How to choose a climbing harness
Climbing harnesses share the same basic features; waist and leg loops, buckles, belay loop, tie in points and gear loops. However while they may look very similar, harnesses are made using different construction techniques and materials to fine-tune performance for different types of climbing. This buying guide takes you through the main features to look out for when selecting a climbing harness.
Waist Belt and Leg Loops
These are the main structural elements of any harness. They have to combine safety with comfort. Traditional construction uses a band of central webbing to provide the strength, surrounded by foam padding for comfort. A drawback of this system is that over time the foam may become compressed and therefore less comfortable, with the added possibility that the narrower band of structural webbing could be felt through the foam. Many modern harnesses have moved beyond the traditional construction and newer designs spread weight more effectively across the whole internal surface area of the waist and leg loops. This is epitomised by Arc’teryx Warp Strength Technology, but all the major harness manufacturers have taken great strides in using new technologies and manufacturing techniques to improve comfort without compromising safety.
Most modern harnesses now use auto locking buckles which are very quick and easy to adjust. When using traditional ‘double back’ buckles it is essential to make sure you pass the webbing back through the buckle to lock off. A majority of harnesses feature adjustable leg loops. These are particularly useful for traditional, alpine or winter climbers due to the ability to create a good fit over any number of clothing layers. However sport climbing harnesses commonly use fixed size leg loops to save weight and bulk. These styles usually employ a simple elastic cross-section to create a snug fit around the thigh.
This high strength loop of webbing is the focal point when belaying a climbing partner. Its vertical orientation allows the karabiner and belay plate to orient in the right direction for smooth belaying. Some models will have a wear safety marker encapsulated in the belay loop. If you begin to see this red marker appearing it means your harness is worn out and should be replaced.
Tie in loops
When you attach a rope to your harness using the usual rethreaded figure of 8 or bowline knots, you will pass the rope end through the lower and upper tie in holes. This means that both the waist band and the leg loops are independently attached to the rope – it’s safer and spreads the load more effectively than just tying in through the belay loop.
These are loops made of plastic or tough cord placed at intervals around the waist band, designed for carrying a rack of quickdraws, karabiners, protection, slings and so on. Many all round harnesses have four loops which covers most circumstances. However a trad climbing harness may have 5 or more to provide space for extra gear on long routes, while lightweight sport harnesses may prioritise light weight by including only two gear loops for racking a set of quickdraws. Gear loops are non-structural, holding perhaps 5kg static load. You should never attach to a belay using a gear loop.
Ice clipper slots
Many multi-purpose climbing harnesses now include a few slots designed to hold special karabiners in place for easy access to ice screws. As an extreme example the Arc’teryx I-340a includes 14 ice clipper slots for fully customisable racking.
This is a small attachment point situated at the back of the waistbelt that can be used for trailing a rope behind you as you climb, without getting in the way by hanging from the front of your harness. Most haul loops are (like gear loops) non-structural so should never be used as a principle attachment point to the rock. They are very useful for hanging chalk bags from however!
Strips of elastic webbing connect the two leg loops to the back of the harness. Adjusting the length allows you to alter the shape and feel of the harness. The risers are frequently detachable (via mini plastic buckle, metal hook or similar) which allows the leg loops to be removed while staying tied in at the waist. This is ideal when adding or removing extra layers of legwear (or when nature calls).
All harnesses fulfil the same basic function and are a crucial part of the safety chain when climbing. However there are subtle differences in design that make some models more suitable for particular types of climbing.
The ‘typical’ harness is midweight with good support and breathable foams. Both the waist and leg loops will be adjustable. There are usually four gear loops and perhaps a couple of ice clipper slots. These harnesses will happily tackle any challenge. They are suitable for those who climb both indoors and outdoors, on rock and perhaps mountaineering. Classic examples would be the Black Diamond Momentum AL and Primrose AL or the Petzl Corax.
