Treestand falls are the No. 1 danger you face in the deer woods, and statistics show the more you hunt, the likelier you are to take a tumble
Scott Bestul was looking forward to an evening hunt in southern Minnesota. It was a 25-degree November afternoon with snow on the ground, and Bestul — a 40-year veteran of the deer woods and longtime whitetails columnist for Field & Stream — knew it was likely to be a good sit. As he snuck to his stand, he even saw a cruising buck ahead, slinking through the timber.
He made it to the base of his tree, readied his gear, and clipped the tether of his safety harness to the Prusik knot on his homemade safety line. Then he climbed, sliding the knot up the rope as he went. He stepped onto the platform of his stand and unfolded the seat, which was supported by a pair of cables. But when he sat down to pull his bow up, there was a violent, jarring sensation. The support cables on the seat broke, and Bestul fell right off the platform. The safety line and Prusik knot caught him and kept him from hitting the ground below. Suspended in the air, he fought his way back onto the ladder, caught his breath, and safely made his way back to the ground.
It wasn't even clear to me what happened until I was hanging there, Bestul says. The cables broke on that seat and I fell. You couldn't begin to imagine how fast it happens. It's a millisecond. One minute the world is under control and the next, you're hanging there.
Treestand falls are No. 1 source of hunting-related injuries and deaths in the U.S. — far more common than things like gunshot wounds. And the more time you spend in a tree, the likelier you are to fall. In fact, a Wisconsin study showed that avid bowhunters have a risk exposure 4.5 times higher than gun hunters, due simply to the length of the season and the number of days archers spend afield. And particularly avid hunters — the guys and gals who hunt bow seasons and gun seasons alike — have a 1-in-20 chance of being injured from a treestand fall.
"You couldn't begin to imagine how fast it happens. It's a millisecond."
Including Bestul, who fell last fall, I now personally have three close buddies who've fallen from a stand but were saved by their safety equipment. All are die-hard hunters with decades of experience. Kerry Wix — a pro photographer and videographer for brands like Realtree, Benelli, and Drake — fell a few years ago. He was out with his son, Atley, to move a double lock-on set that they'd hung for filming in Tennessee.
I was in one stand and had just unhooked the other stand from the tree and lowered it to the ground, Wix says. Atley was down there unhooking stuff from the rope when I lowered it. I turned around in the other stand, to step over onto the climbing sticks and take it off the tree, and bam — I was hanging there.
The crimps on the stand's support cables failed simultaneously, and the platform swung right out from under Wix's feet. He was wearing a harness and clipped to a Hunter Safety System LifeLine, which caught him — though he says the experience still sucked.
Dude, I was bruised and beaten all over, and Atley was on the ground screaming. But it obviously could've been worse. What if I'd fallen out, broken my neck, and died right there in front of my son? You can't believe how fast it happens, until it happens to you. The knot on that line — I'll never forget it — was so tight you couldn't move it.
When I started deer hunting 28 years ago, the standard safety equipment, if it was used at all, was literally a safety belt that went around my waist and the tree trunk. If I hunted a lock-on stand, I put it on once I got into the tree.
Now, knowing what I know, I'd as soon let my own son sleep with water moccasins as allow him to hunt like that. Four-point safety harnesses have gotten way better, and they're standard equipment for most hunters these days.
Safety lines like the Hunter Safety System LifeLine aren't as standard, but I think they're at least as important. Based on rock climbing equipment and a sliding, locking knot developed by an Austrian climber named Karl Prusik in 1931, these lines allow you to be constantly connected to a support rope, from the time you leave the ground to the time you settle into the tree. Statistically, most falls happen while climbing into and out of stands. You can make your own lines — Bestul does — but I'd as soon buy commercial ones that I know for a fact are assembled correctly.
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Speaking of statistics, lock-on stands have the highest rate of accidents, followed by climbing stands. Probably no surprise there to anyone who's hunted much out of those types of stands. But you can fall out of a ladder stand, too. That's what happened to Bestul. And last October, it happened to me, too.
I was at camp by myself one afternoon, and I had a short ladder stand — the cheap 18-footer type from Wal-Mart — that I wanted to hang over a new food plot just behind camp. My plan was for it to be a quick and easy gun stand a short distance from the back porch.
