In this article we have a look at some of the different harnesses available, and give you some pointers to help you choose the right harness for you.
People come in all shapes and sizes and for this very reason, so do harnesses. Some harnesses may not fit certain people correctly but will be perfect on others, so it really is vital to try a number on before you select the one for you. Remember, a badly fitting harness can, in the extreme, be dangerous.
Start by answering the following two questions
1. What type of climbing do you intend to do with your harness?
When properly looked after, a climbing harness should last you some time, so it’s really worth considering your future aspirations for the sport. Do you only ever want to climb indoors? Do you intend to climb it all – sport, trad, winter? Having a good think about this will help you get a harness that ticks all your boxes. Bear in mind that the more disciplines you want it to cover, the more compromises you may need to make, often in comfort and weight.
2. How much do you want to spend?
Harnesses range from around £45 – £140. Your budget will of course narrow or widen your options, but even with the cheaper harnesses there is still a fair bit of choice.
Comfort and fit
The waist belt should sit just above your hips. Once you have tightened your harness, you should be able to get a flat hand in behind the waist belt but you should not be able to pull a fist out. Your leg loops should feel secure but comfortable, a good indication of proper fit is being able to slip a flat hand in between the leg loop and your leg comfortably. Your harness should feel comfortable to stand and sit in. When sitting down, make sure the buckles aren’t digging in. There has recently been a real push to move from the traditionally padded harnesses to contoured laminate harnesses, which remove bulk and weight and in some cases retain a high level of comfort. Try both types and let the way it feels dictate what you buy.
The 3 main types of sit harnesses are;
- Fully adjustable – meaning you can adjust both the waist belt and leg loops.
- Fixed leg loop – meaning you can only adjust the waist belt and not the leg loops.
- Alpine harness – available in fully adjustable and fixed leg loop, super lightweight with a the belay loop often only attached to the waist belt.
The amount of adjustment in the fit of your harness will depend a lot on the type of climbing you intend to do. If you intend to do a lot of outdoor trad and winter climbing then a fully adjustable harness is essential in order to get it on and off over bulky clothes, crampons and boots. If you intend to climb indoors and maybe outdoors in fair weather, then a fixed leg loop harness may work for you. Another consideration is your size when you first buy your harness. Many people enter the sport in order to get fit and often lose a fair bit of weight after their first few months, so if you think this will be case for you, then a fully adjustable harness would be the way to go. You ideally want the harness to be in the middle of its adjustment range when wearing it, so that you have room to manoeuvre.
Until a few years ago the standard buckle on a climbing harness was known as a “double back” buckle which meant that in order for it to be safe the webbing would need to be threaded back through the buckle. Currently most harnesses are now fitted with a “speed adjust” buckle, this has the benefit that the climber does not need to remember to double back their buckles. It’s important to realise that there are pros and cons to each system. Double back buckles have the benefit that once done up – that’s it. They will not move at all. But they have the drawback of being considerably more awkward to do up, especially with gloves on. Speed adjust buckles have the great benefit of simply pulling them tight, easy with gloves on, but the slight drawback is that they can suffer from “creep” and will need to be tightened and checked over the course of a long day.
The obvious fitting requirements of your waist size and upper thigh will dictate the general size of the harness (eg. small, medium, large). Harnesses also use another measurement, known as the “rise” and this is a very important measurement to consider. The rise is the distance between the waist belt and the leg loops. When this distance is too short, the climber will be pushed forwards when the harness is loaded, and when the distance is too long, the climber will fall backwards when the harness is loaded. Women’s specific harnesses typically have a longer rise and men’s a shorter one. A correctly fitted harness will, when loaded, mean that around 75% of weight is taken on the leg loops and 25% on the waist belt. Some harnesses are available with an adjustable rise, which can be helpful if you’re having trouble finding a good fit.
The only true way to test whether the rise is correct for you, is to see how it works when fully loaded. The only way to do this is to hang in the harness.
The number of gear loops you will want on your harness will again come down to what type of climbing you expect to do. If you intend to only climb indoors, then you’ll only really need one or two gear loops. Sport climbers usually need three to four loops, whilst trad and winter climbers will want five and above. However if you try on a harness and it fits perfectly, but has more gear loops than you need, it really doesn’t matter, a correct fit is far more important.
Some specific considerations
A few other details you may want to take into account. If you intend to go winter climbing or ice climbing, make sure the harness padding is constructed from closed cell foam, so that it can’t become water logged. If you want to take it climbing in the Alps, then weight will need to be a big consideration and often comes at the expense of comfort. There are lots of other clever features on harnesses and once you’ve gone through the essentials, the rest will be down to personal preference and taste.
Harnesses for kids
Children below 30-40kg (usually under the age of nine) will need to be fitted with a full body harness. This is because they often have small hips and a high centre of gravity and run the risk of falling out of a sit harness if inverted (upside down). Also children of this age tend to have insufficient stomach muscles to maintain an upright position and stand much more chance of turning upside down when they fall. A general rule of thumb, if trying a sit harness on a child, is to try and pull it down over their hips and if this is in any way possible then a full body harness will be needed.
Care and maintenance
Looking after all of your climbing kit is absolutely essential. Your climbing harness is your direct and only link from you to your safety chain (rope, anchors, belayer) and needs special attention. Always keep your harness away from harmful chemicals and direct sunlight (where possible), storing it in a dry dark place when not in use. If it gets dirty or has been exposed to salt water, then cleaning it with lukewarm water is usually all it takes, then dry in a warm (not hot) room away from sunlight. There are specially made cleaning products for soft climbing kit, made by companies such as Beal. You can also use pure soap flakes to clean your harness, but if in any doubt then only use approved cleaning products. When you remove your harness always slacken off your leg loops, so that they don’t warp or get worn in exactly the same place. When properly looked after your harness should last you a fairly long time, depending, of course how often you climb and where you climb.
So, to sum up, it’s clear that fitting a harness should be as detailed as fitting a pair of climbing shoes. Unless you are replacing an old harness with the exact same model and size, you really can’t know that it’s the right one for you until you’ve sat in it under load. This is why it’s usually best to have your harness fitted by an experienced person.
About the Author
Alex Palmer is the co-owner and founder of Cold Mountain Kit and started climbing back in 1989. He's climbed extensively throughout the UK, French Alps and has been as far afield as Yosemite, Northern Patagonia and South Africa. A total trad climbing snob.