Most new climbers share the same confusion when they buy gear for the first time: "There's so much out there! What should I get?" "Will I really use it?" "Will it hold up?" These are all excellent questions, because if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can spend a fortune buying gear you don't need and won’t use. In this section, we review all the basic types of climbing gear, what they are used for, and what to look for when you buy.
The kind of gear you buy will depend on your reasons for being in the trees. Are you a recreational climber? Do you climb frequently, or just once in a while? Do you do tree work for a living? Make sure to buy gear that is appropriate for the climbing you want to do. For example, the TCI-designed kits for beginning recreational or professional climbers, available at WesSpur and American Arborist Supplies, have everything you need -- and nothing you don't need -- in quality gear.
TCI Kit for Beginning
TCI Kit for
Entry-Level Tree Workers
Before you buy, we want to remind you of some guidelines which always apply:
Always use arborist ropes for climbing trees, not ropes intended for rock climbing or caving. Rock climbing rope (dynamic rope) is very stretchy and designed to take climber falls. Caving rope is stiff and won’t take arborist knots.
Colors. Tree climbing ropes come in a variety of colors. Which color you choose is a matter of personal preference. For recreational climbing, bright ropes are easy to see, but the muted earth-tone ropes make the climber less obvious to people on the ground. Professional climbers choose the brightest colored ropes because they want to see where their rope is in the tree. They also want their ground workers to see it to avoid cutting it with a chainsaw or accidentally feeding a loose rope end into the jaws of a chipper, which can cause a fatal accident.
Size. Tree climbing (arborist) ropes come in different diameter sizes, from 10mm to 13mm.
The largest is ½ inch (13mm). This thicker rope is easier to grip than others, but it is also the heaviest.
The smaller diameter ropes range from 10 mm (single rope technique only) to 11.6 mm for traditional doubled or single rope technique. These ropes are lighter in weight, which makes them easier to carry. However, they are harder to grip with bare hands because the exterior sheath has a tighter weave, which makes them more slippery. Climbers who use a smaller diameter rope solve this problem by wearing latex coated gloves, which improve grip considerably. The smaller diameter ropes also work better with mechanical ascending devices that are so popular with the more experienced climbers.
Construction. Arborist rope is built using different types of weaves. The two main weaves are called braided or kernmantle. Which one you choose is based on personal preference. Choose a rope of at least 16-strand construction. Never use a rope with a twist construction, as it will make you spin the moment your feet leave the ground. Arborist rope is soft and flexible, which makes it possible to tie the special climbing knots needed to climb trees. Stiff ropes will not hold the knots.
Sheath. Tree climbing creates a lot of friction on rope, which causes the rope to melt or fuse. The result is a stiff, “crusty” outer layer which doesn’t hold the knots as well. So tree climbing ropes are built with a special outer layer designed to resist friction and heat.
Elasticity. Tree climbing rope should not be stretchy, because a stretchy rope causes the climber to bounce and use more energy to climb. Arborist rope is more “static” as compared to the more elastic “dynamic” rock climbing ropes. That’s why arborist rope is the standard for tree climbing.
Rope ends. It’s a good idea to buy a rope with one of its ends (never both ends) spliced. The spliced end allows climbers to go beyond doubled-rope technique to use a more advanced climbing system, such as the hitch pulley method or single rope technique, to improve efficiency and speed.
There are three kinds of spliced ends.
The length of rope you need is double the climbing height of the tree (150 feet of rope to climb 75 feet up). Start by buying a rope that is 150 feet long unless you are climbing shorter trees, such as 50-footers, where you can use a standard 120-foot rope. If you plan to climb taller trees in the future, purchase a second, longer rope of 200 feet.
Tree climbing ropes will last for years of recreational climbing use if cared for properly. If you are climbing daily for tree work, replace your rope every year (this is the current ANSI standard). The old rope should be cut up into short pieces so it is not usable.
Your climbing rope is your lifeline — it must not fail while you are climbing! Always pay attention to your rope. Inspect it visually and by running it through your fingers before, during, and after every climb. If you find a damaged section, cut the rope immediately with a knife to prevent further use. It is easy to forget about a damaged section, and this is a rope that you should never use again!
