After a long night of geocaching with some friends, one of them had a car full of climbing gear which he said he used for tree climbing - if the cache is up a tree.

A couple of times now myself or my other half (Dynadin) have climbed 3-6ft up a tree to get a cache, usually these are pretty big oaks that are leaning. In the future however we might come across caches that are much higher up. Sometimes people even slingshot the cache back up into the tree, to save them re-climbing it.

My question is: is there a recommended height to which you definitely should wear gear for climbing a tree, bearing in mind a fair level of common sense, and a low mid level of risk-taking - how can you recognise a tree that actually is more likely to need gear than others?

Related: How to estimate is the branch thick enough to stand on it? Some mobile helper for tree climbing?

  • Usually the ground below trees is grass and leaves, not rocks, so it should be somewhat safer that rock climbing. Once I heard from a woman her son fell while brushing walnuts and broke a collar bone. Those trees are about 3-10 meters high around here. On the other hand. just outside my office, for the past couple of weeks, a group of construction workers have been working at 5th floor height scaffold without any protection - also climbing the outside of the scaffolds. The ground is concrete.
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 13:36
  • You can safely land on soil after a 40' fall, if you know how to land, and you are in shape, but this (for me at least) is the ideal, and in many cases, you'll end up with (possibly extensive) injuries.
    – J. Musser
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 23:35
  • Among rock climbers, it's pretty common to hear of people dying in 20-foot (6 meter) falls if they aren't using a rope, neglected to place protection, or climbed high enough so that their protection didn't keep them from decking. I believe these are mostly cases where the person lands on their head or neck, and their neck gets broken. I'm not saying that you can't get killed in a 10-foot fall either.
    – user2169
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 16:00
  • 1
    If you fall from table height onto your butt and not onto your feet you can break you back. Like most outdoor activities, it is all relative to your skill level and how much bad luck you have when you do take a fall.
    – DudeOnRock
    Commented Nov 1, 2014 at 5:13

4 Answers 4


I think this is quite a tricky one. Even when I read the Health & Safety Executive guidance in the UK (a country quite keen on its health and safety rules) it isn't clear:

HSE has an 'Are You a Tree Surgeon' page, which links directly to their Working at Height page. There we have:

Falls from height are the biggest cause of workplace deaths and one of the biggest causes of major injury. In tree work, falls from height are still common, and the result is often death or major injury.

Around 16% of all reported tree work accidents involve falling from height and about 6% are due to uncontrolled swings in the tree leading to impact with branches or the trunk.

They provide a range of guidance statements, but nothing that defines what height counts.

Hierarchy of control measures

For every task that needs to be done at height you need to assess the risk and put appropriate control measures in place. There is a hierarchy of control measures that you need to follow. You only move up the hierarchy when you decide that the control is not practicable.

  • Avoid the need to work at height, for example by using extending equipment from the ground
  • Prevent falls using appropriate access equipment such as work platforms or rope access
  • Reduce the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur.

Tree Climbing Operations also gives the following:

The Regulations say that climbing work with a personal fall protection system - ropes and harness - can only be done if:

  • A risk assessment has shown that the work can be done safely while using that system
  • The use of other, safer work equipment (e.g. mobile elevating work platforms) is not justified
  • The user and a sufficient number of available people have received training specific to the task, including rescue techniques.

So in summary, you should use some common sense risk assessment. HSE reckons tree climbing should be avoided if possible, but if you need to then take precautions.

For you, if you want to climb a tree, assess it:

  • Is it wet and slippy
  • Are branches thick enough to take your weight
  • Is it healthy
  • Are branches a comfortable distance apart
  • etc

I am an avid rock climber and the answer to all similar questions is always the same:

Use safety gear when you feel unsafe.

If you want a number, falls from over ~5 meters (15 feet) are where you will start to incur more serious injuries. However, you can twist your ankle standing on flat ground.

You will know when you start to feel unsafe. At that point, grab a harness and tree-climbing loop. Or just bring a ladder.

  • 1
    I was going to also mention the 15 feet rule. I've also heard it stated as 3x your height is the limit above which you definitely ought to be roped in. It may be prudent to rope in a lower heights too.
    – nhinkle
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 20:37
  • @nhinkle I've done a lot of bouldering, and anything above 10 feet makes me feel uncomfortable without a pad to fall on. Somewhere are 15 or 20 feet you can tell you'll be hurt when you look down. It's a pretty reasonable rule. Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 20:55

People perish from falling from 0 meters (just standing, you faint and the back of the head hits the concrete)*. Others can jump from roofs and continue running (parkour guys).

Therefore, I think this is a question of confidence. Cars are among the biggest killers, but we do not generally wear protective equipment when crossing the street. We know that if we are careful, the danger it tolerable and not worth putting on knee pads and spine support. But a drunk man, or a reckless kid, at the middle of the street, are in danger.

As a child I have climbed up to about 10 meters up trees - for fun and to shake down walnuts. The latter includes jumping onto the branch one is standing, or reaching far with a staff in one hand, to hit the nuts. All the time being confident that this is no riskier than crossing the street.

So, as with other dangerous sports, I would advise not to overcome one's fear. If you are afraid of doing something - then maybe it is objectively dangerous. Go train on lower difficulty activities until the fear goes away on it's own. Then it is safe to, very carefully, thy it.

For example have a beer while sitting on a low branch and chatting with friends. Climb a tree and climb down at another spot. Find a low branch, but one you cannot reach, and jump, grabbing a hand hold, then walk with hands, to see how long can you hang should the need arise (and discover is it difficult to hang on a thick branch). When you are comfortable with a drink in hand on the low branch, you will be comfortable when using both hands on a higher spot.

Lastly, I don't think this is a good question. My answer is subjective and there are no others as of now. The comments under the question doesn't even begin to address safety equipment. It's kind of "Should I have unprotected sex, if I am confident the other person is healthy?" "Should I quit my job if I'm unsure if I'll find as good one?" "Is a bicycle without brakes safe?" (IMHO it's absolutely not, but many people ride them fixies).

* - can't find a reference for that, but on page 17 here is documented a fatality from less than 6 feet.

  • 3
    I don't think I would recommend climbing a tree while drinking :)
    – nivag
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 9:50
  • 2
    I'd have to agree with nivag here - I don't get the drinking aspect. Also, as a keen climber who suffers from a major fear of heights, I always overcome my fear! It's difficult, but I need to if I want to successfully climb. It reminds me to always place anchors carefully, only move one limb at a time etc.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 13:35
  • 3
    I don't think fear is a reliable guide. People are often afraid of things that aren't significant dangers (mass shootings), and unafraid of things that are dangerous (tailgating on the freeway). Fear tends to go away with familiarity and repetition; danger doesn't. This is why people take avalanche courses and then go out and get killed by avalanches -- familiarity makes them think it's safe.
    – user2169
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 22:26
  • 2
    @BenCrowell: I wish I could award you a bounty for Fear tends to go away with familiarity and repetition; danger doesn't. This is why people take avalanche courses and then go out and get killed by avalanches -- familiarity makes them think it's safe Very well said!
    – WedaPashi
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 5:50

a dangerous height to fall is defined as between two and two and a half times your height, which for most people is 12- 15 feet. however, using gear to climb a tree is VERY damaging to the tree and therefore I do not recommend it unless it is absolutely necessary. If you can see a safe way to climb using large branches, especially on a commonly used tree, do not use gear.

  • Although some tree climbing techniques like using spurs can be damaging to a tree; modern climbing techniques avoid damage. It's not accurate to say that any and all tree climbing is harmful.
    – oasisbob
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 4:57

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