Throughout the United States, hunting remains a timehonored tradition among many families and a popular sporting activity for outdoor enthusiasts. Annually, in the US, 20 million people hunt, and the number continues to rise each year. In 2006, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that hunters took 185 million trips and spent 22.9 billion dollars hunting. The typical US hunter is male with an average age of 40. More than 85% of hunters pursue big game, such as deer and elk, 38% hunt for small game, such as rabbits and squirrels, and less than 20% of hunters pursue birds.

As hunting continues to grow in popularity, the number of injuries sustained by hunters also grows. The injuries can have catastrophic consequences such as permanent disability or death, and can require substantial medical resources. Therefore, hunter safety has been brought to the forefront by both state governments and hunting organizations with a combination of regulations and educational efforts. Research shows that increasing public awareness of hunting safety can significantly reduce the incidence of injuries.

Tree stands

Most licensed hunters who participate in deer hunting use an elevated platform or tree stand to help survey the territory. Tree stands are useful tools for pursuing large game. Unfortunately, falling from a tree stand is the leading cause of hunting injuries. Most tree stands are purchased commercially, but homemade tree stands are also common. The standard commercial tree stand consists of a seat that is fixed to a tree with a combination of straps, bolts, and toothed metal plates. Commercial tree stands can be categorized into 3 basic types: nonclimbing, fixed position stands; climbing-type tree stands; and ladder-type tree stands.

Falling from a stand

Hunter education regarding proper and safe use of tree stands has been critical in decreasing the incidence of hunting-related injuries; however, tree stands are still considered the deer hunters most dangerous hunting implement. According to the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, more than 90% of hunters use some type of tree stand for hunting. Researchers estimate 10% of hunters who use tree stands are injured while using the platforms. Considering that the optimal position of a tree stand is typically 15 to 30 feet off the ground, tree stand falls usually are not trivial injuries. Falling from that height can result in the body moving up to 30 miles per hour just before potentially hitting a hard surface, such as a rock, log, or equipment. Tree stand falls can cause a variety of injuries, including spinal cord injury and paralysis, closed

head injury, fractures, organ injury, and death. Research has shown that 57% of falls cause spinal and neurologic injury, while 81% of falls require surgery and a 3-day hospital stay.

Human error

Tree stand accidents often occur when the hunter is climbing up or down from the stand, or from mechanical failure of the stand. Of all tree stand falls, 30 to 50% result from failure of the stand, and the failure is most common in homemade stands or stands that have been altered. Other risks for hunters using a tree stand include small platform size, dark conditions, fatigue and falling asleep, environmental extremes, user inexperience, and alcohol and other intoxicants. Additional causes of falls are loss of balance, weapon recoil, sneezing, error in stand placement, and increasing age. Often a fall can be prevented with the use of a fall-arrest system or a full body harness. The proper use and installation of tree stand equipment can also help prevent injury.

Other types of injuries

Despite the fact that tree stand injuries make up the majority of injuries to hunters, outdoorsmen are also subject to a variety of other injuries, including gun shot wounds, all-terrain-vehicle accidents, environmental injuries such as a falling tree limb or extreme climate conditions, burns, and prey-inflicted wounds. Gun shot wounds are typically self-inflicted from shotguns, and they often result in serious injury such as extremity amputation or death. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of gun shot wounds do not involve alcohol or drugs. Risk factors for gun shot wounds include, poor judgment (ricocheted shot, stray shot, victim in the line of fire, victim mistaken for game), and poor skill (mishandling firearm, accidental discharge, slipping, falling, dropping firearm, using firearm as a club).

Research has shown that education and training programs are effective in reducing the number of injuries. Hunters should follow hunting safety rules, and use tips and resources geared toward keeping hunting safe. Because tree stands cause the majority of hunting injuries, hunters should follow the guidelines for the proper use of tree stand equipment. By keeping safety rules and guidelines in mind, most hunting injuries can be prevented.

Hunting Safety Tips

  • Attend safety training courses that teach proper handling and use of firearms
  • Wear nonslip boots and apply a nonslip cover to the stand platform
  • Carry a backpack containing a flashlight, compass, whistle, prescription medications, first aid kit, cell phone, and high calorie foods
  • Use high visibility clothing, such as bright orange vests and hats
  • Use only tree stands approved by the Tree Stand Manufactures Association
  • Place tree stands in a healthy, mature tree that an properly support the stand and hunter combined
  • Place the stand above water, snow, or soil and remove logs, rocks, and equipment to reduce injury risk if a fall occurs
  • Do not place the stand more than 20 feet high
  • Routinely inspect the tree stand to ensure good working condition
  • Never rely on tree branches as steps
  • Use a full body harness system while above ground
  • Practice freeing yourself from your harness so you are better prepared to handle an emergency
  • Ascend and descend from the tree stand unimpeded by firearms and equipment
  • Inform family and friends of your prospective whereabouts
  • Hunt in groups of two or more
  • Carry a cell phone or two-way radio
  • Avoid fatigue and alcohol
  • Avoid shooting at hard, flat surfaces to prevent ricochets, never pull a loaded gun toward yourself, and never climb over a fence or other obstacle with a loaded firearm

Further Resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov

National Rifle Association, http://www.nra.org
The National Bowhunter Education Foundation, Project STAND, http://www.projectstand.net
Treestand Manufacturer’s Association, http://www.tmastands.com
US Consumer Product Safety Commission, http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/5200.pdf

Author: Nathan J. Fanter, DO and Garland K. Gudger, MD | Columbus, Georgia

Vol 23, Number 2, Spring 2011

Last edited on October 18, 2021