Use a saddle designed for tree climbing. Never use a rock climber's saddle, which has tight narrow leg straps and is not designed for prolonged periods of suspension in midair. If you hang in a rock-climbing saddle for too long, it can become very painful. It can also create serious health risks by restricting blood circulation in the legs.
Saddles come in two types: leg-strap and butt-strap. Both of these saddle types have a strap that goes across the climber’s back. For comfort, some straps are wider and more thickly padded than others. A wide back pad is a good choice for a professional climber who specializes in tree removals.
New Tribe "Tengu"
Leg-strap saddles feature wide straps that are often padded. This type of tree climbing saddle allows the climber to hang comfortably for long periods of time. The wider the leg pad, the more comfortable it is.
Butt-strap saddles have a strap that goes across the climber's bottom, like one of those flexible swing-set seats. Some models have a stiff seat. The design that does not use a stiff seat squeezes the wearer's hips tightly and produces more than average climber pain. Butt-strap saddles are usually used by professional tree workers and are often much heavier than leg-strap saddles. The standard width of a buttstrap is three inches, but this narrow width is quite painful on prolonged hangs. Consider a wider strap if your climbs involve prolonged suspension time. If you choose to wear a butt strap saddle, make sure to use one that has two smaller straps that pass through the crotch and connect to the front of the saddle. These straps prevent you from slipping out of the saddle while hanging upside down or having the saddle slide up to your armpits.
New Tribe "Twist"
Tree climbing saddles made for children have been on the market for years. The most important consideration with kids' saddles is that they must be sized correctly. Putting children into an adult harness is dangerous, because if it's too big, a child can slip out of it or get into an awkward position. Small children are most comfortable using a padded leg-strap saddle. Don’t buy one with narrow leg straps, which is very uncomfortable. Again, never put children in a rock-climbing saddle because these saddles are not designed for prolonged periods of suspension.
Rope bridge (strap) saddles are popular now among professional climbers. This saddle provides a floating ring that climbers who walk out on branches find useful. The anchor ring slides on the bridge, allowing the saddle to remain in position more securely than a conventional saddle. The bridge is replaceable in most models.
"Onyx" rope bridge saddle
Tragedy can happen if one of the bridge ends comes untied, resulting in a certain fall. Most rope bridges/straps are sewn at the ends, which makes them safer but limits adjustments in bridge length. Other rope bridges make use of only a piece of arborist rope with knots tied on both ends. These knots (stopper knots) must be carefully inspected before every climbing day. Two or three inches of tail need to be showing on either side of each stopper knot.
A helmet should be worn at all times by every climber and everyone under the climbing tree. The obvious applies — helmets protect the climber and people on the ground from falling objects, such as gear that is dropped or dead branches that break off. Any falling object can land in unpredictable places as it bounces off other branches on the way down.
Always wear a helmet with a chinstrap to prevent it from falling off while you're looking up. A good helmet has ventilation holes that open and close for hot or cold weather.
Buy a good helmet made especially for tree climbers. Bicycle or hockey helmets are not designed to protect the head from falling objects. Tree climbing helmets are available in children's and adult sizes, are easy to adjust, and feature comfortable foam padding. The lower priced helmets are designed for taking a hit only on the top of the helmet. Higher quality helmets are designed for taking a hit on the top, sides, and front and back. They are the choice of more serious recreational climbers as well as professional tree workers. They even come in a variety of colors, which makes the climber easier to spot.
Am'D auto-locking carabiner
Delta screw link
Carabiners come in different shapes and sizes, and are used for a number of purposes, from life-support connections to hauling gear and attaching items to your saddle.
Use only a double action auto-locking carabiner for the main (life support) tie-in to your saddle, where your weight is supported. This type of carabiner requires you to make two distinct moves to open the gate, and provides the best safety protection of any type of carabiner. It cannot be opened accidentally by a twig or small branch.
