How to spot and avoid dangerous tree limbs while camping

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at OFFGRID. Check out their site for more survival-related tips.

What is a widowmaker? In the general sense, it’s anything that has the potential to kill men, thereby making widows of their wives.

In a more specific sense, widowmakers are dead branches caught precariously high in trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting individuals below. This term has been used widely in the Forest Service and logging communities, and is even officially recognized by OSHA.

There are some specific things to keep an eye out for. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

There are some specific things to keep an eye out for. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

A deadly tree might sound like something that would be found only in a freak accident, but these natural dangers do more harm than you might think. In fact, a few months back, a man in Edinburgh, Scotland, was killed by a widowmaker. He had been camping in the woods by a river and was pronounced dead at the scene once emergency services arrived.

Winter is especially dangerous, as the weight of snow can cause large branches to snap unexpectedly. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Winter is especially dangerous, as the weight of snow can cause large branches to snap unexpectedly. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

So, if you’re camping or spending time in forested areas, you should know how to watch for potential widowmakers. This is especially important for hammock camping, since these shelters are almost always placed underneath trees.

It's important to know what to identify. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

It’s important to know what to identify. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Here are some general tips on how to avoid widowmakers:

• If possible, do not camp directly underneath tall trees. This is the only surefire way to avoid widowmaker branches.
• Be extra cautious around trees that look dead or damaged. They pose the greatest risk.
• If you’re in a heavily forested area, keep an eye out for dead or broken branches in the canopy above you.
• High winds and snowfall can increase the risks by weakening or dislodging branches. Take care in these conditions.
• When you do notice a potential widowmaker branch, avoid it. Should you spot a widowmaker on your property, you may want to dislodge it carefully from a distance, or hire a tree trimmer. These professionals can cut away dead wood and remove loose branches.

For more information on the hazards posed by trees, visit the OSHA Logging eTool.