When I took up deer hunting seriously about 20 years ago, I also took a serious interest in safety. It seemed sensible to buy a safety strap to avoid injury if I fell from a tree stand.
A few years later, however, experts concluded that so-called safety belts were just as bad in their own way as nothing at all. For one thing, if you fall more than a few inches, the shock of having your fall arrested by a strap around your middle was likely to cause serious spine or internal injury. If you avoided that fate, you were likely to find yourself hanging upside down and, if unable to right yourself, you would pass out and eventually die.
Conventional wisdom at that time was that you needed a chest harness, which would suspend you upright. However, this was no guarantee that you would be able to climb back into your stand. Many hunters lack the upper-body strength needed to hoist themselves back up by their safety tether. Furthermore, chest harnesses didn’t solve the problem of sudden-impact injuries sustained when a fast fall came to a faster halt.
Next came tear-away tether systems designed to slow falls gradually. But hunters still had to deal with the possibility of not being able to get back into their stands or down to the ground. Hanging in a chest harness proved to be not much better than hanging upside down. The pressure of the harness made breathing so difficult that hunters still passed out and died if they could not get up or down within a few minutes.
The next improvement was the full-body harness, which distributes weight evenly between the legs, waist and chest. That made breathing easier, but the longer you hang from a full-body harness, the greater the risk of clots forming in blood pooled in your extremities. Adding a weight-relief loop so hunters could use first one leg and then the other to “stand up” helped, but it still didn’t get them out of the midair predicament.
One problem with all these restraint systems was that they left hunters unprotected when they were climbing up to tree stands and back down again. Studies showed that this in-between time accounts for a disproportionate number of tree-stand falls.
Enter the fall-arrest system, a device that uses the same type of mechanism that retracts automobile seatbelts when they are not in use. You hook your safety harness to the fall-arrest system on the ground, and the mechanism takes up the slack in your safety strap as you climb up to the tree, while you are up there and when you climb back down. If you pull out an inch or two of strap very quickly – as in a fall – the mechanism locks up, halting your descent almost as soon as it starts.
These are very slick systems. I have one on each of the tree stands on my home property. But (there always seems to be a “but’), there is still a problem. You still can find yourself suspended in mid-air, unable to get up or down. If you hang there long enough, blood can pool in your legs, forming dangerous clots, and you may have trouble breathing.
The latest solution that I am aware of is a controlled descent system (CDS). Basically, it is a full-body harness with a climbing rope and carabiner system built into the shoulder straps. If you fall and can’t get back up on your stand or ladder, you pull a kind of ripcord that releases the rope. By releasing pressure on the caribiner a little at a time, you can lower yourself to the ground.
A fall-arrest system, coupled with a CDS, seems like the ultimate fix. However, I find myself waiting for the next “but” from safety gurus. And, while I have gone ahead and gotten myself a $200 CDS, I have to admit that hunting on the ground might be easier and less expensive, not to mention foolproof.
I am not sure how much tree stands help in shooting deer. A couple of weeks ago, I killed the biggest deer of my life with my fanny planted safely on terra firma. But like lots of hunters, I really like being 10 or 15 feet above ground, where visibility is better, and my shots will go harmlessly into the ground should I miss my target.
There is one upside to having bought several tree-stand restrain systems over the years. The harnesses and belts make terrific deer drags. Throw the strap across one shoulder and under the other, or put on a chest harness, tie the other end to the deer’s head, and you can walk back to the truck with hands free!