Suggested Ethics for Tree Climbers by Bill Maher

Wilderness is, according to the U.S. Forest Service, “a location for renewal of mind and spirit. This rejuvenation is more than what might occur from simply withdrawing or escaping from urban pressures. What makes the wilderness experience unique is the tranquility, peace and silence to be found (there) and the opportunity it affords for contemplation.”

But without rules and ethics, even the most remote stretch of backcountry, rainforest or cloud forest can become trashy, noisy and unhealthy for both flora and fauna.

Here are a few ethical tips compiled from lists by the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Leave No Trace, other organizations, and other tree climbers.

All tips are centered on the no-trace ethic so future visitors can experience the same beauty, peace and quiet that you enjoyed.

1. Plan ahead to minimize impact. Avoid holidays and popular weekends.

2. Limit your group size. The U.S. Forest Service recommends six or fewer as the optimum number of people in the backcountry, and the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society suggest eight. Tree climbing groups should use common sense to determine the number of people their climbing area can handle, and large groups could easily be split into smaller teams that climb in widely scattered trees.

3. Pack it in, pack it out. Or, as some organizations say: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” In fact, tree climbers can score a few points with rangers by cleaning up the occasional mess left behind by previous visitors to the forest.

4. Minimize your impact on the forest. Wear clothing that blends with the terrain or woods, avoid loud noises and shouting (two-way radios work well with tree climbers), follow existing trails when possible and avoid trampling bushes and other undergrowth. Walk single-file in the center of the trail and try not to kick up dirt and stones.

5. Avoid over-camping in an area. Most wilderness campsites will return to normal in just a few months if they’re not overused. Pick a site that’s invisible from popular trails and other camping parties, and camp at least 25 feet from natural water sources and “beauty spots” in the forest.

6. Don’t contaminate water sources. Never wash dishes, clothes or yourself directly in streams or springs, always use biodegradable soap and dispose of wastewater at least 100 feet from the stream. Latrines should be dug at least 100 feet from the stream, and should be thoroughly filled in before leaving the area.

7. Use extreme care with fires. When possible, avoid building a campfire. If you must make a fire, make a fire ring with rocks, do it in the safest possible spot and keep it small, so it can be easily and quickly extinguished to avoid forest fires. Never cut standing trees or pull up vegetation to build a fire. Check for fire danger before entering a wilderness of backcountry area. Campfires are often illegal during peak fire seasons.

8. Respect wildlife. Don’t disturb wildlife if possible, and never feed a wild animal. Mother Nature has done a wonderful job of providing wildlife food and habitat and it’s not likely that humans can improve on her efforts. Avoid climbing a tree where a wild animal has its nest or den.

9. Respect your climbing tree. A wilderness climb is done in a wild tree, as opposed to a tame tree that has been cleaned up. Cambium/rope savers are recommended. Do not cut or break small limbs that get in your way; if you’re experienced enough to climb in the wilderness then you’re experienced enough to find a way around them. Leave your saws at home or back at camp. Remember that many other forest visitors will get upset if they see you carrying saws into the woods, and they most likely will complain to the nearest ranger. Climbing spikes should never be used in a wild tree and are, in fact, illegal in many state and federal forests.

10. Protect other visitors to the forest. Don’t climb in a tree that overhangs a foot trail or road, don’t block trails or roads with your equipment and packs, and don’t allow inexperienced people to stand under your climbing tree. For security reasons, it is often best to hide your packs and other non-climbing equipment well off the trail while you’re aloft.

11. Be friendly with strangers. Most people will eventually understand your activity if you take the time to explain it to them in a friendly and professional manner. Point out to them that you have done everything you can to protect the tree from the impact of climbing. Show them how you get the rope in the tree and how you ascend the rope. You might even gain another recruit or two for our growing sport of recreational tree climbing.

13. Obey any orders from a ranger. If he or she tells you to stop climbing in a tree or refrain from another activity, then do it as quickly as safely possible. Do it pleasantly and without argument, and then politely ask the ranger to explain his or her reasons for stopping the climb. Rangers sometimes might not have time right then to discuss it, particularly on a busy vacation weekend, but are usually willing to make a future appointment. Many rangers will work with you in the future if they know you’re willing to follow the regulations.

14. Always tell somebody where you will climb. Write out the directions to your climbing area, where you plan to park, what trail you plan to hike, and when you plan to be back. Include, if possible, the exact longitude and latitude of the tree and the telephone number for the ranger district office or the proper law enforcement agency.

15. Carry a map of the area and a compass. And know how to use them. A GPS receiver is also great if used in addition to the map and compass, but never use it to replace the map and compass. A mobile phone is also desirable, particularly if there are inexperienced backcountry climbers in the group, and should be carried even if you can’t get service at the tree and have to hike to a nearby hilltop or high point for emergency service. Discuss the route to the climbing tree and its location with everyone in your party, and establish a place to meet if you get separated.

16. Limit the number of climbers in a wild tree. In the excitement of ascending a wild tree that has never been climbed before, it’s quite easy to get too many ropes and climbers into the tree at one time. Experience has shown that three to four ropes and climbers is the maximum that most wild trees can handle, particularly if there is a lot of brush at the base of the trunk that will tangle lines. If possible, one climber should remain on the ground as a support person and to keep the various ropes and lines from becoming intertwined.

17. Always follow the rules for safe tree climbing. Always take your first- aid kit, and make sure any supplies that were used on the last trip have been replaced. Make sure your ropes and harnesses are in good shape, never climb above the limb where your rope is anchored, check your knots and down lines frequently, and never allow an inexperienced person to climb without close supervision. Climb in teams of three or more if possible, and encourage climbers to take turns as the ground person.