How Tree Climbing Works

By: Jessika Toothman
Extreme Sports Image Gallery Whether you climb trees for work or for play, it can be an exhilarating experience. See more pictures of extreme sports.

Cats, squirrels and kids are all notorious tree climbers, but when it comes to children, the urge to scramble up woody summits tends to die out as they grow older. But a growing trend known as recreational (or technical) tree climbing is changing that. Arborists see a lot more company up in the canopies these days, as outdoor enthusiasts return to their childhood roots (or the opposite, as it were) and enjoy a thrilling activity that helps make the cares of the world fall away.

Many people report feeling a sense of calm as they linger at the rooftop of the forest, removed from the demanding pull of daily life far below, and the experience leaves them enlivened and invigorated. Tree climbing is also good exercise, and once you have the basic gear, it's a lot cheaper than going to the gym. Although not every tree is ideal for climbing, many are perfect for the activity.


Before we jump into the fun, however, let's discuss some of the professional reasons people climb trees. Arborists, or tree-care specialists, perform a wide range of tree-related tasks such as pruning and removing dead branches, diagnosing diseases and insect infestations, supervising tree plantings, overseeing general tree health, advising in matters of tree safety and of course, planning some great Arbor Day festivities.

Other professionals you might spot up in trees include utility workers clearing away branches from power lines, scientific researchers studying certain ecosystems or wildlife and botanical surveyors tallying plant and animal populations. Of course the occasional hunter, environmental activist or nature photographer can also be found poking around the treetops, too. But rookie tree aficionados don't need an excuse to fit in a little recreational tree climbing, their motives can be as simple as wanting to spend some time outdoors and feel closer to nature.

Over the next few pages we'll cover several aspects of recreational tree climbing, including the proper training, the basic gear and the best bets for safety.


Tree Climbing Training

You need some training, son!

Learning to safely climb a tree is a lot more involved than simply spying some sturdy looking branches that seem like they could hold your weight as you scramble to the top. It's very important to sign up for some training with an expert who can show you the ins and outs of recreational tree climbing, otherwise you could have some nasty bruises -- or much worse -- to show for your efforts.

When it comes to certification, there are two commonly recognized levels: facilitator and instructor. People trained as facilitators can lead group climbs, but they aren't qualified to teach tree-climbing techniques to beginners. For that, they have to be professional instructors. Instructors start out as facilitators, then after they gain some hands-on experience, they can take their training to the next level.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service is one organization that offers training sessions for instructor certification. It covers a variety of topics, including:

  • How to run training sessions and group climbs
  • How to assess tree hazards
  • How to use and care for equipment
  • How to follow proper safety practices
  • How to perform rescue techniques
  • How to master skills such as knot tying and methods for ascending and descending

Some of these topics are also covered in regular training sessions for newcomers to recreational tree climbing, but certified instructors have to know them like the back of their hands. During beginners' training courses -- which adhere to a strict instructor-to-climber ratio -- new climbers can expect instructors to run through the basics and double-check to make sure everyone is rigged properly before heading up.

While everyone's airborne, instructors not only keep an eye out for each climber's progress, but also note factors like a change in the weather, outside distractions that avert climbers' focus and bad advice being passed among the climbers.

And keep in mind, training isn't just for neophytes -- climbers looking to take their skills up a notch can attend instructional courses, too. Depending on where you go, some of the activities in the training could include branch walking, advanced line setting and other more complex climbing techniques.


Tree Climbing Gear

Before setting their sights on the canopy, tree climbers need to focus on matters that are a little more down to earth -- namely, the gear they need to make an expedition into the arboreal world successful and safe. This is important not only for the climber, but also for the health of the tree.

First-timers don't need to buy out the store, or technically buy anything at all if they're going to be taught by an organization that provides equipment during a training session. Lots of tree-climbing gear is only suitable for people who've been climbing trees for a while and have the experience needed to try new tricks. A few items that should be used on any basic climb, however, include a helmet, a saddle (that's the harness that climbers sit in), carabiners, rope and a throw bag and line to launch the rope over the first branch.


Tree climbing ropes are typically made out of braided polyester, which is soft and pliable for easy knot tying. There are different thicknesses available, and each has subtle pros and cons depending on the climbing situation. The length of the rope is also important. While 150 feet (45 meters) is an oft-cited length, a good rule of thumb is to estimate the height of the tree you want to climb, then double it. That's how much rope you'll want.

You can never have too many carabiners. Heavy-duty ones with locks can attach the climbing rope to your saddle, while lighter ones are convenient for hauling gear. When it comes to a throw weight and throw line, these can be as simple as a stuffed beanbag attached to a nylon cord that climbers chuck over a reachable branch. In the case of taller trees, a slingshot or a bow and arrow may be needed to lob the line over a desired limb. Tree climbing can also cause little bits of debris to rain down on climbers, so it's smart to wear safety glasses. Tree climbers can't go wrong with nonslip gloves, either -- they protect hands from blisters and help climbers maintain traction.

