Cams and bolts can break, but it’s still possible to survive a fall depending on what backups you have underneath you. Your harness doesn’t have a backup, and you rely on it just like you rely on your rope. So how do you know when your harness should be replaced?
The lifetime of a harness is difficult to pinpoint because each harness has a different lifetime, even if it’s the same brand and style of harness. Every climber climbs different difficulties, in different styles, and in different locations. Climbing companies like Black Diamond, Petzl, Arc’teryx, and Mammut provide a general lifetime in the instruction manuals that come with each harness (you can also find most manuals online). This lifetime can be anywhere between one to ten years, and although it’s excellent to refer to the manual, many time frames are too vague for you to completely rely on. Instead of depending on the company to tell you when to replace your harness, you should take the factors below into consideration and inspect your harness for signs of failure before each climbing session.
The most obvious sign to look for, while you’re inspecting your harness, is wear and tear. Tears, cuts, and abrasions can be found on most harnesses, so you need to differentiate the serious ones from the not-so-serious ones. The tie-in points are the most critical parts of the harness to inspect because they’re the quickest parts to wear out. Look out for deep tears and cuts, but don’t worry if the points have “fuzzy” fabric. Most used harnesses have fuzzy tie-in points because the rope rubs against it. You should worry about it once the rope wears the fabric away to the point that you notice it’s thinner in areas. Certain companies like Petzl and Arc’teryx (pictured) have different colored nylons underneath the tie-in points that let you know when they are close to failing. Even though the tie-in points are generally the quickest parts that break, be sure to check the other components that make up your harness like the belay loop, waistband, and leg loops for any signs of wear. You should ditch your harness when it gets any significant tear, cut, or abrasion on any part.
Consider the type of abuse you inflict on your harness every time you climb. Harnesses can last for years if you top rope or take tiny falls, but you might have to replace your harness annually (or more often than that) if you take big falls regularly. When you take a whipper, be sure to inspect your harness for new tears and abrasions because big falls can change a bomber harness into a scrappy piece of fabric that you wouldn’t even trust to keep your pants up. The inner fabrics might tear from big whippers too, so you might want to replace your harness after a gnarly fall even if you don’t see any obvious signs of wear.
How often you climb is another aspect that you need to keep in mind during each inspection. Climbers who get their send on every day are going to replace their harnesses more often than those who climb once a week, a month, or a year. However, those who only climb once a month or a year might need to replace their harnesses sooner than they think because harnesses have shelf lives and might need to be retired even if they aren’t being regularly used. An unused harness is an unhappy one. It’s best to know how old your harness is too, so be sure to find out if you’re getting a used one from a friend.
You also need to consider where you climb and where you store your harness. Dirt, sunlight, and water eat up harnesses for breakfast, so outdoor climbers will have to replace their harnesses sooner than gym climbers. And desert climbers who enjoy chimneys and offwidths will need to get new harnesses sooner than your average outdoor sport climber. Dark and dank areas also hinder your harness’ longevity, so be sure to store it somewhere inside your house instead of places like a basement, attic, or garage. Discolorations are signs that sunlight and darkness have affected your harness.
Photo Credit: Tommy Chandler
How you maintain your harness will determine how long you should climb with it too. Climbers who take care of their harnesses by separating them from their other gear won’t have to replace them as often as those who leave a harness in a backpack with tools all the time. Sharp tools like axes and nut tools can tear at harness if they’re all stuck in a backpack together. Some harnesses come in a mesh bag that’s handy for both safe travel and for more compact packing.
This last tip comes from the old school, traditional climbers who all say, “When in doubt, replace it.” The last place you want to question your harness’ strength is halfway up a route. So if you’re worried or unsure, it’s best to just go get a new harness.
In the end, determining whether your harness is still strong enough to save you is really up to you. Inspect your harness often, and retire it as soon as you feel uncomfortable climbing with it. And by retire, we mean throw it away, not sell it, let your friends use it, or keep it as a spare.