The Well-Prepared Climber

The following is an excerpt from the newly revised “The Tree Climber’s Companion,” by Jeff Jepson. This excerpt, mostly new content from Part 1 of the revision, was adapted for TCI Magazine by Jeff Jepson.

Do you know anybody who bought a parachute through a mail-order surplus store and went sky diving without instruction? I hope not, and yet we all know people who have bought a belt at a flea market or a chain saw at the discount hardware store and claimed to be in the tree business. – Donald F. Blair, in Arborist Equipment

“Be Prepared” is more than a motto for kids in Scouts. It’s a fundamental rule of success, whatever the endeavor and for whomever pursues it. As it relates to climbing and working in trees, being prepared begins with two things: equipping yourself with as much knowledge and training as possible and acquiring the appropriate tools of the trade.

The updated cover of the newly revised “The Tree Climber’s Companion,” by Jeff Jepson.
The updated cover of the newly revised “The Tree Climber’s Companion,” by Jeff Jepson.

Fortunately for today’s tree worker, there has never been a better time to do both. The rich variety of learning resources available to arborists is unprecedented in the history of arboriculture, as is the ease for accessing them – books, magazines, catalogs, websites, videos, podcasts, webinars, seminars and social networking. Equally astounding is the almost endless variety of innovative climbing equipment from which arborists can choose.

With such an availability of tools and training materials, there is no valid excuse for any arborist to be anything but well educated and well outfitted, which is to say, well prepared to meet the challenges of tree work. In a profession fraught with as many “dangers, toils and snares” as ours, you owe it to yourself, and your co-workers, clients, family and friends, to be as prepared as possible.1 Reading this first section on climbing preparation, and, of course, the rest of the pages that follow, is a good first step in achieving that goal.

The learned climber

Not all tree workers are eager students of learning their trade. Many are more eager to “just do it” than to learn to do it correctly. The unfortunate consequences range from untimely deaths and permanent disabilities to showing scars and telling embarrassing stories of close calls.

Let these examples be motivation for getting all the knowledge and training possible before leaving the ground. Of course, this is just the start. Ongoing learning will be (and should be) a career-long quest, at least for those who want to succeed in this profession and enjoy doing it for any length of time.

Richard Kollath sketch.
Richard Kollath sketch.

How we learn

Each one of us has a preferred method of learning. Some learn best through listening and reading, some through watching, some through small group discussions and yet others through doing. All of these learning styles can be summed up in the oft-quoted simple phrase: hear it, see it, do it.

A fourth ingredient also could be added: teach it. When you share your knowledge with others, you come to have a deeper understanding of it yourself. In fact, one of the best indicators that you truly understand something is when you can explain it coherently to someone else. It may seem obvious, but the most favorable and effective learning occurs when all of these learning methods are used.

On-the-job learning

As a beginning climber, most of the skills you learn will occur on the job, under the direct supervision of a qualified arborist. This method of learning is highly effective, because it incorporates all the elements of the hear it, see it, do it and, eventually, teach it learning methods. In addition, on-the-job learning (training) comes from one of the best learning resources available – experienced climbers. What’s more, unlike most schools of learning, on-the-job learning is an education you actually get paid for.

But this type of learning, or any learning for that matter, is effective only to the extent that the student is teachable. At the very least, being teachable means possessing an eager willingness to learn, demonstrated by listening attentively, watching closely and asking good questions. Being teachable also requires a thick skin so that you can receive correction and constructive criticism without feeling threatened or diminished by those who give it. If you’ve ever been part of an athletic team, you know how vital the coach’s critique and evaluation is in learning to master a skill.

Surprisingly, teachability is an uncommon quality in people, the lack of which is a huge obstacle to their learning as well as getting along with others. This is why being teachable is the first thing you need to learn as a beginning arborist.

On-your-own learning

As important as on-the-job learning is, don’t overlook what you can learn on your own – off the job. Self-education is one of the hallmarks of serious and successful students. Fueled by curiosity and a passion for their work, self-educators don’t need to be led by the hand to learn what needs to be learned; they take the initiative to learn from relevant resources on their own.

This book is but one means of hearing and seeing how to climb and work in trees. True professionals will seek out and maintain their own library of quality resources. Arborist magazines, videos, websites, online arborist forums, even equipment catalogs are all excellent resources for learning, as are the resources listed on page 15 in the book. (See Table 1 accompanying this article)

Another great way to learn the ropes of tree work is to attend climbing competitions, industry trade shows and workshops where you can rub shoulders with experienced arborists and make new friends in the process. Two organizations that host events such as these are the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association. Both, incidentally, produce a number of books, magazines, training videos and online learning opportunities that help educate arborists.

