L.J. Smith is an expert witness that trial lawyers want on their side. Smith, 72, a former Mississippi wildlife officer, has investigated 550 treestand accidents, given 100 depositions in treestand lawsuits, and testified 30 times when injured hunters took treestand manufacturers to trial in courthouses across the country. Manufacturers who retained Smith as their expert witness are 28-2 in those cases, and he shrugs off the two lost judgments as “small amounts.”
Even so, Smith doesn’t expect his expertise and 93% winning percentage to deter future lawsuits against treestand companies. “This country has about 1.3 million lawyers, so you have to assume they’ll keep bringing lawsuits,” Smith told MeatEater.
Smith has also investigated hundreds of other hunting incidents over the past 35 years involving rifles, shotguns, crossbows, muzzleloaders, and compound bows. All that experience helped him create a treestand-investigation course in 2010 to train game wardens and other law-enforcement officers to pinpoint each accident’s cause. He has taught the courses with John Louk, the executive director of the Treestand Manufacturers Association (TMA), since 2001. Smith estimates he and Louk have taught his treestand-investigation techniques to more than 520 conservation wardens in 17 states over the past decade.
“I stress the same thing during each course: Let the facts speak for themselves,” Smith said. “If you show me a treestand, and you show me the site where that accident happened, I’ll tell you how it happened and why it happened, and what should have been done to prevent it from happening.”
Smith concedes that manufacturing defects can cause treestand tumbles, but they’re the exceptions. He said the most common cause, by far, has a nickname: Bubba.
“We’ve had countless situations where Bubba sues a manufacturer after someone left their treestand unattended in the woods for seven to 10 years, and then Bubba came along and climbed into it,” Smith said. “Bubba hadn’t considered that the tree had been growing and weakening the stand, and UV rays and rain were rotting the strap or rusting the bolts. Or, maybe another Bubba switched out the manufacturer’s old strap for a cheap cargo strap. When I see red, blue, orange, or yellow straps on treestands, I know Bubba didn’t buy them from a treestand manufacturer. If he had read and followed the manufacturer’s instructions, he wouldn’t have hurt himself.”
Because of such tendencies, treestand falls each year often cripple or kill more U.S. hunters than accidental shootings. Additionally, most hunters across whitetail country—roughly the eastern two-thirds of the U.S.—much prefer hunting from high places. When the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources surveyed bowhunters in 2013, for example, it found 91.5% used a treestand that year and 97.3% used a treestand at some point in previous years. Further, more than 9% of those respondents said they had fallen and 19% reported a “near-accident” in a treestand.
But, bowhunters aren’t the only ones who use treestands. Glen Mayhew, president of the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation (TSSA), said his research shows bowhunters account for 40% to 50% of falls each year, while rifle/shotgun hunters account for roughly 30%, and crossbow-hunters and muzzleloading hunters flip-flop from 7% to 15% annually.
However, a 2013 joint study by the Wisconsin DNR and Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation found that bowhunters face 4.5 times more risk than gun-hunters because their nearly four-month season offers far more opportunities. In fact, bowhunters took at least twice as many tumbles and near-falls (28%) than did gun-hunters (13%), according to the study. Further, the risk of falling increases the longer hunters remain active, with probabilities for serious injury rising to one in 71 for those hunting 25 years. The most avid hunters—those hunting Wisconsin’s archery and firearm seasons over a lifetime—have a one-in-20 chance of injury in a fall.
Mayhew’s research, meanwhile, showed the average victim’s age ranges from 46 to 49. “Of the 1,200 accident reports in my files, the ages range from 6 to 96, but few youngsters or old people are falling,” he told MeatEater. “Year after year, the biggest group is just shy of 50.”
No matter the victims’ ages or hunting methods, the incident gap between treestand falls and shooting accidents would be even greater if states investigated treestand injuries as regularly as they do firearm woundings. Although every accidental shooting must be reported to authorities nationwide, fewer than 20 states require the same for treestand falls. When the National Deer Association (formerly the Quality Deer Management Association) surveyed 37 state wildlife agencies in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast about treestand accidents in 2011, only 16 states had such data.
Illinois DNR provided the Midwest’s most detailed treestand data. The state recorded 108 hunting accidents from 2017 through 2021, with treestands accounting for 60 (59%) of them, and shootings 32 (30%). Three hunters died from falls (5%) and one died from a gunshot (3%).
