Tree Saddle Hunting 101
An unconventional “tree stand” has taken the hunting world by storm. For decades, a deer hunting climbing saddle, has been a secret weapon in the arsenal of legendary big-buck killers such as Dr. Robert Shepard (Alabama author of Whitetails: An Unprecedented Research Driven Hunting Model), and John Eberhart (author of Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails). But now the secret’s out…and hunters everywhere are discovering the advantage of simple and effective tree saddle hunting.
What is a Tree Saddle?
A tree saddle is a lightweight type of stand made from straps and fabric instead of metal. They are similar to the work harnesses used by arborists and utility workers. While most saddles weigh just a couple of pounds, they are capable of supporting literally tons of weight. Used properly, a tree saddle is impossible to fall out of, since the hunter is strapped to the tree at all times.
Sitting in a deer hunting saddle is similar to sitting in a swing on a children’s playground. The fabric cradles your rear, and an ultra-strong rope called a “lead” or “tether” attaches to loops located by each hip at one end, and securely around the trunk of a tree at the other. Used in conjunction with one of several compact and lightweight platform options, the hunter sits facing the tree, and can swing smoothly and quietly 360° around the trunk.
Advantages of Tree Saddle Hunting
Why should you switch to tree saddle hunting? Simply put, it is the safest, quietest, most comfortable, and most versatile way to hunt from a tree, and can give you significant advantages over other hunters.
If you are a mobile, “run-and-gun” hunter, a saddle gives you the freedom to set up on fresh sign without paying attention to finding the “perfect” tree. If you prefer to preset trees in advance of the season, a saddle allows you to set multiple locations for a fraction of the money and effort required with other stand types. Saddles perform well in almost any circumstance, and for almost any type of hunter.
Because deer hunting saddles are made of fabric instead of metal, they are incredibly compact. They weigh a fraction of what conventional stands do, and are typically either worn on your body for the walk in or carried in a daypack. This allows you to hunt further off the beaten trail, far away from other hunters and closer to the isolated areas big bucks call home.
Because there is no metal to tink or clank, and nothing to catch on thick underbrush, you can execute a stealthier approach when hunting near known bedding areas. The ability to quietly and easily navigate terrain other hunters cannot can lead to chances at cautious old bucks that many hunters will never see.
A tree saddle hunter sits facing the trunk of the tree. This can feel strange at first, but thanks to the range of movement around the tree that the saddle’s tether affords, an alert hunter can learn to stealthily position the trunk between himself and approaching deer. This is a huge advantage, especially when hunting in an area where multiple deer are lingering for prolonged periods of time.
Peeking around the trunk like a squirrel, a hunter might as well be invisible to his prey! For gun hunters, the trunk and tether make a sturdy rest, allowing for greater accuracy at longer distances. Bow hunters can learn to use the trunk to help conceal the motion of drawing their bow, which as any seasoned archer knows is oftentimes the “make or break” moment right before a kill.
Unlike the climbing stands used by many hunters who like to stay mobile, a saddle works in leaning and limb-filled trees. A saddle can also be used on any diameter tree that will hold your weight and is not so large that you cannot throw a lineman’s belt around it. This means that a saddle hunter isn’t forced to hunt perfectly sized, straight, limbless trees. Instead, he can focus on finding good sign and then make whatever tree is available work. While a hunter in a lock-on type stand is not as limited as one in a climber, he still cannot hunt from the extreme ranges of tree diameter, and his stand will not self-level on the extreme angles that a saddle hunter can safely hang from.
Tree Saddle Safety
Speaking of safety, no other stand compares to the safety of a tree saddle. It is impossible to fall out of one, because it combines your “stand” with your safety harness. Many hunters are guilty of not wearing their harnesses due to perceived issues with comfort, mobility, or performance. A saddle hunter has no choice but to wear his harness every time he climbs! Since a saddle does need shoulder straps like a conventional, full-body safety harness, it is more comfortable and less restrictive.
