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Great Debate: Tree Saddles vs. Hang-On Treestands

What's the best option for mobile bowhunters?

Great Debate: Tree Saddles vs. Hang-On Treestands

(Photos submitted by the authors)

The Case for Tree Saddle Stands — By Weston Schrank

My feet were sore and my back ached. I was hiking above 10,000 feet in elevation, with 17 miles behind me and several days remaining in my hunt. After a week of grueling ascents and descents, blowing snow and drenching rain, my companions and I never saw a single elk. I’ll gladly admit my first DIY elk hunt in Colorado was nothing more than a glorified backpacking trip. However, that hunt forever changed my outlook to the chase Back East. This was the first domino to fall in what would lead me to being obsessed with saddle hunting.

In fact, the past few years have been a perfect storm in this regard. For starters, I had just returned from my trip out west where I had spent countless hours and way too much cash dialing in my backcountry gear to absurd weight reductions. I had also recently lost several private-land hunting opportunities in my home state of Indiana, amounting to more than 700 acres of ground. I was sick and tired of tearing down hang-on sets, ladder stands and, finally, removing heavy old climbers from their designated trees. My backyard shed was now an accumulation of rusty metal stands that, frankly, I didn’t want to spend the time or energy to set back up somewhere else.

The last and final domino to fall was moving my family closer to some of the best public-land hunting opportunities Indiana has to offer. Add it all up, and my circumstances left me eager to jump into saddle hunting with both feet and enjoy the advantages saddles offer versus treestands!

Weight

The year prior to making the switch to saddles, I had started taking public-land bowhunting seriously, going in “deep.” I thought I had dialed-in my gear to one of the lightest options, a Lone Wolf hand climber with a minimalist pack. My stand weighed 14 pounds, a nice cut from the 20-pound Summit climber I used previously. Add in my additional hunting gear and camera equipment used to self-film my hunts and I was still heading into the woods with a load that tipped the scales at roughly 25 pounds. It just didn’t make sense!

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Author Weston Schrank’s climbing system, consisting of three sticks, a saddle platform and a tree saddle, offers considerable weight advantages over his old climbing stand, while still allowing him to ascend more than 18 feet.

The more you search for an ultralight treestand, the more you can’t help but drift into shopping for saddle platforms. The fact is, they are roughly a third to a half the weight of most lightweight hang-on stands. I eventually ended up with an extremely packable and lightweight saddle system consisting of three Trophyline Double Step Mini Sticks, a Tropyline Wingman Platform and Trophyline Venatic Saddle Kit. The platform and sticks weigh a total of 7.7 pounds, which is roughly half that of my Lone Wolf climber. And swapping my old treestand safety harness and tether for the Venatic saddle with two, 8mm ropes stored in a single pouch saved me even more weight. With a lightweight pack to carry everything and a movable aider that could extend the distance I could climb with each stick, I could now ascend more than 18 feet off the ground with equipment considerably lighter than my old setup. All in all, I find the saddle system makes me feel faster, freer and more agile.

Packability

Coming off my Colorado elk hunt, I had learned a lot about weight reduction and silhouette reduction. I know a few of you are nodding your heads right now, reliving the feeling of a tree limb snagging the top of your climber or hang-on during your walk into the woods. Do you want the silhouette of a giant turtle or an outline no bigger than your normal body? Saddle hunting with compact climbing sticks and a small tree platform produces the latter.

Comfort

The tree saddle does take practice, and if you’re able, try it in person before jumping in. I discovered quickly the system you create around your needs is a breeze to run and — contrary to how it appears at first glance — way more comfortable to hunt in than a treestand. When hunters try a saddle for the first time in a store or at an educational event, nine times out of 10 their first reaction is, “Wow, this is way more comfortable than it seems!” And their second comment is often, “I could do this all day.”

In a treestand you have two options: sit or stand. Spend enough time up there and either your legs will be tired or your butt will be sore. However, the saddle gives you way more options. I can now sit, stand, lean, recline (with a back band) and everything in between. With slight adjustments to tether length or body position, I am able to disperse my weight differently, avoiding fatigue and keeping me comfortable all day.

Safety

It’s not that treestand hunting isn’t safe. After all, whether you are installing a hang-on stand or a saddle platform, you should be constantly connected to the tree via a lineman’s belt. However, hunting from a saddle vs. a treestand safety harness is drastically different! Here, it becomes fall arrest (stand harness) vs. a device that will never allow a fall in the first place (saddle).

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Saddle hunting requires you to be constantly tethered to the tree, giving it a significant safety advantage over treestands.

