Climbing a tree is a great childhood pastime. But it doesn’t always come naturally, especially for those of us with a fear of heights or uncertainty as to the tree’s stability. Then there are those who want to climb trees for sport – or even as part of their job – and we’ll cover that, too. No matter how serious you are, the trees are out there ready to be climbed. Are you ready?
Climbing for Fun
Find a nice sturdy, big tree and inspect it. Make sure it has strong, large branches that can support your weight – a solid 8 inches around (20 cm) is a good size. Avoid a tree that has many branches below it, as this is a sign that the tree may be rotting or drying out.
If the tree has dying branches toward the bottom, that’s okay – those branches just aren’t getting enough sun. It’s branches towards the top that are rotting from the tip that you want to look out for (in addition to a pile of branches on the ground).
If the tree has decent-sized branches toward the bottom, this will be even easier to climb up. Once in the branches, the hard part is done; the lower the branches are, the quicker the hard part passes!
If you aren’t sure, find out more about your local trees at a library, on the Internet, or by asking a teacher, a botanist or other tree-climbers.
Inspect the area, too. Just because a tree looks sturdy and is big does not mean it’s safe. Here are a few other things you should look for: Are there power lines? If so, this is not a good tree to choose. You could get electrocuted.
Do you see any bark missing? This tree could be suffering from a fungus or virus, making it weak.
Are there any animals or nests in it? If so, choose another tree. Any number of things could go wrong if you encroach on their territory.
Throw on an old pair of pants, some gloves with grip, and tennis shoes. Climbing trees is not for those dressed in their Sunday best. An old pair of pants will protect your skin should you get scuffed or scratched, and should they rip, it’s okay. Gloves will help your grip and protect your hands, and tennis shoes will be the best to not lose traction on the bark. If you’re not scurrying up a trunk, gloves may not be necessary. If your hands can handle it, gloves are optional. Some people find that they have more dexterity and grip without them.
Start by stretching. Do this so that you don’t end up hurting yourself by pulling a muscle on your way up. Climbing will lengthen your muscles and put some pressure on them as you support your weight while hauling your body up the tree, so it’s good to get them warmed up.
If you’re going for a serious climb, get your muscles loose with a light jog and maybe some jumping jacks. Just cold stretching isn’t wise if you’re really about to put your muscles to the test.
Start your ascent. Look for a sturdy place for your foot or a secure spot for your hand. Trees have gnarls, knots, bark holes, smaller branches, etc., that you can use as footholds. Beware of any overly thin or crumbling spots though!
Wrap a foot and an arm on either side of the tree, and hoist yourself up, alternating between using your hands and your legs. Grip the sides of the tree with your thighs and calves to make it easier on your arms.
If you’re even the tiniest bit unsure, test out an area first. Press down on it with your hand or foot and see if it seems sturdy. If it is, move on in that path. If it’s not, find an alternate route.
Think of the actions of climbing animals. Think about how a monkey or a koala might climb the tree. It will give you a mental image of agility to keep your mind focused on climbing. Be very steady and firm in your climbing at first, as you get used to the climbing, you will be able to clamber up more quickly. Each tree is different. On one tree, you may be able to grab a low-hanging branch and flip up into the body of the tree. On another, you may have to scurry up the trunk, using knot after knot as a foothold. As you get more and more experience, what to do will become clearer and clearer.
Go as high as you possibly can. Don’t climb where you feel unsafe or unsure though – just remain within your level of comfort. The idea is to enjoy it, not scare yourself witless. Look around – are there any more branches that could support your weight?
Stick to the base of the branch, as this will be the sturdiest area. It will also make it easier and quicker to climb up. What’s more, every branch is attached to the trunk, so you have all your options at your feet.
Enjoy your view. Look around for animals in neighboring trees. Watch the clouds float on by. Look below if you dare and see how much smaller the world has become beneath your feet. What’s it like up there?
Some people can spend hours in trees, basking in how relaxing and freeing it feels. If you find a particularly good one, next time bring a book and a blanket and stay for a while!
Descend slowly and carefully. To go down make sure you move slowly and take your time. If you do not, you can end up seriously injured. Most of the time it helps to climb down facing the tree rather than trying to climb outwards. Take the same path you took up, if you can. You know that one is sturdy.
Again, stick to the base of the tree if you can. It provides you more options and is the strongest part of the tree.
If you can do that, find a more challenging tree to climb!
Climbing for Sport
Get the right equipment. If you’re looking to climb trees for sport (or even for pay, to clean up an area after a tornado or hurricane, for example), you’ll need the right equipment to keep you safe. Here’s what you’ll need: Throw line. This is a brightly-colored, thin rope that gets literally thrown over the branch. It is attached to a weight, called a “throw bag.”
