What is Tree Climbing?
Tree climbing blends sport with exploring the wonders of nature. Devoted tree climbers often have overlapping interests in climbing and environmental science. Respect for nature is woven into recreational tree climbing, with arborists having shaped the sport into what is practiced today. Climbing a tree offers great exercise and a meditative way to get in touch with nature.
Tree climbing wasn’t invented so much as it was perfected into a sport by the arborist community. In 1983, American arborist Peter Jenkins founded Tree Climbers International (TCI), a tree climbing school which established a universal guide to safely climbing trees for sport. Arborists continued to hone and grow their craft as a recreational activity while keeping the preservation of the environment in mind. In 2007, the Global Organization of Tree Climbers was founded to help foster safe recreational tree climbing worldwide.
Every tree is like a puzzle the climber has to solve. Hardwood trees like maple or American beech offer solid support and convenient low branches low to the ground, while softwood trees like tulip poplars can have brittle wood. Giant sequoias are the tallest trees you can climb, reaching as high as 300 feet. Beginners and intermediate climbers should choose a tame tree or one that’s been cleared of safety hazards such as hornet’s nests or rotting branches.
Tree Climbing Equipment
Free climbing a tree requires little more than protective gear like a helmet, but a pulley system is necessary for taller trees that lack low-hanging branches. Unlike in rock climbing, tree climbing gear is crafted to protect the living climbing surface. Rigging systems include cambium savers to prevent harsh friction that could damage the tree and softer ropes typically made of braided polyester. The harness and leg saddles allow the climber to comfortably hang in the air with some freedom of movement to swing between branches.
Here is the essential tree climbing equipment you should have:
- Cambium savers
- Leg saddle
- Tree climbing/arborist rope
Competitive climbing has grown in popularity, especially in the arborist community. Many in the professional arborist community enjoy speed competitions that involve pruning and caring for the tree, with judges to evaluate the quality of their work. Other races are focused on a race to the top of the tree. Others simply enjoy the views and natural environment.
Rules and Regulations
The rules and regulations for tree climbing are meant to protect both the climber and the environment. Climbers should make sure to have the appropriate equipment for the type of climbing they’re doing, with proper protective gear such as a helmet and safety line. First time climbers should climb with an instructor, as the proper knotting and rope setup takes practice before it can be safely relied upon.
Here are the most important tree climbing rules you should know:
- Always have a secured, reliable safety line
- Inspect the area to avoid hazards like power lines or dead branches beforehand
- Respect the tree and do not prune needlessly
- Make sure the harness and saddle fit snugly
- Wear a helmet
The simplest technique is free climbing, climbing without ropes on shorter trees with low hanging branches. A rigging system with ropes and a harness is needed for taller trees or ones that lack ground-level branches to latch onto. The most basic roping techniques are the single or double rope, each of which offers a range of maneuvers climbers can use to help them ascend. The double rope technique is more common and safer for trees under 100 feet, whereas the single rope is used for taller trees.
Here are the most important tree Climbing strategies you should know:
- Single rope
- Double rope
- Free climbing
Here is the common terminology and slang in tree climbing:
- Arborist: Someone who professionally climbs and cares for trees, often the most skilled tree climbers
- Pitch: To throw a rope over a branch in the process of creating a pulley system
- Tame tree: A tree that’s been specially maintained for climbing and deemed safe, ideal for beginners
- Wild tree: A tree that hasn’t been inspected and cleared for safety hazards, best left to advanced climbers
- Crown: The leafy, thin-branched top of the tree
- Climbing system: The pulley system of ropes and carabiners used in tree climbing
- Champion tree: The largest tree in a given area
Tree climbing attracts notable people who lend their athleticism and knowledge to the craft. Some, like multiple championship winners James Kilpatrick or Chrissy Spence, are wickedly talented athletes who can climb great heights with impressive speed and endurance. Others like TIm Kovar or Peter “Treeman” Jenkins are environmentalists who love to study the trees and care for their health, whether that means clearing a fungal infection or pruning them.
Here are the most famous tree climbing players you should know:
- Tim Kovar
- James Kilpatrick
- Krista Strating
- Chrissy Spence
- Bernd Stresser
- Peter Jenkins
In every region across the globe, tree climbing organizations support the diverse climbing community, focusing on different abilities and skillsets from professional arborists to regular climbers. The Global Organization of Tree Climbers is the broader scoping coalition that encompasses all tree climbing communities. The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is focused on specially training arborists in tree care and botany.
Here are the most popular tree Climbing leagues you should know:
- Global Organization of Tree Climbers
- International Society of Arboriculture
- Tree Climbers International
Events and Competitions
Tree climbing events focus on everything from racing, pruning, and introduction to the sport. Tree climbing is practiced worldwide but is especially popular in New Zealand and the United States.
Here are the most popular tournaments in tree climbing:
- International Tree Climbing Championship: The ITCC is the biggest and most prestigious climbing championship held every year. Locations change annually, but the best climbers from all around are sure to show.
- ISA 2021 Virtual: The ISA 2021 Virtual is a conference held by the International Society of Arboriculture where tree climbers across the globe can discuss their love of the sport and share videos or pictures of their favorite climbs.
- North American Tree Climbing Championship: The NATCC has an inviting mix of educational events for beginners and racing competitions for more skilled climbers.
Can I use rock climbing gear for tree climbing?
Some rock climbing equipment will work for tree climbing, but pieces like the wedge tool should be avoided because they will damage the tree. Tree climbing harnesses are also more comfortable and cushioned than rock climbing harnesses because tree climbers spend more time hanging in the air than mountain climbers.
How long does it take to climb?
The length of the climb depends on the tree, but tree climbing generally takes a couple hours max, which is short compared to an all-day rock climbing venture. Climbing wild trees without a rigging system set up will be more involved because you will set your own ropes and path.