How Knot to Fall – #1 Hunting Tip

Prusik Knot – The Prusik knot is an elegant and economical way to protect yourself from the ground to your tree stand and back again.
  • 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

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.

Harness – Inexpensive safety harnesses like the one on the left will stop a fall, but they might not help you much after that. The Rescue One CDS harness, shown on the right, not only protects you in the air, it provides a safe way to the ground.

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.

Give Up Wooden Tree Stands!

A True Story of Survival

Using a haul rope to bring gear up and down from your tree stand keeps your hands free for climbing and reduces the likelihood of a fall.

Dave Reid of New Bloomfield had been in his tree stand for about three hours on opening day of the November deer season. He was stiff from sitting as still as possible, so he allowed himself the luxury of a stretch.

“I stood up, and the stand just went out from under me,” he recalls.

The plastic covering of one of his stand’s mounting cables was old, and the cable had slipped out of its clamp.

“There I was, 20 feet off the ground,” said Reid. “If I hadn’t been wearing a safety harness, I could have been killed.”

Bob Legler of West Plains wasn’t so lucky when he took a day of vacation to celebrate his 55th birthday. It was November 16, the peak of the rut, and Legler climbed into a wooden deer stand on his home property, hoping for a birthday supper of venison loin. The wooden tree stand was swaying noticeably in the wind, but he didn’t think much about that.

Everything fell into place around mid-day. He dropped a fat doe with one well-placed shot and savored the moment with a steaming cup of coffee. The temperature at dawn had been around 20 degrees and the hot drink helped chase away the morning chill.

A careful hunter, Legler lowered his rifle and backpack to the ground with a rope before climbing down to tag and field dress his deer. Adrenalin surged when the first 2X4 handhold he grasped as he left his stand gave way as he put weight on it. He grabbed at another piece of lumber nailed to the tree, but it too broke free, plunging Legler 20 feet to the ground. He landed on his back.

“At impact, I felt a sensation in my legs like an electrical current pulsing through them,” he recalls. “The pain was intense, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I knew I was hurt bad. I was alone, half a mile from home. No phone.”

Legler lay on the ground for several minutes trying to catch his breath. He prayed. After a while, he noticed that he could move his toes. That answered one of his prayers. He rolled onto his stomach, which triggered a wave of pain. He tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, only to find that the fall had broken his left arm and wrist. He rolled back onto his back and checked his wristwatch. It was 11:30 a.m.

Legler’s friends and family had considerately stayed out of the woods so he could have them all to himself. It would be hours before help arrived. He tried repeatedly to rise, but excruciating pain stopped him each time. Finally understood that his back was broken, and attempts to move risked severing his spine. He lay back down, tried shouting for help, but his weak voice was swallowed up by the blustery wind.

Knowing that hypothermia was an imminent danger, he used his good arm to scoop dry leaves around his body for insulation. He prayed, recited scripture and sang hymns to bolster his spirit. Then the shivering began. First in his legs. Then in his abdomen and finally in his chest. Legler came to terms with the very real possibility that he would die before help arrived. But he was spared, his wife and son found him around 7:30 p.m.

In the emergency room, doctors determined that Legler had shattered his first lumbar vertebra, an injury that often results in paralysis of the legs. But Legler’s luck held. After surgery and six months of physical therapy, he walked again and regained most of the use of his left arm.

Examination of the faulty tree stand revealed that the deck screws Legler used to anchor lumber across two tree trunks had snapped under stress. The screws had less tensile strength than common nails. However, even stout nails might have loosened or broken after years of exposure to weather and stress from two swaying trees.

Reid and Legler’s cautionary tales are especially important this time of year. Archery season opens in just a few days, and gun seasons aren’t far behind. The Missouri Department of Conservation doesn’t maintain records of tree-stand accidents, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they far outnumber firearms-related deaths and injuries. Here are some important tips for using tree stands safely.

  • Don’t hunt from wooden tree stands. They are involved in a disproportionate number of accidents.
  • Use commercially made tree stands only if they are approved by the Tree Stand Manufacturers Association.
  • Check all components of tree stands for rust, wear or deterioration before and during the hunting season.
  • Pay special attention to the tightness of nuts, bolts, cables and other hardware.
  • Always wear a safety harness when climbing to and from tree stands, as well as when on the stand. Most accidents occur when climbing up, down, into or out of stands. For a reliable, inexpensive climbing safety device, use a Prusik knot and safety rope.
  • Use only OSHA approved, full-body safety harnesses. Lesser devices can cause injury when falls occur or leave you suspended with no way to get back to the tree or down to the ground. Even worse, substandard harnesses can cut off circulation to extremities or impair breathing, leading to suffocation.
  • Keep yourself on a short leash. If you fall only three feet, you are traveling at more than 25 feet per second. The impact when your safety tether snaps tight at this speed can break bones.
  • Use a haul rope to bring guns, bows or other gear to the stand and lower them after hunting. This keeps both hands free for climbing.
  • When using climbing stands, secure them to the tree with a safety chain.
  • Leave your stand if you get sleepy or if it starts to rain, sleet or snow, or when the tree begins to sway in the wind.
  • Use a rope and harness while hanging stands. Practice at ground level before starting.
  • Carry survival gear, including food, water, signal whistle, space blanket and, where practical, a cell phone in your pack, just in case something goes wrong.
  • When hunting alone, always leave word with someone about where you will be and when you expect to return.

Using tree stands safely isn’t hard, and the alternative is too grim to contemplate. I can’t think of a more appropriate topic for the old saying, “Better safe than sorry.”