Updated: Jul 14, 2022
“Have I told you how much I’m enjoying my saddle?”
It was the third text I’d received from my friend Scott Hesterly in as many days. To say his excitement was palpable would be an understatement. He’d sent picture after picture of the various new parts of his saddle rig, from rope bridges and tethers to various carabiners and nifty little platforms he was experimenting with. To a seasoned treestand hunter, it all seemed a bit much. But I have to admit I was intrigued; I consider myself a pretty hard-core bowhunter, and I take pride in going deep into places most people won’t consider. That often means carrying minimal amounts of gear with extremely spartan accommodations. I’m the guy who is willing to grind out hours on end sitting on a half-inch of foam padding atop a Lone Wolf hand climber. My friend places much more of a premium on comfort than I do. And that fact is what had me both intrigued and confused a little.
Like most bowhunters who look at hunting out of a saddle for the first time, one of my first thoughts was “That can’t be comfortable.” I’d heard of saddle hunting before. I mean, when you’ve pursued big-game animals across North America for almost three decades exclusively with archery equipment and participated in almost every bowhunting forum on the internet, you’re bound to have come across the concept. I actually own a couple books authored by John Eberhart, who is considered the “godfather” of saddle hunting, but if I were to be honest I’d have to admit the concept never really caught my attention. I think I’d looked at the pictures of his saddle and skipped over the chapters detailing his setup, which he labeled an “ambush hunting sling”.
Now, here was my buddy – who I honestly didn’t consider as “hard-core” as I was – touting the virtues of saddle hunting and how awesome it was. Not only was he telling me how comfortable it was, he was talking about things that mattered a whole lot to me: concepts like weight savings, minimal bulk, and being able to get into virtually any tree he wanted. I had to be missing something, and I was determined to find out exactly what it was.
Saddle hunting is not something new. Eberhart wrote in his book Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails that he’d been employing the concept for around 18 years – and that book was written in 2003! He had picked up an Anderson Tree Sling off the rack at a local Michigan hunting store, which he said consisted of “seat belt straps sewn together to make a seat.” No one at the store could tell him how to use it, but he bought it anyway and set out to make it work. It offered no adjustments, and the bridge and tether, or “lead” as Eberhart calls it, were all sewn together as one piece. But that early version showed great promise as he greatly disliked the bulk, creakiness and weight of stands available.
The Anderson Tree Sling was eventually acquired by a company called Big Bucks and remained relatively unchanged until the mid-1990s. Trophyline had entered the market in the mid-1980s and launched several saddles, including one Eberhart helped design with a mesh seat which became their most popular model. A bad business decision into another venture sent Trophyline out of business about 10 years after their start, forcing aspiring saddle hunters to begin modifying gear meant for other purposes or to look beyond companies which catered exclusively to the hunting community. Many new saddle hunters got into the game using a modified EZ Hunter Sit-Drag by adding a bridge and pairing it with a rock-climbing harness. The Sit-Drag – originally made for sitting at ground level – essentially cradled the hunter’s rear end for comfort, while the rock harness provided the safety net.
New Tribe had been designing and building tree-climbing saddles for recreational tree climbers, working arborists and canopy researchers since 1984. After being approached by several hunters, co-founder and CEO Sophia Sparks decided to release a saddle developed for the hunting community in 2013 under the Aero Hunter brand name. “Every year after that, with ongoing input from expert saddle hunters, we created improved Aero Hunter models,” Sparks said. “The Kestrel is the finest of these so far, but it's not the end of the line. We currently have another model in the works that could revolutionize saddle hunting comfort.”
Greg Godfrey and Ernie Powers, both members who met on the forum Saddlehunter.com, had watched the burgeoning online community of saddle hunters buy a vast array of products over the years and modify them to suit their specialized purposes. In 2018, they decided to start Tethrd, a company with the goal of offering everything the saddle hunter would need in one place. “We were so tired of having to get on Craigslist and Ebay and other forums and buy gear and then rip it apart and make what we wanted,” Godfrey said.
