Choosing the "Right" Tree

HansonWould you choose to climb this giant
eucalyptus tree?

TCI Photo Contest winning image
by Adrian Hanson
Which tree is the "right" tree for climbing? Among big trees, little trees, skinny trees and all the different varieties of trees, there are lots of choices for those with a rope and saddle.

We discuss tree health and risks in detail in our article "A Climber's Guide to Tree Inspection," but here are the most important safety factors to keep in mind when you choose a climbing tree.

  • The tree must be big enough to support you. The branches you loop your rope over need to be at least six inches (15 cm) in diameter. If they’re smaller than that, a branch could break when you put your weight on it. A tree with branches large enough for safe rope settings will usually be 18 inches (46 cm) in diameter or larger.
  • The tree must be healthy. Leave diseased, dying, or dead trees alone.
  • The tree must be safe from external hazards. Don’t ever climb a tree with power lines running through it. Also, check for an active animal or bird nest. Hornets, bees, and wasps will not add to your climbing pleasure if they come after you. An unhappy bird or mammal whose territory is being invaded can be very nasty as well.
  • The tree should be appropriate to your skill and comfort levels. It won’t take long to figure out that you are over your head if the first sturdy branch starts 50 feet up and your best throw with a throw line is only 30 feet high! Also, if you're afraid once you climb over 20 feet, a tree taller than this may not be much fun until you get more accustomed to climbing.

Factors to Consider

If a tree you’re considering meets the criteria above, it is more than likely an appropriate tree to climb. However, is it the tree you want to climb? The factors below will help you fine tune your choice so as to make your treetop experience the best it can be.

  • Permission

    Permission to climb can make or break a climbing day. It’s pretty unnerving to get up into a fine looking tree only to see a police car pull up below you. You’ll probably be questioned about what you are doing and asked to come down. Don’t take on climbs where you obviously need permission (on private land, for example), and don’t climb in areas which are designated “no-climb” zones such as the national parks in the United States.

    Owl picture
    Even the trees at the TCI Clubhouse are off limits sometimes! Pictures by Peter and Patty Jenkins

  • Shape

    Is the tree’s shape appropriate for the type of climb you’re planning? If there will more than two people in your climbing party, you’ll need a spreading tree, probably a hardwood. Conifers (pines, etc.) are suitable for only a couple of climbers at a time because all of your rope placements on their flexible branches will be next to the trunk. If you plan to set up a hammock or Treeboat, doing so in a conifer is impossible unless you are using a single point suspension system like a Portaledge. Most hammocks need two or more suspension points.

    Festival Climb3This spreading willow oak was a perfect shape for a TCI "Fun Climb" at a Tree Climbing Competition in Charlotte, North Carolina

  • Location

    Where is the tree, and how easy is it to get to? As you decide whether you want to climb in your own yard, a nearby park, or out in the woods somewhere, think about how long you can spend on your outing and your goals for the climb. For example, hiking your gear to a suitable tree in the woods takes more time, energy, and preparation. Is it an easy walk on a trail, or will you have to crawl through undergrowth and cat briars to get there? Is the weather forecast okay for the length of time you’ll need? There are many factors to take into consideration. For some, the more complicated the day, the more fun it is. For others, a relaxing backyard climb may be just the thing.

  • Sound

    How much sound will there be up in the treetops? Sometimes it’s a lot noisier than you might imagine. You’ll probably climb above most sound-absorbing objects on the ground, so noises from far away such as sirens, motorcycles, and trucks will be more pronounced. Find a tree out in the country if you hunger for more natural sounds, like running water and singing birds and insects.

    The View from Tim's HammockTim Kovar sent us this picture of the view from his sleeping hammock. We're envious!

  • Ambience

    What will the ambience be like around your climbing tree? Once you get past the initial thrill of being aloft, the surroundings become more important. What can you see below from up in a tree? It may be very entertaining to watch what folks do as they walk or drive below you. Depending upon leaf cover, you’ll be invisible to everyone, so you can be mischievous with animal noises and such. Maybe you’re looking for a hilltop or mountainside view? If you’re a bird watcher or naturalist, will a bird’s eye view in this tree be helpful? Or are you climbing solely for some peace of mind? Folks who want a break from the busy world might choose a country rather than urban setting.

    SplendorDoesn't this look like the perfect place to spend a late afternoon? (Picture courtesy Andrew Joslin)

  • Night Life

    Father Daughter Night Climb Mark LarsonClimbing under the stars is a unique experience! (Picture courtesy of Mark Larsen)What kind of night life do you want to experience? If you are climbing in an urban area, the lights will be bright, especially if you climb near a highway or residential area or if there are no leaves on the trees in winter. Some climbers prefer their night climbs away from the city lights. In a rural area they can do some serious star gazing from their hammock. Other climbers think a full moon is the way to go. Those with discerning ears might enjoy the insect sounds or owl calls in the darker hours.

    If you're going out on a night climb, remember to set up your throw line during the day so you don't have to throw the tree in the dark.

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