Screw links are primarily used as life support tie-ins. They come in different shapes: delta, pear, and oval. The delta-shaped ones are used specifically to connect the three life-support connections on some New Tribe saddles. Whatever type of screw link you use, make sure it is rated for 5,000-pound tensile strength. Buy ones that are made in France and stamped with the name “Mallion Rapide.” The screw links that are not stamped are made in China with a softer, inferior metal; the threads on these are easily damaged.
Bent-gate and other non-locking carabiners are great for hanging gear off your harness. Get different colored ones for color coding and brightening up your gear rack. But be careful! The gates can open easily and without warning. Never use them for life support!
The first challenge you'll encounter when you climb large trees is rope placement: How do you get a rope over a branch that is 50 feet up? Answer: You attach it to a throwline and pull it up and over. And how do you get a throwline over the branch? You attach a throw weight to it, and throw it.
Throw weight with loop
The throw weight is a “beanbag” ranging from 6 to 16 ounces in weight. The throw line is a 1.25mm to 3mm polypropylene or dynema line, which is usually 150 feet long. A skilled climber can lob such a line over a branch 70 feet high. Use an 8-10 ounce throw weight for the thinner throw lines (1.25-2.25mm). Use a 12-16 ounce throwbag for trees with rough or flaky bark. Make sure the throw bag has a loop sewn in the bottom. That little loop gives you more options for throwline placement.
Tie a throw weight on both ends of the throw line. This increases your chances of precise line setting. It also protects you from the embarrassing error of having an unsecured line end sailing up into the treetop just when you scored your mark.
Adventurous climbers usually like to climb larger or taller trees. Professional climbers seek the highest fork in the center of the tree at the beginning of the work climb. Two tools can be used to get a line placed over these high points.
Sherrill "Big Shot"
Air-Powered Tree Access
The "Big Shot" slingshot by SherillTree is a large slingshot head mounted on an 8-foot fiberglass pole. There is even an aluminum pole that will extend to 10.5 feet for those extra tall trees. The throw weight is attached to a line that is usually over 200 feet long. To keep the line from getting tangled, use a throw line cube (or stack your line on a tarp). Always have a throw bag on the other end of the line. Always shoot with the throw line in front of you or risk getting a serious cut on your ear as the line goes out and up from the ground. The horns of the slingshot should be facing away from you while shooting.
Air guns are the newest technology for high line placement. They use compressed air. Air guns have many distinct advantages:
Beware! Big Shots and air guns are not toys! Here are some injuries we know of:
Branch savers (also known as cambium savers, rope savers, rope sleeves, and friction savers) protect a tree from damage by climbers. Tree protection is a fundamental rule for TCI — our standards require the use of branch savers by every climber in all activities we host. The use of branch protection also tells the public that tree climbers care about trees and that we take steps not to harm trees in any way.
Branch savers come in two basic forms:
Rope Sleeve: These are the easiest to place and most commonly used. They have two functions: they protect the tree from rope abrasion; and they decrease friction on the rope, which increases rope life while making it easier to climb.
There are two types of rope sleeves:
Leather branch saver
The Ring and Ring Friction Saver (patented by Buckingham) is a thick strap with a ring of different sizes sewn at each end. The rope runs through the two rings. This type of friction saver is used more commonly by professional tree workers. It takes a little more skill to place it into the tree and de-rig it, but allows climbers to install a retrievable anchor point that can be wrapped around a trunk. Know that if you pull the rope through the wrong end, the line will get stuck in the tree. Very frustrating!
The traditional climbing method uses a rope which is hung over a branch, tied with several knots into a loop, and connected to the climber’s saddle with a life-supporting carabiner. The climber ascends and descends by using the knots to shorten or lengthen the rope loop. This climbing system, formerly called doubled-rope technique (DbRT) has a new name: “moving rope system” (MRS). It’s the only climbing system in the world that makes use of a rope that moves over an object (anchor point).
In this section, we'll talk about mechanical devices that can be used with MRS, SRS (stationery rope system, formerly called single rope technique [SRT]) or both systems to help make climbing easier or faster. Some of these devices are for ascending only, some are for descending only, and then there are the more useful devices that can be used for going in both directions.