As tree climbers gain experience, they can purchase additional items to enhance their adventures and make their aerial forays gentler on the trees. Some climbers, for example, even haul up hammocks or portable platforms so they can spend time relaxing on elevated perches, enjoying the view and sometimes spending the night. But for our purposes, this is enough equipment to get us started.


Tree Climbing Knots

Make those knots tight, or it could mean a nasty tumble.

Once you have some rope and a couple of carabineers, it's time to practice knot-tying. Fundamental to recreational tree climbing, tying knots is a skill enthusiasts need to master or they risk life and limb on an ascent.

There are about a million different types of knots out there for ambitious outdoorsy types to tackle, but luckily, climbing doesn't require that level of know-how. Before we run through some of the common examples, let's cover one of the most basic climbing questions that'll help you determine the type of setup you'll need to prepare: Whether you'll employ the doubled rope technique or the single rope technique.


The doubled rope technique is the more commonly practiced of the two. The rope is slung over a branch and both ends are used during the course of the ascent and descent as a pulley system, along with a series of knots. Basically, you're creating a loop and adjusting its length to move you up and down.

With the single rope technique, one end of the rope is knotted securely at the base of the tree while just the other is used for climbing, with the help of mechanical devices like ascenders and descenders. Both of these strategies have advantages and disadvantages, so an instructor can help you determine which is best for a specific circumstance.

Whichever you choose, knots will still perform lots of key roles during the climb, from anchoring your rope to the tree to attaching your harness to the rigging. Different instructors tend to favor different knots, but here are some examples of the many knot names you might hear flying around during a training course: bowline knot, buntline knot, butterfly knot, Blake's hitch, distel hitch, clove hitch, monkey's fist, marl, prusik, sheet bend and on and on. That's not even the end of it though -- many knots come in variations, and the difference between them is crucial. Tying a knot one way can make it sturdy enough to bear your weight, but tying it another way… not so much. You can see why it's important to know your knots.

We'll get into more safety considerations on the next page.


Tree Climbing Safety

First thing's first: Never invite the possibility of a fall. It's vital to always have at least one safety line tied securely in place at all times, or you could be in for a potentially fatal, or at the very least, painful fall. Second, follow all the directions your facilitator or instructor gives you. There's a reason they're leading the climb and not you.

As for other basic safety tips, if you've chosen your gear wisely, you're already ahead of the game when it comes to tree-climbing safety. We mentioned several obvious safety reasons for purchasing the appropriate gear, but there are other aspects to it as well. Make sure everyone's saddle fits snuggly, especially children's. Too loose and they can slip out, while you watch your parent-of-the-year award slip away as well. Helmets should be worn by all climbers, and also by any spectators hanging around ground-bound in the vicinity -- they not only offer protection in the event someone falls, they help guard against injury from dangerous hazards like falling branches.


It's also important to take care of your gear. Make sure it's able to take care of you if you're in a pinch. Always check ropes for fraying or other damage, and if you do spot some, tend to it immediately -- you don't want a rope snapping when you're way up in the air, after all.

Once all the gear is good to go, it's time to choose an appropriate tree to climb. Seemingly harmless trees can be fraught with potential pitfalls that make climbing dangerous, so it's crucial that climbers perform detailed inspections for any risks every time they climb. The first thing to look for is the presence of nearby power lines -- any lines really, just to be on the safe side -- because electrical current can arc up to 10 feet (3 meters). In the case of high voltage transmission lines, that distance can soar up to 35 feet (11 meters). What's more, humidity and rain can boost both so they're able to zap unwary climbers from even farther away, and the results are usually fatal. Don't think if you climb up the far side of a tree you're safe either -- the branches can act as conductors.

Next, focus in on the tree itself, paying particular attention to any signs of damage on the trunk and root system. Landscaping practices, construction vehicles, lightning strikes, insect infestations and fungi can all make a tree unsafe for scaling. Even if insects haven't damaged the tree, still keep an eye out for bugs like wasps and bees, as well as plants such as poison ivy and poison sumac.

Another easy way to help avoid any mishaps is to climb what's known as a tame tree. Tame trees have been climbed by others and cleared of safety threats. Wild trees, on the other hand, are best left to tree climbing experts and arborists. For other must-know knowledge about outdoor adventuring and arboreal musings, visit the links on the next page.


Tree Climbing: Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Global Organization of Tree Climbers Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • National Tree Climbing Program Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • New Tribe Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • Ray, Daniel. "How to Tie Knots for Tree Climbing." (12/9/2009)
  • SherrillTree Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • Society of Municipal Arborists Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • The International Tree Climbing Championship Web site. (12/9/2009)
  • Tree Climbers International Web site. (12/9/2009)