From personal experience, I say it’s just plain easier to be careless and not remain connected to the tree at all times while hunting out of a treestand. With a saddle, the fall is prevented before it ever happens simply because of the methods you must use to be in the saddle. With a saddle, it is impossible to be off the ground without being attached to the tree. So, you never have to worry about falling, dealing with suspension trauma or having a plan to rescue yourself if you fall and get stuck 15 feet off the ground!

Tree Selection

One of the biggest advantages saddles offer over stands is the ability to hunt out of virtually any tree! With my climber, I couldn’t use any tree much wider than a basketball, and I certainly couldn’t scale trees with a lot of limbs below hunting height. With a saddle, not only can I climb trees with lots of branches (which offer great cover while hunting), I can also use leaning trees and those oddball trees with lots of “character.”

For example, my saddle combined with a platform that has built-in angle adjustment can make quick work of a tree that even those using climbing sticks and a portable hang-on would struggle to hunt from comfortably.

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Shot Opportunities

Bowhunting from a saddle was a major improvement from a treestand in terms of shot opportunities. Even when properly tethered in, you can fall off a stand platform. So, you have to be conscious of where your feet are, even while lining up the shot at a great buck.

That restriction does not exist in a saddle since you can use your feet to maneuver on your platform or even twist and hang in the saddle while shooting, allowing the saddle itself to support your weight as you pivot around the tree.

The big difference maker for me, however, when it comes to a saddle vs. stand is the sturdiness of my shot. I’m mainly talking about contact points here. In a treestand, you have two contact points — your feet — maybe a third by sitting or even leaning somehow against the seat. In a saddle, you can have as many as four: both your feet, the saddle tethered to a tree, and potentially your knee into the side of the tree.

In a saddle, you can also stand up on the platform, tuck your shoulder under the tree tether and shoot while facing away from the tree. I call this the “seatbelt method,” and it produces a shooting position that's similar to that of standing on a regular treestand platform but with the added benefit of giving you a rock-solid core to shoot with.

Regardless of position, I believe a saddle simply offers bowhunters more potential shot opportunities and more stability for making those shots accurately.

True Freedom

With my tree saddle setup, I no longer worry about distance or terrain when planning my hunts, as I am no longer burdened by unwieldy gear. My scouting, camera placement and observation hunts now center on the best sign I can find. I pass good sign close to the trailhead to get to great sign deep off the beaten path.

Last fall I was rewarded for those efforts with likely the third-biggest buck I’ve had the privilege of hunting on public ground. I located the buck’s core area in late October, dialing-in his movements off of funnels and scrapes leading directly out of a few beds I'd found. I took an aggressive but ultimately still too conservative approach to hunting him. I had the privilege of seeing this buck on the hoof at 60 and 80 yards but simply never got the shot I needed.

Depending on prevailing wind, I hunted four separate trees south and three separate trees north of his bedding area. I continued to make more and more aggressive moves, picking slightly riskier trees that put me 50 yards closer to the beds I knew about. Despite all these moves, I never caught up to him. Ultimately, I remained too conservative, something I blame on my private-land background. When a good buck is on the move in daylight, and you know its core area, be aggressive. I won’t make the same mistake again.

If you’re on the fence about saddle hunting, give it a try. Chances are good that you already have a buddy who is saddle hunting — and shouting about the greener grass. Free yourself and your hunting strategy, and you won’t have time to look back as the dominoes start falling and you become a more effective bowhunter.

The Case for Hang-On Stands — By Jace Bauserman

I saddle hunted once, and that was enough for me. No, I’m not a saddle curmudgeon, and I don’t have issues with the new breed of saddle hunters taking the whitetail woods by storm. I simply prefer a lightweight lock-on to a saddle.

While you can teach an old dog new tricks, the saddle system wasn’t for me and may not be for you. I cut my public-land whitetail teeth using lightweight lock-ons, climbing sticks, a safety harness and a lifeline. It’s what I know, and it’s a system that makes sense to me and, in my opinion, beats any saddle.

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When I walk into the woods with an 8.5-pound Millennium M7 Microlite and uber-light climbing sticks lashed to my ALPS pack, I can be up a tree — even gnarled and crooked cottonwoods — in less than 15 minutes. I know my system inside and out, and over the past decade, it has proven very effective.

Mobile Hang-On Musts

During my time 18 feet up, I’ve learned a few mobile hunting must-dos, and if you implement these strategies into your run-and-gun whitetail game, you’ll experience more success, enjoyment and comfort.

First, grab a roll of black Gorilla tape. This stuff is sticky and thick, and when you intricately cut it to fit and cover any metal buckles or metal-to-metal contact areas on your stand and sticks, your stealth game goes up. Nothing is worse than walking through the woods and hearing even the slightest clank.

