Widow Makers

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Woods Walker
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Widow Makers

Post by Woods Walker » Wed Feb 03, 2010 12:53 am

One of my bigger concerns in the back country isn’t those pesky bears who crave human flesh rather than Huckleberries nor poisonous snakes hiding under every rock just looking for the chance to strike. No it’s the more mundane stuff like widow makers. Falling trees and branches can be deadly. Anything that is up will sooner or later fall; the only question is will you be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Like most dangers there are ways to mitigate the risk.

The most important step is also the easiest. Stop and take the time to look around your camping area. This is best done in the daylight as no matter what flashlight or headlamp your packing nothing can replace the sun. Ok now what to look for? This should be kind of obvious however sometimes in winter it’s a bit harder to identify potential problems. Here are a few things that I take into consideration before setting up camp.

1. Dead or sick trees.

2. Overhead branches both alive and dead.

3. Damaged trees or branches.

4. Trees growing at an angle.

5. Potential direction of a fall for any tree or branch in question.

6. Is the area overly exposed to weather in a storm? Are there an unusual number of damaged trees around?

7. Has there been a recent or past event that compromises all trees in an area. A past storm or forest fire? A blight or unusual insect damage?

8. What kinda weather do I expect?

In short look both up and around. This Hemlock has seen better days.

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This Chestnut oak isn’t looking too well.

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How long will these two stay up? Could be years or the next gust of wind, you just don’t know. My advice is to setup camp in another location. This Hemlock is in a bad way. It goes without saying that camping under this isn’t all that smart. Trees don't always fall at their base.

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Diseased and damaged trees/branches don’t have to be all that large to injure or even kill. These two are in big trouble. Worse yet they are leaning off at an angle opposite to the damage.

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I know what some people might think. Heck I could just jump out of the way. I have seen a few trees and branches go down from natural causes first hand. By the time I worked out what just spooked me it was all over. Unless you’re the amazing Spiderman don’t expect reflexes alone to offer much protection. Plus you're going no place inside a tent or sleeping bag. This is one of those ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure things.

Sometimes it’s possible to guess the most likely direction a tree will fall on its own. This tree suffers from similar damage as the last two. I often camp in these woods and despite the flat, dry ground near this tree always avoided the spot which is now covered in deadfall.

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It fell in the exact direction I anticipated but wouldn’t stake my life on that. On a side note it’s very possible for a tree or branch to damage another as it goes down. I couldn’t even begin to calculate the possible direction of whatever results. So don’t just look for potential dangers only within the reach of the tree or branch in question.

Falling trees aren’t my only concern. More often a branch will also pose a threat. Here is a Northern Red Oak branch that fell not too long ago. It’s not uncommon for some Oaks to hold their leaves though the winter.

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I have no clue why it fell. The same basic rules for checking out trees should also apply to the branches. If there is a large branch which looks dead or damaged over your proposed camping area I would move on. If possible avoid large overhanging live branches too if expecting weather.

Sometimes a tree or branch falls for inexplicable reasons. I normally feel comfortable in the softwoods during winter for many reasons. Don’t know if this is based on scientific fact but just been my experience. This pine, guessing an Eastern White went down. Maybe it’s time just ran out, who knows?

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Some trees can appear better than they actually are. I have seen my share of Birch that looked ok from a short distance but were totally punky. Everything that is suspect should be checked out before setting up camp. Once your shelter is up and fire burning the urge to just stay even if a potential risk is later discovered can be strong. Who wants to walk around in the dark looking for a better spot?

Clearly factors such as high winds, snow load and the worst of all an ice storm will add additional stress on all tress both alive and dead, the same apples to their branches. If expecting ice I really want a clearing if at all possible. If that can’t be found avoid larger overhead branches no matter what their condition. For strong winds I try and find a sheltered spot. The inspection process is ramped up more but never let my guard down just because it’s a nice summer day.

I don’t want someone taking this post the wrong way. The woods for the most part aren’t going to come crashing down on your camp. Just take the time to look around and make informed decisions as to the best possible location. Few risks if any can be totally removed but some like this can be mitigated within reason.
Last edited by Woods Walker on Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:12 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by phalanx » Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:12 am

Very informative post.

I unfortunately could totally see myself thinking: "Wow, that horizontal tree would be perfect for a tarp tent!"

