Tools of the Trade

“The best investment is the tools of one’s own trade.”
– Ben Franklin

As a production climbing arborist and trainer, I am often presented with the question of “What tools do I need to do the job?” Unfortunately, there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer. The reality is that the answer is mainly contingent upon the questioner.

Climber Thomas Paine wearing a Treemotion Evo saddle. All photos courtesy of the author.

Is the question being presented by an experienced climber, a relatively new climber, or someone who is aspiring to climb on a production level? The answer varies more than the multitude of tools available to the production climber, due to the vast amount of potential difference in the work setting. If you are working in the Pacific Northwest, the gear you employ may differ significantly from that of a Midwest climber who spends a vast amount of time in deciduous trees such as oaks, maples, elms and various species of ash.

A cautionary tale

When I first got into the industry, I was mesmerized by some of the equipment the “high-level” climbers were using. As a young, excitable apprentice, naturally I wanted to have the best gear available. After my first training climb in a controlled environment, I was hooked. The only problem was, I seriously lacked the funds to go out and purchase the “premium” kit I thought I required. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to work for an employer who was willing to front my purchase and set up a six-week payroll deduction. Some $2,200 later I had my kit, though not the ability to maximize it.

My initial purchase sent me on a two-year spending spiral that quickly ran up to nearly $10,000. My wife was not thrilled with the lack of a resulting increased income to offset my purchases. Even though I had a large share of the “best” equipment on the market, I came to the realization that I only implemented a small percentage of my newly acquired “essential” tools. I had not been climbing enough to know what I really needed.

My goal in writing this is to help climbers at all levels of experience and locations to avoid the same spending pitfalls I fell into, and to, instead, make informed decisions when acquiring the tools for their trade. This article is not a buyer’s guide or an endorsement for any specific tool. I certainly have my own opinions on gear, but I leave it to you to determine which gear is best for you and your situation. Before I get into the pre-purchase checklist, I need to establish some ground rules.

Petzl Sequoia saddle with a basic complement of gear.

1. You must thoroughly research any gear you are interested in purchasing.
2. Any gear that is for life support must have the appropriate load ratings as outlined in the ANSI Z133 or other applicable standards listed in Z133’s Annex D.
3. Do not purchase someone else’s “recycled” gear if you are not entirely certain how the equipment was handled. Use extreme caution when purchasing used saddles and ropes!

Make sure you purchase your gear from a reputable source that facilitates the needs of arborists.

With those ground rules established, let’s talk about CLIMB! CLIMB is the clever acronym that my training partner, Thomas Paine, CTSP, and I came up with for our trainees. CLIMB is an overly simplified guide to help you make informed purchasing decisions based on your – you guessed it – research.

  • Cost-effective
  • Longevity
  • Intuitive
  • Multi-use
  • Benefit


I realize that cost effective may mean different things for different people. A high-level production climber and an arborist apprentice are likely operating under different budgetary restrictions. Some people’s family situations also may affect their gear allowance. It is vital to have a realistic grasp of your budget. If you are new to climbing, you need to prioritize your gear expenditures. Maybe forgo that $100 hand ascender and instead invest in a more ergonomic saddle or an efficient rope system. Focus on buying quality items as you build your kit, even if it takes longer to acquire all the specialty tools you may want. Ben Franklin nailed it when he said, “The best investment is the tools of one’s own trade.”


Let us not forget that we need to do our best to recognize the longer-term return on investment (ROI). Remember, long-term ROI is paramount to making informed purchases. As you research prospective gear, study the reviews specific to the tool you are interested in. If you are in the market for a new saddle, compare numerous reviews from multiple distributors. I have found many of the online arborist forums extremely helpful in researching gear as well.

Talk to experts in the field who have been doing this for a while and get their input. You will likely stumble upon themes, both positive and negative, regarding the durability of equipment. We literally put our lives in the hands of these gear manufacturers, so it is crucial we read and understand the manufacturers’ usage policies and warnings. If your life depends on the gear you employ, you need to ensure it is durable and dependable.


Merriam Webster defines intuitive as “readily learned or understood.” We must be honest with ourselves about both our experience and our physical skill level when researching a product. An experienced climber is likely to have an easier time learning a more advanced climbing technique that requires more specialized equipment. They have mastered the basic skills and techniques of their trade. Experience breeds instinct.

Stationary-rope-system (SRS) climbing techniques are considered advanced techniques in our industry. An entry-level climber may have a more difficult time “readily learning” this technique. This lack of experience would likely hinder their understanding of the gear that SRS requires. A moving rope system (MRS) is the standard technique most climbers implement, and is certainly viewed as a building-block skill. A basic climbing system with a Prusik and pulley is a much simpler operation to learn than a device like the ART SpiderJack 3 or the Rock Exotica Unicender, both of which are stellar devices.

Climbing devices shown, from left, include the Notch Rope Runner Pro (SRS configuration), the Petzl ZigZag Plus and the DMM Hitch-Climber pulley.

A good example of a gear “upgrade” would be moving from a simple Prusik and pulley to something such as a Petzl ZigZag. The ZigZag was designed to mimic the function of a traditional rope Prusik, which greatly decreases the learning curve from Prusik hitches to mechanical ascent/descent devices. For instance, the first time I climbed on the ART SpiderJack 3, I found myself struggling to operate the device with the same efficiency that I previously had operated my hitch climber or ZigZag setups. As my experience and ability increased, I gave the SpiderJack 3 another go; as it turns out, I love it. I was not prepared to readily learn or understand the different technique required to efficiently utilize the device.


Here is where we start developing or honing our creativity in the climbing world. The more you climb, the more you come to the realization that no tool will fulfill every need. As climbing practitioners, equipment that can serve multiple roles is incredibly advantageous (if we do not go beyond the manufacturers’ usage warnings). A simple Dyneema Loop Runner with a triple-action carabiner can serve a climber in numerous roles. You can use it to set a climbing redirect, an MRS false crotch, a light-
rigging tie-in point or even a chain-saw lanyard.

The author sporting a Tree Austria Pro saddle with an advanced complement of gear.

Abraham Maslow, renowned American psychologist and creator of Maslow’s hierarchy-of-needs theory, famously said, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You will be faced with a multitude of different problems to solve using the tools you have readily available to you. Not all problems are the same (nails), so it goes without saying that not all solutions can be achieved with the same tool (hammer), or at least with the same deployment of that tool.


We have finally arrived at the crux of the issue in gear procurement. Is this new piece of the kit beneficial? If it is not, then you probably do not need it. Benefits can take on myriad forms. If the gear can help you accomplish the job more safely than you are currently doing it, then it is beneficial. If the gear helps you accomplish the job more efficiently than you were previously able to accomplish a similar job, then it is beneficial. If a new climbing system, paired with the appropriate training, helps you do a job more ergonomically, then it is beneficial. I will not go too far into ergonomics, but if a specific piece of equipment can lessen some of the physical strain our bodies endure, then it is a benefit!

One of the biggest benefits about investing in new gear is that it can keep us excited about the industry and help us think outside the box on how we implement our gear.

Mr. Franklin was right on the money when he said, “The best investment is the tools of one’s own trade.” I hope you do this job because you love it, so invest in tools that will help you ascend to the top.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from Jeff Duntemann: “A good tool improves the way you work; a great tool improves the way you think.”

Do your research, implement CLIMB and find your next great tool!

Andrew Jones, CTSP, is an ISA Certified Arborist, production climber and co-founder of Rooted Arbor Care Climbing Solutions, based in St. Louis, Missouri.

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Arborist News.

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