How to Climb a Tree Like a Pro (or, How *Not* to Use Tree-Climbing Spikes)

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Photo: Erik R. Trinidad

Rock climbing is an increasingly popular outdoor sport these days, however the one drawback to it is that you need to have said “rock” (or a rock climbing gym) to climb it — and not everyone has easy accessibility to one. However, there are plenty of trees in most parts of the country, and fortunately recreational tree climbing is another outdoor activity that is picking up speed. But before you start scrambling up the nearest oak or spruce tree, there are some arboreal things you should know about tree climbing as a sport — which I learned when getting a demonstration and lesson in Long Island, NY by Matt Roach, Supervisory Tree Climber for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a certified tree-climbing instructor through the U.S. Forest Service.

To Spike Or Not To Spike?

First off, if you’re going to climb a tree higher than you can jump down safely, you’re going to need gear. You would think that the easiest way to climb a tree is by using tree climbing spikes — spikes you mount around your boots so you can step up a tree trunk almost as if there are rungs on a ladder — however, this is mostly frowned upon amongst the tree climbing community. “Spiking is bad practice everywhere unless you are removing the tree,” Roach told me before showing its negative impact on the environment — fortunately on a tree that was slated to come down. “They are not to be used for pruning .”

Photo: Erik R. Trinidad

Severe damage is inflicted to a tree when climbing with sharp tree spikes — think of it as multiple stabbings — and it takes time to recover. Every time you puncture through a tree’s outer layers down to its innards, you inhibit the flow of nutrients, like cutting an artery — and tree climbing spikes can really dig deep into a tree (especially deciduous ones) when they’re supporting your body weight. But if you must use tree climbing spikes (in conjunction with a lanyard connected to your waist and strapped around the tree to support the rest of your body), use them responsibly: clean the spikes with alcohol after every use to ensure no fungus or disease is transferred from a sick tree to a healthy one.

“Conifers out west can usually handle the damage caused by the spurs because of their thicker bark,” Roach explained. “But I would still recommend climbing without spikes when possible.” With that said, he showed me the ropes — literally — of proper recreational tree climbing.

Learning The Ropes

The first rope, the throw line, is a thin, brightly-colored string connected a small sand bag that you throw upwards to loop around an upper branch. Once that comes down, it is tied to a climbing line — a “dynamic” rope, as opposed to the “static” kind used in rock climbing — and then pulled so the climbing line loops around the supporting branch. Add a tubular friction-saver at the loop, and you prevent rope burn on the tree.

Photo: Erik R. Trinidad

Tree climbing has some similarities to rock climbing when it comes to the harness; step into one and tighten the straps so that it will securely support your weight when connected to a climbing line. Like in rock climbing, there are many different kinds of harnesses to suit all types of personal preferences; use one that feels most comfortable.

How the harness is connected to the climbing line is also a matter of preference (and the type of harness), as there are several ways to do so. Roach connected me using a double-fisherman’s knot on a carabiner for the attachment point, along with a blake’s hitch using a split tail connected to the climbing line. Once harnessed in and connected, I was ready to climb my first tree as the tree climbers do.

Photo: Melissa Roach

The Difference Between Rocks and Trees

What I discovered is that unlike rock climbing, where you ascend by grabbing onto rocky holds and use ropes as a safety measure, tree climbing is actually more like “rope climbing;” you actually climb the rope more than the tree. The tree provides a guide as you ascend up, and a place to rest when you tire. (Tree climbing is a real abdominal work out.) Also, when perched on a tree, you can set up a multi-pitch like in rock climbing; once you climb as high as your rope, connect yourself safely to the tree via a lanyard, disconnect from the climbing line, and then throw your ropes up another level and continue the process upwards.

In any case, tree climbing is a fun activity to do, especially since you can do it in more places than you can in rock climbing. But can you really climb anywhere?

“Technically, every state or city park has rules against it, but depending on where in the country you are, and how big the park, people get away with recreational climbing everywhere,” Roach told me, adding that if you don’t damage the tree or the public safety, there’s nothing socially or environmentally wrong with it.

Tree climbing is fun for everyone. Photo: Matt Roach

There are more formal ways to approach the sport though. “Most cities and states offer free programs to get you started in tree climbing,” he said. Private companies also offer courses, but they can be pricey.

“Commercial tree climbing is big business. Recreational tree climbing is considered a small subculture, I guess. But it is my understanding that it is becoming increasingly popular every year.”

So the next time an old timer tells you to scram and to “go climb a tree,” you should go and actually climb a tree. Believe me, you’ll be the one having more fun.

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