Unless you’ve been living in a tree or not paying attention, saddle hunting seems to be the rage these days. For those who still don’t know what it is, saddle hunting is commonly defined as a sling-style seat and safety harness combination that a hunter wears around his hips, connected to the tree with a rope tether. A saddle combines a safety harness in the form of this sling-style seat and the weight of the hunter is carried by the saddle and tether the entire time. This tether is attached to the front of the saddle via a rope bridge connected to each side of the saddle at the hips of the hunter, rather than a loose tether hooked behind the hunter as is common with traditional safety harness arrangements. Also contrary to most other tree hunting styles, a saddle hunter is facing the tree rather than being backed up to it, and typically sitting or leaning in the harness instead of standing.
The reasons for facing the tree are both practical and tactical in saddle hunting. First, being tethered from the front of the hunter makes it less practical to hang in any other direction. One of the things a new saddle hunter learns is the placement of the tether has an effect on comfort as well as where one naturally hangs as gravity pulls in the same direction regardless. The seat style of the harness provides a comfortable means of support for long hunts and allows for maximum free movement as well. The tactical advantage that comes from facing the tree is that this allows the hunter to keep the tree between him and the approaching game, reducing the silhouette of the hunter and improving the chance for a shot without being busted. Let’s face it, none of us look smaller with our back to a tree than we do peaking around the tree. Between the reduced silhouette and the ability to move around the trunk silently, a hunter can often stay concealed longer and thus have a better chance at a shot at approaching game.
Why a saddle?
It is generally accepted that the cost of a saddle and gear would exceed that of a climbing treestand or a lock on with a set of sticks. While this may be true, the flexibility of the saddle and a good climbing system has a synergistic value, in that it can climb a greater variety of trees than a single stand of any other type. This combined with being lighter to carry one could claim is more portable than the rest. Having one saddle system that you are skilled with is of more value than multiple pre-set stands which would cost more to own and require pre-hanging, and removal after season.
Saddle hunting is regarded by some as the most mobile style of hunting out there because it can be accomplished with gear that weighs very little compared to other stand setups. It can be easily carried further into the woods as the weight is not restrictive on a long hike into a remote stand location. It is also not as limited by tree selection as a typical climbing stand where navigating limbs on a tree trunk can be noisy and unsafe. The entire setup is also not usually left in a tree but rather removed daily thus limiting scent left behind, less likely to alert game or other hunters to stand locations as is more likely with ladder or lock on stands.
How to start?
Getting started in this rapidly growing and popular style of mobile hunting can be a confusing and sometimes a cash-consuming endeavor. You can spend a lot of money buying gear that you may not need or end up not using. It is possible that what works for one person another finds uncomfortable or does not work in their situation. This also is one of the real advantages of saddle hunting, the individuality by which each hunter’s gear or system that they run is unique to them. Virtually no two hunters will use the same equipment in the same way to accomplish a single task of waiting in a tree for a whitetail.
The most useful tool I’ve found when getting into saddle hunting is social media. There are hunting forums, saddle hunting forums, and Facebook groups all dedicated to sharing saddle hunting information, methods, tips, and tricks. YouTube videos also abound on many of the topics discussed as well. This is a great way to increase your knowledge, research specific topics, and get new questions answered. www.saddlehunter.com is the go-to forum, but these days there is chatter on every message board about it and many questions can be answered that way. The classified sections of these sites are also usually very busy and can be a good way to buy and sell gear making the financial investment less of a burden because at some point you have to plunk down your dollars for some gear and give it a try. If something you bought doesn’t suit you, you can often recover your investment and move on. The basic gear that you need to have is a saddle, a climbing system, and a platform. There are other things such as knee cushions, knee pads, gear hangers, hoist ropes, extra climbing aiders, and many other items to consider, but the 3 basic items above form a saddle system. One can purchase systems that have everything or go a la carte and buy what suits you separately. You don’t need to start with the top-end gear: you may have an old stand or climbing sticks that can be used as well to get you started, and then add items along the way, the choice is yours.
Choice of saddles
The saddle is the first item to begin with, which would include the tether, a lineman’s belt, and the basic gear to climb. The choices among different saddle brands are many, similar to all hunting gear though the opinion of the best is subjective. The most commonly used saddles available these days come in a single panel or two-panel design, the difference being the size of the seat and increased support from a two-panel over a single. The fixed bridge and adjustable bridge also allow more adjustment to find that desired comfort spot for each hunter. To choose the correct one the first time out, as with many things in hunting, is easier to wish for than to accomplish. It is again very dependent on the individual hunter. The basic purpose of a saddle is the same, but obviously, all are constructed slightly differently, and each hunter is slightly different in build as well. Be sure to consider the size of the saddle and your hunting gear when choosing. Several different companies manufacture saddles right here in the US, and some are veteran-owned as well. I like the idea of my money being spent here rather than buying imported items.
A tether is used to connect your saddle to the tree. It is your lifeline so its importance should be obvious. This should be a rope tether of good quality, with an eye sewn in or tied on one end. This rope is girth hitched around the tree and connected to the bridge of the saddle by an adjustable means of a knot or mechanical adjuster. The height of the hitch on the tree and the length of the tether affects your comfort and shooting flexibility directly. Let’s be honest, we are out there to shoot a deer, and the more comfortable we are the longer we can maintain a vigil and be still. There is only one way to adjust the height of the girth hitch and that is with your tether height and that is to loosen it, raise it or rotate it and re-tighten. Fortunately, you have more options for adjusting the tether length as you hunt. The prussic knot is a sliding hitch used commonly in saddle hunting to adjust the length of your tether. There are other knots and also various mechanical means of adjusting tether length, the same type of gear used by rock climbers and arborists. One should still learn the prussic knot and carry the means to make one in the event it is needed to get safely out of an unsafe predicament. It is also very important to become familiar with the size of ropes you use concerning the size range that a mechanical device is rated. Using the wrong type or size of rope with a mechanical device is asking for trouble.
