Expert tips for safely climbing backyard trees

Master tree-climbing instructor Tim Kovar vividly remembers climbing his first tree while growing up in Fremont, Neb. Once up his neighbor’s apple tree, the 5-year-old boy couldn’t get back down and had to be rescued by a friend’s dad. Now 43 and founder of Tree Climbing Planet near Oregon City, Ore., Kovar still recommends apple trees for “free climbing”—the hand-over-hand, old-school style that remains a rite of passage for many children. Other good trees for backyard climbers include magnolias, weeping willows, maples, some birches, short white pines or short oaks, according to Kovar and fellow climber Peter “Treeman” Jenkins, considered the father of recreational climbing. Both Kovar and Jenkins say commonsense precautions reduce the inherent risks involved. Their main advice for families of budding climbers: Choose a healthy tree that’s not too big, with accessible branches that grow out so it’s easy to step up and reach a higher limb—“a ladder-like climb” is how Jenkins describes it. (But don’t use a ladder to get into the tree, Kovar says. That means the tree’s too large.) Inspect the tree for hazards such as beehives and power lines. Make sure the weather conditions are safe. At the first sign of a thunderstorm, get out of the tree and take shelter. Climb on the strongest part of a branch next to the trunk. Always maintain three points of contact: two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand. “And before you reach up, make sure you’re grabbing a live branch, not a dead one,” says Jenkins, who founded Tree Climbers International in 1983 in Atlanta. Accidents often happen when branches break and climbers lose their balance. While many children typically start climbing trees this way, both Jenkins and Kovar prefer the rope-and-saddle approach that they teach at their respective schools. It’s the gold standard for safety and works for people of most any body type or any age. (Children age 5 are usually the youngest they'll take on beginning climbs.) Kovar never tires of watching people experience some serious hang time in a tree's canopy. “You enter into a zone that I call ‘tree time’ where time stands still,” he says. “Five minutes can turn into a couple of hours. Two hours can seem like five minutes. It’s just this different space up there.” For more tips about climbing trees, check out Kovar's or Jenkins' Brought to you by: American Profile