Safe Tree Climbing

June 2002

The title may make this may seem like a tongue-in-cheek article at first glance. However, I am quite serious. I don't have statistics for how many people are injured or killed by falling out of trees, but I do know someone whose son is now a quadraplegic after having broken his neck when he fell from a tree. One of my children also fell from a tree recently - fortunately with no serious injury. It stands to reason that there must be many people around the world who have died or been seriously injured in this manner.

One response to the problem would be to forbid any tree climbing at all. But it is such a part of childhood that such a declaration seems a bit draconian. So herein I offer some guidelines. If you are going to climb a tree, these guidelines should help to reduce the chance of injury. Disclaimer: I am not encouraging anyone to climb trees, nor am I offering any guarantee of safety if these guidelines are followed. You climb trees at your own risk.

The following guidelines probably apply to other forms of climbing (such as rock climbing) as well as tree climbing, but since I have no expertise in those areas, I only present these guideliness within the context of tree climbing. This article assumes you do not have the professional equipment used by lumberjacks. Note that all of these guidelines fall into the common-sense category, but each case of falling out of trees that I know of involved breaking one, or more, of the following:

Don't climb in inclement weather

Precipitation makes things slippery. This includes heavy fog. When a tree is slippery, the chance of falling is greatly increased. Trees can also be slippery if there is dew or frost.

Any wind above 15 mph is likely to cause the tree to sway, especially the top half. This swaying increases the chances of losing your grip and falling. Also, a gust of wind may itself send you to your death.

About the worst place to be during a thunderstorm is in, or next to, a tree. Lightning will likely kill you before you hit the ground.

Although this doesn't fit under the category of "inclement weather", you should also only climb when there is plenty of light. Don't climb trees at dusk or at night.

Don't climb if you are mentally/physically/emotionally impaired

If you have taken any drugs which warn you not to drive or operate machinery, then you have taken drugs which will impair you mentally or physically from safe tree climbing. This includes mundane drugs such as antihistamines. Stronger drugs, including alcohol, just make the chance of tragedy higher.

If you are blind, or otherwise not physically fit, or are weakened from illness, stay on the ground.

Safe climbing requires that you be mentally alert. Don't climb if you are not fully awake and alert. Don't allow yourself to be distracted while climbing. Don't climb if you cannot focus on the task at hand, such as when you are suffering emotional distress.

The three-point rule

Both feet and both hands, taken together, provide you with four points of support. At any given time while climbing, at least three of these points should be securely supporting your weight. This is the "three-point rule". When this is true, and you are ready to continue up/down the tree, move only one point of support to a new location - at all times leaving the other three points secure. When the fourth point is secure, you may move one of the others. A point of support is secure when your entire weight, including everything you are packing, can rest safely on that point. Further, each point should be secure on a different support. Having two feet on the same branch provides you only with one point of support. It should go without saying that if the branch cannot bear your weight, then it cannot be said to be secure.

You may think that it is overkill to have three different points, each of which can support your weight, but branches break, feet and hands slip, and the unexpected happens. Thus, when following this rule, any two points of support can fail while another point is reaching for a new location and you will not fall.

It may be hard to judge the suitability of some branches for support. You may test one by using your free point of support, so long as the other three points remain secure. If placing your entire weight on the branch causes it to slant down from the trunk, do not use it.

Note that sitting on a branch does not provide you with a point of support, even if you are straddling it.

When using a branch for support, use the part of the branch nearest the trunk, where it is the strongest. Don't use branches which slant down from the trunk - only use those which slant up or are perpendicular to the ground. When using the trunk of the tree for support, your arm should be able to reach at least half way around the trunk - any less and you cannot use that arm to hold yourself in place.

Don't climb if you are missing any limbs, hands, or fingers. You need all of them in working order to adhere to the three-point rule.

Other points

Don't wear baggy clothing or articles which can catch in branches and unexpectedly yank you one way or another while climbing. And never wear anything around your neck (such as straps, necklaces, or ties) or you risk hanging yourself.

Wear footwear that provides good traction.

Pick your tree carefully. A tree with a lot of moss or lichen on the branches does not allow you to obtain secure support. Likewise, a tree which is diseased or rotten may break apart while you are climbing it. A tree which cannot be climbed without abandoning the three-point rule (most likely due to branch placement) should be avoided.

Do not climb a tree with a wild animal in it, although birds and insects can usually be safely ignored - unless the tree is a nesting site for them.

Avoid trees near power lines. You don't want to be electrocuted.

Wear a helmet. The kind of helmets worn for bicycling will keep your head safer if you do fall, and can prevent injuries due to branch/head collisions. Rock climbing helmets work even better.

Do not use the spikes or gaffs used by pole climbers - these can damage or even kill trees.

Check out for tips on recreational tree climbing. They describe means of climbing with ropes and harnesses, which is a safer way to climb, and allows you to ignore the three-point rule.