The lineman’s belt or flip line as it is sometimes called is used to allow hands-free support to the hunter allowing him to work with gear while climbing and eliminate the chance of falling to the ground. It wraps around the tree and is connected on both sides of the saddle, similar to the way a lineman climbs a utility pole. The rule of thumb is to keep your line higher than your waist as much as possible. This will pull you to the tree quickly should you lose your footing. If the loop is lower than your waist, it increases the distance you must fall to take up the slack and increases the chance you will injure yourself too.
Saddle hunters commonly hunt with a platform or some means of foot support while in the tree. This allows you a solid fixed point for your feet when leaning or when trying to maneuver around the tree for a better shot or to hide from the approaching game. Some platforms are too small to stand on for any length of time ranging up to larger units that will allow a comfortable perch to stand on should it become necessary. Still, other hunters forgo a platform and choose a ring of steps or a small set of foot pegs, or a tiny platform on their top climbing stick. Whatever you choose, be sure it is securely anchored and cammed over to the tree and can take side pressure as well as down pressure. Much the same as a tree stand, it is not a good situation if the platform shifts on you.
You will also need a climbing system to ascend the tree you intend to hunt from. There are many choices in this and each has its merit. Portable climbing sticks are the main choice for this. One can opt for less expensive low-end sticks that typically weigh more or lean toward the more expensive super light, packable high-end versions. Some folks choose individual steps that nest together for storage and can be carried easily in and out of the woods. The main consideration should be familiarizing yourself with their use and practicing with them to avoid learning at the expense of hunting time.
A climbing aider is a flexible extra step or multiple steps that attach to a climbing stick which increases the height you climb over the fixed height of the stick. Aiders can be made of rope, cable, nylon webbing, basically, anything that will safely support your weight for an extra step or two. I have found them to be most useful on a bottom ladder section on the tree, and more cumbersome to get my big feet in them once I am on the second stick above ground.
Carabiners are a must-have accessory. Get to know carabiners and how they are meant to be used safely and correctly. It is always useful to have a few on your person as you climb; in the event you drop one, you can easily pull another out and continue your hunt. Gear hangers are usually a wrap around the tree sort of affair in saddle hunting, not usually a screw-in type of hanger. This is mostly because of weight and speed; the side benefit is it doesn’t damage the tree and you are less likely to forget it hanging up there once it becomes part of your climbing routine. Several manufacturers make them. A good daisy chain webbing girth hitched around the tree will hold your bow, quiver, grunt tube, binoculars, and backpack, plus anything else you might want at arm’s reach while hunting. I make sure to have a spot for my lunch to hang on all day sits in the rut.
Knee pads or a knee cushion are very commonly used to protect the knees from tree bark and allow you to be more quiet and comfortable shifting around the tree. You will utilize your knees in many ways to climb and position, as well as sitting in your saddle with your knees against the tree. This is a very common way to rest your legs on an extended sit, and it’s quite comfortable too. Avoid hard plastic knee pads that would make a scratching sound against tree bark. Look for a soft rubber exterior that will be more silent. I still use a foam cushion that is bungee-corded to the tree on some hunts: this is also an option.
I want to touch on the one-stick climbing and rappelling method briefly as you will inevitably read about it somewhere if you are doing any research at all. The idea is a single stick is placed on the base of the tree, the hunter climbs up the stick and tethers off to the tree above it, then steps off the stick so the hunter’s weight is supported by the saddle completely. Next, he removes the stick from the tree and secures it higher up the tree, to enable him to step onto the climbing stick and climb up higher again,
repeating the process again and again with a single stick to reach desired hunting height. He then places his platform and hunts from there. To descend, the hunter employs a long enough tether rope to safely reach the ground, along with a rappelling device to control the descent. The hunter removes his gear on his way down the tree and removes the rope from the tree once on the ground. This is an advanced method and many YouTube videos are showing the finer points involved. It should be practiced and only attempted once the basics of saddle hunting are mastered.
Go climb a tree
The best advice I can give anyone getting into saddle hunting is to climb safely and climb often. The safety part is obvious, we all want to live to hunt another day. Develop your safety system, use safe habits and stick to it, no shortcuts. The proper use of the equipment and practice before the season will help ensure you climb smoothly and safely both up and down the tree. Become familiar with the gear and inspect it often, the frequent moving of this setup means it will see more chances for wear or damage. Climb often and practice with your gear. I climbed nearly every day for a month before my first season, the one thing I did not practice was climbing down in the dark. So obvious but easily missed and also a new dimension of the saddle experience that I learned the hard way. My advice is to make a few of your practice climbs in the fading light of day, and practice your climb down in the dark.
Speaking of practice, you need to shoot your bow from the saddle before hunting as well. It takes a bit of getting used to floating the sight from a saddle. I begin practicing from ground level, with no platform, just feet on the ground at the base of the tree and it does take time to get used to it, but time spent practicing is never wasted.
So to put all this in a pile of perspective, you need to research as much as possible, be prepared to spend a few dollars to find what suits you, and refine the techniques you like by practicing them safely until they are routine. Shoot your crossbow as much as you can from the saddle at hunting height. Scout a bunch of locations, make time to hunt and hopefully, you will find you just can’t wait to get out there and get back in the saddle!