Deer Hunters: Use A Safety Harness!

The doe cocked her ears toward me and stared hard. There was something in the tree that wasn’t supposed to be there. I froze, avoided eye contact, and tried to melt into the grey bark behind me. I was 17 feet off the ground in my well-used Summit climbing tree stand. I’d hunted this tree dozens of times and killed so many deer from it we simply referred to it as “The Pete Tree”. I knew if I didn’t move and didn’t make eye contact, there was a better-than-good chance she wouldn’t believe her eyes and, as long as the wind didn’t betray me, she might relax and give me a chance to shoot.

My old Summit Bushmaster hunting stand is very similar to this.

It is a bit over a month into the archery deer season in southeastern Pennsylvania. To date, I hadn’t had much luck. I’d seen a few deer and actually could have easily shot a doe or two in the earliest parts of the season but I personally refuse to shoot does that are still accompanied by small fawns. Deer suffer from a bit of “failure to launch” syndrome and fawns will hang out with Mom long after they are old enough to fend for themselves, but when the season starts in late September many of the fawns still have spots and are still nursing. These deer get a free pass from me. This big, lone doe though was a real freezer-filler and, given the chance, I’d gladly take her.

Eventually, the doe relaxed enough to believe I was nothing more than a figment of her over-active imagination. An imagination that has kept the Odocoileus virginianus species on this planet for a millennia. Regardless, she turned to her left and nibbled at leaves. Her head went behind some leaves and I drew my bow as she stepped into an opening a mere 15 yards away. This was a veritable chip shot for an experienced bowman and hunter. Except this experienced bowman is 56 years old and wears progressive lenses which he can’t see his sights through if he leaves them on to try to shoot. I was supposed to have deftly flicked my glasses off my face and let them dangle from their lanyard before drawing. As it was, I tried to look through the peep sight at my pins and saw nothing but vague halos of color. Exasperated, I let down and grabbed my glasses from my face. I may have gotten away with drawing, but the wary whitetail saw the movement of me letting down the 60 lb. bow and no longer doubted her intuition. She waved goodbye with her white tail as she disappeared down the hill through the brush.

A wily ol’ doe will always pick up a new “blob” in a tree.
Photo courtesy of

This was the capper on an already error-filled morning. The day started when I realized I left my screw-in bow hanger in a tree somewhere 70 miles away in South Jersey. The screw-in hanger keeps my bow at the ready and makes it easy to grab with a minimum of movement in the event a shot is imminent. I had ruined the first opportunity of the day when another decent sized doe caught me struggling with the hanging strap I had jury rigged to hold my bow. She too disappeared with a wave.

Without my handy bow hanger, I had to improvise.

Fast forward about a 1/2 hour and a pair of freezer filling does wandered in. I let them get slightly beyond me, grabbed my bow and prepared to come to full draw. Just then, they stared through the woods, raised their tails in unison, turned 180 degrees, and bounded away. I looked in the direction of their stare and saw one of the biggest coyotes I’ve ever seen. This dude was no more than 75 yards from the neighbors houses where small dogs and cats play. If they only knew . . .

By 9:15 I’d had enough. I had things to do the remainder of the day and it seemed like the deer movement for the morning was over. As I’ve done hundreds of times before, I lowered my bow using the wind-up strap that hooks to the seat, packed my pack and put it on my back, unfastened the seat from the tree, and began to climb down. The process for using a climbing tree stand is to lock your feet into the stirrups on the platform, hold on to the seat portion, and pull the platform away from the tree and move it down. You then lock the platform back in and move the top portion down, moving your safety line down as you go. In so doing you step your way down the tree. I’ve owned this tree stand for over 20 years and have climbed hundreds of trees with it.

Yes Chester County. You DO have coyotes. Big ones.

I braced my arms on the seat frame, pointed my toes down and moved the platform. I lifted my toes to lock the platform in place and heard an odd “ping” noise. The ping turned out to be the lugged cable that fastens the platform to the tree removing itself from its notch in the frame of the stand and freeing the platform from the tree. I was now dangling from the seat portion and safety harness some 17′ feet off the ground!

One of the safety precautions of using such a stand is to fasten the two pieces together using a length of rope. That way if the bottom portion somehow falls either attached to the tree or otherwise it can only go so far and you can use the rope to pull it back up. Knowing I couldn’t raise it up with my feet in the stirrups, I kicked them free with the intent to try to pull it up and come up with a way to re-attach. Bear in mind, while I didn’t completely panic when the strap came undone, less-than-rational thought began as I hung there. With a little thought I probably should have lowered myself down against my safety harness first to free my hands and I may have just been able to pull the platform up with my feet. But I didn’t. I kicked the stand loose and it fell . . . . all the way to the ground when the 20 year old safety rope parted under the stress of the falling platform. Oh shit! Now what!? I held on to the seat and looked at the neighbor houses not far away. There was no movement at any of them. Still, I yelled HELP as loud as I could several times. Nothing. I weighed my options. Here I was 17 feet in the air with no way to safely descend. The only person that knew exactly where I was was my buddy Joe who happened to be up in New York for a work event. His son would long since be at work. Only one option left. I locked my left arm into the seat platform and carefully retrieved my iPhone from my pocket. “God, please don’t let me drop this.” I hit the button 5 times and the SOS option bar appeared. I slid the bar across and the phone dialed 9-1-1 on speaker.

