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, I'll go over the basic info you'll need to know for choosing a climbing harness, so you can get out there and channel your inner squirrel.
The Job of the Harness
Like a doctor or a train conductor.
Keeps you connected to your climb.
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.
Size and Fit
Without size there is no fit.
YOUR HARNESS MUST FIT YOU PROPERLY.
All the padding and safety features of a harness don't mean anything unless the harness fits you properly. To ensure full comfort and maximum 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 waist belt 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 measurer 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 styles of harness just use a little elastic in the band instead of a buckle to save on weight. To measure, you a cloth tape measurer 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, or even how comfortably you take a fall. Ideally, you want to hang in a comfortable, balanced position. If your rise is too short, you'll tip backwards. 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 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. Harness 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.
Type of Harness
Not your Grandma's type-a-writer. See what I did there?
MAKE SURE YOUR HARNESS FITS YOUR CLIMB.
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, or 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 often a haul loop to, well, haul things.
ICE - One of the most important/defining features of an ice climbing harness are ice clipper slots, in addition to ample gear loops. They also feature padding that doesn'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
Too bad high school anatomy wasn't this interesting.
Anatomy I want to know!
BELAY LOOP - Here's the bread and butter of belaying. This is a very strong loop on the front of the harness, where you attach your belay device via a carabiner to belay your climbing partner. It's strength rated to handle hard falls.
TIE-IN POINTS - These are the openings that are connected with the belay loop. You run your rope through both of these openings when you're ready to climb. They are both very strong, and when used together (as they always need to be) they create a very 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, 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 them fitting snuggly.
Using Your Harness
This is like an instruction manual, but different.
This could be important.
HOW TO PUT IT ON - Putting on a harness is easy, in theory. Well, it's still pretty easy in practice, but it's just kinda awkward with those dangly leg loops. Start by grabbing the sides of the waist belt with the belay loop positioned away from you. Give the leg loops a second to stop swaying enough to ensure that they're hanging properly with the buckles (if there are any) also positioned away from you. Gingerly step on into the harness one leg at a time, trying not to jostle the leg loops too much. Pull the waist belt up into position, right over your iliac crest. Synch it nice and snug, with the belay loop positioned front and center. Tighten down the leg loops a bit, if they're adjustable.
COMFORT WHILE STANDING vs COMFORT WHILE HANGING - The difference between standing comfort vs hanging comfort usually has to do with the amount of padding. Harness with heavier padding will be a bit heavier and won't breath as well as ones with light padding. This makes them more comfortable when they're supporting your body weight on a hang, but less comfortable when standing around. The inverse is true for harnesses with light padding: comfortable while standing, less comfortable while hanging. Keep all of this in mind when you're selecting and trying out your harness.
Caring for your Harness
Does it really matter?
Make your harness last a while.
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 really nothing 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 and you want to 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 harness will have wear indicators on the strength rated areas, like the belay loop and the 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.
NOW GET A HARNESS AND CLIMB ALREADY
So there you have it. The climbing harness is a fairly simple piece of equipment with an incredibly important job. Simple, yet important, like a pizza cutter or those ear cleaner sticks that look like the weapons American Gladiators use to try to knock each other off of platforms. It kinda helps to try a harness on before you buy it, but there is no harm in picking one out online after you have all your measurements. Just make sure you put it on and hang in it before committing to a long, multi-pitch climb.