LAST UPDATED: September 27th, 2019
Saddle hunting is becoming mainstream. What was once considered an offbeat, niche hunting style is now steadily growing in a whitetail world that is trending toward aggressive and mobile hunting tactics. The ability to hunt out of any tree in the woods without carrying around a bulky stand, or amassing an armada of lock-on treestands, has made saddles an increasingly popular option among serious bowhunters.
Don’t get me wrong, I love slipping in unnoticed to a well-placed lock-on treestand. However, there is little doubt that my reluctance to break away from my preset lock-on setups has left my buck tag neatly tucked in my pocket more times than I would like to admit. On the other hand, hunting from a tree saddle has propelled me deeper into the nooks and crannies of public lands, opening up more hunting opportunities than I would have thought possible for my weekend-warrior reality.
What is a Saddle Hunting System?
Simply put, a saddle is a seat that holds you in an elevated position during your hunt, replacing the need for a treestand. The cupped seat on a saddle provides the system’s comfort, while the safety-rated webbing creates a built-in safety harness that keeps you connected to the tree while climbing and hunting.
Once in place at the desired height, saddle users loop a tether around the tree and attach it to the saddle’s bridge. Running from one hip to the other, the bridge acts as the connection point between the saddle and the tether, and is often made from high strength rope or climbing webbing.
A small metal platform or ring of steps allows hunters to maintain comfort from a saddle while maximizing their shooting radius. With a little practice and confidence, hunters can achieve the ability to shoot a 360-degree radius by pivoting on the platform, or using the steps to rotate around the tree.
While nothing may beat your favorite recliner at home, saddles are very comfortable. Despite this, many hunters need some initial time to let their body adjust to sitting in a saddle. Greg Godfrey, co-founder of Tethrd, calls this process “getting in to saddle shape.” While that may sound intimidating, saddle fitness is much easier to achieve than your New Year’s resolution. “For most hunters two to three practice sessions in the back yard can really help getting over the physical barrier and building your ‘saddle shape,’” explains Godfrey.
Like any other mobile hunting method, there are a wide variety of climbing options available. Climbing sticks and strap-on tree steps are the most popular public-land legal climbing options among saddle hunters. On private land, the combination of a hand drill and carbon or aluminum bolts, screw-in tree steps, and even climbing spurs represent other climbing possibilities hunters can employ.
Commercial saddles have been around since the 1980s but have not had market staying power until recently. Today, two companies, Aero Hunter and Tethrd, produce true hunting tree saddles. Aero Hunter produces several popular saddle options that range from 1.75-2.5 pounds in weight, while Tethrd offers their minimalist 15-ounce Mantis saddle and their 55-ounce Predator Platform. Recently, Out On A Limb began offering several platforms in the 3-3.5 pound range, and also worked with Wild Edge, Inc. to release a 1.25 pound platform named the Perch that couples with their Wild Edge Stepps. While a handful of commercial saddle and platform options may not seem like much, it is a relative bonanza compared to what was available at the beginning of the decade.
Why Saddle Hunt?
It is no coincidence that the groundswell in the popularity of saddle hunting parallels the growth in popularity of mobile, public-land hunting. The consistent success of hunters like Dan Infalt, John Eberhart, and The Hunting Public have clearly demonstrated the benefits of mobility on pressured land. “That mobility factor has led public-land hunters to seek out ultralight gear when it comes to tree stands and climbing sticks,” explains Jann Corrigan, Marketing Director for Aero Hunter. “Tree saddles are the logical evolution in ultralight mobile hunting.”
In fact, a saddle’s ultralight weight probably accounts for more saddle hunting converts than any other benefit. Coupling a saddle with an ultralight weight climbing method can create the perfect solution for hunters who want to hike deep into public or private parcels and bounce from spot to spot. By using methods like climbing spurs, carbon bolts, or the popular method of combining a climbing aider with Wild Edge Stepps, hunters often report their total setup equipment weight at 7-8 pounds, with the ability to hunt at least 20 feet high in the tree.