Static rope. This type of rope lacks the stretchiness of “dynamic” rope using in rock climbing.
Harness and helmet. You can use a helmet like those designed for rock climbing. However, you want a harness specifically designed for climbing trees. A rock-climbing harness would cut off the circulation to your legs.
A Prusik cord. This helps you ascend. It’s attached to your climbing rope and your harness with a carabiner. Alternatively, you can use a foot ascender.
Branch protector. Alternatively known as a cambium protector. These protect tree branches from friction, while helps your climbing rope last longer. Metal ones, which look like conduits, are more convenient than leather ones.
Select a safe tree. You’re looking to throw your rope over a branch that is, at the very least, 6 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter. Any smaller than that and it could snap. The bigger it is, the better. Here’s a few other things to consider:Make sure it’s healthy. If the tree is old, diseased, or dying, leave it alone.
The tree needs to be away from hazards, like power lines, animals, and nests.
Make sure it’s big enough for your party. A spreading tree, like a hardwood, is best for large groups. Conifers are only suitable for 1 or 2 people.
Are you allowed to climb it? The last thing you want is to get into legal trouble for being on someone’s property illegally.
Finally, consider its location in general. Is it easy to get to? Will it be scenic at the top? What will the wildlife be like?
Once you’ve selected your tree, inspect it carefully. Just because a tree is big, sturdy, and in the right location doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fit for climbing. There are four zones you should consider in your inspection:The wide angle view. Often trees are better viewed from far away. That way it’s easier to see an odd lean or an unstable branch, in addition to the commonly obscured power line.
The ground. Where you put your feet matters, too. You don’t want to pick a tree that has too many knots at its base, a nest of hornets, root decay, or poison ivy.
The trunk. Missing bark on a trunk may indicate decay or recent attack, both of which weaken the tree. And as for trees with two or three trunks, inspect where they branch off from at the base. Weakness should be avoided here.
The crown. Dead branches at the bottom of a tree are normal (they haven’t gotten enough sunlight); however, dead branches at the top mean the tree is dying. Any tree with a plethora of dead branches (especially on the top), should be avoided.
Once you’ve chosen the right tree, set up your climbing system. In the following steps, we will describe the double-rope technique, which is safer and easier for beginners. This method is especially common with oaks, poplars, maples, and pines (trees that grow around 100 feet tall). Here’s how to start:
Loop your throw line over your selected, sturdy branch. You may need a specialized sling shot if the branch is that far away.
Then, the throw line is attached to the static rope so that it’s looped over the branch. At this point, your branch protectors should be placed on the rope.
Tie a series of knots, with the main knot being a Blake’s hitch. A double fisherman’s knot will go nicely around your carabiner.This will advance you up the tree.
Put on your harness, helmet, and attach yourself to the climbing system. Make sure your harness is strapped on correctly and is snug. Once snug, attach yourself to the system – there are many ways to do this and it’s all a matter of preference. Then, it’s time to ascend up your tree! When you aren’t moving, it’s the main knot that holds you in place. For the record, the heavier and bigger you are, the more difficult this will be (children, in general, find it quite easy). But anyone can do it!
Some climbers choose to use only their arms to climb. Others use either a foot loop or other “foot assist” method to easily push themselves up. Using a foot assist is very common.
You’re not technically climbing the tree. You’re climbing the rope, using the tree as your guide, or anchor. When you’re tired, just rest your feet on it if you’d like and resume when you’re ready.
Ascend up the tree as far as you wish. If you wish to pause and take in the view, all you have to do is let go (you’re safe!). It’s this kind of moment that’s often the most thrilling. Once you reach the branch where your rope is looped, you can descend whenever you wish.
If you’re not quite ready to come down and feel up to a bit of a challenge, you could always secure yourself to the branch and prepare to go higher. This will require placing new rope settings (called “pitches”) over above branches. However, this does take an experienced climber.
Begin your descent. This is the simplest part: all you have to do is grab the main knot (the Blake’s hitch) and gently pull down. Don’t go too quickly! A safe descent is a slow descent.
Many seasoned climbers often place safety (slip) knots in their ropes to keep themselves from descending too quickly. But remember: if you let go, you’ll stop. The Blake’s hitch prevents you from falling if you, for any reason, would need to let go.
When you become a pro, try the single rope technique. It’s not a hard-to-decipher name: this is when you just use one rope anchored to a branch or base of a tree. You then climb the other end of the rope via some type of mechanical device, like a mechanical ascender, where you “inchworm” up the rope.It’s easier to use your legs this way, making this method a little less strenuous. That being said, it actually requires more equipment. To ascend, you’ll need ascending devices and to descend, descending devices. However, devices that cover both can be found, though they’re rarer and more expensive.
