Climbing Harness Buying Guide
You may have seen a squirrel scurrying up a telephone pole, or maybe a mountain goat somehow scaling a cliffside and thought to yourself, "That looks like fun. I'd like to try that." Well, it is fun and you should try it. But unlike squirrels and goats, you're gonna need a bit of equipment to tackle this challenging activity. In this guide, you’ll learn all about climbing harnesses and how to choose the best size for a proper fit.
THE JOB OF THE HARNESS
The climbing harness connects a climber to the rock (or ice) and is necessary for every type of climbing besides bouldering. It'll support you when you fall, as well as hold all the gear you'll need to climb a route. Different types of climbing will call for slightly different features or styles, so read on to find out the best harness for your needs and how to make sure you get the right size.
TYPE OF HARNESS
Different types of climbing call for slightly different harness features. They vary based on how long you'll be wearing them, how much stuff you're hauling, and what kind of stuff you're hauling.
SPORT / GYM - Sport climbing harnesses are all about sleek, lightweight designs with minimal features. They have everything you need to get up and down a route in fairly predictable conditions. The leg loops may or may not be adjustable, and there are often just two gear loops to potentially hold a set of quickdraws. If you're new to climbing, you should look for something with ample padding, as you might find yourself hanging in your harness fairly often.
TRAD - Trad (a.k.a. traditional) climbing harnesses are beefed up versions of sport harnesses. They usually feature four or more gear loops to handle a full rack of gear, adjustable leg loops to ensure a good fit even as you add or remove clothing layers, and a haul loop to, well, haul things.
ICE - The defining features of an ice climbing harness are ample gear loops and dedicated ice clipper slots. They also feature padding that won't absorb water, so it doesn't freeze and get all stiff.
ALPINE - When you're climbing/traversing all over the mountains, you'll want a harness with minimal bulk that can pack down nice and small. Alpine harnesses are typically made of webbing with slight or no padding. The leg loops often have buckles so they can easily clip over your mountaineering clothing and avoid your crampons.
ANATOMY OF YOUR HARNESS
WAISTBELT - Pretty self-explanatory here. This is the wide opening at the top of the harness that you tighten above your waist to make sure you don’t fall out of the harness. Many harnesses have a thick waistbelt with a decent amount of padding, but some minimalist alpine harnesses will have thinner webbing and no padding.
LEG LOOPS - Sometimes leg loops are adjustable and sometimes they aren't. Leg loops are there for your comfort. They help you stay upright during a fall and they efficiently disperse weight when you're hanging in the harness.
BELAY LOOP - Here's the bread and butter of belaying. It's that super strong loop on the front of the harness where you attach your carabiner and belay device to belay your climbing partner. It's strength rated to handle hard falls.
TIE-IN POINTS - Also referred to as "hard points," these are the openings that are connected to the belay loop. You run your rope through both of these openings when you're ready to climb. When used together, as they always need to be, they create a safe, redundant system.
ELASTIC RISERS - These straps are used to adjust the rise of your harness or the distance between your leg loops and waistbelt. This has a big effect on how comfortably you hang.
GEAR LOOPS - These loops hold gear. Pretty easy to remember. Quickdraws, cams, stoppers, they all get clipped on. Please note: don't ever use gear loops to support a human's weight, or even your dog's weight.
HAUL LOOP - These are most often not strength rated, and are used to channel your rope behind you to keep it out of your way, or to carry various items, like your climbing shoes, belay device, chalk bag, down jacket, a baggie of saltwater taffies or a haul line.
ICE CLIPPER SLOT - this is a little loop off of the waistbelt where you can attach your ice screws. This keeps them in one place so you know exactly where they are and so they don't poke you. Cause those babies are sharp.
BUCKLES - Your harness needs to fit well, which you probably already assumed. The buckle is how you fine-tune the fit perfectly to your frame. These things are often doubled-backed so they can take a bit of effort to adjust, but it's worth it to get a snug fit.
SIZE AND FIT
All the padding and safety features of a harness won't mean anything unless the harness fits you properly. To ensure comfort and safety, make sure you take all of your measurements and find a harness that can handle those numbers. Here's what you need to know about finding those measurements.
WAIST - Just like with a pack, your harness waistbelt should be positioned over your iliac crest. And in case you aren't a doctor, your iliac crest is the very top of your hip bone. Go ahead and feel yours, I won't look. Use a cloth tape measure to figure out your measurement. You'll want your harness tightened down so it can't be pulled below this crest, without maxing out the adjustments of the belt. If you're too close to the start or end of the adjustments, your gear loops might not be in the optimal position. Keep in mind any layers that you might be putting on or taking off on your climbing trips.
LEG LOOPS - The fit on leg loops isn't as critical as your waist belt fit, but should still be an acceptable size for your legs. Depending on the type of harness you're buying, these may or may not be adjustable. Some harnesses just use a little elastic in the band instead of an adjustable buckle to save on weight. To measure, use a cloth tape measure and find the circumference of one of your thighs.
RISE - The rise is the distance between the leg loops and the waist belt. It determines your body position when you're hanging and how comfortably you can take a fall. Ideally, you want to hang in a comfortable, balanced position. If your rise is too short, you'll tip backward. If your rise is too long, too much weight will fall on your waist belt. It can often be more difficult for women to find this correct hanging balance if their waist is significantly smaller than their hips. This leads me into the next thing I want to talk about…
WOMEN'S SPECIFIC - Women who have a waist that is a bit smaller than their hips should probably be looking for a women's specific harness. Or men too, for that matter. Harnesses designed for "women" will have an increased rise to accommodate the greater distance from the waist to the legs (instead of from the hips to the legs). So if your body type seems to match what these harnesses offer, give it a shot. The most important thing is finding the best fit for your body.
KIDS' HARNESSES - Kid-specific harnesses adhere to the same safety and durability standards as adult models, they're just quite a bit smaller. Most have the same general layout as an adult sit harness, but some of ‘em feature a full body design. Full body harnesses are a great option for the younger climbers as their hips are often too small for even the tightest of waist belts. And you really don't want to risk them sliding out of their harness.
CARING FOR YOUR HARNESS
GENERAL CARE + CLEANING - Your harness will wear out over time. The speed at which it wears out is usually determined by the number and severity of falls, and by how well you take care of it. Now there's not much you can do about the falls (well, besides falling less), but you can do your harness a favor and keep it dry, out of the sun, and away from sharp objects. If it gets too dirty, you can rinse it in warm water (with a mild soap, if necessary), and let it air dry. Never put it in a washing machine or anywhere near bleach.
INSPECTION + WEAR INDICATORS - When inspecting your harness, you'll want to check all the webbing for any signs of fraying. Certain harnesses will have wear indicators on the strength rated areas, like the belay loop and tie-in points. If you can see the orange or red showing, it means that harness should not be used. When in doubt, retire your harness. Always err on the side of caution. This thing is literally holding your life in its.... hands, I guess. If you take one or two really, really hard falls, just thank your harness kindly for its service, then put it out to pasture.