I am indebted to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the International Hunter Education Association USA for the data used in this essay
I have long inveighed against the use of treestands in hunting; I consider them a singularly dangerous source of injury and death in hunting, and while I'm not advocating a ban on them, I do think that anyone who chooses to use one is taking unreasonable risks for no significant gain.
My state of Virginia keeps statistics on hunting accidents. Since 1992 the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has kept specific records of treestand accidents in addition to firearms ones. I contacted the DWR and asked for any data they could provide: in return I received a 132-page PDF document summarizing all accidents between 1997 and 2021. I went through it to compile some information that is, I believe, strongly in support of my feelings about treestands. I'm working on getting information on the years prior to 1997, and in time will update these numbers.
Between 1997 and 2021 there were 1072 incidents reported to the DWR. Of these 335 (31.2%) involved treestands. Of those 1072 incidents, 91 were fatal, with treestand-related fatalities comprising 29 of these, i.e., 31.8% of all deaths. I've included in my summary those incidents in which the hunter was hauling a loaded gun up into the stand (or lowering it from the stand) and it went off, killing him. The DWR lists these as firearms fatalities, but I've included them because had there not been a treestand involved, they wouldn't have happened.
There were 62 firearms fatalities out of 91. That means that of the 737 firearms incidents, there was a fatality rate of 8.4%. The death rate for treestand falls (29/335) is 8.6%. So the death rates for treestands vs firearms are pretty much the same; it can be argued that they are equally dangerous based on these numbers.
Most treestand incidents—by far the greatest number—were falls. There were falls from heights ranging from 4 feet (that one producing a broken ankle!) to as much as 46 feet. Most of those who fell were getting into or out of stands; many of them simply shifted their weight in the stand, lost balance, and fell. According to the data I have, one or two actually admitted to being drunk, and one fell asleep. Needless to say, no one who fell was using a proper fall-arresting harness, with one exception: that individual used his harness and when he fell, he managed to get the strap around his neck, hanging himself.
In many cases the stand itself was "at fault," in that it failed in some way. Many, but not all, were home-made stands, but as the graph at right from the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation shows, any type of stand can fail. Even brand new commercially-manufactured stands break: cables snap, bolts fall out or shear off, and down comes the hunter. A brand new stand, fresh out of the box, used by an experienced hunter who may well have used treestands for years, can be defective. There's no way to predict if this will happen. Undoubtedly it's rare, but it may well be more common than we know.
Over and above the fatalities there was more or less 100% "morbidity" as the medical profession calls it: that is, injuries sustained that weren't necessarily fatal. 100% of falls resulted in some type of injury, usually a serious one. Broken bones, shattered lower limbs, internal injuries leading to bleeding, fractured pelvises, skull fractures, broken ribs, punctured lungs, damage to faces and ears, eye injuries, you name it. If it could be injured in a fall, it was injured. To repeat: ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of the time even in non-fatal falls, there were injuries. Of those 335 treestand incidents, 306 produced injuries severe enough to require medical care, most of them sending the victim to a hospital and incurring large expenses for medical care.
A search of Google Scholar will turn up any number of references in peer-reviewed journals discussing the kinds of accidents that happen with treestands. I have summarized just a few of them here. For those interested in a couple of specific papers, I've included a retrospective study done in 2014 by a research team at the University of Rochester's Department of Neurosurgery; and one from the University of Cologne in Germany published in 2011. These are peer-reviewed papers; there are many more in the literature, far too many to list here.
Not all falls are reported: there are many, many more falls than we know about, for sure. I would venture to guess (and it's just a guess) that not one in ten is ever brought to the notice of the authorities. It's only when someone ends up in an emergency room or the morgue that they get noticed. If the fall results in only in a few bruises and a loss of dignity, no one ever hears about it. A study by the State of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation in 2017-18 has reached the same conclusion. In that period, fully half of the treestand falls reported to the DEC were fatal.
So Virginia's 335 reported falls and 29 fatalities can be regarded—to use a cliché—as the "tip of the iceberg." In the data accessible to me there were three incidents in which someone was paralyzed for life: as it happens I know one of those individuals very well. He is a surgeon whose injury left him with—luckily—the ability to use his arms, but not to stand up, to walk, or to move around without a motorized wheelchair. He had half a second's bad luck and perhaps the poor judgment to be reaching for something, that changed his life forever in the time it took him to hit the ground from 20 feet up. He spent seven hours lying on the ground, knowing full well what had happened to him, before he was found.
Here is the kicker: EVERY ONE of these treestand incidents was completely avoidable. NONE of them had to happen. There isn't much anyone can do to avoid getting shot by some yahoo 50 yards away who doesn't look to see what's behind his target: blaze orange and common-sense caution are the only real defenses against that sort of thing. But when it comes to treestand falls and fatalities, ALL of them can be avoided.
The truth is this: if you never go up in a treestand you will never fall out of one. If you never use a treestand you don't have to worry about being severely injured or killed in a treestand accident.
We in Hunter Ed preach about "safe treestand use," but the truth is that there is no such thing. NO treestand is 100% guaranteed to be safe. As noted above even brand new manufactured stands from reputable makers can fail. In one of the fatal incidents described, the hunter's fall harness failed after his stand did. While it's certainly sensible to use fall arresting gear that isn't infallible either.
Now, If we could eliminate 32% of highway traffic deaths, wouldn't we do it? If we could eliminate 32% of drug overdose deaths, wouldn't we do it? If we could eliminate 32% of deaths from any cause, wouldn't we do it? Of course we would.
So: is it ethically justifiable to counsel Hunter Ed students to use treestands "safely"? Why do we defend the use of a product that is responsible (directly or indirectly) for nearly a third of total deaths in the hunting field? Why do we not point out to HE students that in terms of death percentages in all hunting accidents, the risk of death is one-half what it might be if they don't use treestands and that the risk of serious injuries is reduced to near zero? But in Hunter Ed we continue to tell the students, "Wear a harness, be sure your stand is in good condition, always be attached to the tree," etc., etc. when what we SHOULD be telling them is "Don't use a treestand and your chances of dying in the field go down by half."
I once got into trouble with the DWR's Hunter Ed program for pointing out these home truths: now I refuse do the "treestand safety" part of the course because I believe it's wrong to tell students that there's such a thing as a "safe" treestand.
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