Weight-saving gear modifications, such as cutting down the length of sticks and adding climbing aiders to sticks and steps, allow saddle hunters to take less gear and bulk into the woods while still hunting at an effective height. Regardless of modifications, many complete saddle hunting systems range from 8-15 pounds, rivaling – and usually easily besting – most complete traditional treestand setups in the weight category.
For the owner of Wild Edge, Inc., Andrew Walter, a saddle’s advantages boil down to two things. “Just straight mobility and simplicity,” he explained. Walter’s favored “run and gun” tactics are made easier by a saddle’s packability. Most saddles pack down to the size of a cantaloupe and negate the need to haul a bulky, brush snagging, noise-prone metal stand into the woods. “I love the ability to jump around and scout as I hunt,” said Walter. “I walk in with a saddle, my bow and my backpack; that’s it.”
The packability of a saddle creates adaptability, allowing hunters to easily react in real time to changes in hunting pressure or food sources. “Factors change often,” explained Aaron Warbritton of The Hunting Public. “We may setup in new locations multiple times throughout the course of a day. The saddle, coupled with an efficient climbing system, is the fastest way we’ve found to get up and down a tree.”
John Eberhart, the “Godfather” of saddle hunting, notes that the advantages of a tree saddle go far beyond mobility. “For a plethora of different reasons, I would guess that at least half of the 44 record class bucks I’ve taken with a bow while hunting from a saddle would not have been taken if I had been using any form of treestands,” explained Eberhart.
The number-one benefit for Eberhart is the ability to shoot 360 degrees, but that is closely followed by the ability to go undetected by deer. “You can use the tree as a buffer to hide behind at feeding destination locations, where several deer may linger for extended periods of time, which means you won’t get picked off as you would in any form of conventional stands,” he explains.
Aside from mobility and versatility, hunters need to know that a saddle can provide them with safety and comfort for all-day sits. “When properly used, tree saddles are impossible to fall out of because you are literally in your safety harness already,” explained Jann Corrigan. “You can’t fall out of one like you would if you fell out of a tree stand,” he explains. That safety does not compromise comfort according to Andrew Walter, “To me its way more comfortable than a tree stand.”
Though not difficult to use, tree saddles are not as intuitive as treestands, creating a mental hurdle for prospective saddle hunters.
“If a caveman walked up to a tree and saw a ladder and a tree stand at the top of a tree, he could put it together pretty quickly. If the same caveman walked up to a tree and saw a saddle there, he probably wouldn’t get it. It would take some coaching,” explained Greg Godfrey of Tethrd. Fortunately, Godfrey points out, there are a lot of online resources for new saddle hunters to get started.
The learning curve to the saddle itself is not the only intimidation factor new saddle hunters face. Hunters who have not practiced shooting from a saddle are often skeptical that it will provide comfortable and makeable shots when the moment of truth presents itself. “Executing shots from the different body positions requires some practice. Once you do it, it is easily picked up and it feels like second nature,” explained Corrigan.
This also applies to the infamous weakside shot, which may require hunters to lift their bow up and over their bridge and pivot into position. While the movement can be hidden using the tree trunk, some non-saddle hunters are understandably uncomfortable with that movement until they practice it.
The weight and packability of a tree saddle make it tough to beat when it comes to mobile options but that doesn’t mean that it is the end-all of elevated hunting. Treestands will always have a place in the hunting world, and they are hard to beat for first-time preset hunts. Also, many hunters are completely comfortable with their lightweight hang-ons and simply prefer hunting from the familiarity of a treestand.
Tree saddles, budget locks-ons, high-priced hang-on’s, ghillie suits, and everything in between certainly have their place in the woods. As Aaron Warbritton explains it, “The saddle is another tool to throw in the bag. The key to hunting mature bucks is setting up in the correct spot to kill them. Having different tools – like the saddle – allow us to do that.”
There is no doubt that you will be able to find me in a lock-on treestand from time to time this fall. However, my hunting “toolbox” has certainly grown to include a tree saddle. Its lightweight packability has increased my ability to hunt further from the parking lot and brought me one step closer to filling a few of those tags that have been burning a hole in my pocket.