In winter, ordinary harnesses (using open cell foam) can absorb water and then freeze. This creates a solid, cold, unmanageable ring. Specific winter harnesses will use a closed cell foam that doesn’t absorb water. These foams are more substantial and robust but less breathable and therefore less suited for hot summer cragging. You will also get a healthy number of large gear loops and ice clipper slots, plus adjustable leg loops to accommodate multiple layers. The Arc’teryx I-340a and Black Diamond Aspect and Lotus harnesses fit the bill.
As with winter climbing, traditional climbing can involve the use of a large rack. This is particularly so for longer multipitch outings. This means a minimum of four gear loops and sometimes more may be required. Adjustable leg loops are useful as are rear haul loops. For a beast of a trad harness look no further than the Arc’teryx B-360a with its burly construction and multiple gear loops.
Sport climbing requires minimal hardware beyond a set of quickdraws. Saving weight can also be crucial in order to maintain energy. Hence specific sport climbing harnesses strip back the excess to achieve the lightest possible weight. They will have fixed leg loops, very breathable mesh-based foams and could even cut gear loops back to two. Some experienced alpinists will also use these harnesses to benefit from the weight reduction. The industry standard is the Petzl Hirundos.
Designed for easy mountaineering, glacier travel and ski touring, ‘bod’ style harnesses are made from simple webbing. This makes them very light, packable and good for use in poor weather. An easily threaded waist loop and clip buckle system on the legs allows the harness to be put on without stepping into the leg loops. Hence no need to take off your crampons first! This kind of harness is designed to be worn over a full set of mountaineering clothing which acts as padding. It is not suitable for rock climbing or even ‘proper’ alpine climbing where a more substantial and fully featured harness is likely to work better. The best alpine bod on the market right now is surely the Black Diamond Couloir.
Every harness is different, just like every climber. Getting the right fit may involve trying several different brands and models to see what feels best.
Think what you’ll be wearing
For summer cragging or indoor climbing the chances are that you will be wearing a T shirt 90% of the time. By contrast if you’re principally an alpinist and Scottish winter climber, you will need to accommodate multiple layers of fleece and GORE-TEX. Wearing the appropriate clothing when you test harnesses should help you get the right size. If you do a bit of everything then try and find a harness with sufficient adjustment to work over any number of layers. The right size usually has a bit of +/- adjustability left to take account of any future situation.
Put on the harness
Hold the harness by the waist belt with the belay loop positioned front and centre. Check that there are no twists in the belay or leg loops. The two leg loops should hang underneath with their buckles (if any) placed towards the front outside of the thigh. Step in. The waist belt should sit snuggly over the hips, at a similar height to a backpack hipbelt – harnesses aren’t worn slouchy! Tighten the waist buckle (being sure to double back if necessary). Relax or tighten the rear risers if the leg loops feel constrictively high or sloppily low. Then tighten any leg buckles to get a snug fit.
Always hang in store
The true test of a harness fit comes when it has to take your weight. For this reason many stores have a suspension point where you can spend time hanging in each harness. While hanging, you should be able to stay upright easily (not tend to lie back). Check that the waist belt is supportive but doesn’t dig in. Try to minimise any gaps between you and the harness; there should be roughly a finger’s width difference. Leg loops don’t need to be cinched in too tight, but should just be comfortably snug. If necessary adjust the rear webbing risers to change the height of the leg loops.
Men’s vs. Women’s
Women’s harnesses are shaped differently. The waist-leg loop ratio will be smaller and there will be a longer rise between the waist and leg loops. Slender women may find that some men’s harnesses feel too bulky and stiff, perhaps digging in at the ribs. Harnesses designed for women shouldn’t cause this problem.
Care and Inspection
Keep your harness somewhere cool and dry, out of direct sunlight. Most manufacturers provide a guide to lifespans based on different levels of use and storage. This is usually around 10 years of occasional use and appropriate storage. Frequent use and heavy falls can reduce lifespan much more quickly so it’s worth giving your harness a regular visual inspection to check for signs of wear. Finally, if you take a spectacularly big fall it may be time to consider retiring your harness.
View our range of climbing harnesses.