Most civilians, on those rare occasions when they think of tree climbing at all, are typically thinking of spur climbing. Although tree care professionals realize that there are many more ways to scale a giant than with gaffs, hooks, spikes or one of the other many titles bestowed upon spurs, they would be well-served to not overlook the skills and techniques required by spur climbing.

Anyone who has ever slid down a tree or spar, “embracing the wood” and getting overly familiar with the properties of bark in relation to the flesh of their forearms and inner thighs, will readily admit that there’s more to spur climbing than meets the eye on STIHL Timbersports.

An adjustable friction saver can provide a secure TIP on a spar and on something as smooth as a palm tree.
Photo: Martin Morales

Climbers, the technically correct name for spurs, hooks, spikes and whatnot, are definitely simpler and easier to use, learn and master than much of the gear and techniques involved in professional arboriculture, but like so many things in tree care, to take spurs for granted as something any Johnny can use is to set Johnny up for some hard lessons and possible soft tissue injuries.

“Low and slow” practice, experience and field training are, as with most tree care methods or techniques, the fastest and most reliable manner to learn the way of the hook, but some fairly basic information about use and practices will assist Johnny in heading down that road with a wee bit less likelihood of altering the appearance of his forearms.

To spike or not to spike

The most basic question of spur climbing is whether they should be used or not. Unfortunately, this question is one that is often answered incorrectly in the tree industry. Spikes are only to be used when climbing a tree that is being taken down or is already dead. They are not used when pruning a tree, caring for a live tree, or in any other situation that would involve poking multiple holes in large living woody organisms, no matter how much easier the user might think spurs might make the job.

Climbers are designed to punch into the tree, causing wounds to keep the climber upright and semi-attached to the tree, thus professing to be “caring for a tree” while jabbing a variety of holes into it is a bit nonsensical. In the case of removals, a number may even be done more quickly and efficiently through rope and harness methods than with hooks. Spurs are certainly needed on a smooth spar and some coniferous trees, but ones with large, spreading canopies and multiple tie-in options can often be brought down more quickly and safely through the greater mobility and quicker movements of rope and harness systems, then the spurs busted out, if needed, for the removal of the final spar or trunk.

A climbing system in an overhead tie-in point (TIP) allows for easier and safer movement. Photo: Thor Clausen

Keeping them happy

Care and maintenance of hooks will help a great deal toward keeping them not only safe, but also easier to use. The most basic way to care for spurs is to not stomp all around the work site wearing them, no matter how cool or macho it makes the arborist feel. They are only needed to climb the tree, so users should make a habit of putting them on and taking them off at the base of the tree they are to be used on. This habit will lessen wear and tear on the spikes from contact with rocks and debris, and also lessen the chance of the user poking a good-sized hole in the “bark” of their foot or someone else’s.

Although the basic design of spurs is similar to the original of the 19th century, modern versions have a variety of options and adjustments that make them more user friendly, and users should try to take advantage of these. Most are fairly easily adjustable to individual users, as everyone’s lower legs come in different lengths and sizes.

The long metal bar that travels up the inside of the leg from the stirrup of the spur, called the shank, should be adjusted so that the top of it is about two fingers width under the bone on the inside of the knee. This adjustment will go a long way toward keeping the shank top from digging into the calf from being too low, or saying hello in an unpleasant way to the bones of the knee if too high during use.

Boot choice can also make a big difference in spur use and comfort. Some form of stiff shank in the sole of the boot will help lessen the pressure of the stirrup against the arch, and deep heels can help keep the hook in place. A wrap of the lower strap over, around and then under the shank will accomplish the same thing regardless of boot heel size. The spikes, or gaffs, themselves are a vital part of proper spur function. They are designed to plane into the wood of the tree smoothly with a minimum of effort to keep the user in place. Almost all spur manufacturers have some type of guide for their gaffs that provide the angles for sharpening and maintenance; following these recommendations is an excellent way to keep spurs in good working order. As a general guideline, spikes are sharpened from the inside out toward the tip in a curving motion, as the goal is not a sharp nail-like point, but a plane-like edge. The curved outer edges of the gaff, called the beehive, are not meant to be filed and should only be touched up with a whetstone unless some pretty serious damage has taken place.

Long or short?

There are two types of gaffs in the world: tree and pole. Most arborist supply companies will provide a new pair of purchased climbers with tree gaffs. These are significantly longer than pole gaffs, which are meant to be used on the harder bark-free wood of utility poles, but the reality is that the longer tree gaffs are usually only necessary in extremely thick-barked trees, such as the large conifers of the Northwest. In fact, pole gaffs work well in the majority of trees and are often easier to use if the tree care company is dealing with mainly hardwood species. Entry-level pairs of climbers – otherwise known as the cheapest in price – may not allow the user to switch gaffs or spikes, but a quality pair will have this option, which may prevent having to buy a brand-new pair when only the gaffs need replacement.

The use of a running bowline around the spar gives the spur user a secondary means of support and climbing system. Photo: Michael Tain

The foot tourniquet

Anyone who’s worn a set of spurs for eight hours taking down a large tree can attest to the discomfort involved with tingling and reduced blood flow in their feet, yet modern gaffs provide a large number of options for minimizing, if not reducing, this foot tourniquet effect. The traditional attachment method of straps, made of either leather or “pleather,” is certainly still available, and is typically the most economical option. If spur use is limited in a company’s scope of operations, or if the climber is only using spurs on small trees for a short amount of time, these straps will certainly do the job. However, should daily use of spurs for extended periods of time be the reality, users may wish to explore some of the more modern attachment options which include pads that secure with Velcro, moldable stiffened inserts, and even carbon fiber sheaths that go around the calf, all of which provide for safety and ease of use while increasing user comfort.

Gravity is the law

Many climbers “came up” using their spurs and their flip lines or lanyards as their sole means of support when carrying out a takedown, but one who has had the unique experience of “kicking out” and the attendant friction-filled descent has probably at least considered the wisdom of being tied in to another means of support while on spurs. While it may not always seem possible, an overhead tie-in point (TIP) is highly recommended when spur climbing. In addition to preventing a fall in the event of “kick out,” it will increase mobility and comfort while providing the required second means of attachment when using a chain saw. A number of innovative devices or techniques can provide some form of choking system even on smooth branch-free spars so that a spur user always has a secondary climbing system for support and movement.

An arborist climbing in spurs is hearkening back to the early days of tree care, in a way experiencing tree climbing as it was even a century or more ago, using a 19th century tool and technique in this, the 21st century. This is part of the beauty of arboriculture, being connected so closely to all of those who climbed and loved trees previously, but it is also part of the challenge of the profession. While spurs may not have changed fundamentally, arborists’ knowledge of trees, their health and worker safety has, so why not use these elegantly simple tools in the safest most efficient way while caring for trees? Hopefully the basic principles and knowledge discussed here will assist tree care professionals in using spurs safely and efficiently, as well as ethically.