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation began tracking treestand incidents in 2017, but the DEC concedes “most” accidents probably remain unreported. Even so, the agency documented 11 hunters dying in 48 (23%) treestand incidents from 2017 through 2022, including five in 2017 and four in 2022. New York’s shooting incidents during those years totaled 75, including 14 fatalities (19%).
Despite such numbers, Smith, Louk, and other manufacturers and educators — including Marilyn Bentz, executive director of the National Bowhunter Education Foundation (NBEF); and Mayhew—believe treestand accidents have declined over the past two decades through education, better equipment, and greater awareness. Treestand safety is now a standard part of hunter-education curricula taught by the NBEF and the International Hunter Education Association.
The Treestand Manufacturers Association helped spur those efforts. Since its formation in 1995, the TMA has spent over $400,000 on treestand-safety education programs. In addition, TMA-member companies have included a full-body harness with every treestand sold since 2004. And starting in 2007, those companies also included a safety video with each sale. Since starting those giveaways, the treestand industry has distributed 25 million full-body harnesses and more than 16 million safety videos. Those numbers don’t include after-market full-body harnesses like those made by Hunter Safety Systems.
“Hunters today are just more aware,” Louk said. “Our surveys show 88% of hunters have taken a hunter-ed course, 56% have taken a hunter-ed class that taught treestand safety, and 72% of treestand hunters know they should use a full-body harness. That’s a big change from the early 1990s when full-body harnesses weren’t an option. No one made full-body harnesses for hunters back then. The only options were waist belts and chest harnesses, which are deadly if you fall. No one sells those anymore.”
Have those efforts reduced treestand falls and injuries? The NDA’s 2011 report showed treestand falls declined 10% from 1999 to 2009 in Virginia; and a combined 39% decline those years in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
Louk said the TMA is finishing an in-depth study with the IHEA to answer that question with hard data and expects to release its findings this summer. The TSSA’s Mayhew, meanwhile, said his analysis of data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) since 2010 shows a 70% decrease in treestand falls through 2021, declining from 5,598 to 1,704 nationwide. The NEISS data are representative samplings of 100 U.S. hospitals that report all emergency-department visits linked to consumer products.
Mayhew said the NEISS created a separate category for treestands in 2010. He has reviewed each treestand accident in the NEISS reports to ensure it was an actual fall. He removes irrelevant cases, such as when someone suffers a bee sting or tick bite while using a treestand, or drops a treestand on their toe while cleaning the garage.
Mayhew—a former firefighter/paramedic, and associate dean at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia—is also a member of the Virginia Tree Stand Safety Team. He doubts the decline in treestand falls can be fully explained by declines in licensed hunters. After all, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the nation’s hunting population declined 15% from 2011 to 2016, from 13.5 million to 11.5 million, well short of 70%. Another review of U.S. hunters by the Statista Research Department found the nation’s hunting population actually increased 12% from 2010 to 2021.
Mayhew said he’s confident in the TSSA’s data, which he supplements with annual treestand-accident reports from 13 states. “Our database is large, and includes the records on nearly 1,200 falls,” Mayhew told MeatEater. “When we created the TSSA in 2016-17, we set a goal to reduce treestand falls requiring emergency-room treatment by 50%. From 2016 to 2021, those cases decreased by 42.8%, so we’re closing in on our goal.”
Like Smith, Mayhew also credits the TMA and its members for working with the American Society for Testing and Materials to define and test manufacturing standards and specifications for treestands, tripod stands, climbing sticks, and fall-arrest harnesses.
After forming in 1995 and setting its first manufacturing standards in 1997, the TMA began enforcing its standards through random, independent tests on treestands and safety equipment by an outside laboratory.
“Some treestands on the market 25 years ago were junk, and they needed to go,” Smith said. “We used to see treestands that were pop-riveted together with hand-tools, and some designs were accidents waiting to happen. One company had a device where the hunter strapped a small climbing platform on each foot like snowshoes, and ‘walked’ up the tree. I asked the manufacturer if he was trying to put himself out of business. That product didn’t make it. A lot of industry-leading treestands in the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t pass today’s standards.”
Testing laboratories that contract with the TMA randomly buy five samples of individual products for testing. If a product fails, the manufacturer must issue a recall and correct the flaw. The TMA severs ties with manufacturers that don’t cooperate. Smith said losing TMA standing can kill a manufacturer because major retailers, citing liability concerns, won’t carry products that don’t meet TMA standards.
