June 07, 2019
By Mike Carney
Interest in tree saddle hunting has been booming in recent years, driven by a lot of very logical and compelling reasons. DIY adventures and public-land hunting have enjoyed enormous growth in popularity as magazines, TV shows, websites and YouTube feature more of this type of bowhunting challenge. And by design, today’s ultra-compact, lightweight tree saddles and tree ascension options are a perfect complement to this style of hunting.
But saddles aren't just a public ground phenomenon. Regardless of your access to private, leased or owned land — saddle hunting is an elevated method that offers many tactical advantages, even if you have ladders, box blinds and hang-on stands littering your ground. From a pure economics standpoint, you can have dozens of trees trimmed with shooting lanes cut, ready to climb, and even preset them with climbing sticks or steps if desired, and you can hunt them all with just one saddle. Irrespective of what type of ground you hunt, tree saddles are an incredibly versatile tool that every serious bowhunter should have in their toolbox of strategies — whether you're a die-hard Eastern whitetail junkie or a Western-based hunter who has always lamented the lack of suitable trees for traditional stand-hunting options.
While tree saddles have been around for over two decades, modern saddle designs and gear are adaptable to a wider range of trees and unconventional setups (read: all over North America, my Western bowhunting friends), and they’re also exceptionally safe, effective and comfortable. Yes, even for all-day sits. To make this elevated method even more appealing, the associated saddle accessories, climbing tools and best practices overall have enjoyed a similar explosion in development, as users openly (dare I say warmly?) share information, ideas, equipment hacks and DIY upgrades via informational sites like saddlehunter.com and social media outlets.
Saddle hunting is indeed a superb and highly adaptive elevated-hunting method, but it does take some time to learn the ropes, so to speak. First, you need a saddle with a bridge. All saddles come with a bridge, but there are both factory and DIY options to consider, from length-adjustable ropes and climbing webbing to Amsteel (1⁄4-inch hollow-braid Dyneema). Next comes a lineman’s belt that goes into specific loops on the saddle, so you’re always attached to the tree whether you’re going up or down, plus you have both hands free to work your climbing method. Finally, a tree tether rope, typically girth-hitched around the tree at head height, is attached to the bridge of the saddle with a carabiner and prussic knot, or carabiner and mechanical ascender, as you face the tree. Think of a tether as identical to the current safety ropes to which your full-body treestand safety harness is attached. However, in saddle hunting you face the tree and can shoot 360 degrees around it. You actually set up on the backside of the tree, hiding your body and movement, and you look around it toward where you expect game to approach, ideally on your strong side. With practice, it’s exceptionally stealthy.
While at height, you need a place to put your feet, and the options are a strap-on ring-of-steps system that allows you to “walk” around the tree when setting up for a shot, or mini platforms which allow you to sit, stand, lean, and push off when preparing to shoot. The best platforms are lightweight (under three pounds), easily installed, and rock-solid to side pressure when pushing off one side or the other to take a shot. For new saddle hunters, platforms provide a familiar feel and have the advantage of allowing users to easily stand upright to adjust gear and settings, and there’s even enough foot space to shoot standing up if desired.
You also need a lightweight tree-climbing method, such as sectional climbing sticks, rope-on steps, screw-in steps, hand drill and bolts, or climbing spurs. All have their following, and while sectional sticks are easily the most popular, creative saddle enthusiasts have pioneered a lot of novel approaches to eliminate as much weight and set-up noise as possible. You can DIY hack everything from Amsteel ropes for your sticks and steps to lightweight climbing aiders to carbon bolts for tree steps, and you’ll find multiple YouTube how-to videos on each method.
Finally, especially when hunting public ground with no tree-penetrating rules in effect, there are a variety of both commercially available and DIY bow, pack, and gear-hanging systems. And the number of innovative gear hacks that are online and at saddlehunter.com are growing daily for almost every piece of the saddle-equipment arsenal.
A word of caution: saddle hunting is not a buy it, then same-day-plug-and-play scenario. Personal saddle setup, comfort tweaks, plus proper management of the affiliated ropes, bridges, and tether options, take time to fine-tune. Not to mention the time it takes to learn about all of the possible climbing options and hunting accessories to help manage your bowhunting gear at height. (Our sister publication, Petersen’s Bowhunting, has an excellent saddle hunting article by Greg Staggs available online at bowhuntingmag.com, and it should be considered required reading for those new to this hunting method.)
To fully benefit from the many advantages of saddle hunting, you’ll need to invest time to personalize your specific gear system, climbing procedure and elevated setup. For your immersive multimedia enjoyment, we’ve posted a full demo climb on Bowhunter TV’s YouTube page, so you can see a new and efficient method to ascend and set up in the tree, complete with climbing aider use and full climb down. While saddle hunting does require practice to get in proper saddle “form” before the season, it’s no more difficult than learning to hang a fixed-position stand or use a climber, and you don’t have to be a CrossFit athlete to enjoy saddle hunting’s many benefits and advantages, as evidenced by the many YouTube channel saddle-hunting aficionados well into their 50s and even 60s.