Deer hunting saddles come with built-in loops for attaching a lineman’s belt while climbing. This allows a hunter to use both hands to work with and climb, helps maintain balance, and prevents a backwards fall. Saddles also come with load-rated waist buckles to secure them to your person, and leg loops to prevent you from sliding out of the bottom while tree saddle hunting.
At height, a climbing saddle hunter securely fastens their tether around the tree, and clips into their saddle using a locking carabiner. This is done before removing the lineman’s belt and stepping up onto the platform; providing an additional safety measure during what many believe is the most dangerous point of a climb: the transition between your climbing method and hunting platform.
Since a climbing saddle hunter is always attached to the tree with either a lineman’s belt, a tether, or both, and there is constant tension on these devices, a true fall is simply not possible. If a step were to break or a boot were to slip, a saddle hunter would swing a few inches and land facing the tree. This short swing is very different from the potential drop that can be experienced by a tree stand hunter wearing a conventional harness. It puts less force on the hunter’s body, and puts him in a much better position to recover. The extreme ease of recovery, combined with the fact that a saddle does not cut off circulation to the legs like a full body harness, makes death or injury due to suspension trauma unlikely.
In short, a deer hunting saddle is not only the most versatile option for elevated hunters; it’s the safest!
Where Can To Buy A Tree Saddle
For those interested in purchasing a saddle hunting rig, I would recommend the following companies:
Aero Hunter and its parent company New Tribe have been building saddles and arborist harnesses for years. The company’s extensive experience means that they are at the front of the pack when it comes to designing lightweight, safe, and innovative saddles. They offer various accessories for their saddles, including quality lineman’s belts and tree tethers. They currently have two models available, the Kestrel and the Kite. I have hunted out of their Kestrel model for the past two seasons, and it has held up well to the abuse I’ve put it through.
John Reed at JX3 Outdoors also makes a phenomenal “hybrid” saddle. It combines the utility of a saddle with the comfort of a Millenium or Summit style stand. It also doubles as a ground chair and frame pack. The polymer and mesh design is cool and lightweight, and provides excellent back support. I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by the concept of hunting from a tree saddle, but is not sure that they would find a more minimalistic saddle comfortable.
Once you have a tree saddle for hunting, a good way up the tree is the next priority. Mark Cama, owner of Treehopper LLC, has designed the perfect climbing method to complement a tree saddle. His Treehopper Hand Drill features a durable aluminum body and can be purchased with a folding handle, which makes it extremely compact. It is used in conjunction with “grade 8” steel bolts, which are much stronger than other manufacturer’s screw-in steps, and cheaper to boot.
The final piece of tree saddle hunting gear you will need is something to rest your feet on. Last year I had the incredible opportunity to collaborate with Dan Osterhout of Eastern Woods Outdoors. He introduced the lightest strap-on climbing step that has ever been offered: the Squirrel Step. Five of these steps on a strap with either an over-center or ratchet buckle makes for a platform that weighs less than 1.5lbs and fits in a cargo pocket. They can also be used for climbing in areas that do not allow hunters to penetrate the bark of the tree. Dan also stocks climbing stick and saddle platform components for those interested in building their own, custom gear.
I personally trust my own safety and the success of my hunts to the above manufacturers. However, they are not the only players in the market. The following companies also offer deer hunting saddles and saddle related gear:
Wild Edge is a veteran owned company that manufactures a unique, camming climbing step. Their steps are rock solid on the tree, and are used both for climbing and as a platform at hunting height.
Out On A Limb has recently introduced two platforms for saddle hunters: the Podium and the Perch. The Perch is unique in that it is used in conjunction with Wild Edge’s step, increasing the surface area of it to make it more comfortable.
Gear will never be a substitute for hard work and dedication. However, since switching to a tree saddle hunting, I have personally had more big buck sightings and harvests, and would never consider going back to a conventional stand. If you are currently shopping for a new stand, I would strongly encourage you to consider adding a tree saddle to your arsenal!