weather was not a factor, 66 % Rain, 17 % Cold temperatures, 9 % Snow, 5.5 % Wind, 3 % Other (Ice, sleet, etc.), 16 %