“We actually had no clue that it was going to turn into any sort of real business,” he continued. “Ernie and I were like, ‘Maybe we can sell like 200 of these things, and then that would pay for all the prototyping fees that had to come out of our pockets to build all this stuff … so we’ll get some free gear, and then maybe we can sell enough of them so that we can go on an elk trip next year.” After nervously placing the initial minimum order for 200 saddles with their manufacturer, they sold out in three days. Going live on the first day of June 2018, Tethrd stayed so swamped with orders that it was well into 2019 before they began catching up.
The terminology can be quite confusing to someone just learning about saddle hunting. The basics, however, are the same with any setup. The saddle itself is what cradles your posterior and what you lean into and supports your weight while you’re in the tree; typically, it will have a pair of loops on either side: a couple smaller loops for a lineman’s belt to attach to, and a larger set of loops which the bridge will attach to. The bridge is usually a climbing rope or Amsteel, or heavy duty nylon webbing on some DIY setups, and connects to the loops on each side of the hip, serving as the connection point to the tether.
The tether is a length of rope wrapped around the tree usually around head height, and a carabiner is affixed to either a prussic knot or a commercially made ascender to the remainder of the rope hanging down. The saddle hunter then hooks his bridge from his saddle into that carabiner. This allows the hunter to stay connected to the tree as the bridge slides back and forth as the hunter turns from side to side. The tether is really no different than what traditional treestand hunters have used for decades; the difference is that instead of hooking your treestand safety harness into the tether at the top of your shoulders and facing away from the tree, saddle hunters are facing the tree and their bridge clips into the rope at waist height.
A lineman’s belt is used while going up and down the tree no matter the climbing method used, which ranges from screw-in and strap-on steps, climbing sticks, modified rappelling techniques to go both up and down, and climbing spurs. Once the desired height is reached, the hunter wraps their tether around the tree at head height, attaches the bridge to the tether, and then backs off the pressure on the lineman’s belt, eventually removing it altogether and usually storing in an accessory pouch on his hip. This leaves the hunter facing the tree, usually leaning out with his feet resting on either a very small platform of some sort or a ring of steps on nylon webbing and ratcheted down to the tree.
Sitting in fabric and hanging by ropes runs in stark contrast to being perched atop rigid aluminum stands strapped tightly to a tree, often causing people looking at the method for the first time to ask how safe such as system is. Both current manufacturers of tree saddles build their products to withstand over 5,000 pounds of breaking strength, and most ropes that are used for lineman’s belts, tethers and bridges are rated to at least 6,000 pounds.
“That was the safest thing the TMA (Treestand Manufacturer’s Association) ever tested,” said Eberhart, speaking of saddles. “They took a 275-pound log and tied it into a saddle, hooked it up to a tether and then pulled it up and allowed it to free fall six feet and the saddle stopped it. No treestand would ever stop a 275-pound log from a six-foot free fall … no way; every one of them would buckle.”
Godfrey points out that while surviving the test was impressive, that scenario actually wouldn’t happen when saddle hunting. “Saddles are designed to prevent a fall, not catch a fall,” he said. “I’d a whole lot rather be in something that was designed to keep me from falling in the first place. A safety harness (when hunting with traditional tree stands) is designed to CATCH a fall… So you’ve already fallen; that safety harness is there to stop you from hitting the ground. Then there are concerns like injury from the fall and self-rescue… can you get back onto your stand or climbing system? So there’s a big difference: one is designed to catch a fall, and one is designed to prevent a fall.”
Add to that the fact that almost all falls happen when the hunter is transitioning in or out of the treestand, just before or right after most hunters hook their harnesses to the tree. Saddle hunters stay connected to the tree the entire duration of going up and down the tree via a lineman’s belt because they need their hands free to attach their climbing method.
So they’re safe – but are they comfortable? Minnesota bowhunter Chad Goethe firmly believes switching to a saddle vastly extended the amount of time he was able to spend in a tree. “I’m 6 foot, 250 pounds and have had multiple spine surgeries. Sitting in a conventional stand, I am pushing it if I can get three hours,” he said. “All-day sits have been out of the question for about nine years. I got my Tethrd Mantis saddle and Predator platform combo toward the early part of this season and had multiple all-day sits -- and my average sit was around six hours. A saddle was the answer I was looking for regarding comfort after surgeries.”
