How to Choose a Climbing Harness
Everything you should consider when shopping for a harness.
Everyone seems to know which shoes they want, what cam will be best for their project, and the exact weight of their Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiners, but few people think about the tech and the intentions behind the gear that keeps them securely attached to their rope. If there’s one piece of gear that typically gets overlooked by climbers, it’s the harness.
Our Backcountry Gearheads get a lot of questions about the specific pieces of gear to use in a variety of situations and why to purchase one particular piece of gear over another. When it comes to helping someone find the right harness (or any piece of climbing gear for that matter), the first question we ask is always about the type of climbing the customer will be doing. The answer to that question will be crucial in picking the proper harness. Features will vary on harnesses intended for different types of climbing; alpine climbers have different needs and require different features than someone who is top roping and so on. Having a harness with the right fit and features will ensure the best possible experience.
The Anatomy of a Harness
The Swami belt, aka waist belt, will vary in width and padding based on the type of climbing the harness is built for. Sport climbing harnesses will often have a smaller, less padded waist belt since climbers will typically be hanging in the harness for short periods of time. Big wall harnesses, on the other hand, often have a thicker, more cushioned waist belt to provide maximum comfort on long days on multi-pitch routes with hanging belays. The biggest consideration here is simply how long you plan to be sitting in the harness on a regular basis. Plan on climbing mostly short, single-pitch sport routes? A thin waist belt will do. Heading out for long multi-pitch lines with lots of hanging belays? Best to go for something a little burlier.
When it comes to leg loops, there are generally two options: adjustable and non-adjustable. As is the main theme of this article, which one you choose will depend primarily on the type of climbing that you will be doing. For top-roping and sport climbing, there isn’t much need for adjustable leg loops as you will typically be wearing your harness over a single layer of clothing. For trad routes, big walls, alpine, and ice climbing (anything outdoor or with variable weather conditions), adjustable leg loops will come in handy as they can be fitted perfectly over multiple layers of clothing.
To clarify, “non-adjustable” does not mean that the leg loops will only work for one size. Non-adjustable leg loops are made to stretch to accommodate different leg sizes, within reason, but it may be harder to fit into non-adjustable leg loops while wearing multiple layers. Generally, non-adjustable leg loops are a great option to simplify your setup if you plan on climbing indoors or in other environments that don’t require layered clothing.
A Note About Buckles
There was a point in time when you had to double back the webbing on your waist belt and leg loops in order to avoid it slipping backwards through the buckles and becoming loose or completely open during use. (We’ve heard it said that if you can see the inside of the “D” shape on the buckle, you get a “D” for “danger” in Rock Climbing 101). Now however, most harnesses are made with a system that doubles back the webbing for you. Some harnesses, such as the Black Diamond Big Gun, still require you to manually double back your waist belt and leg loop webbing. It is incredibly important to determine which system your harness is equipped with before use.
Gear loops are simply where you rack your gear—carabiners, quickdraws, hooks, and/or cams—for easy access while climbing. Often there are between two and seven gear loops, and the number and layout of the loops will vary by the type of gear and how much of it you plan to carry up the route. Top-roping and gym climbing don’t usually require much more than a belay device, so a harness with a belay loop and only a few gear loops, such as the Petzl Adjama Harness, will work just fine. If you plan on leading routes, you’ll need space to carry more gear. Look for harnesses with four loops or more like the Arc’teryx SL -340 Harness that will have room to rack quickdraws and other gear. If big wall climbing is in your future, you’ll want as many loops available as possible, such as the six found on the Misty Mountain Cadillac Women’s Harness.
Another consideration is gear loop style. There are many different types of gear loops; some are covered in plastic, some are thicker than others, and they can be placed in different places around the harness. Since placement and material are largely a matter of personal preference, it is important to try on different harnesses to figure out what will work best for your climbing style.
The haul loop is loop made of cord, webbing, or plastic on the very back of your harness. Since this loop is typically difficult to access, it is ideal for attaching items that you will likely will not need to remove during the climb but need to take up with you. The haul loop is normally used as a haul line to bring up a second rope on longer routes or on routes where you’ll need ropes to rappel. On shorter climbs it’s a great spot to carry water, a small pocket knife, a chalk bag, or other gear that doesn’t necessarily require quick access. It’s important to note that most haul loops are not rated to hold the weight of a climber. Even if they look strong or have a designated strength rating, a haul loop should never be used as an attachment point for any weight-bearing system.
Clipper slots are simple pieces of fabric that are sewn into the harness and look like horizontal belt loops. They are easy to miss if you don’t know what they’re used for. This additional carry feature allows you to attach ice clippers to your harness to safely and effectively rack ice screws. If you plan to do any ice climbing, clipper slots are a feature you should definitely consider. While this feature is used specifically for ice climbing, it’s fine to select a harness with clipper slots for use with other types of climbing since they don’t take up much space and add only a negligible amount of weight. Just be sure the harness has all the other features you are looking for!
The belay loop is what you will attach your locking carabiner to when belaying someone. It is a fully load-bearing loop on the front of the harness that is run vertically through the two “hard points” or tie in loops on the harness. A handy tip is to remember that generally, when you want to attach something to your harness that is made of metal (for example, a locking carabiner to use with your belay device), you’ll want to clip it to the belay loop. Any other load-bearing piece of equipment (rope, PAS, etc.) will generally be attached through the two hard points of the harness.
Most harnesses will have only one belay loop with the express purpose of being used to belay another climber. For most, this single loop will be sufficient. It is worth mentioning, however, that some harnesses, such as the Metolius Safe Tech All-Around Improved Harness, have two belay loops, which can be used to organize ropes and systems during long multi-pitch or big wall climbs. They are used in the same manner as the single belay loop, but the second allows the climber more room to work in scenarios involving multiple rope systems (i.e. bringing up multiple partners).
The Bottom Line
There are a lot of harnesses out there to choose from and all of them will get the job done. Here’s a quick summary of what you should look for when choosing your own harness:
- Sport: 2-4 gear loops, thinner belt
- Trad: 4-6 gear loops, thicker belt
- Ice/Mixed: 2-4 gear loops, 2-4 ice clipper slots, thinner belt
- Aid/Big Wall: 4-6 gear loops, rated haul loop, thick belt, adjustable/removable leg loops, two belay loops
- Mountaineering: 2-4 gear loops, 2-4 ice clipper slots, adjustable/removable leg loops,thinner belt
- Kids: Full-body harness
If you’re still not sure what you’re looking for in a harness, remember to consider what type of gear you’ll need and how much of it you plan to carry, and how long you’ll be using the harness during a typical outing at the crag. Consider the type of climbing you’ll be doing in the immediate future as well as the type of climbing you hope to do as you gain experience. Finally, it’s a good idea to try on a few different harnesses before you make your final decision. In most cases, comfort is the most important factor – if you are going to be spending hours wearing it, it better not rub you the wrong way! Those simple considerations will begin to narrow down the selection of harnesses until you find what works for you and your budget.
If you still have questions about choosing the perfect climbing harness, feel free to contact one of our knowledgeable Gearheads for assistance!