- Tree Stand Safety
- Prusik Knot
Many hunters don’t know that accidental falls from tree stands – not firearms-related injuries – are the most frequent cause of deer hunting-related injuries.
Until fairly recently, hunters who used tree stands simply accepted this risk as inherent to their sport. Few took measures to prevent falls and those who did had few options. You could tie yourself to a tree or use one of the commercially made safety belts. Both of these options were likely to cause as much harm as no restraint at all.
The situation is much better today. Virtually every commercial tree stand now comes with a safety harness. Some are better than others, but none of them are very good. The best harnesses on the market today are approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You can get one of these at a professional tool store or from an online forestry supply company such as www.baileysonline.com.
If you fall from your stand and your harness stops your fall, you still aren’t out of the woods, however. Inexpensive safety harnesses can cut off circulation to your arms and legs, rendering you helpless in minutes. If you are rescued, blood clots that form when blood pools in extremities can enter your bloodstream and kill you. Cheap harnesses also can restrict breathing, causing loss of consciousness and, eventually, death.
One way to avoid these outcomes is to position your tie-off point so it won’t suspend you beyond reach of hand-holds that enable you to climb back to your stand. Installing screw-in steps on the tree trunk is one solution. Another is keeping a length of nylon cord in your pocket, enabling you to lasso a branch or ladder rung and pull yourself into a better position.
Even with such measures, however, many hunters simply are not physically fit enough to climb to safety. To the rescue comes the Rescue One CDS. This product combines a safety harness with a controlled descent system that allows users to lower themselves to the ground safely. This is a one-time investment in safety. You don’t have to install one in every tree stand, and it will last for years.
The Rescue One CDS has a few drawbacks. The biggest one right now is availability. The hunting version currently is out of production. If you can’t find one on EBay or Craig’s List, you will have to wait until 2017 to buy one. The manufacturer, Elevated Safety Systems (ESS), sells an industrial version. It can lower you 43 feet, twice as much as deer hunters need.
There were ergonomic drawbacks, with the original version of the Rescue One. The harness was bulky on your back, where it stores cord for the controlled descent system. This made sitting in a tree stand less comfortable. ESS says they are replacing the original cord with a thinner but stronger line, which dramatically reduces bulk while maintaining safety.
A bigger drawback is the fact that the activation cord for the controlled-descent system is inside the right shoulder strap, exactly where most hunters mount a rifle or crossbow stock. I’ve killed several deer wearing the Rescue One CDS, but the added bulk on the right shoulder makes gun handling awkward, especially if you aren’t shooting from a rest. ESS might offer the harness in a left-hand configuration, which would be excellent.
There are plenty of other, OSHA-approved safety vests on the market. Many are heavier than you would want to lug into the woods, but they will keep you safer than the ones that tree-stand makers supply to immunize themselves from lawsuits.
No harness, regardless how good, is worth a hoot if it isn’t attached to something. If this seems ridiculously obvious, consider that most falls from tree stands occur when climbing up to, into, out of or down from tree stands. If you are one of the few savvy hunters who clip onto a safety line before taking the first step up to your tree stand, go to the head of the class. Better yet, go out and shoot a deer.
If you are among the majority of hunters who are only protected while sitting in your stand, read on.
A friend of mine broke his back in a fall that occurred when he climbed down to tag a deer he had just shot. He was lucky and survived to hunt another day, but now he never climbs into a tree stand without first connecting his harness to a fall-arrest system. He uses a system that has a retractable, 25-foot safety strap. You tie the retractor above your tree stand and use a cord to pull the safety strap to ground level and hook up before each climb. The retractor reels in the safety strap as you climb up and lets it out as you climb down. If your rate of descent accelerates – as in a fall – an inertial clutch – like those in seat belts – locks up, stopping the fall. The system protects you from ground to stand and back again.
I bought two of these systems – one for each of my tree stands. I left them out year-round, because if I took them down, I would risk falling when I brought them in each winter and when I put them back up the following fall. Eventually, I began to worry about their reliability. After all, they had been out in all sorts of weather for years. So I finally took them down. I was glad I had. The mechanisms might have been fine, but sun and the elements had visibly degraded the nylon straps that held the devices in place. And since any mechanism is bound to deteriorate with age, I decided to retire them.
That is when I discovered the Prusik knot. The knot is named for Karl Prusik, an Austrian mountaineer who is believed to have invented it. It is extremely simple to tie and equally effective at preventing falls. Also known as the “cow hitch,” the Prusik knot is made by tying together the ends of a short length of flexible rope to form a loop, then passing the knotted part around a heavier rope and through the loop three. Each turn should lie inside and close to the previous one. Video instructions available online illustrate the process nicely.
A Prusik knot slides easily up and down the safety rope as long as no weight is placed on the loop, where you attach your safety harness. Pull down on the loop, however, and the increased tension and friction cause it to lock tight, stopping a fall.
The Prusik knot – combined with an OSHA-approved harness – now is my preferred fall-restraint system. The necessary rope costs a fraction of what mechanical systems cost. This makes it affordable, even if you have a dozen tree stands. Inspecting the ropes for wear and tear is simple and easy, unlike mechanical systems, which are necessarily enclosed in a housing to protect them from the elements.
If you haven’t been using these safety devices, now is the time to get up to speed. No matter how much you love deer hunting, but you shouldn’t have to risk your life to do it.