An intrepid climber overlooking the Charles River in Boston. Megan/Flickr

How to fulfill your leafy fantasies safely and legally.

Dear CityLab: It’s spring, and the trees in my local park are looking so glorious that I just have to climb them. Could I get in trouble?

There’s a delightfully subversive allure to scaling a tree in the middle of a city. Instantly, you’re transported away from the gray and busy streets below and into a leafy echelon; the ascent involves just the right amount risk, and more than adequate reward. In a recent essay for The Guardian, Jack Cooke described how:

Putting physical space between ourselves and our daily routines cannot be overvalued. After days spent holding carriage or escalator handrails, touching bark is bracing; like a shock of cold water. No other surface compares to living wood, and climbing brings a feeling of reversion, a step back from a wholly artificial environment.

It’s all very romantic and Transendentalist and makes you want to flee immediately to the nearest leafy branch.

But how, exactly, can city dwellers act on that impulse without injuring themselves or incurring a fine? Turns out it’s a bit tricky, so CityLab took the plunge to find out what to keep in mind before taking to the trees.

Know where you can climb

Most cities outlaw unsupervised, unsanctioned climbing of trees on public property. In New York, for example, rogue climbers are slapped with a citation and a $50 fine. Even Atlanta, the most heavily forested city in the U.S. and home to Tree Climbers International, the world’s first organized tree-climbing school, doesn’t permit arboreal acrobatics, says Patty Jenkins, the executive director of TCI.

Climbing is also forbidden on any trees in the U.S. national parks; state parks, however, may differ—check with your local parks service. And of course, ask for property owners'  permission before scaling any trees on private land.

Differentiate between types of climbing

How you go about securing permission to climb any tree—whether it’s on state, city, or private property—depends largely on the type of climb you undertake. There are two broad categories: roped and non-roped.

Non-roped is more spontaneous, and consequently harder to regulate; it’s what you’re doing if you’re on a walk through a city park, see a glorious tree, and just have to climb it—no equipment, no planning, no instruction. “You know, people are always going to want to climb trees,” Jenkins says. “In this case, what’ll likely happen is a park ranger or policeman will come along, say ‘get the heck out of this tree,’ and issue a warning or a fine.” It’s not the most severe punishment, but if you get caught in an area where tree climbing is forbidden, you have no leg to stand on nor recourse to argue back: you’ve broken the law.

A facilitated climb in Laurelhurst Park, Portland. (Friends of Trees/Flickr)

Roped climbing—where either the climber or a facilitating instructor sets up the proper equipment and follows a strict protocol—is slightly different. This category breaks down further into individual or “facilitated” group climbs, but the technique is constant, and designed to promote safety. “If climbers have been trained, and follow the standards set out by Tree Climbers International, there’s never been an accident,” Jenkins says.

So if you want to do a facilitated climb in a state- or city-owned park, Jenkins says you shouldn’t shy away from taking the initiative to make it happen. “Get in touch with the powers that be—the parks department or rangers—and tell them you want to undertake a facilitated climb,” she says. “Point to the guides and the safety records, and to facilitators who are opening the door to recreational tree climbing all over the world because they’ve worked out a solution.”

Understandably, cities fear liability for recklessness and accidents, but as Jenkins tells CityLab, following proper protocol largely precludes any fiascos.

So how do you safely climb?

The first thing, Jenkins says, is to get trained. TCI offers combined online and video lessons, and various organizations throughout the country host training courses. There are also supervised group climbs to participate in like this one in Franklin, Tennessee. There are also clubs and organizations, like Bay Area Tree Climbers, that lead group climbs in local forests. While you’re first starting out, you can also look around for local networks for climbing buddies and additional support.  

Whether you’re climbing with a group (a “facilitated climb”) or going solo, though, the tree selection process is the same. According to TCI guidelines—and common sense—the tree must be big enough to support you. A safe branch to loop your climbing rope over will be at least six inches in diameter, and stemming off a trunk at least 18 inches in diameter.

And the tree needs to be healthy. Never climb diseased or dead trees—dead branches around the base, the absence of bark, noticeable cavities in the trunk or exposed roots, and fungus growth are all warning signs. Also, never climb trees with power lines running through them, or those containing evidence of animal nests (a swarm of hornets would not exactly add to the experience).

For recreational climbers, a huge amount of gear isn’t necessary, but you will need the basics: ropes, a saddle, and always a helmet. But never use leg spikes—they damage the trees.

Part of what irritates Jenkins about bans on tree climbing is the fact that they misunderstand a crucial tenet of organized tree climbing: alongside climber safety, protecting and respecting the trees comes first.

But apart from that, Jenkins says, it’s just a delightful activity. “Climbing trees is a rite of passage,” she adds. “It’s just a part of life.”

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