Matt Johnson stood up to stretch while archery hunting from his tree stand, and when he sat down things went awry.
As Johnson sat back down, the pad on the seat flipped over his back, tossing him out of the climbing stand 20 feet above the ground. Fortunately, Johnson was using a safety harness and, rather than falling to the ground, he dangled in the air before pulling himself back into the stand.
“That was four years ago and I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was scary,” said the Dalton resident, who is also the director of the Northmoreland Sportsmen. “Had I not had the harness on, I would’ve fallen 20 feet.”
While Johnson played it safe and used his harness, not all archery hunters do.
According to several studies, a majority of hunting accidents in some states were the result of falls from tree stands. In Pennsylvania, a study conducted from 1987 to 2006 found that a total of 499 people were injured in falls from tree stands. Seven of them died, and the rate of accidental falls increased from .59 in 1987 to 7.08 in 2006. Most of the falls involved hunters in the 40-49 age bracket.
Another study in Ohio looked at all hunting accidents from 1998 to 2007. Among them were 130 hunters suffering injuries, and 46 percent - nearly half - were injured falling from a tree stand.
A Wisconsin study conducted from 2009 to 2013 gauged tree stand use by type and whether or not a safety harness was worn in an incident. Hang-on stands accounted for 33 percent of accidents in archery season and 44 percent during the firearms season. The study also determined that the majority of hunters using a stand don’t wear a safety harness.
The studies highlight the risk of hunting from a tree stand and also reveal that, when it comes to safety, many hunters take it for granted.
That’s something that the Pennsylvania Game Commission hopes to change with the start of archery season coming up on Sept. 30.
“It’s an under-estimated risk,” said Bill Williams, the information and education supervisor for the PGC’s Northeast Region. “Hunters don’t realize how many people get injured or killed getting in and out of tree stands every year.”
The game commission doesn’t track tree stand falls and they get their information from trauma center databases. Wildlife conservation officers typically didn’t respond to incidents involving a fall from a tree stand, but that changed last year.
Williams said the Northeast Region Office in Dallas did receive a few calls about tree stand accidents last year, and when possible WCOs responded to the scene to get details and give the agency a better idea of the risk.
It’s a risk that doesn’t end with the actual fall from the stand, either.
Because hunters are generally in rough, remote terrain, access can be difficult. Williams said the average time from a fall to when emergency personnel arrive on scene is just over four hours, potentially increasing the severity of the situation.
As the number of archery hunters is on the upswing, tree stand accidents are rising as well. Tree stand safety became a topic in the PGC’s Hunter Safety Education Course in 1999, but the majority of hunters - those in their mid-40s - took the course in prior years.
“More outreach is needed to reach those people,” Williams said. “Most people know someone who has fallen out of a tree stand.”
To familiarize himself with the issue, and the risk, Williams took a tree stand safety course from the Treestand Manufacturer’s Association. As part of the training, participants were required to go into a tree stand with a safety harness and fall.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience, Williams said, but it proved a point.
“It showed these harnesses work if they’re attached properly, and it’s not too difficult to get back into the stand,” he said. “They do save lives.”
Some harnesses work better than others, however.
Williams said straps that simply attach around the waist or on the shoulders aren’t the best option. He recommends that hunters use a Fall Arrest System device, which straps around the shoulders, waist and legs.
“It’s important to wear it before you leave the ground and always maintain three points of contact - shoulders, waist and legs - when climbing up a tree,” Williams said.
After his experience four years ago, Johnson swears by the harness and even utilizes a Life Line rope which is connected to the tree the entire time.
As far as a harness restricting his movement and impeding his hunt, Johnson said it’s not an issue.
“I’ve never gotten in a position where I couldn’t shoot,” he said. “A lot of guys have gotten complacent about tree stand safety and I know hunters that don’t wear a harness.
“No buck on earth is worth getting hurt because you didn’t want to put a harness on.”