Tree Climbing Techniques
“Technical” (rope and saddle) tree climbing is a fun and relaxing activity, but it requires patience and practice to master. The skills required are fairly easy to learn, and just about anybody — no matter how old — can do it! It is also one of the safest activities on earth. To date we know of no incidents anywhere in the world in which a recreational tree climber using the TCI system and safety protocols has fallen or gotten hurt. Our aim here is to give you a sense of what recreational tree climbing is — a definition of the basic techniques and a general description of how it’s done.
Learning by doing is always the best way to learn tree climbing. If you can, take a hands-on class, TCI's Basic Tree Climbing Course, or something close to it, taught by a well-trained instructor. If that’s not possible, we suggest you take our "At Home Basic Tree Climbing Course," which combines an extensive online manual with our DVD, "Tree Climbing Basics". Either course provides all the information you need to start your tree-climbing pursuits safely.
It will also be helpful for you to take a look at our "All About Gear" section to become familiar with the different types of equipment that are used.
A warning: There are a great many YouTube videos which cover many aspects of tree climbing. Be careful! Watching a video is far different than taking training taken from well-established, proven instructors. YouTube information can get you into trouble.
Two Basic Tree Climbing Techniques
There are two basic tree climbing techniques: moving rope system (MRS, formerly called doubled-rope technique [DRT]) and single rope technique (SRT). MRS is simpler and safer, making it the preferred method for beginning climbers. (This is the system we teach in our courses.) The MRS is more commonly used in trees that grow up to 100 feet tall: oaks, poplars, maples, and pines, for example. SRT is the more appropriate method for climbing taller trees, like spruce, firs, and the other species which can grow to a height of 300 feet or more. (It is illegal to climb most old-growth redwood trees.)
- Moving rope system: The rope is draped over a branch. Both rope ends are used in a series of climbing knots which allow the climber to ascend and descend. When the climber isn’t moving, the main knot, called a modified Blake’s hitch, automatically holds him/her safely in place. Whenever climbers want to pause and enjoy the view, all they have to do is let go. Stopping in mid-air also gives the climber the thrill of being in height with complete safety.
- Single rope technique: One end of the rope is anchored to a branch or the base of a tree, and the climber ascends the other end of the rope by means of some type of mechanical device attached to it. The most common of these devices is an ascending-and-descending device attached to the rope by which the climber “walks” up the rope.
No matter which system is used to climb, there are two primary concerns: safety for the climber, and care for the tree being climbed. With this in mind, there are five cardinal rules for recreational tree climbing:
- Never take yourself off rope protection while aloft!
- Use appropriate safety and climbing equipment.
- Always use some form of branch protection when climbing with the MRS.
- Never climb with leg spikes.
- Do not unnecessarily prune tree branches.
See our Safety Guidelines page for safe and responsible tree climbing protocols and additional information.
A Brief Description of Doubled-Rope Technique (MRS) Climbing
Most climbers first learn to climb using the moving rope system (MRS, formerly called doubled-rope technique [DRT]). This enables them to practice in trees which are relatively shorter or smaller, where they can easily set up ropes, refine their climbing technique, and get used to being suspended from a rope above the ground.
To set up the climbing system, the climber must loop the rope over a branch. To do this, s/he uses some sort of rope placement tool, usually a throw bag (weight) attached to a thin throw line. The throw bag and line are thrown over a branch. The rope is then attached to the throw line and pulled up and over. At the same time as the rope is being placed, climbers also position their branch protection device (through which the rope passes) to minimize damage to the bark and the rope itself. The climber then prepares the climbing system by tying a series of knots which work together to advance the climber.
Once the climber has put on his saddle and helmet, he attaches himself to the climbing system. Now he’s ready for the ascent! Some climbers (primarily children) use only their arms to climb; others use either a Prussik (foot) loop or other “foot assist” method to easily push themselves up. MRS is usually a breeze for children, who are lighter in body weight. For adults, it takes more effort. But you certainly don't need to be an athlete in perfect physical shape to climb trees. Most people can do it.
Eventually the climber reaches the branch the rope is looped over. Now there is a choice: he can either secure himself to the branch and prepare to go higher, or descend. Climbing higher into the treetops requires placing new rope settings (called "pitches") over branches above. Several methods for doing this are available, depending upon the climber’s experience and the tree itself. This can be a complicated process, but it is also where most of the challenge of tree climbing comes from.
Descending is easy. All that’s required is to lightly grasp the modified Blake's hitch and gently pull down. Safe descents are not fast descents — a too-rapid descent can be dangerous. Climbers often tie "safety" (slip) knots into their ropes to prevent themselves from accidentally coming down too quickly. Another protection from getting hurt during the descent is the Blake’s hitch itself, which automatically stops the descent when the climber lets go of the knot.
We cannot describe what you will experience while up in a tree. Most people find a calmness, a disconnect from the busy world below. You’ll see, hear, and feel nature in a whole new way. You'll feel invigorated, too. Whatever your experience, tree climbing takes you into another world, and it can be as close as the branches of the tree in your own yard.