The school of hard knocks

There is yet another excellent method of learning, the school of hard knocks, where the lessons learned come from experience, often the hard way – from mistakes and failures, including those you make yourself and those made by others.

“Never stop learning, never stop sharing, never stop growing – in work as in life.” – Patrick Masterson,

Learning From Your Own Mistakes

The lessons learned from making mistakes are not quickly forgotten, which is probably why they make such good teachers. Many mistakes, especially those of the “near-death” variety, stick with us for a lifetime. You never forget those lessons. But even the less-serious mistakes are often memorable, and therefore good teachers.

When you make a mistake, whether a colossal failure or a minor slip-up, the first thing you need to do is put pride aside and acknowledge the fact that you’ve actually made one! Only then can you begin to learn anything from it. Then, from that teachable spirit, ask yourself, “What went wrong? What could I have done differently? How can I be prepared so it doesn’t happen again?”

Table 1: The climber’s library

By Jeff Jepson
The most accomplished tree climbers are often the ones who seek instruction, acquire knowledge and stay informed. Though not an exhaustive list, the resources listed below will enable the inspired climber to get started in accomplishing those pursuits.

An Illustrated Guide to Pruning (3nd Edition). Edward F. Gilman. Cengage Learning, 2012.
Arborist Equipment (2nd Edition). Donald F. Blair. International Society of Arboriculture, 1999.
Best Practices for SRT in Arboriculture. Donald Coffey and Tchukki Anderson. Tree Care Industry Association, 2012.
Groundie (2021); Knots at Work (2013); To Fell a Tree (2009). Jepson.
The Art and Science of Practical Rigging [book and DVD]. International Society of Arboriculture, 2001.
The Fundamentals of General Tree Work (25th Anniversary Edition). G.F. Beranek 1996/2021.
Tree Climber’s Guide (4th Edition). Sharon J. Lilly and Alex K. Julius. International Society of Arboriculture, 2020.
ANSI® Z133-2017: Safety Requirements for Arboricultural Operations. International Society of Arboriculture, 2017.

Online arborist forums, blogs, podcasts and articles

Arborist organizations
International Society of Arboriculture: (publisher of Arborist News Magazine)
Tree Care Industry Association: (publisher of Tree Care Industry Magazine)
Tree Climbers International:

Other good resources to consider are the training videos produced by the ISA and TCIA, G.F. Beranek’s Working Climber Series 1,2,3 (, and Peter Jenkin’s Tree Climbing Basics (

Learning From the Mistakes of Others

The lessons learned from your own mistakes may have a lasting impact, but they often come at a cost: an injury, an out-of-pocket expense or maybe some personal embarrassment, to name a few. Any of these are reasons enough to pay attention to and learn from the mistakes of others as well as your own. You get the same education, but without the expense.

You will have ample opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others. Most of what you’ll learn from others will probably come from your co-workers. After all, they’re the ones you’ll spend the most time with.

But you can also learn from those you don’t work with or know. Take, for example, the Tree Care Industry Magazine, which publishes accounts of reported accidents related to tree work.2 These brief accounts expose arborists to potential mistakes, hazards and accidents they might not otherwise have considered and can thus avoid making themselves.

Finally, make use of in-person and online social networking as another great way to learn what other arborists have done wrong, but also to learn what they do right.

End notes

  1. …“dangers, toils and snares,” from the song “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.
  2. To read the Tree Care Industry Association’s most recently published accident accounts, go to:
    Jeff Jepson is an ISA Certified Arborist, has owned Beaver Tree Service in Longville, Minnesota, since 1989 and has been working in the tree care industry for more 30 years. He is the author of four books for the tree care industry. His first book, “The Tree Climber’s Companion,” was followed by “To Fell A Tree,” “Knots at Work” and “Groundie.”

“The Tree Climber’s Companion” has been a trusted training manual for climbing arborists around the world. Since the first edition was published in 1997, more than 200,000 copies have been sold, and it’s been translated from the English into three other languages. It has been used not only by arborists, but also by canopy researchers, wildlife biologists, treehouse builders, firefighters, window washers, roofers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and even some wacky folks who spend the night in trees, sleeping in hammocks.

The revised and expanded third edition is intended to be an even better “companion” for teaching and inspiring another generation of arborists, or anyone else who wants to climb trees safely, efficiently and happily. Illustrated by Brian Kotwica and Richard Kollath, contents include:

  • Climbing preparation
  • Tools of the trade
  • Pre-climb inspections
  • Installing climbing lines in the tree
  • Climbing systems
  • Ascending techniques
  • Work-positioning techniques
  • Descending from a tree
  • Rigging and tree-removal techniques
  • Selecting and tying the best knots
  • And much more

Published in 2024 by Beaver Tree Publishing, “The Tree Climber’s Companion” is available from TCIA’s online store at

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