And then I would die in a windstorm. Karma.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by Subdiver » Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:16 am

Great post. When I lived in the redwoods (Cazadero, CA) a branch fell and took out a Volvo, and a living room. Not mine, I don't have a Volvo, but definitely something to be aware of.

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by AZMedic » Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:48 am

Thanks for the reminder. I always try to camp away from trees. Also remember to stay 1.5 times the heighth of a tree when the big ones fall they can bounce.

I didn't follow these rules on the AZ winter outing. Parked the SUV under a tree. I didn't want to be the ex said it will be ok. I hate trees with possible snowfall as snow is heavy and can break the branches easily.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by Jeriah » Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:52 am

I used to work at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. I wasn't there at the time, but an old lady was killed by a branch falling of a eucalyptus tree. They are notorious for shedding even totally healthy limbs at random, in even a little bit of wind. My advice based on this experience: don't camp under a eucalyptus. (Not much of an issue outside of California and Australia, I think.)
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by DaveJohns » Wed Feb 03, 2010 2:05 am

Yep, after a particularly spooky, windy night in the Ozark N.F. just waiting for a tree to crash on my head, I take a good loooooong look at any potential campsite. Mostly by looking up. Lately I have been hiking parts of the Pinhoti trail in the Talledega N.F., and have completely given up on camping sites inside the tree line - so many of the hardwoods are in terrible shape, and with my luck... "snore, snore, BAM!"

Great post, WW.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by leadpulaski » Wed Feb 03, 2010 2:17 am

Birch can be very dangerous. We have lost a few that looked OK. Cotton woods are the other ones around here, the limbs break and get tangled until whenever they decide to break.

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by Lucretius » Wed Feb 03, 2010 2:25 am

Someone has been watching "The Road"... :P

Great post, as usual WW!
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by gronch » Wed Feb 03, 2010 3:50 am

A month and a half ago I almost became a strange news story due to two things that don't happen often around here:

1. Extreme winds in San Diego.
2. Palm tree snapping in half.

I assumed that a palm tree was the strongest tree during high winds (not like the eucalyptus spear thrower), so I maneuvered in that direction. When 1000 lbs of palm tree snaps off and hits the concrete in front of you, it wakes up a lot of those "have to be more careful" tingles.

Great thread. I hate palm trees now. Never take a late lunch.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by dogbane » Wed Feb 03, 2010 9:07 am

I have some problem limbs in my back yard. This is in the top of a black oak that is about 30" diameter at the base:
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Highlighted is the dead/dying crown and the power lines that could be affected by a fall:
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The dead limb on the left hangs over an area I want to turn into a camping/working space, but I need to deal with the limb first. I called the power company to see if they would cut it due to the danger to the power line, but they claim it's no risk.

A near-miss widowmaker story from history: Not long before the American Revolution, a big man was camping in the Carolina backcountry with a companion. They set up camp and the man reclined to relax. When he did so, he looked up into the crown of the tree and saw, suspended over their billet, an enormous dangling limb. Worried that it would fall on them, he insisted they move the camp to another location. His companion protested, saying that the limb had surely been hanging there for some time and doubtless it would remain there for yet another night. The big man insisted again, and they moved their camp out from under the precarious branch. During the night, up came a wind, and the tremendous branch crashed down onto the spot where they had first spread their bedrolls. The keen observation and insistence on safety by the big man, who was Isaac Shelby, a future leader of the Overmountain Men against the Redcoats at the pivotal Battle of King's Mountain and later governor of Kentucky, preserved both their lives. Had Shelby not moved his camp, American History might be much different.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by EricinVirginia » Wed Feb 03, 2010 9:33 am

I'm still at the phase where dead/punky trees look they are harboring spiders, snakes, and things that I would not want anywhere near me. My bushcraft is at the point where trees either look perfect or diseased. Not a lot of spectrum, but I understand your point. You really wander around a potential campsite kicking and poking at all the trees that might possibly fall on your camp site Woods? Mentally, I have this image of walking around kicking the tree bases or hitting them with a tire thumper...

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by elkhills » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:07 am

Good stuff. Always be aware of your surroundings- at home, work or play.

Last Summer a big tree branch came down right between two friends' tents, and this was a well used campsite! Just lucky nobody got hurt.

Aside from the tree hazard, look to avoid hillsides (falling rocks), check that you're above the waterline (if near water), etc.