Smith said the TMA decertified a company called Hunter’s View in 2006 when it refused to recall a full-body harness that failed its performance test two straight years. “When the TMA pulled their membership, they went out of business,” Smith said. “It’s actually hard to find or buy a treestand that isn’t TMA-certified. TMA-member companies account for 95% of all U.S. treestand sales.”
Manufacturers also improve safety through innovation. Ladder stands, for instance, are safe and comfortable once belted and ratcheted to the tree. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to install and remove, especially if hunters work alone. Until a ladder stand’s platform is secured to the tree, the ladder can twist sideways as the hunter ascends, or tip backward when the hunter reaches the top and shifts the stand’s center of gravity. To reduce those dangers, the TMA in 2010 required ladder stands to have extra ropes or straps to better secure the platform by crisscrossing them behind the tree. Previously, it required ladders to have locking pins to hold each section together.
More recently, ladder stands like River Edge’s Lockdown, Trophy Treestand’s Jaw Safety System and Draw-Tight Cable System, and Primal Outdoors’ Grip Jaw & Backbone Stabilizer Truss System can be solidly secured without leaving the ground. “These are some of the most significant increases in safety our industry has seen in the past 20 years,” Louk said.
The TMA is also working with the ASTM to write standards for treestand safety ropes with sliding Prusik knots and carabiner clips that allow hunters to stay safely attached the entire time they’re off the ground. Millennium Outdoors, for example, includes its 35-foot SafeLink safety rope with all of its hang-on and ladder stands.
“Education and personal responsibility are vital, but treestand manufacturers will always study how hunters use or don’t use their products, and design models that conveniently create safer behaviors,” Louk said.
After all, according to Mayhew, the leading causes of the 1,200 falls he’s studied are slips, loss of grip, and loss of balance. “Most falls happen while climbing or descending, and transitioning to or from the platform,” Mayhew said. “Relatively few falls start from the platform. A few hunters fall when they doze off, but of the 13 factors I list as possible causes, ‘sleep’ is near the bottom at No. 11.”
Mayhew said the second-leading cause of falls is due to straps breaking or coming loose. “Many hunters leave their stands out year-round indefinitely,” he said. “Trees grow around the straps, and UV rays and moisture rot the nylon. At the least, remove your treestands after the season, inspect them, and replace everything with parts from the manufacturer. Cheap ratchets and cargo straps aren’t designed for the woods and treestands.” Mayhew also suggests replacing straps every other year, no matter how much time they spend outdoors.
The third-leading cause of falls on Mayhew’s list is “operator error,” which means not attaching or buckling straps properly, not securing pins or fasteners, or not securing a climbing stand’s foot platform to the seat’s platform. “When you’re in a hurry and operating in the dark, it’s easy to make mistakes and overlook loose parts,” Mayhew said. “Simple, common mistakes are deadly but preventable. These causes drive home the importance of using a full-body harness and staying secured to a safety rope whenever your feet are off the ground.”
Mayhew said hang-on treestands are involved in more falls than other types of stands, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently unsafe. They’re also the most popular, affordable, and commonly used treestand in the woods.
Ladder stands are second on the most-falls list, with climbing stands third. Mayhew said more tree-saddle accidents have “trickled in” over the past few years, with most cases occurring when the hunter isn’t connected to the tree. “We’re also seeing more cases of hunters modifying their saddle or ignoring the manufacturer’s directions on setting up and using it,” he said. “Modifying a manufacturer’s design is never a good idea.”
He said hunters can protect themselves by remaining wary and following the TSSA’s ABCs of treestand safety:
A — Always remove and inspect all equipment before using it again, even if you’re just returning from a lunch break. (35% of falls involve factors that could have been inspected and corrected.)
B — Buckle your full-body harness securely. (86% of fall victims weren’t wearing a harness.)
C — Connect before your feet leave the ground (99% of fall victims were untethered). Once on the platform, secure your tether high enough so your knees remain above the platform should you fall.
D — Destination: Share your treestand location before each hunt. (Every minute counts in search-and-rescues.)
The TMA offers similar tips, starting with keeping your harness connected at all times. Second, read and understand the manufacturer’s warnings and instructions. Third, practice with your gear so you know how to wear, attach, and use it. Fourth, inspect the stand’s straps, cables, bolts, nuts, and framework before each use. And fifth, don’t be in a hurry.
“Most falls aren’t caused by one factor,” Louk said. “Almost always you’ll find contributing factors. An IHEA survey in 2002 attributed 41% of falls to taking shortcuts and being in a hurry. All those little things add up and cause distractions that can cripple or kill you.”