Over time treestand safety systems have improved in comfort and design which has led to more widespread use and consequently, less fatal accidents each year. Stopping the fall is only one piece of the problem and no pun intended, you are not out of the woods yet. Hunters having their fall arrested by a harness are at high risk for developing a condition known as suspension trauma. While the condition alone will not kill you the effects of it will. I have seen a few folks moving towards rock climber style harnesses under the assumption that these will lessen the affect or alleviate the problem concerning suspension trauma. That simply is not the case as there have been multiple cases documented of those wearing both style harnesses succumbing to this condition. The purpose of this article is to clear up some myths surrounding the condition and one should be prepared in the event of a fall.
Suspension Trauma Defined:
Suspension Trauma develops when a person remains motionless for an extended, and in some cases a short, amount of time. This condition is also referred to as “Harness Hang Syndrome”, Orthostatic intolerance, or orthostatic shock while suspended. Most commonly this occurs when the person is suspended in a vertical position but documented fatal incidents have occurred while suspended in a sitting position such as while using a rock climbing harness.
Suspension trauma occurs due to a lack of blood returning from the legs to the person’s core and head. It is a misconception that the reason for this occurring is due to the constriction on the femoral arteries from the usually small legs straps that accompany most hunting harnesses. That being said the vascular system in the legs in driven by muscle and movement. This is the same reason that you may get dizzy after sitting for a long period of time and standing up quickly, or a soldier may faint after standing in formation for long duration.
So the way to prevent suspension trauma is by moving the legs to keep blood flowing to the rest of your body. All harnesses come with a suspension relief device to allow the hunter to stretch and move while suspended until they can be rescued or rescue themselves. This is only a stopgap and buys you time as eventually you will wear yourself out and succumb to fatigue. Multiple studies have been done on the subject and the root cause in hanging immobile in any style harness for a period of time. The referenced study found that the average onset time was 10 minutes in healthy individuals.
Much like hypovolemic shock (blood loss) suspension trauma acts in the same way but instead of blood loss the blood is unable to return and pools in the legs. Once symptoms begin to occur it is a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse. Symptoms at onset include pallor, sweating, shortness of breath, blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, and hypotension (low blood pressure). This all leads to fainting and eventually death.
What can we do about it?
It has been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This saying is applicable to the current subject as it is far better to be prepared to get out of the situation rather than trying to manage issues after they occur. A few simple steps can keep you from disaster,
Have a plan – while the fall will be unexpected the way out should be thought through prior to the event. That’s easy enough if you can get back onto your stand steps or remount the stand.
Check your stands – Any equipment left out in the elements will show signs of wear over time, look over each of your stands prior to the season to see if any parts may need replaced prior to use so they do not fail.
Use a lifeline– Not only does this allow you to remain connected from the ground to the stand, it also allows you to climb back down your steps and to the ground in the event that your stand has broken and you cannot climb back onto it.
Keep a taut strap – most of the harness manufactures recommend setting the harness up so that the strap in the back is tight while sitting. This keeps the falling distance to a minimum and will facilitate climbing back into the stand.
Consider a commercial decent control device – If you fall on the side of the tree that your steps are not on and are unable to mount the stand, or if you feel you are not in good enough physical shape to climb back down, these devices will lower you safely to the ground without further injury. The attached video shows the Tree Spider Live Wire System in use.
Keep your phone accessible – You may sustain other injuries during your fall, being unable to summon for help puts you in a bad place. Many hunting jackets come equipped with breast pockets with the ability to stash a phone within easy reach. I keep mine in my left breast pocket.
Let someone know where you are – If all else fails, make sure someone knows where you are and when you plan on returning so that help can be sent if you fail to make it back.
A word about harnesses:
The industry has moved away from waist strap harnesses due to the amount of injury occurred during the fall itself. The standard now is a four point harness but some have started to gravitate towards a rock climbing or lineman’s style harness in recent years due to fears over suspension trauma and comfort. As stated above suspension trauma can and will occur regardless of the type of harness used. Where this becomes a problem is with the dynamics of the fall itself and how each harness is designed to function.
The 4 Point System is currently the gold standard in safety due to its design, wide spread use and TMA testing. It is important to note that each of these harnesses must pass three fall type tests in order to gain TMA approval. (ASTM STD 2337)Those being a static weight test, a drop test, and a “superman test” which is a forward fall from the stand. The Rock Climbing harness is unable to perform the superman test due to the traditional front hook up location. The 4 point harness is classified as a fall restraint device and is also designed to prevent a fall in the first place as the rear lanyard placement will tension as the hunter leans forward. Most of these harnesses are designed to be used with little technical knowledge and have a margin for error in set up (improper adjustment to size). The downside to a 4 point harness for some is that the default position of the fallen hunter is with their back to the tree in a vertical position. This can make self rescue difficult if you are unable to spin yourself around while hanging. Some also are not keen on the “comfort” level of the harness or the tendency of the lanyard to hinder turning around in the stand or in some cases interfering with drawing the bow. I personally have never had this issue.
The Rock Climbing Harness on the other hand is a support system that is designed to hold the person in a seated position while being active. Proponents of this system state it is safer because it will decrease the risk of suspension trauma or as I’ve read by some self titled experts in forums “no risk of suspension trauma”. That is a false claim. As stated earlier there is risk of suspension trauma with both and the end user needs to be aware of that. This style of system carries different risks in the event of a fall as opposed to the 4 point system. Some of these risks include the initial shock of impact due to the lack of any shock absorption system, spinning during the fall due to the front hook –up position, the possible chance (albeit low) of inversion, and hitting your face or head off the tree if unable to brace yourself for the fall. This systems merits include an increase in comfort while suspended and sitting, lighter weight, cost, and the default position of sitting facing the tree in the event of a fall. This allows the user to press against the tree with their legs to keep blood flowing rather than the use of a suspension relief strap. It is extremely important to note that both methods are only a temporary fix and the hunter needs to get out of the suspended situation as soon as possible.
The other downside to a RC harness system is that their use does take some technical knowledge so proper equipment is being selected when it comes to harness and ropes for rigging. This is not a grab it and go setup, the use of this style of harness will put the user in more danger if they are not familiar with the equipment and how to set it up. A good example of this is some of the comments I’ve seen in regards to using the loops on the sides of a RC harness for a lineman’s belt. Most of those loops are made for accessories and not rated to withstand the full weight of a person. The user needs to select a harness that has multiple belay points and not accessory loops.
In speaking with a industry insider, who asked not to be named, as to why no one is making a RC harness for hunters, they noted that either system would work for a fall arrest system but the reasons behind no one marketing the RC style harness is that it is essentially unable to pass TMA standards due to the testing methods used by the TMA as well as the fact that they are not fall protection devices (a 4 point harness is fall protection and a fall arrest device). It should also be noted that the market is not big enough to support the manufacturing of the RC style specific to the hunting industry at this time.
My personal feeling is that the safest bet for the majority of hunters out there is a 4 point style combined with a commercial decent device that lowers the hunter to the ground after the fall. This setup gives the end user the security and ease of use of the 4 point system with the inherent fall protection and the addition of the decent device alleviates any concern of suspension trauma as once the fall occurs the person will be lowered to the ground.
Suspension trauma can be a real threat to hunters unable to rescue themselves from a fall. Luckily with proper planning most will be able to get themselves out of a jamb before problems occur. The important thing to remember is that a little pre planning goes a long way when the unexpected happens. In regards to harness choice, make sure you are familiar with the operation and set up of your chosen device. Any harness is better than a fall from 20 feet.
Stay safe this Hunting Season