The start of deer hunting season brings Island hunters the promise of venison for the family freezer. It also carries the risk of death or serious injury to the hunter, not from an errant shot, but from a fall from a tree stand.
It would be easy to assume that most hunters are injured or killed from accidents involving weapons. But numerous studies and published reports reveal that falls account for the majority of hunter injuries.
The studies do not tell a pretty picture. Fall and break a leg and you might consider yourself lucky to have escaped a spinal injury, paralysis, or death. But landing on the ground may only be the beginning of an injured hunter’s ordeal
In many cases, hunters lay injured and unable to move for long hours, often overnight, until a friend or relative found them. The lucky ones recovered.
A tree stand allows a hunter to get off the ground. That is a valuable advantage when attempting to overcome the deer’s exceptional senses of smell, hearing, and vision and get close enough for a shot. But studies show that climbing up pegs or ladder steps 15 or 20, 25 feet up a tree and stepping onto a small metal platform carries inherent risks.
For example, falls from tree stands are the most-common cause of Ohio hunters’ injuries, according to a story published Sunday in The Columbus Dispatch.
The finding comes from a study of the 130 hunters treated at Ohio State University and Grant medical centers between 1998 and 2007.
“I think the traditional belief about hunting-related injuries is you get shot by a hunting buddy or your own weapon accidentally discharges,” Dr. Charles Cook, the OSU trauma surgeon who led the study, said.
The study found that half of injuries were from falls, and 29 percent were from gunshots. Falls from tree stands often resulted in spinal fractures or fractures in the lower body. Alcohol was involved in less than 3 percent of falls, and drugs in less than 5 percent.
The story described a recent incident in which a 64-year-old McConnelsville, Ohio farmer fell from his stand when his hand slipped against his homemade stand’s rain-slick wood. He broke his spine and seven ribs and shattered his femur at the hip.
The injured man, unable to move and without a cell phone or radio, stayed on his back in the rain through the night. Luckily, his daughter went searching and found him alive 21 hours after he fell.
Hunters think little of spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a new bow or gun. A good safety vest costs under $150, but it is often the most overlooked piece of equipment.
According to Newton’s law of gravity, a hunter wrapped in a set of high-tech scent-minimizing camouflage clothing that costs several hundred dollars, who is not wearing a safety harness, falls from a tree stand at about the same speed as his new bow, shotgun, or black powder rifle.
Most tree stand injuries are easily preventable through the use of a safety harness, experts say. In that regard, hunters have a lot in common with fishermen. Like a PFD (personal floatation device), a safety vest must be worn if it is going to do its job.
The Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA) recommends hunters wear a full-body safety harness that supports the legs and torso. There are a number of products on the market that are easy to put on without the hopeless entanglements of cheaper products. The best are designed with breakaway stitches that prevent a sudden, jarring stop.
I wear a Summit “Seat-O-The-Pants FastBack” harness that sells for about $100. It is light and very simple to put on.
Hunter Safety Systems (HSS) in Alabama manufactures a variety of hunter safety vests that sell for between $100 and $160. The company has an interesting history.
The owners are John and Jerry Wydner and lifelong friend Jim Barta. All three have hunted since they were kids.
The idea for the company originated during a typical deer hunt in 2000 when John’s tree stand went crashing to the rocks below, and he clung to the tree for his life. Out of that experience a multi-million dollar company was born.
The company’s website includes letters from fall survivors. Many are dramatic. Hunters may not be great spellers or grammarians but the repeated message is clear: Wear your safety vest.
HSS products include a “Life Line” that addresses the fact that most falls occur when a hunter is climbing into or out of his stand. It utilizes the “Prussic knot,” also known as a friction knot, that mountaineers and tree professionals use when climbing.
A carabiner-equipped Prussic knot is attached to a 30-foot section of rope. The hunter attaches his safety vest tether to the carabiner and slides the knot up the rope as he climbs. If there is a fall the Prussic cinches up against the main climbing line.
I equipped all my tree stands with my own lifelines. The Prussic is relatively easy to tie. The key is to use good line of unequal diameters for the knot and the line.
Tree stand safety tips include: never rely on tree branches for steps; always use a rope to raise and lower all gear; check tree stand straps and connections annually; and let someone know your whereabouts and when you expect to return from hunting.