How to climb a coconut tree

Coconut Tree Climbing Technique

Coconut is the most important fruit in the tropics for it gives precious water full of potassium and other minerals. The young flesh looks like yogurt and is delicious. The old flesh is hard and can be good to eat in small quantities, or is a great addition to various dishes. In addition to its nutritious value, coconuts also have some medicinal properties. The juice of green coconuts (immature fruits) is recommended for heart, liver and kidney disorders, as well as gonorrhea.

In case of dehydration, it can be excellent mixed with some lime juice or even lime and baby formula.

The problem is to obtain those immature coconuts. When you find coconuts on the beach, they are already mature and can be used for their hard flesh or to make coconut milk and oil, but they contain very little water. So there is no other way but to climb coconut trees (unless of course you can get someone else to climb for you. It's usually a better solution as local people learn how to climb coconut trees from childhood).

In our effort to be self-sufficient, we've tried hard to learn the necessary skills to climb coconut trees. The few first times, we barely managed to go up a few feet. In addition to fear, our soft skins on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet have made it hard. The first time we went down, we scraped our skin on the chest and forearms. This is what happens when you slide down hugging a coconut tree as hard as you can. But if you really want or need to climb, all this shouldn't stop you. There are two basic techniques and they are easy to learn. After, you just need practice and to forget that your skin is soft. It will probably get cut a bit the first time on the tree, but if you get a dozen of coconuts full of water and flesh, it is well worth the effort.

I wrote this specific page to explain those two techniques and their variations.

How to climb a coconut tree

All techniques should be done barefoot and barehanded. As well, a long sleeve T-shirt might save your skin from abrasion against the tree.

The front-foot technique
You might have seen rock climbers challenge some crack climbing. They stuff their hands inside cracks, pull on them and push on the legs in opposition against the rock. This front foot technique to climb coconut tree is very similar. You put your hands close to each other on the back of the trunk, and pull one foot in front of the other one in front of you on the tree. By keeping pressure on the trunk with the balls of your feet and toes , you walk up alternating moving your feet and hands. This technique is Luke's favorite. I only use it to climb wide trees at the base when the trees are leaning slightly.

The Frog Technique
I find this technique much more efficient to climb vertical trees, unless they are very wide. Your legs should be flexed on each side of the tree with the sole of your feet applied around the trunk. This position looks like the legs of a frog, this is why I titled it the frog technique. Unlike the front foot technique, you place one hand up and behind the tree and the other hand at your chest level on the front side of the tree. In that way you apply pressure from both side lifting you up while pushing up with your legs by extended them. You quickly bring up both of your feet at the same time and squeeze the trunk in the frog position. In this position, you can rest for a few seconds if needed before repeating this move up.

On Top of the Tree
When you reach the top of the tree, you can do a few things:

  • You can hold yourself with one hand on the back of the tree using the frog position and with your free hand grab for the coconut, which you twist until the stem breaks.
  • Or you can grab a hold of one of the palms. Make sure you don't hold on to the bottom layer, you should grab a palm on the second or third level, hold on to it while your legs are in the frog position and use your free hand to twist a coconut.
  • I was told by my Garifuna friends, that the best way was to make your way up through the palms and stand up on top of them (again make sure you only stand on palms which have at least one more layer of palm below them). From there you can easily grab all the coconuts without effort. You can either twist them, or even bring up a machete by climbing with a small rope on which you attached it. Just pull on the rope and you have your machete at hand. (It isn't safe to try to climb while sticking your machete somewhere).

Going Down
To go down, it seems like there is only one technique although in theory if you master the front foot technique you might be able to use it, I have never seen anybody doing so. The technique is very similar to the frog technique. You keep your legs and feet in the same position. You can try hopping down step by step in the inverse to the way you went up, but most people just lower their hands one by one behind the trunk and just let the sole of their feet drag against the tree. Now you understand why our soft skin suffers. Natives have no problems doing this. We sometimes cut ourselves on our soles and palms, but hopefully we will build some tough leather in the future. It is also while sliding down against the tree that we scrape our forearm skin and even sometimes on our chests. Only a week after successfully climbing our first coconut trees, we made great progress both in climbing and descending coconut trees.

All this sounds like a lot of effort but young coconuts are worth the trouble. If you ever spend any extended time in the tropics, this could be one of the most important skills to master.

Frog Technique Variation
I have also seen and tried another technique, which is a variation of the frog technique. The technique is the same except that you put your two feet in a circle of rope or sarong. This helps you to keep the pressure with your feet against the tree. Also the added surface of the rope (or sarong) applied against the tree helps you by adding more contact area and giving you more leverage to go up. It is a very good technique, especially to learn the frog move (because the feet have to move together).

Some people might not feel that they could possibly master any of these techniques because they require a minimum of fitness and the risk of falling and getting hurt is always possible.

If these techniques don't work for me, what can I do?
There are other techniques that can possibly be used in a survival situation. The best one would be to use pieces of webbings or ropes. One goes around the waist as a belt. Then three are made into loops and used with a prussick knot, one for each foot, and one for your hands. The one for your hands is also tied to your belt as a safety measure. To make a prussic knot, make a small loop in one end of the rope, wrap the free end around the trunk and insert through the loop. Pull on it and you have a prussick knot. Those knots grip the tree under tension, and allow you to go up (or hold you if you fall). Once the pressure is released (for example the pressure is on your feet releasing the tension on the rope in your hands), you can raise the knot higher and re-apply pressure to it. It is a very slow process, but less physical and safer than climbing with bare hands and feet.

The use of crampons such as those used in the past by telephone technicians can also be used on coconut trees. The problem is that you need to have those crampons with you and it isn't always convenient to carry them around. Also you might not have them the day you really need to climb a tree so make sure you practice the other techniques.

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