Mechanical ascenders are devices that can be attached to your rope, one foot, or both feet to help with movement up the rope. Some experienced climbers like these devices because climbing with them is easier or faster than the traditional knots-on-rope system. These tools should be used ONLY after you have mastered the traditional knots-on-rope (Blake’s hitch) system.
Hand ascenders are used only with stationery rope systems. The traditional ascenders with handles come in a couple of forms. One is made for a single hand, the other has two handles so both hands can be used. Handled ascenders have a hinged cam with teeth that grab the rope when loaded. These little teeth are either straight or at a 45-degree angle. The teeth that are straight are considerably kinder to the rope than the angled type of teeth that mangle the rope if the climber falls.
Most climbers are not using hand ascenders any more. They prefer to use combination ascending-descending devices instead.
Climbers who want to avoid too much use of their arms use foot ascenders with both the moving and stationery rope systems. Foot ascenders make more use of the climber's leg muscles, which are much stronger than arm muscles. There are different styles of foot ascenders, but they all do the same thing — they help make climbing less strenuous, more ergonomic, and faster.
The foot ascender is not meant for life support. The climber must be tied in with a life-supporting attachment to the saddle.
Warning! The foot cam ascender straps on to one of the climber’s shoes. Make sure you take off your foot ascender before descending! If you don’t you’ll find yourself hanging upside down in a complicated situation. Practice getting out of the foot ascender while on rope a few times before you take to the heights.
Knee ascenders are used to make a “rope-walker” system. This system incorporates a floating ascender that uses a bungee cord to give you a “stair walk” up the rope. The rope walking system can be used with either a moving rope system (MRS) or with a stationary rope system (SRS system).
Be careful! Always be cautious when learning a new climbing system.
Descending devices have their place, but are fast becoming outdated as newer systems are developed that go both up and down the rope.
Be careful if you are using a descending device. The old-school figure 8 will drop you to the ground if you let go of the rope. Other devices, such as a rack, will drop you down also if you let go of the rope.
Cammeddescending devices, like the Petzl I'd, are used by canopy researchers and some redwood climbers. These devices incorporate a handle that you pull to come down. Some have “panic stops” that stop you if you pull the handle down too far; this prevents uncontrolled descents that are too fast. These descenders are much safer than traditional figure 8 descenders. Professional climbers don’t use these descenders because of their limited use.
Remember: The traditional moving rope system that uses knots and one double-locking carabiner will you get you up and down a tree. It’s not fancy, but it is just about foolproof. It’s also very inexpensive. That’s why new climbers and hotshot speed climbers should be familiar with the basic traditional system first. If you drop one of the parts of a more advanced system out of the tree without having a spare, it could be embarrassing (if not dangerous) if you are not familiar with the traditional system.
All-in-One Tools for Ascending AND Descending
There is a whole new group of devices that are used with single rope and doubled rope technique climbing. One tool does it all: these devices allow you to go up and down the rope. The bad news is that some of these devices are expensive. The good news is that they operate predictably if you know how to use them. The one thing these devices have in common is that they will cause you to slide down the rope very quickly if you pull on them too hard. Use them with respect. You can get hurt if you use them improperly.
Three popular ascending/descending systems in use today are the Unicender, the Rope Wrench, and the Rope Runner. (The Rope Runner should be used only by experts; it's sensitive to touch.) There are other two-way systems on the market as well. Weigh the differences as to how you will use the tool. If you can, find a climbing friend who is using the tool, and ask questions. Do a little research. If it is a newly-designed device, it is sometimes better to be patient and wait to see if any flaws or upgrades appear. Problems are either discovered through time or develop with use. What’s new isn’t always safe.
New systems are being developed every year. It really is incredible how many tools and techniques are showing up in the catalogs with enticing copy explaining their virtues and how they will change your climbing life. But beware! There have been some mishaps using new climbing technology. Climbers can do some funny things with gear. Sometimes our imagination can lead to accidents, also known as "user error." Often the user doesn’t get the right training or has not learned the gear’s limitations. Read the instructions carefully! Remember the rule with new gear and technique:
Lanyards fall into two major groups.
When you're in a tree and your ropes are all close together, it can be hard to know which rope is going where. To make identification easier, have a lanyard with a different color than your long climbing rope.