When you cover all metal contact points with Gorilla tape, whitetail-spooking noises are greatly reduced. Several times, before whitetail assassin Alex Gyllstrom taught me this tactic, I would swing a climbing stick buckle around a tree, the buckle would hit metal and, in my mind, it sounded like a bomb went off in the woods.

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A compact hang-on stand with platform and seat adjustments will fit in just about any tree, allowing the hunter to capitalize on right-now whitetail movement.

With all your metal contact points taken care of, next you'll want to find a good whitetail pack that will serve you well. When using lightweight stands such as the Millennium M7 paired with lightweight climbing sticks, I prefer ALPS’ Impulse or Pursuit packs. The Pursuit is a tad beefier and makes stand-and-stick transport a bit easier if you’re trekking a long way into a public-land honey hole, but I do love the design and functionality of the Impulse. It will handle a stand and sticks but also helps you organize all inside-the-pack gear.

Whatever type or brand of pack you decide on, develop a repeatable system for attaching your stand and sticks. In addition, it’s essential to create an everything-has-its-place plan. For instance, the side pockets on my Impulse hold my headlamp, extra wind checker and bow haul rope. One side mesh pocket holds a bottle of Wildlife Research Center Scent Killer Gold Field Spray, and the other has my HSS (Hunter Safety System) lineman’s rope. When you develop a system, you can operate efficiently under a headlamp’s red or green glow.

Perfect Practice

I like competition, even if I’m competing against myself. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I take my hang-on system into the whitetail woods mid-summer and practice putting it up and taking it down. I time myself and practice stand-hanging missions in the dead of night and in the heat of day. I want to prove my hang-and-hunt system to myself, and each year I learn something new about how to be more efficient.

I have seen mobile hang-on hunters attempt their first-ever hang-and-hunt in the darkness of a late-October morning, and I promise you what I’ve witnessed was far from stealthy and efficient. Do the work ahead of time. After all, perfect practice leads to perfect results.

Comfort and Efficiency

When I go into a public-land whitetail area, especially when pushing the envelope and creeping close to identified bedding, I often sit from well before dawn to after dark. The comfort of a saddle doesn’t compete with a quality, lightweight lock-on. You can’t beat Millennium’s ComfortMax seat when sitting in a treestand all day. Plus, the stands are efficient. As previously mentioned, the M7 weighs just 8.5 pounds, while Elevate Stand Co.’s Element Ultra weighs just 6.25 pounds. Of course, these are both very compact stands, and while you can certainly choose other options with larger platforms, weight increases with platform size.

Saddle-Hangon-Debate-Millennium-1200x800.jpg
Author Jace Bauserman says you can’t beat a lightweight hang-on stand for quick hang-and-hunts or for walking into different public-land spots and setting up multiple stands you plan to use during your hunt.

Although I haven’t yet used the Elevate Element Ultra, both it and the Millennium M7 are compact enough to fit in any tree and so light you can easily pull them up with your bow rope. I can speak from personal experience that the M7’s CamLock Receiver System makes hanging this stand super simple. Just wrap the receiver strap around the tree, insert a pin and slide the stand post into the receiver. The Element Ultra offers the added feature of leveling adjustments, allowing you to place the stand on trees that are far from perfectly straight.

Climbing Sticks

I don’t overthink climbing sticks, and I don’t worry about matching my steps to my stand. Lone Wolf’s original, 32-inch climbing sticks are often lashed to my pack. These sticks have been discontinued, but I have eight sticks and plan to make no change. What matters is that your sticks are functional, easy to attach, sturdy and provide climbing confidence.

My main piece of climbing stick advice is this: don’t be under-sticked, meaning don’t take three sticks when you need four. I can get 18 feet up a hardwood with three Lone Wolf sticks, but often, because of the curvature of the tree, I'll need four sticks to make it 16 feet up a western cottonwood.

Final Thoughts

Like all hunting gear, the right equipment comes down to what gives you peace of mind and bowhunting confidence. I don’t feel comfortable in a saddle, and after four hours, my groin hurts and my hips start to ache. My 43-year-old body may have gotten soft, but I will take the comfort and efficiency of a lock-on any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

If you’re a lightweight hang-on hunter and happy with your setup, don’t let anyone convince you that you’re wrong or too “old school” to bag big bucks with the best of them. If your system works and you kill deer, hunting from a saddle doesn’t make you any cooler or more mobile. This fall, you do you! Stay safe, and just savor every moment you get to spend bowhunting!




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