Climbing Gear: The More You Know, the Less You Need

A climbing harness loaded up with everything a climbing arborist would need, and then some. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of the author.

It is a wonderful time in the tree care industry for the climbing arborist. It seems every couple of months there is a new piece of equipment that comes on the market. It can give the climbing-arborist gear junkies a rush of gear adrenaline and at the same time fill safety coordinators with anxiety. Does this have the right kilonewton rating? Will this device fit that diameter or construction of rope? Is it compatible with this system? Is this an approved device within our company? The list can be exhausting.

Teaching the basic fundamentals of climbing and rigging from the start can help relieve some of that anxiety, build a solid climbing arborist who can utilize a minimum of equipment to complete a wide range of tasks aloft, and appreciate when new and innovative equipment comes on the market.

A colleague of mine once said, “Climbing arborists are like bass. Dangle something new and shiny in front of them, and they’re guaranteed to bite.” At times, we would even joke about the amount of equipment on their harnesses and what mountain they were planning on climbing. It became a game to us, but in reality there were some valuable lessons from our observations.

I couldn’t joke too much about their amount of equipment, because I, too, was a bass at one point in my climbing-arborist career. I had to have everything that was new on the market. Take a step back even further to when I was a budding rock-climbing guide and I had to have every possible piece of equipment on my harness and my bandolier to look the part.

It wasn’t until I took my formal mountain-guide training that I realized the more I knew about techniques and theories, the fewer pieces of equipment I needed to perform those tasks. My instructor would always say, “You’re not climbing Mount Everest. I can see the car from here.” Same holds true with climbing trees. No need to weigh yourself down with gear while aloft, when you have a support staff on the ground and can get what you need within a reasonable amount of time.

Kitchen-sink harness

I would venture to say that if you opened up any arborist’s garage or shed, you wouldn’t find a whole lot of extra room. A place for everything, and everything in its place. I bet if you asked those same folks if they could use more space, they would answer with a resounding “Yes.” Now imagine today’s harnesses with multiple gear loops and the ability to customize your gear storage, a virtual blank sheet of pegboard ready to be filled. They are just calling out for something to be hung or clipped on them. But do we really need to carry the kitchen sink just to structural-prune a tree?

I once saw a climbing arborist with three separate multiscending devices on his harness while climbing to remove three to five limbs over a roof. Not once did he use any of the equipment on his harness to redirect his line for a better work position, set a separate line to aid in mobility or se-curely attach himself with his multiple-use lanyard. Why have it if you don’t need or use it?

My general rule of thumb is, if I do not use a piece of equipment for a week, then it comes off my harness and goes into my gear bag. If it’s still in my gear bag for another week and still has had no use, then it goes on the truck and stays there. Remember, we are not climbing El Capitan. Take the “shake-down” challenge, and I bet you will find more equipment left on the truck instead of on your harness.

One piece, multiple uses

Let’s look at the past five to seven years and all the advancements in climbing styles, techniques and work positioning. There’s been more new equipment that has hit the market in recent years than I have seen in total throughout my entire tree-climbing career. Of course, I had to try out every piece that came on the market. Remember the bass analogy? What I found was that, as climbing styles and techniques advanced, there were more specialized pieces of equipment that served only one purpose, for example, ascending devices. Most climbing arborists now have at least one, whether it’s a foot, knee or hand ascender. Although very useful, these devices only serve one, maybe two purposes. The challenge is this – find an alternative to your single-application ascender or find multiple uses for it. Trust me, it is possible. As an owner/operator, if I am going to purchase or allow one of my staff to use a piece of equipment, it has to have multiple uses and, of course, conform to all safety standards. Having a piece of equipment on harness that only serves one purpose limits creativity and is, financially, a poor decision.

This photo depicts a climbing arborist, the author, using his sling as a chest harness that tends his multicending device up the rope.

Vertical gain versus energy output

I have watched many an arborist manage to get themselves tangled in their sophisticated rope/frog/walking systems, like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. I asked them if it was worth all that gear, and most replied with a resounding “Yes.” My reply to them was, “But you’re going to strangle yourself in the process.” It was sometimes painful to watch.

You can have all the newest ascenders and multiscending devices in your system, but if you don’t have your equipment adjusted for your personal body style, proper ascending technique and body positioning, you are not going to maximize the benefits of this system. The most important aspect of any ascending system is efficiency and maximizing your vertical gain versus your physical output. The climbing arborist should take the time to properly adjust his or her system based on height, weight and length of stride and throw. Once this is achieved, his or her system will become more efficient and less taxing.

Once in the canopy, the webbing loop can be used as a redirect, as depicted in this photo. Webbing loops are one of the cheapest and most versatile pieces of equipment in the climbing arborist’s arsenal, when utilized properly.

The next aspect of an efficient ascending system is body positioning and technique. Imagine the climbing instructor at the local rock-climbing gym telling you to face the wall and keep your toes on the wall. That is the same technique we should think about applying when we are doing vertical ascents with any stationary rope system (SRS) or moving rope system (MRS) technique. We don’t need a more efficient ascender or ascending system, we need to refine our techniques in order to become more efficient.

When I would conduct trainings or watch climbing competitions, I would notice that many of the climbing arborists would try to make the ascent as fast as they possibly could. This can sometimes make the climber take large strides and, in turn, shift his or her body out of a more upright position. Remember, slow is fast. Take small strides. The longer the stride, the more you’re apt to lean back on the rope. By maintaining a more upright body position, the rope will glide more freely through the ascending devices due to a straighter path of travel, and it also will be less likely to “kick out” of the ascending unit. Proper body position also will allow the climber to use his or her hands and arms less frequently for pulling and more for balance and to assist in positioning.

Donny Coffey instructing an SRS workshop in 2012. TCIA staff photo by Kathleen Costello.

Work positioning

The introduction of multiple-use lanyards or lanyard systems has allowed the climbing arborist to develop a vast array of ways to safely position his or her body when at the workstations. Although these work-positioning systems are very useful, they can be considered specialized pieces of equipment and at times pricey to the budget-conscience climbing arborist or business owner. With proper instruction on suspension-point selection, route planning, ascension techniques and body positioning, the common lanyard can suffice in many cases.

For example, if the climbing arborist was able to set his or her suspension point safely and at a proper height in the tree initially, there may be less need to use a 2-in- 1 lanyard to progress through the ascent.

Another example may be using redirects directly above or in close proximity to the work station while using an SRS technique. Again, I am not debating the usefulness of multiple-use lanyard systems. I am simply trying to bring it back to the basics and be less dependent on bells and whistles and more on teaching and technique.


Now let me step down off my soapbox. I am in no way saying the advancements that have been made in arborist climbing equipment are not useful or do not have a place in my gear bag. What I am encouraging everyone to do is step back and work on the fundamentals. Refine your skill set. Become better at the basics. Through all of that, you just may find out that the more you know, the less you need.

Donny Coffey, CTSP, is owner/operator of Nature’s Canopy in State College, Pennsylvania. He will present a session on the same subject at TCI EXPO 2019 this fall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For more on TCI EXPO 2019, visit

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