Your rope lanyard needs to be a two-way system: you need to be able to go up with it and then go back down with it. Being able to adjust the length of your lanyard while it is loaded with your weight is crucial for getting into the best position, like when you are going to make a cut or throw a throw weight and line into another section of the tree.
The length of lanyard you use determines how versatile it is. If you use a short lanyard, say 10 feet or less, it will be good only for a temporary tie-in point or a close position setting. A lanyard of 25 feet or longer will permit you to climb longer distances and provide you with more positioning opportunities.
Lanyards have come a long way since the cave man days of leather straps and double buckles. Pre-made ones come in a number of different configurations and lengths. Some have sewn or hand-spliced tight-eyes on both ends that accept double action auto-locking carabiners. Others for professional use have locking snaps sewn in on both ends with an adjusting device. Some have a fixed mechanical ascender between the two ends, while others use a mechanical ascender and a sewn-in locking snap. New systems are being developed every year, too.
The most versatile system to date is a double-ended lanyard (CE lanyard or Hipstar Flex lanyard). One end uses a Pinto pulley along with a hitch cord. The other end uses a short loop to make a 6-wrap Prusik knot. A climber uses both ends to “leapfrog” between settings for long protected branch walks. This system is particularly useful for a new climber who needs a feeling of more security. The 30-foot length gives the climber the most options.
If you are new to tree climbing, a homemade lanyard is acceptable. All you need is a 25-40 foot piece of 10-13mm arborist rope with a termination knot (figure eight on a bight or anchor bend) tied at both ends to take a carabiner. You can tie your knots or use a 6-wrap sliding Prusik loop to make this lanyard adjustable. There are other ways to make the lanyard adjustable; the right way is the one you understand and use regularly. As you get more skilled at tree climbing, you might want a pre-made lanyard that works more smoothly.
No matter if you’re climbing for fun or tree work, you must always use a bombproof setup that will provide complete safety hour after hour, climb after climb. Practice low to the ground first to get used to how you can use the new technology. Look at the videos, and hang out with another climber who uses the system.
Pulleys have lots of uses. They come in a variety of designs and colors, and are generally small. If you are going to suspend yourself from a pulley, use one that is rated for over 5,000 pounds. A pulley with a lighter load limit can be used for light duty, such as advancing a friction hitch. Climbers should never use a pulley for life support that has been used for lowering loads.
Types of Pulleys
Specific uses call for different types of pulleys:
New pulleys are being marketed every year. Look closely at what the different models can do so you don’t end up with a box full of sparkling gear that sits unused in your garage.
Protection from damage is crucial for keeping your gear safe and in good working order. Let’s take ropes, for instance. Ropes function differently when they’re exposed to chemicals like gasoline or chainsaw bar oil; they can get nicked if sharp cutting tools are nearby; and they often get gummed up at the bottom of a car trunk or truck beds. They also get wet if they’re not stored properly. Have you ever climbed with a wet rope? It's very difficult.
Keep all your gear in one place. It’s frustrating when you realize you left an important piece of gear at home or in the shop. Now you are forced to use a different piece of gear, which may not be as safe or effective as the one you left behind.
There are all kinds of ways to store gear. Here’s a list of the options available to you.
Rope bags hold your rope in a neat pile and protect it from dirt particles, moisture, and chemicals. They also prevent your rope from tangling up.
Rope tarps roll up to protect your rope and roll out for tangle-free rope deployment. Some have a shoulder strap.
Standard hikers’ backpacks are appropriate too. After all, these are designed to carry heavy loads comfortably. But backpacks designed for carrying tree gear use stronger fabrics that are more puncture-resistant. Use a sewn daisy chain to keep your small parts, such as carabineers, strung together.
Haul bags are backpacks that are commonly used by rock climbers and mountaineers. They have a thick outer shell that can take enormous amounts of abuse. They are basic in design. They do not have pockets, but some have holes for stringing light cordage for hanging gear off of.
Rope buckets have a stiff outer shell with a number of holes for stringing small cordage for organizing small pieces of gear on the outside.
