There’s no orange that can fix this.
For decades, hunters have worn bright orange clothes into the woods each fall, to make themselves visible to others. That’s helped eliminate accidental shootings.
Across Pennsylvania in 2016, for example, there were just 25. That’s the second-lowest total ever.
None were fatal, only the second time that’s been true in more than 100 years.
Increasingly, though, there’s a new, greater, danger out there.
In many states, falls from tree stands have taken over as the No. 1 danger for hunters, said Andy Hueser, hunter education administrator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“Tree stand falls are often underestimated,” he said. “Oftentimes, we don’t take a serious look at our safety when climbing into elevated tree stands.
“We often don’t realize how much risk we put ourselves in when we do that.”
That’s apparently plenty. According to a 2015 report by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, there were an estimated 4,000 tree stand fall accidents nationwide in 2015.
That got the attention of the hunting industry.
That same year, at the Archery Trade Association’s annual convention, the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation formed. Its goal is to make sure hunters think safety when climbing trees.
There’s room for improvement there, it noted, referencing those 2015 fall statistics.
“While this number is small compared to the millions of deer hunters nationwide, it still leaves significant room for improvement,” it said in a statement.
There are no shortage of tree stands for sale in retail stores.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
There’s other research showing how dangerous tree stands can be.
Hueser referenced three: one done in Ohio, another in Pennsylvania, the third and most recent in Wisconsin.
Interestingly, he noted, it’s been emergency room doctors and not state wildlife agencies looking closest at the trend.
“And that’s because they’re identified it as a public health risk,” Hueser said.
The Ohio study, centered around Columbus, looked at all hunting accidents between 1998 and 2007. There were 130 patients with hunting-related injuries.
Hueser said 29 percent suffered gunshot wounds. But 46 percent were injured falling from a tree stand.
Many were hurt seriously, too.
Of those who crashed to earth, 59 percent had spinal fractures, 81 percent required surgery and 8 percent suffered permanent neurological damage.
“Sometimes (injuries from falls) can be much more severe than a gunshot wound to an extremity,” he said.
The Pennsylvania study, meanwhile, looked at accidents between 1987 and 2006. It included only those suffered by hunters 12 or older, either in deer season or on the day before it opened.
It found 499 people with injuries. Seven died.
That, though, is likely an underestimate, Hueser said. The study counted as fatalities only those people who were taken to a hospital and later passed away.
Hunters who fell from a stand and died on scene weren’t counted.
“Remember, as shocking as this data may be, it is at best an underestimate or a very conservative estimate of the falls occurring in the state,” Hueser said.
The height at which hunters put their tree stands in part determined how badly they were hurt. The study found that falls from stands 17 feet or less above ground were most survivable. Those 24 feet up or higher involved most deaths.
“So when you’re out there, think about that. That seven foot difference, should you fall, could really be the difference between life and death,” Hueser said.
Even those who survive a fall generally suffer a long while before getting help, the study noted. The average time it took from injury to an emergency room was 4.2 hours.
As for the Wisconsin survey, it looked at hunters between 2009 and 2013. It measured tree stand use by type and the wearing of safety harnesses. Its goal was to calculate the probability of falls.
Hang-on stands are the most dangerous, it said, involved in 33 percent of archery season accidents and 44 percent of firearms season accidents.
Ladder stands, climbing stands and “other” types were, in order, the next most dangerous for archers, while for gun hunters it was climbing stands, ladder stands and “other.”
The study offered two real takaways, though, Hueser said.
First, it calculated that lifelong, “avid” hunters – defined loosely as those who buy a license every year and hunt with both a bow and gun – who use tree stands have a one in 20 chance of falling in their lifetime.
“If you think about that, those are incredibly high odds for falling out of a tree stand,” Hueser said.
Second, it showed that hunters are partly to blame for their own troubles. The majority of stand hunters, it found, don’t always wear a safety harness when up in a tree.
“They own them. They are aware that they should wear them. They use them sometimes,” Hueser said.
“But they don’t always wear them.”
Hunter education courses in Pennsylvania have, since 1999, stressed tree stand safety, he noted. But the typical hunter involved in a fall is 45.
They come from a generation that was in the woods before safety messages started going out. As a result, Hueser said, they’re not always hearing or heeding safety advice.
That, he said, has to change.
Tree stand accidents surpassed gunshot wounds as the No. 1 danger for hunters sometime between 2004 and 2006, he said, though no one realized it at the time.
Now, though, they do. It’s time for hunters to act accordingly.
“Encourage your friends, family, if you’re a member of a sportsmen’s club, make sure you’re practicing safe tree stand use and harness use. And make sure you get the word out there,” he said.
Tree stands and safety
There’s no denying how much more popular tree stands are today than they were even a couple of decades ago. Many, many hunters use them.
That’s unlikely to change..
So, with the fall hunting seasons fast approaching, the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation designated September is national tree stand safety awareness month.
It offered three baseline safety tips for hunters.
- First, always remove and inspect your equipment before climbing.
- Second, always buckle on your safety harness.
- Third, always connect that harness to a tree before leaving the ground.
“By performing these three simple steps, tree stand users can virtually eliminate their risk of falling to the ground, as the majority of falls occur outside the stand,” it said.
The Treestand Manufacturer’s Association, meanwhile, has a number of safety tips and videos on its website, along with a free online tree stand safety course. It’s worth checking out.