Know how to quickly call for help on whatever phone you carry. Under duress, it may be difficult to use the keypad. Here’s how to do it on an iPhone.

“Hello, what is your emergency?”

“I’m hanging from a tree.”


“I’m a deer hunter. My tree stand broke, and I’m hanging from a tree with no way to get down. I’m 17 feet in the air.”

The operator was very soothing and very helpful. She asked for my address which I didn’t exactly know. I gave her the road name but thankfully, the iPhone emergency call includes location details and she quickly figured out where I was. We talked through the exact location and she dispatched first responders.

“Are you hurt?”

“No. I’m okay for now. Really, I just need a ladder.”

“How old are you?”

“56”. I’m pretty sure she pictured a fat, older hunter whose only exercise was heading to the refrigerator for a cold beer. Thankfully that isn’t me.

“A police officer is on his way and should be there quickly. Let’s stay connected until he arrives.”

The initial adrenaline rush had worn off and I realized that, ultimately, I would be okay. I was also extremely thankful to be wearing my Tree Spider safety harness. Were I not affixed to the tree, I wouldn’t have even been able to dial 9-1-1 without losing my grip and falling to who-knows-what end. As we waited for the officer, I loosened my grip on the seat frame and eased myself down on to the safety harness and against the tree. I was much more comfortable. I even joked with the 9-1-1 operator. “This is probably when a big buck will come by.” which elicited a good laugh. I think she realized then that I really was okay aside from being stuck in a tree.

In short order, I saw a dark colored Ford Explorer roar up the driveway of the neighbor’s house and park at the edge of the woods. The operator asked if he could see me. I was waving my hat and he started walking right at me. “Yes. He does.” The operator replied “Okay Peter. Let’s hang up so you can talk to him.”

At some point, I’m certain the officer told me his name but I don’t remember it. He was a younger gentleman probably in his 30s. Happily, he was also a deer hunter and had his own Summit tree stand. He quickly assessed things and figured out the stand didn’t break but had just come disconnected. (Again . . first time in 20 years.) He hooked my bow haul rope to the stand and I was able to pull it up. This was about the time the ambulance arrived. I didn’t really need an ambulance unless they had a ladder in there but I’m sure the neighbors found it entertaining. Anyway, with considerable effort, I was able to reattach the base of the stand to the tree and get on it. What a relief! The problem was I was now out of reach of the seat portion without which I couldn’t climb down. I tried climbing up a bit by hugging the tree but had put considerable stress on the muscles of my left arm when I was dangling from the seat frame. Cue the arrival of the paramedics. A quick glance told me they probably didn’t have a ladder in their SUV either.

Tree Spider Harness – A real life-saver.

I asked the officer if he could find me a stick I could use to try to get the seat portion wiggled down to me. He found one and tossed it to me. The seat was firmly wedged from me hanging on it but with a bit of cajoling I finally got it to tumble down to me. That’s about the time the fire truck arrived with siren, lights, and the whole shebang! They, in fact, had a ladder. By the time they had the ladder off the truck and started carrying it in to the woods, I was safely and successfully climbing down on my own.

Once back on terra firma, I glanced around and thanked everyone profusely. There was nearly a dozen emergency personnel present. I said “Really what happened is I killed a big deer and wanted help dragging it.” There was relief on a lot of faces including, no doubt, my own. A paramedic asked if I wanted to come up and get my vitals checked. “No. Really I am fine. There was never any real trauma and I’m not injured, but thank you.” Truthfully, my left arm was pretty sore but that sorted itself out within a day.

So there are some big lessons here.

  1. Always carry a fully charged cell phone especially when hunting alone. And know how to use the emergency calling features. It would have been very difficult to navigate to the keypad, dial, and get the phone on speaker.
  2. Inspect your equipment every year and make sure to replace worn or old parts. The cheap polypropylene line used to connect the two pieces of my stand together should have been replaced years ago.
  3. Carefully inspect the attachment points and critical areas of your stand before you begin climbing up or down.
  4. Make sure someone knows where you are hunting. I shudder to think if I had had some sort of medical incident or hit my head and wasn’t conscious.

Every year I read tragic story after tragic story of hunters falling from a tree stand and either dying or suffering severe, traumatic injury because they aren’t wearing a safety belt. Using a tree stand to hunt is an incredibly effective way to hunt the wiley whitetail but doing so without taking proper precautions is, frankly, just plain selfish. If you survive that fall, someone is probably going to have to take care of you the rest of your days. So attach yourself to the tree on the ground and don’t detach yourself until you are back on earth.

Even though my stand has only disconnected itself once in 20 years of hunting, that was enough for me. First, I am retiring “the Pete Tree” as a candidate for the climbing stand. It is just too big at the base to safely use a climber.

Next I spent some time evaluating how it happened. My stand is an older design and the retention mechanism for preventing the cable from slipping isn’t quite as robust as the newer designs. I could use the incident as an excuse to buy a new stand. Instead, I spent $3.00 at Lowes for a couple hitch pins and solved the problem differently. With a hitch pin in place on each side, it is now impossible for my cable to ever detach itself mid-climb again.

I’ve added a hitch pin on each side fo the climbing platform to prevent the lugged cable from being able to slip out.

Cover photo courtesy of


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