Rigging packs are backpacks with a lot of pockets with gear loops sewn inside. The largest (center) portion is for the rope and helmet. The side pockets allow you to organize gear pieces individually hung on small loops -- perfect for carabiners and other gear for rigging.
Flight bags are specifically designed for the traveling climber who wants a carry-on piece of luggage that will store overhead. The center part of the bag will take a 200-foot rope and the side bags have loops sewn inside the pockets for the smaller pieces.
All of the above storage bags allow you to deploy your rope with a minimum of tangles.
Gear bags attached to your saddle are useful. What do you want to bring up into the tree with you? Small bags can hold an extra throwline and other small gear, food, and other personal items.
First Aid Kit
A small first aid kit attached to your saddle is an important part of every climber's gear. However, the items to include in it are different, depending upon the type of climber you are. Here are our suggestions for what each type of first aid kit should include.
> For recreational climbers:
> For professional climbers:
Protect your eyes! There are all kinds of things in trees that can give you a problem if you’re not using eye protection. The most common are twigs that can poke your eyes. Ouch! Small particles like bark fragments and lichen can fall into your eyes, too. A particle as small as a pinhead can cause a huge gush of tears or broken blood vesssel with accompanying pain. No fun.
TCI recommends that climbers wear safety glasses for eye protection. Industrial plastic safety glasses are inexpensive and can be found at any hardware or arborist supply store. Sunglasses are not acceptable, as they are often quite expensive and are not made for eye protection. Don’t forget to get a cord for the glasses. That way you can take the glasses off and hang them off your neck to get a cool photo or wipe sweat out of your eyes.
Inexpensive latex-coated gloves like gardening gloves have a tacky surface that enhances rope grip. These gloves also protect your hands from blistering or rope burns during a descent. Sturdier non-slip gloves, like those used by carpenters, are also available. Leather gloves are acceptable for descending but are useless for ascending because their slick surface doesn’t allow for a firm grip of the rope. Wearing gloves with the fingertips cut off makes it easier to handle gear such as carabiners.
It’s hard to describe a night spent high in a tree. You could call it "magical," but "otherworldly" is better. You will hear sounds you have never heard before. When the wind comes up, the tree will speak to you in another language as it waves its arms in the breeze. Something happens to you during a night in the trees. It is hard to describe.
There are two types of sleeping platforms to choose from if you want to snooze or spend a night in the treetops.
New Tribe Treeboat
Black Diamond Portaledge
The "Treeboat" is a moderately priced, lightweight, comfortable hammock that will last for years of hard use. New Tribe designed this hammock especially for spending time in a tree. It requires from two to four points of contact to stretch the durable canvas tight between the trees. The Treeboat can hold two people. You can also buy insulation for underneath your sleeping bag in colder weather.
The Portaledge hammock was first designed for rock climbers who spent nights on big rock walls. These hammocks need only one point of attachment. The adjustable platform base is tightly strung on aluminum aircraft tubing so there is no swag; it’s like sleeping on a cot. A rainfly is available. Portaledges are heavy (twice the weight of a Treeboat) and very expensive.
Some tentsile, either low to the ground or higher up in the trees. There are different styles and sizes of this tree-tent which can accommodate up to three people.people like to put up a
String or thin fabric hammocks can be used for lounging for short periods of time. Some can be rolled up in a ball and stored in a pocket. But they do not give you firm back support. They swag in the middle. You’ll wake up with terrible back pain if you spend the night in one of these.
TCI has designed two kits for new climbers. We know there are plenty of gear kits available to the public, but ours include only the gear you need, and nothing you don't need. We were very selective about the type and quality of gear we included. We considered safety, durability, comfort, and ease of use as we made our decisions. Where appropriate, the gear in our kits is also rated to professional tree climbing industry standards.
TCI Kit for Beginning
TCI Kit for
Entry-Level Tree Workers
You can spend a great deal of money on gear you are not yet ready to use. Take a look at our recommendations by downloading the information for beginning recreational or professional climbing kits. These kits are available from two national vendors of tree climbing gear, American Arborist Supplies and WesSpur. New members of TCI get discount coupons to these vendors.
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