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Can You Climb Trees in Public Parks?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Maybe you've had this experience.

You go for a walk in a city park and there, before you, stands The Perfect Climbing Tree. It is sturdy, with low branches that are ideal for providing the first boost. Above, the branches form interesting networks that beckon you to ascend to the tree tops and forget your earthly worries.

You realize it's all a flashback to childhood. And then you remember how much fun climbing a tree can be.

If so, you're not alone. Tree climbing has grown in popularity, spawning clubs and competitions where teams vie for superiority using ropes, slings, and harnesses, similar to rock climbing.

But maybe you just want to casually climb into a tree with invitingly low branches in the park.

Is it legal?

Many Bans, But …

Unfortunately, climbing trees on public land is a bit of gray area. Like so many things in life, it depends.

Many cities have ordinances that prohibit tree-climbing in their parks. New York City, for instance, says that no one can scale “any wall, fence, shelter, tree, shrub, fountain, or other vegetation," or any other structure not specifically meant for climbing."

Climbing a tree in a New York City park could earn you a fine of $50 to $200. In Boston, you could face a fine of $300. In Cleveland, it's $100 "per offense."

In many other cities, tree climbing is a safer activity because ordinances don't mention it by name. However, that doesn't mean police or park rangers are necessarily OK with it. That's because park ordinances generally prohibit damaging trees – and climbing could be interpreted as fitting into that category. St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, bans "the abuse of any natural resource within the park system." Arborists and forestry departments work hard, and they don't want you messing up their trees.

Issues of Risk

If the park doesn't specifically prohibit tree climbing, police or park personnel may still see it as a risk.

"You know, people are always going to want to climb trees," says Patty Jenkins, executive director of Atlanta-based Tree Climbers International. "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."

This is why savvy tree climbers say it's worth it to take the risk and simply be stealthy when you do.

Climbing is also generally forbidden in U.S. national parks. State parks may differ, however, and it may be worth checking with state park services wherever you want to climb.

Climbing on private land and at home is legal, of course, but make sure you get permission first. Just showing up on someone's private property and climbing a tree could lead to a quick trespassing arrest.

A Climbing Checklist

In any event, it's important to keep safety in mind if you're motivated to make a casual climb.

  • If you're not dressed properly, don't do it. Your clothing should be loose-fitting, and you should either be barefoot or wearing shoes with soft soles.
  • Carefully inspect the tree. Make sure it has sturdy, low branches. If climbing requires a boost from someone, don't attempt the climb. Leave the redwoods alone.
  • Don't climb if it's raining or windy, and make sure the wood isn't wet from a previous rainfall.
  • Don't climb if a power line is within 10 feet of the tree's branches.
  • Obey park closures. You don't want to scale a tree in a public place you aren't supposed to be in.

Of course, climbing does carry risks of falling. While statistics are hard to come by, a 2017 study of children climbers found that "even though tree climbing can result in minor injuries, it is a relatively safe outdoor activity." But if you fall while climbing on public land, you will likely have a hard time blaming anyone else for your injuries in a lawsuit.

Tree climbing offers several health benefits. But if you want to become a child again and climb that ideal tree, it's best to be cautious. Make sure the tree really is sturdy and safe — and try to follow the law.

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