Take a class. No book or Internet guide can truly teach you how to technically and safely climb trees. To really good get at it and become a pro, take a class. Some cities and states offer them, and in growing number, too – tree-climbing is getting more and more popular.Just doing it by trial-and-error is a terrible idea. A qualified instructor should be at your side at all times while you’re learning. Tree-climbing can be quite dangerous, so knowing what you’re doing is of utmost importance.
Always stay on rope. Once in a while, you may get the urge to go off your rope, to avoid an obstacle or get to a particular spot. Don’t do it! A wind could come up, you could lose your balance, and any number of things could then go wrong. Whether you’re just beginning out or a seasoned vet, always stay on rope.
Though it should go without saying, always wear a helmet, too. It’s easy to think that your head is safe and the tree is safe, but falling branches and other objects could result in serious injury.
Never climb near power lines. If your rope touches an active power line, you could get electrocuted. That quite literally will zap all the fun out of your tree-climbing excursion. When you’re doing your inspection, don’t even consider a tree that touches one of these.
Inspect a tree before you climb it. There are a number of factors you need to consider before climbing a tree and the most important one is safety. When you find a tree that looks promising, inspect its base, trunk, and branches. If it’s the right size, is sturdy and healthy, and there are no hazards, it could be a good contender.
Be careful in old trees. It’s possible they’re in the dying process and you don’t realize it – look for branches that are dying from their tips and dying branches up top.
Stay away from animals and nests. Climbing up a tree is all fun and games until a swarm of angry bees starts attacking you. Look for any sign of animals (insect or otherwise) before you begin.
Never wear leg spikes. It is highly frowned upon in the tree-climbing community to use leg spikes to climb trees (these essentially place a ladder-like rung under your foot and into the tree at all times). Why? They open up a tree to bacteria, viruses, fungi, and insects. Think of it as stabbing the tree, over and over. In the industry, they are only used for removing dead trees – they’re not even used for pruning.If, for some reason, you absolutely have to use leg spikes, make sure to wash them with alcohol between trees. You do not want to spread illnesses from a sick tree to a healthy one.
The spot where the branch meets the tree is the sturdiest place on the branch to place your feet. Use those spots to your advantage.
Maintain as many points of contact with the tree as possible. If the branch under your foot breaks, you need to be able to hold yourself up with your hands.
A good way to check if a branch can support your weight is to compare it against your arm – typically, if it’s as thick or thicker than your bicep, it can easily hold your weight. Of course, the strength of the limb is also dependent on the specifics of the tree itself, so always test it before putting your weight on it to make sure it is sturdy. However, this rule is generally safe.
Make sure that the tree you are climbing is dry, as you could easily slip and fall.
Branches are strongest near the trunk.
Climbing a tree is not like climbing a ladder. You might have to get creative to reach the next branch – you can hook your knees and arms around branches, or use your hands to pull yourself up to a higher branch.
If you have a sturdy, trustworthy tree in your own backyard, you might considering adding climbing ropes and even a tree house to add to the fun of climbing it. Over time, this tree will become like an old friend, and you’ll know the ins and outs of climbing it without even thinking.
Start by climbing a tree recommended to you by someone in your neighborhood. If there is a tree no one else has climbed… there might be a good reason why not.
Look out for sticky sap, especially on pine trees.
Always look up while moving up the tree.
Be sure to try not to get your foot stuck between limbs.
Make sure you protect your palms and soles of your foot, as you can easily damage them from the rough bark.
Use your legs more than you use your arms, as it is much less tiring.
Use gloves to prevent splinters.
Always remember, if you were able to climb up, you are able to climb down.
Test branches before you rest your weight on them!
Watch out for biting insects in the tree bark, especially on the trunk; for example, ants.
Before climbing onto a hard-to-reach branch, make sure you can safely get down.
If you jump out of a tree, make sure to roll after you land, no matter how high you are. Even a four foot drop can seriously damage your ankles or knees if you don’t absorb the shock of landing.
Be careful of rotting or overly thin branches that cannot support your weight.
Watch for poison ivy.
Make sure you don’t disturb any animals!
Do not climb alone. Always take a climbing buddy or a person who remains at the base of the tree to keep an eye out for you. At the very least, make sure the tree is within yelling distance of parents, friends or other family members.
Never jump off a tree. If you need assistance, tell your climbing buddy to yell for help.
Tree climbing is illegal in most city and state parks.
Things You’ll Need
A good tall and sturdy tree
A good pair of gloves and tennis shoes
Tree-climbing gear (if doing for sport)
Sources & Citations
How to Climb a Tree With No Branches
How to Climb Onto a Tree With Branches High Up
How to Measure the Height of a Tree
How to Climb a Ladder Safely
How to Find a Good Tree to Climb
How to Free Climb a Tree
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