Like much of your climbing gear, harnesses not only have to provide critical protection, but also must offer adequate comfort for hanging out on whatever kinds of climb you like to do. From Cadillac big-wall rigs to ultra-trim sport-climbing models, here’s what you should look for in terms of features, padding, and fit.
Three basic harness types are on the market today: low-profile, bare-bones mountaineering models; lightweight, fixed-leg models, typically made for sport climbing; and fully adjustable, padded models for trad climbing or big walls.
Mountaineering harnesses are usually constructed with little to no padding (imagine seatbelt straps) and have few features beyond a basic buckle system that fastens around the climber, making it easier to pull on over crampons, boots, and clothing layers. These lightweight models are typically chosen for mountain climbing because the user will be spending little to no time hanging. Generally, they are relatively inexpensive.
Sport climbing harnesses are clean, lightweight models, but have sophisticated padding for hanging and projecting routes. They usually are fixed-leg rigs, meaning they have non-adjustable leg loops; many have elastic to accommodate different-sized legs, but it’s wise to try on various sizes before buying. Fixed-leg harnesses are less suited to climbs where layering is likely.
Padding options vary by brand, but you’ll see two main types: foam-padded webbing and edge-load construction. The former involves load-bearing, foamwrapped nylon webbing in the waist and leg loops; these are more comfortable and preferred for longer routes where you’ll be hanging more. The latter has load-bearing webbing lining the upper and lower rims of the waist and leg loops, a good choice when breathability and weight are overriding concerns.
Fully adjustable harnesses can be seen mostly on big-wall and long traditional routes, as well as some alpine climbs. The waist and leg loops are adjustable and fully padded—ideal for when you’ll be spending much of your climbing time hanging. These are the most versatile models: They vary from having enough padding to rival your couch to pareddown, lighter models; they may have one to two buckles in the waist. These harnesses also are the most adaptable to different conditions; adjustable leg loops come in handy when bulky bottom layers are necessary.
With all the harnesses on the market, it’s recommended to venture into your local gear shop to try out different brands before buying. Ask the store reps about hang-testing so you can check out each model’s comfort and fit.
Waist and leg loops should be snug but not restrictive—never baggy. Aim for a waist belt that sits just above the hipbones. Your harness should not slide down over your hips; if it does when it’s fully cinched, it’s too big. On the flipside, if the doubled-back waist strap does not have several inches of tail beyond the buckle, it’s too small.
Be sure to check the rise—the distance between the legs and waist—on the model you’re trying. That determines how the load will be distributed when weighted. If the rise is too long, it will put too much weight on the waist when you’re hanging, which, if severe enough, can damage internal organs. If the rise is too short, most of the pressure will go to the legs, which presents the risk of flipping you upside down in a fall. You’ll want about three-quarters of your weight to be in the legs, with the leg loops sitting on the upper thigh. A few harnesses offer adjustable-rise leg loops.
Also, rear riser straps can help with fit, as they assist with holding up the leg loops. Many models have adjustable and/or detachable straps, which is helpful when you need to remove the leg loops to change clothes or pee.
Many companies make women’s specific models that have a contoured waist belt and higher rise, made to accommodate a woman’s waist.
For alpine climbing, try on a new harness with a loaded pack to detect any pressure points or other discomfort.
Many of today’s harnesses have pre-threaded, or auto-doubled-back, buckles in both the waist and leg loops. These options are great for quick adjustments, even with gloves, as they require only a quick tug of the webbing. Many climbers will choose these models for their ease of use, but beware: This type of buckling sometimes tends to creep, and can potentially loosen accidentally—something to watch closely, especially at the end of a 10-pitch climb.
Webbing is unlikely to slip through manually threaded buckles, but they make adjustments more fiddly. And manual buckles require extra vigilance every time you or your partner puts on a harness: Always check that you have doubled-back your waist belt and leg loops.
2. Belay Loop
This burly, bartacked loop is the strongest point of any harness—it’s often your sole connection to belay and rappel devices. The belay loop is also usually the fastest-wearing element of your harness and must be watched closely for signs of damage. (See below.) Nowadays, more manufacturers are adding wear indicators to help you decide when it’s time to retire the harness.
3. Gear Loops
If you’re a hard-core sport climber, consider a harness with two gear loops—this will save weight and bulk, as you’ll only need to rack quickdraws for your climbs. If you’re doing longer routes where you’ll be carrying a full trad rack, four gear loops are necessary. Plastic-molded gear loops rule the sport climbing market because they are stiff enough to make clipping and unclipping a breeze. Such gear loops may also be angled to push gear forward as each quickdraw or cam is removed. For traditional climbing, where corners or chimneys are more common, gear loops made of webbing encased in plastic tubing may be more durable and more comfortable when you have to wedge your body against the rock.
4. Haul loop
This small loop on the back of a harness provides a place to clip a rappel rope, pair of shoes, or jacket. For long trad, alpine, or bigwall routes, where dropping something could be disastrous, make sure the haul loop is securely bartacked to the waist belt.
Cover your assets
Just as you inspect your rope regularly for core shots and fuzz balls, make it a habit to examine your harness periodically—especially if you suspect any damage has been done. A harness may last up to 10 years if well taken care of. Here, a few things to consider:
Any excessive fraying or discoloration is a call for retirement. Store your harness away from direct sunlight in a cool, dry place, ideally in its supplied mesh bag. Just as you do with ropes, keep it away from sharp objects and corrosive substances (i.e., don’t leave it in the trunk of the car).
Check the buckles on your waist and leg loops for any signs of wear. Abrasive contact with rock can cause the buckles to erode, and any sharp edge created by erosion is grounds for a permanent sabbatical.
Many harnesses come with wear-mark indicators on the belay loop and tie-in points. The belay loop is the most critical piece of your rig. If the wear indicator is showing danger, toss the harness.
Check the bartacking and stitching. Some manufacturers recommend retiring if even one stitch is amiss.
After climbing at a dirty area, rinse off the harness. If the grunge is really caked in, hand-wash in warm water with a mild soap (no bleach) like PMI Rope Soap ($12.75, pmirope.com). Rinse and air-dry away from direct sunlight.