Safe In A Deer Tree Stand

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Bowhunter in Lost Camo
A safety harness will not get in the way of any movements you need to make when it comes time to shoot. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost camo.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” a deer hunter said to himself as daylight broke on the first morning of his first guided bowhunt in Virginia.

This deer hunter should have been full of anticipation and excitement. He should have been envisioning a trophy buck chasing a doe within spitting distance of his tree stand at any second. Instead, he was scared to death.

If a trophy buck did show up, he was going to have a free pass because there was no way he was going to move a muscle, let alone stand up and draw his bow. The slightest shift in his weight to the right or left caused the hanging tree stand he was in to cant several inches in that direction.

As best as he could tell, the platform was resting on a limb and the chain attaching the deer tree stand to the tree wasn’t taut. Sitting perfectly still was the only way he could keep the tree stand from moving. True, he didn’t have a whole lot of bowhunting experience at that time, but even with his limited knowledge he was pretty sure there was no way to draw a bow without moving.

So he climbed down, sat on the ground and saw nothing. When the hunting guide picked him up for lunch, his instructions to him for the afternoon deer hunt were simple – Don’t put me in that tree stand again.

“I’ve hunted with a lot of hunting outfitters in a lot of places, and one thing that always amazes me is the lack of attention to safety when they hang their tree stands,” said Jim Barta, vice president of Hunter Safety Systems. “And it’s not just hunting outfitters. A lot of hunters are the same way with their own tree stands.”

fixed position tree stand
A hunter prepares to climb a ladder to a fixed-position tree stand while his safety harness is attached to a lifeline. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Good statistics on tree stand accidents are hard to find, but many state wildlife agencies claim that one in three tree stand hunters will fall at some time during their hunting careers. The falls might be caused by hunting equipment failure, hunters losing their balance or a host of other reasons. Regardless of how a hunter falls, 82 percent of those injured are found not to be wearing any type of fall restraint device, according to the Treestand Manufacturers Association.

Such was the case for Maryland bowhunter Joseph Philip Adams, 46, on Sept. 20, 2008. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported Adams was not wearing a safety harness while deer hunting from his tree stand in Anne Arundel County. Adams fell approximately 15 feet to the ground during the hunt.

A friend heard Adams call for help and the friend called 911 after finding Adams lying on the ground, unresponsive, DNR officials reported. Adams was transported to the Anne Arundel Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

In 2008, Project STAND was launched by the National Bowhunter Education Foundation (NBEF) with support from the hunting industry, state, and federal wildlife agencies, medical organizations and first responders. The goal of the project is simply to reduce tree stand accidents and deaths by educating the public about tree stand safety and the proper use of tree stands.

It’s a much-needed initiative, especially in light of the data gathered by a team of doctors at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., for a study entitled “Falls From Tree Stands While Deer Hunting in Pennsylvania, 1987-2001.” The study reported 280 hunters were injured in falls from tree stands in the state during that period – six of whom died. (The study noted there was incomplete information on the use of safety restraints in these incidents). Only hunters who received care from trauma centers across the state were counted for the study. It’s possible – and highly likely other hunters fell and either did not seek medical care or received it somewhere other than a trauma center.

The overall injury rate for the period was 1.9 per 100,000 hunters. But the annual rate of falls resulting in injuries grew from a low of .7 per 100,000 in 1987 to 4.8 per 100,000 in 2001. So injury accidents appear to be on the rise. And Project STAND officials don’t think that’s a trend unique to Pennsylvania.

“There’s a preponderance of tree stand usage all over the country right now and it appears that the number of incidents is growing,” said Marilyn Bentz, NBEF’s executive director.

Bentz blamed most tree stand accidents on the “bullet-proof mentality.”

“It’s the hunters who think, ‘I don’t need to wear a safety harness,’ or ‘I don’t need to read the instructions for this deer tree stand,’ who often times end up getting hurt,” she said. “They think accidents won’t happen to them.”

tree stand safety harness
A hunter attaches his tree stand safety harness to a tree tether before using his climbing stand. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Project STAND offers a training course, which teaches hunter education instructors about the safe and proper use of the various types of tree stands – ladder stands, hang-on tree stands and climbing stands. As of February, nearly 300 people had completed the course.

“It’s a train the trainer program,” said Bentz, who is a Project STAND instructor. “Then the students can take what they’ve learned and plug it into their own hunter education classes.”

With nearly 1 million new tree stands being sold every year, Bentz said it’s time hunter-education classes include a component about tree stand safety.

“Hunters started taking to the trees in the 1970s,” she said. “But there weren’t a whole lot of tree stand manufacturers around until the explosion in the mid 1990s. Since 2000, the cost of tree stands has gone down and it’s now common for one hunter to own five or six stands.”

Craig Dougherty, a Quality Deer Management Association national board member who helped create Project STAND, said he wants hunters to respect tree stands the way they respect firearms.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s been stressed enough that these things are dangerous,” he said. “That doesn’t mean hunters should be afraid of tree stands, but they should respect them and understand the risks involved with climbing 20 feet up a tree. If they do that, I think we’ll see more of them taking tree stand safety seriously.”

Everyone in the tree stand business agrees the first step to being safe in a stand is wearing a full-body tree stand safety harness. Simply put, you can’t hit the ground if you’re attached to the tree. Convincing every hunter to take that first step, however, is a challenge, Barta said.

“It’s a lot like wearing a seat belt in your car,” he said. “The seat belts were always there, but nobody wore them until it was the law because they felt constricted and uncomfortable. The law got them accustomed to wearing seat belts, and now people don’t feel comfortable unless they are wearing it.”

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