Recreational tree climbers relish the peace and quiet they find in the urban canopy. As the hobby gains traction, they hope more cities will allow it to flourish.
In a special hammock about 50-feet above the ground, Tim Kovar sat back and relaxed. Surrounded by green leaves and birds, the only giveaway that he was in the middle of Atlanta was the sound of cars in the distance. That didn’t matter; he imagined it was a babbling brook.
Kovar is something of a tree-climbing savant. He has traveled the world in search of trees to scale, working his way up to the canopy in 18 countries and 49 states. (He plans to check Alaska off the list soon.) A full-time tree climbing instructor in Oregon City, Oregon, he’s part of a global group of adventurers who explore this uncharted layer of our cities.
It wasn't long ago that technical tree climbing was limited to just local arborists and canopy researchers in remote jungles. But recreational climbers say that’s starting to change, with more and more people signing up with instructional courses to learn how to climb.
It’s not as simple as grabbing a branch and working your way up. To do it correctly (and safely) you need ropes, saddles, and the technical know-how that’s best learned from a professional. From that point, it doesn’t take much to connect with nature, find peace, and have a little adventure—all within city limits.
“For some people, they drive hours or days just to go up and climb rocks,” Kovar says. “But trees, they’re everywhere.”
Kovar has climbed in cities from San Francisco to Portland to New York City. The tallest he’s clambered up was a 350-foot coastal redwood, and he’s scaled the world’s fifth-largest tree (by volume), a giant sequoia. He typically spends anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours in a tree, including several overnight trips per year with the help of a special a hammock. Up there he finds a world of birds, small mammals, and insects coexisting with humans in the urban jungle. Each trip is an important reminder that the city is made up of more than buildings, streets, and shopping centers.
“I just find peace up there,” he says.
The sense of calm is just one of many benefits that trees bring to cities. They help improve air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, decrease obesity, and improve mental health. They can save megacities millions of dollars each year, and can even be considered a vital part of public health infrastructure.
Many cities are embracing these benefits in a big way. Barcelona’s re-greening program is set to double the number of trees in the city and add more than 400 acres of green space by 2030. In New York City, a public-private initiative called MillionTreesNYC planted more than 1 million trees across the five boroughs. Started in 2007, it took eight years to reach its goal and expanded the city’s urban forest by nearly 20 percent.
Climbers say you can learn a lot about a city by how it treats its trees. By climbing, Kovar can determine whether a city takes pride in its trees; Atlanta and Portland are excellent examples of urban areas with old trees that are cared for. Other cities, not so much.
“You go into some of the suburbs where they've cut down all the trees and then named the streets after the trees—there’s Elm Street, there’s Walnut Street, but there are no walnut trees left there anymore,” Kovar says. “There’s this disconnect.”
When looking for a tree to climb in a public park, Danny Lyons, a recreational climbing instructor in Gainesville, Florida, gains insight into what a city cares about. He notices whether people are using the park, whether it feels safe or shady, if it's accessible or hard to get to, and if it’s natural or overly developed.
“You can really see what a community’s values are if you look into their public parks,” he says.
It’s often a gray area whether climbing is allowed or not. Kovar says there usually aren’t specific laws against it, but if he isn’t stealthy, the authorities usually come and ask him to get down because they see it as a risk.
Climbers claim that if done correctly, the activity is safer than most sports. Kovar says the hardest part is getting the lines set up—that includes attaching a weighted bag to the end of a line and tossing it over a branch. A slingshot or compound bow is used for taller trees. After getting into a saddle, a climber can use several different techniques to scale the rope. Proper equipment doesn’t come cheap: Even entry-level hardware can cost about $600, Kovar says.
The roots of recreational tree climbing can be traced back to Peter Jenkins. The Atlanta arborist thought that since there were rock climbing schools, why not teach tree climbing for fun? So in 1983, he established Tree Climbers International (TCI), an organization with a mission to promote the activity as safe and suitable for people of all ages.
TCI plans climbing events, operates an online store, and hosts an active online forum with close to 1,400 registered users. The organization offers a variety of courses from tree climbing basics to a class for those who want to teach others. There are now schools around the world with teachers who’ve gone through TCI’s extensive training. TCI’s executive director, Patty Jenkins, says there have never been any reported deaths or serious injuries experienced by people using the school's climbing methods.
Lyons used this safety record to convince the city of Gainesville and Alachua County to allow his tree climbing school to host courses legally in its parks. It’s the only place in America that he’s aware of doing this.
“A lot of cities around the country… are worried about risk management issues, and I was able to show and prove that tree climbing is safer than any other activities that they allow in the park, including rollerblading, basketball, soccer, and softball,” he says.
It took him six months to go through the process with the city, and in 2012 he signed a contract. Three years later he reached a deal with Alachua County. His contracts with the city and county allow him and his paying students to climb in public parks. In return, 10 percent of his earnings go toward the beautification and maintenance of the parks he climbs in. Lyons has shared his proposal with other climbers and hopes they have the same luck elsewhere. Chris Barkman, an arborist and instructor in Winnipeg, Canada, says he hopes to do the same in his city.
Jenkins says that not only is tree climbing safe, but anyone can do it. She had polio as a child, and uses crutches to walk, but still climbed as an adult. “People look at people on ropes and saddles, and they wonder if it requires a whole lot of strength,” she says. “It does not. You don’t have to be a superwoman to be able to climb a tree. So when I say just about anybody can do it—they can. We've put 5-year-olds in trees.”
In addition to ensuring their own safety, the climbers also take measures to keep the trees from being injured. That includes using a sleeve that reduces friction from the rope and protects the tree bark. In 2014, Lyons’ company, Canopy Climbers, received a green business award from the city of Gainesville for its sustainable climbing practices.
Lyons became interested in tree climbing about 10 years ago after reading a book called “Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston. The book is about a group of botanists and amateur naturalists who climb the giant trees of Northern California. Lyons wanted to do the same. He bought a few copies of the book and gave them to his friends in hopes they would want to join him on adventures into the canopy. Two of those friends are still climbing with Lyons to this day. The majority of his climbs are with friends, but he also enjoys solo climbs. He spends anywhere from two to four hours in a tree on a standard climb, and up to 12 hours on an overnight climb.
“There’s something really beautiful about waking up when the sun’s coming up, and there are birds chirping completely around you—above you, to the right, left, below you,” he says. “It’s really an amazing experience.”
For Kovar, it’s also a deeply human one.
“I think it’s deeply rooted into our DNA to be up in the treetops,” he says. “I believe at one time, many moons ago, we went to the trees for safety. We’d get up in the trees to protect ourselves from the predators on the ground. So there’s something deeply rooted within us, and when I get back up in the trees now with ropes and saddles, some kind of primordial instinct takes over up there.”