If you pay attention to hunting shows, podcasts, or just about any other hunting media you have probably at least heard of saddle hunting. Some old-school hunters have avoided trying it out because it seems like the latest new fad. While it is new, saddle hunting is definitely not a fad. The advantages are real and using a saddle can make you a better hunter. So what is saddle hunting?
Saddle hunting is act of hunting from a tree saddle out of a tree instead of a typical tree stand. Tree saddles have many advantages over a tree stand. For example, saddles are much lighter weight, extremely quiet, safer, versatile, comfortable, and allow you to take shots 360 degrees around you.
If you have ever seen an arborist working in a tree with a chainsaw, you’ve probably seen a saddle at work. Unlike a tree stand, which is made to spend the majority of your hunt sitting, a saddle is designed to keep you upright and positioned behind the tree. It allows a hunter to take several positions: standing, leaning, or even sitting. Saddles are lighter, more comfortable, and safer than a tree stand, and gives you better concealment.
How Does a Tree Saddle Work?
A saddle essentially works by harnessing yourself to the tree with a rope called a tether. To start, you’ll climb the tree with a traditional lineman’s belt, which is attached to your saddle. A saddle is worn around your waist and upper legs, and closely resembles a rock-climbing harness. Your climbing method when saddle hunting can be whatever you use to get into your tree stand: climbing sticks, screw-in tree spikes, etc. The real difference comes in when you reach your desired climbing height. For a good demonstration, check out this video on bowhunter.com.
Once there, you’ll clip your saddle to another rope that’s tied around the tree, called your tether. This rope will support your weight while you hunt and allow you to lean or sit as you want.
Picture from Bowhunting Magazine
If that’s a little hard to visualize, check out this quick 10-minute video that shows saddle hunting and the different components involved.
What Are the Advantages of Saddle Hunting?
Saddles Are Lightweight and Mobile
One of the biggest advantages of saddle hunting is the mobility you gain by cutting weight and bulk with the setup. If you hunt public land or do any kind of walking to your hunting setup, saddle hunting will make your life easier than you could ever imagine.
Most saddle hunting setups fit in a small pack, and some super lightweight saddle hunters only use a fanny pack! The biggest difference is that you don’t have to lug around a big tree stand, which can easily top 20 pounds. Instead, you have a few ropes and a much smaller platform that’s about the size of a shovelhead. If nothing else, the ability to hike in further and sweat less on cold mornings makes saddle hunting worth trying.
Saddles Are Safer Than Tree Stands
If you are new to saddle hunting, you may be surprised to hear that it’s actually safer than tree stand hunting. The biggest difference is that while saddle hunting, you are constantly attached to the tree.
Unlike a tree stand where you transition from a lineman’s belt to a safety device, there is no “naked” transition when saddle hunting. You keep your lineman’s belt attached as you clip into your tether. Also, if you do lose your balance and come off your platform, it’s much easier to get back into position, versus dangling and waiting for rescue like you’d have to do after a tree stand fall. The tether is adjusted so that there is no slack in the line, which gives you a much better chance of self-recovery and preventing a fall in the first place.
Another safety benefit when saddle hunting is that it serves as a forcing function for wearing a safety harness. You have to be secured to the tree in order for a saddle to function. That’s different from a tree stand where a safety harness is an extra (optional) piece of gear. Whether it saves you from making a bad judgment call or just forgetting an extra piece of gear at home, saddle hunting makes sure that you’ll always be secure at height.
Additionally, with a saddle, you won’t need a full-body fall arresting harness like you do with a tree stand. Instead, you’ll just have a saddle, which you’ll be able to wear as you walk. Another benefit here is that you don’t need to take off the saddle to add or remove warming layers above the waist. This prevents what can be a very dangerous tree stand maneuver 20 feet up a tree as you remove your harness to put on a jacket.
Tree Saddles Provide Extra Concealment and Maneuverability
Saddle hunting also makes hunters more effective because of the extra concealment it offers. When saddle hunting, you are positioned so that the tree is between you and the deer on their most likely avenue of approach. This means that you can use the tree to block your motion as you draw a bow or raise a rifle (or if you’re like me, block your movement as you pull your seventh Slim Jim out of your pack four hours into your October rut hunt). That’s quite an improvement over a tree stand that has you sticking out in front of the tree, hoping the deer mistake you for a human-shaped limb.
One of the biggest advantages that could help you take more deer when saddle hunting is additional maneuverability in the tree. In a saddle you can take multiple positions because you’re on the backside of the tree and not tied to a seat.
Stand all the way on the edges of your platform, or even do a full 180 degree turn. If you hunt from a ring of steps like the one pictured below or put screw in steps next to your platform, you can stand on any side of the tree that you may need to. This means a true ability to take shots in a full 360 degree circle. That’s invaluable in setups where the deer tend to show up from every angle and eases the stress of picking a stand location. Good luck getting that in a climber!
“Ring of Steps” style platform. Bullmanoutdoors.com
Getting Your First Saddle
If you are interested in trying saddle hunting, you can get started pretty cheaply. The real essentials are a saddle, tether, lineman’s belt, climbing method, and platform. If you are just trying it out, the platform is optional – you can hunt from the top step of your climbing sticks or even your tree stand platform.
If you want to get started putting together a kit, check out my article here about how much saddles cost. I did a bit of leg work already and found some nice kits and put them in a table for you.
The simplest way to get into saddle hunting is to press the easy button and buy a kit. Several manufacturers now offer complete systems that give you everything you need. The advantage here is that you know you’ve got everything you need and are guaranteed that all of the components work together. Those who are a bit more DIY inclined can save a little money by assembling their own kit from various sources or looking into used gear.
Another point to make is that you only ever need one saddle. You can pre trim trees, and hang climbing sticks on them, but you will never have to use more than one saddle. That is why I recommend buying cheaper climbing sticks if you are going to set them on a tree and leave them there. If you are taking your climbing sticks with you between every tree you hunt, then it might be worth it to invest in nicer ones. Either way, since you only need one saddle I recommend not buying the cheapest one you can, but a quality one that will be comfortable and last a long time.
Whatever you do, give it a try before this year’s season opener. My first saddle was a huge arborist rig that I bought off of Craigslist. Its metal buckles were way too loud, and it smelled too much like a chainsaw, but it worked.
I used the bottom half of my climbing stand as a platform and became a believer on my first hunt. A public land 8 point appeared out of nowhere and was behind me before I could swing my shotgun. Since I was in the saddle, I turned completely around with my back to the tree and leaned against it for a rest. When the buck stopped, I made a double lung shot that would have never been possible from a tree stand on the other side.
I’ve upgraded my setup since then, but never forgot that day’s valuable lesson on how effective saddle hunting can be. So do yourself a favor – try out saddle hunting this year. You won’t regret it (but the deer might).