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by Keith B » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:32 am

All these stories simply reenforce the point that it truly is a serious issue. I grew up in the desert, we didnt have a lot of tree's, I backpacked the Sierra's, didn't see too many fall. Than I joined the Army and went to Georgia, wow, trees really do fall, and really can hurt somebody.
Thanks for the post WW!
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by dogbane » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:37 am

I thought I'd add this: In the wintertime when the leaves are off the trees, it might be difficult to spot a dead limb. There are some telltale signs of dead branches to look for. A dead branch will often be devoid of smaller branches and twigs. It will also often be a different color than the rest of the tree, whether due to fungus growth or bark loss. And finally, it will often be full of woodpecker holes
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by LowKey » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:44 am

dogbane wrote:I thought I'd add this: In the wintertime when the leaves are off the trees, it might be difficult to spot a dead limb. There are some telltale signs of dead branches to look for. A dead branch will often be devoid of smaller branches and twigs. It will also often be a different color than the rest of the tree, whether due to fungus growth or bark loss. And finally, it will often be full of woodpecker holes
It may also be missing bark, either entirely or in patches.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by dogbane » Wed Feb 03, 2010 10:47 am

LowKey wrote:
dogbane wrote:I thought I'd add this: In the wintertime when the leaves are off the trees, it might be difficult to spot a dead limb. There are some telltale signs of dead branches to look for. A dead branch will often be devoid of smaller branches and twigs. It will also often be a different color than the rest of the tree, whether due to fungus growth or bark loss. And finally, it will often be full of woodpecker holes
It may also be missing bark, either entirely or in patches.
Indeed. :D
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by LowKey » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:03 am

dogbane wrote:
LowKey wrote:
dogbane wrote:I thought I'd add this: In the wintertime when the leaves are off the trees, it might be difficult to spot a dead limb. There are some telltale signs of dead branches to look for. A dead branch will often be devoid of smaller branches and twigs. It will also often be a different color than the rest of the tree, whether due to fungus growth or bark loss. And finally, it will often be full of woodpecker holes
It may also be missing bark, either entirely or in patches.
Indeed. :D
Arrrghhh.....
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by dogbane » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:06 am

I thought about using bullet points to make it more readable. The failure is partly mine for "burying the lead," so to speak.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by LowKey » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:09 am

dogbane wrote:I thought about using bullet points to make it more readable. The failure is partly mine for "burying the lead," so to speak.
Nope, blames mine. I failed reading comprehension 101 here. Re-reading your post it was quite clear.
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by Rainman » Wed Feb 03, 2010 11:15 am

A friend of mine is fond of reciting an old adage: The elm waits.
(i.e., it waits for you to take a little nap under it, and then for no discernible reason it drops a big limb on you. Your little nap now equals a long dirt nap.)

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by doctor patches » Wed Feb 03, 2010 3:40 pm

LowKey wrote:
dogbane wrote:I thought I'd add this: In the wintertime when the leaves are off the trees, it might be difficult to spot a dead limb. There are some telltale signs of dead branches to look for. A dead branch will often be devoid of smaller branches and twigs. It will also often be a different color than the rest of the tree, whether due to fungus growth or bark loss. And finally, it will often be full of woodpecker holes
It may also be missing bark, either entirely or in patches.
hey, what did i ever do to those trees?
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Re: Widow Makers

Post by aa1pr » Wed Feb 03, 2010 3:54 pm

Here in Vermont, along with most of New England we have the poplar tree which is very prone to falling, leaning and crashing down with the slightest amount of mother natures forces. This is one tree I am always leary of. So beware.
Great idea for the bushcraft thread, WW.

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by mcrebell » Thu Feb 04, 2010 5:37 am

a few years ago my family was camping in kankakee state park,and heard a large snap,followed by a big ass thump,a limb about 15-18 foot long landed right behind our tents.it scared the crap out of us,we were sitting just a few feet away.

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Re: Widow Makers

Post by mordekin » Thu Feb 04, 2010 5:49 am

Great post WW! Growing up around the Missouri Ozarks for a majority of my life I have seen my fair share of these widow makers. When I used to camp more in my BSA days this was a serious concern when in the woodlands. Most of the time we tried to camp in open areas, but I can remember once after a serious wind storm a campsite (luckly unoccupied at the time) had a few tents and a cabin crushed my some old deadfall limbs. So just try and keep situational awareness when picking a place to bunker down in the woods!
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