Andrew Walter, owner and president of Wild Edge Inc., which sells one of the most popular climbing methods for saddle hunters in the Steppladder system, agrees. “That’s the first question people ask,” he said when telling about people seeing him use one at trade shows while displaying his Stepps. “That can’t be comfortable!?” Walter said he will take his saddle off and put it on the person asking about it. “They climb up the pole and then they look at you and their whole demeanor changes!”
Walter said it’s got to the point where it’s amusing. “Obviously, if it wasn’t comfortable, I wouldn’t be hunting out of it!”
The massive spike in popularity of saddle hunting is not without good reason: No longer content to sit a field edge or food plot day after day, today’s serious bowhunter realizes that big bucks usually don’t reach those destinations until well after dark in all but the most unpressured of farms. Chasing deer where they are – rather than being able to direct them to a certain location via carefully groomed food plots and pinch points – necessitates a style most have come to label as “mobile hunting”.
Combine that tactic with the growing popularity of matching wits with their quarry on public land, and the owner of Wild Edge said you’ve got the making for the perfect storm in explaining the sudden groundswell of saddle hunters. “It’s the public-land thing, and it’s mobile hunting, “Walter said. “Public-land hunting all of a sudden got to be wicked popular; it’s almost as if you’re hunting private land, you’re not cool anymore. I think it blew up and stemmed from that.”
One group of people that know mobile hunting on public land perhaps better than anyone is the young men that created The Hunting Public. “Everybody in our group has kind of a different approach,” said Aaron Warbritton, one of the hosts of the popular YouTube channel. “There’s a few key places where we find common ground, and that’s mobile hunting. We’re all about hunting a new spot, almost every day if we can.”
Sometimes referred to as “hang and hunts” or “running and gunning”, savvy bowhunters have come to realize deer pattern them just as quickly as they are able to pattern the deer – if not faster. That’s why the majority of large deer are taken the very first time an area is hunted. Godfrey sums it up in one simple statement: “First sit, best sit.” As bowhunters began going in deeper and moving around more, it was only natural that they began looking at ways of lightening their load.
“We started thinking from just a weight perspective how much we were saving when we were taking a saddle and platform in versus a stand,” Warbritton explained. “Then when we started hunting out of the saddles and filming out of them, we realized we weren’t missing much – if anything at all – by using one of these things.” He said they haven’t completely ditched their arsenal of treestands yet. “But we’re certainly moving to hunting more out of our saddles in the future – especially if we end up packing in any amount of distance.”
Tethrd’s Godfrey issues a caveat to aspiring saddle hunters though: “It’s not as plug-and-play as treestand hunting; there is a learning curve,” he said. “So there will always be a certain percentage of people that will buy it and they won’t be either willing to put in the time and effort it takes or maybe they don’t have the time it dedicate to it. Call it getting in ‘saddle shape.’”
It’s worth putting that time in to get comfortable with the system though, Eberhart said. “The advantages of a saddle over any kind of conventional treestand are night and day,” he claimed. “I can go into the season with 30-40 trees prepped for me to hunt, and there’s not a treestand in any of them. My saddle weighs about a pound and a half, rolls up to the size of a softball and fits into my backpack. I can hunt any tree, any time I want and no one is going to steal my stand. Nobody’s going to hunt it when I’m not there.”
Eberhart said being able to easily shoot 360 degrees around the tree is a big plus, as well as being able to use the tree itself as a “blocker”, or shield, from the deer since saddle hunters set up on the back side of a tree. “Let’s say I’m hunting in a mast tree where deer are going to be lingering for 20 minutes or more,” he explained. “When you’re in a treestand you have to be set up off to the side of the tree so you can make that shot. If you were 180 degrees on the back side of the tree, you can’t shoot through the tree. With a saddle, you can be on the back side of the tree, and when the shot opportunity comes you just slightly swing to the side and take the shot.”
The weight difference between a saddle and treestand is a probably the single largest reason most people begin considering moving to a saddle. Tethrd’s Mantis comes in anywhere from 15 to 18 ounces, depending on the size. Aerohunter’s Kestrel comes in just under 3 pounds, while their Kite model comes in at 1 pound, 8 ounces. If you paired up the lightest saddle on the market with all the necessary equipment, including lineman’s belt, tether, multiple carabiners and accessory pouches, you could conceivably walk into the woods with less than 3 pounds of gear. Saddles also eliminate another important element that’s probably saved more mature deer than anything else: the cringe-worthy metallic “clink” of metal contacting metal. Since saddles are constructed out of fabric, they never creak, pop or make other unwanted noises.