Normally, I don't hang ladder stands unless there's a buddy along, but this one was light enough for me to move around — and besides, I could see the back porch of camp from the tree. I figured I could manage, just this once, and so I leaned the stand up against the tree, secured the support brace with ratchets, and started to climb.
Now, I hang a bunch of treestands in a year's time. Between outfitting here in Kentucky and traveling to other states to chase whitetails, I'd guess I hang 25 sets a fall, give or take, and as all my hunting buddies can attest, I'm normally chief of the safety police when it comes to treestands.
I should've known better than to do something stupid, like try to set a ladder stand alone, but it was just that one time.
I don't know what made me climb down and grab an old LifeLine from the UTV bed, because until this past fall, I'd never put a LifeLine on a ladder stand. But this time I did. I looped it over my shoulder, climbed the ladder, ratcheted the stand platform tight against the tree, and then looped the LifeLine around the trunk. Once I clipped into the Prusik knot, I settled into the stand to see what shooting lanes needed trimming. I immediately noticed a limb, under the platform but protruding, right in the way.
I stepped back out onto the ladder, opened the saw blade on my Leatherman, and started cutting. Had you asked me if the limb were under tension from the stand, I'd have said of course not — I'd never be so stupid as to cut a limb like that. But cut it I did, and when it popped, so did the stand. It twisted around the trunk and out from under my feet. I remember the ping of my Leatherman hitting the bottom rung as it fell. I swung off the ladder, slammed against the tree trunk, and flailed to get my footing, suspended by the LifeLine I'd hung not five minutes earlier.
It scared me, and embarrassed me as much as anything. This is what you do for a living, and that was as rookie as it gets, I thought to myself, once I worked my way back to the ground.
I suppose that attitude is exactly where that 1-in-20 statistic comes from. No matter our experience, we can all make mistakes — and gravity doesn't forgive.
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Safety Without Exception
From that day on, I've put 30-foot reflective LifeLines in every stand that I set, lock on or ladder, and I don't let my family, buddies, or paying clients get into one of my stands unless they know how to clip up and use the line correctly. LifeLines are a little pricey at $43 each, but that's easy to budget for if you consider the cost of medical bills and lawsuits.
When I was younger, I hunted without harnesses of any sort, and I fell out of stands on two other occasions, Bestul says. I'm sincerely lucky I didn't spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair — but I know other hunters who have, after falling out of a tree. Paralyzed for life. Talk to them and ask if they would've spent the $50 on a lifeline, if they could go back and do it again.
TIPS FOR USE
The HSS LifeLine is the best-known safety line, and I particularly like the reflective models. But there are other safety lines sold based on the same design, and they all work. Some treestand manufacturers (Millennium comes to mind) include safety lines with a harness with their new stands, and I personally think that ought to be required equipment for every new treestand sold. Here are some tips for using your safety line correctly.
1. Maintain It
Safety lines are pretty weather resistant, but they don't last forever. I pull mine at the end of every deer season and keep them in dark, dry storage. The line that caught me in my ladder stand fall was near 10 years old — but it's best to replace them more often than that.
2. Use a Lineman's Belt
You have to climb the tree before installing the LifeLine, and the safest way to do that is to use a large lineman's belt in conjunction with your safety harness. Most new harnesses come with one, and you should wear it as you're ascending the tree and installing climbing sticks or screw-in steps.
3. Keep the LifeLine High
The higher above you the Prusik knot is, the shorter distance you'll fall when the time comes (and if you hunt enough, it's probably coming). Make it a practice to keep the knot just over head-high, whether you're climbing or waiting on a deer.
4. Put the Line on the Step Side
After a fall, you have to get down out of the tree. When you're installing your LifeLine, keep it on the side of the tree with your climbing sticks or ladder.
5. Secure It at the Bottom
The Prusik knot on a LifeLine only slides up if the line is taut. When I hang a new set, I drop the tag end of the line to the ground, clip in, and finish the set. Then I climb down and secure the LifeLine to my bottom step, where it's out of the leaves and mud. I like to leave a few inches of slack (up to a foot or more on a ladder stand), so I'm afforded a little freedom of movement while climbing, but the line will be just tight enough that I can put my left hand under the knot and slide it up as I climb.
6. Get Extra Carabiners
Most safety lines come with one carabiner. I like to leave D-loops at every stand in the woods, but I always have a spare clipped to my hunting pack, too, just in case. Put a drop of oil on carabiners to prevent rust in the threads and springs.
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