“If you took two hunters of equal skill set and put them on the same property for five years and one guy could use a saddle and the other guy had access to all the conventional stands he wanted from any manufacturer for free, the saddle hunter would kick the other guy’s butt,” Eberhart said. “It wouldn’t even be a contest; there’s that big of a difference.”
I popped the hatch on my Jeep and reached in to grab my new tree saddle. After strapping it around my waist, I slung the tiny backpack carrying the small Predator platform and a few assorted accessories on my back; altogether, even with the platform in it, the pack probably weighed less than six pounds. I hung a small bag of Wild Edge Stepps on my side, picked up my bow and started walking, thinking how weird this felt. Honestly, it felt as though I already had a blind brushed in somewhere and I was merely walking to go get in it – not as though I were carrying all the necessary gear with me to get 20’ up a tree!
I was doing what everyone in the saddle-hunting community said you shouldn’t do: the post office had delivered my saddle kit that morning. The first time I put it on had been in my living room to check for size and fit; less than four hours later, I was strapping it on for the second time standing at the rear of my vehicle. Read any thread on a saddle-hunting forum, and everyone will tell you to get lots of practice and gain confidence at a foot or so off the ground before taking it out hunting.
After reaching hunting height, I removed my tether from the military-style dump pouch affixed to the rear of my saddle using the Molle loops sewn onto the rear of the seat. Throwing it around the tree trunk at head height, I threaded its length back through the loop on the end, bringing with it the ascender and carabiner so that it hung directly in front of my chest. I pulled the bridge which had been tucked into my belt up and out and placed it in the carabiner, taking the time to screw the gate shut after snapping it over the bridge. I was now connected to the tree twice – both with my lineman’s belt, and with my bridge tied into the tether above my head. I leaned back and slowly started loosening my lineman’s belt, which allowed my weight to transfer to the tether. Once I could see the lineman’s belt wasn’t supporting me at all, I removed it and placed it in the same pouch which had just held my tether.
And that was it! I was officially saddle hunting. I shifted my weight from my left to my right, observing closely as my bridge slid through the carabiner with my movements. I turned around and looked directly behind me, to my 6 o’clock position, or the “drop shot position” as it’s sometimes called (saddle hunters refer to the tree as being right in front of them as 12 o’clock). I had anticipated this being one of my tougher shots to get, but this was going to be an easy one. Continuing to experiment, I could see the “weak-side shot” presenting some challenges, and the “top shot” was going to require some bridge-length adjustment so that it wouldn’t interfere with my bow string at full draw (I had left the bridge at the full 55 inches of length that New Tribe provided with their Kestrel kit; I shortened it to 30 inches at home that night, which is about the maximum length any saddle hunter typically uses.)
Was it going to take some time to fine-tune and feel completely comfortable with all the shot opportunities that could present themselves? Absolutely. On the other hand, the saddle itself was very comfortable – I sat (or leaned, really) for nearly three hours my first night with absolutely no pain or discomfort. Since the “stand” and safety harness are built together as one unit, it was incredibly nice after getting down out of the tree to just simply unhook my linesman’s belt, pick up my bow and start walking back to my Jeep. No sitting at the base of the tree packing up my stand first, and then slinging it over my back before being able to leave.
A month later I was hanging in my saddle for probably the 20th time in a completely new tree as darkness began enveloping me. I caught movement just at the edge of my peripheral vision over my left shoulder, and turned to see a lone doe quietly making her way toward the cut corn field 300 yards away. I lifted my bow off its holder and rotated 180 degrees around behind me, my bridge sliding effortlessly through the carabiner as I turned. Bracing my right foot on the trunk of the tree and leaning out, I eased my bow back to full draw before voice-bleating the doe to a stop. The 150-grain prototype Rage Trypan sliced so cleanly through her she never knew what happened; a few seconds later, she simply toppled over where she had stood. I remained at full extension for a brief moment, drinking in the moment and congratulating myself for my small victory. Yes… she was the first victim out of my new saddle, but I knew there would be many more to come.