Taking into account the dazzling array of climbing harnesses available, choosing the right harness can, on the face of it, seem a complex task. However, by asking yourself two simple questions and subsequently applying the answers and the information below to your search, the shopping experience can be drastically simplified.
- What are you going to use the harness for?
This is the first and most critical question which needs to be addressed. For example if you are looking for a harness to cover many bases of the sport – trad, sport, winter, indoors – then you may have to be a little more compromising in your approach. On the other hand, if the harness is going to be used for one discipline, you can afford to be much more specific. It’s worth remembering that whilst you might think to yourself: “well I’m mainly going to use my harness down the wall and for fair-weather sessions on single pitch crags... but, maybe I might try a winter excursion to Scotland, so I better get a heavy, bulky, fully adjustable harness just on the off chance.” It’s not worth compromising the comfort and practicality you get from the harness 95% of the time for a possible one-off excursion.
- How much do you want to spend?
Obviously this will, to a certain extent, govern your choice. However, if you have ~£55 as a budget, this should by no means completely corral you into one or two options. Ok so you’ve ascertained what you need the harness for and how much you want to spend. The following is a brief outline of the different components and features you should be aware of before purchasing your harness. This should hopefully help you further narrow down your options.
Fit & ConstructionYour harness should be comfortable and well fitting. The waist belt should be above the hips and the leg loops secure but comfortable – being able to get your middle finger between the leg loop and your leg is a good indication of a correct fit. Initially it should be easy to walk around in and cause no rubbing, discomfort or major restrictions. Make sure the buckles don’t dig in when you are sitting down. A poorly fitting harness can not only be uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous. When sitting in the harness you should be upright, but not leaning forward. If the harness fits correctly around 75% of the load will be taken through the leg loops and 25% through the waist belt.
All harnesses are based on a similar deign: that of a leg loop system (often detachable) attached to an adjustable waist belt. The waist belt construction can range from a simple “Alpine style” webbing and individual double-back buckle – often used as group/hire harnesses due to their simplicity and durability – up to a heftily well padded arrangement with two “auto-locking” buckles. If you are going to be using, and more specifically loading, the harness regularly then you will require a padded harness. This does not necessarily infer that you require an overly padded product; in fact the best comfort levels are often achieved by matching/contouring the padding to the load bearing webbing/tape – with modern laminate harnesses being the ultimate example of this technology. This avoids the digging in, common in some cheaper brands that use great hefts of padding stitched/adhered to the much thinner (by comparison) load bearing webbing.
The second most important component of a harness is the leg loops. As pointed out above these should fit well without being uncomfortable, whilst walking, squatting, sitting and, of course, climbing. For some reason – perhaps due to more climbers coming into the sport through organised climbing courses, rather than climbing friends – many people new to the sport seem to have been convinced that they must purchase a fully adjustable harness (adjustable waist belt and leg loops), and whilst this may be appropriate, much of the time this is an unnecessary encumbrance. As stated above, think about what you are likely to need the harness for. If you’re not going to be sharing the harnesses or using it with crampons then why not opt for a stronger, lighter, and often cheaper fixed leg loop harness. Most modern fixed leg loop harnesses have an elasticised cinch or hybrid buckle to help take in marginal slack and offer that extra room for manoeuvre and adapt to a pair of shorts in the summer or base layer bottoms combined with thicker pants in winter.
The Rise - the distance between the waist belt and leg loops.
This is a crucial feature of all harnesses which dictates the position in which the climber is held in the loaded harness. If the Rise is too long you will be pushed forward in the harness, if too short you will find that you inescapably lean back. In both circumstances you will be overloading either the waist belt (Rise too long) or leg loops (Rise too short). Women’s harnesses tend to have a longer Rise and larger leg loops in comparison to the waist belt, as such slender ladies with a shorter rise may find that standard mens/unisex harnesses fit better. Another important feature of the harness is the (usually) elasticated rear double strap, which connects the leg loops to the waist belt and the back of the harness. Whilst non-load-beard this helps the harness hold its shape and fit the body whilst unloaded. Some but not all of these are removable at one end, which is a useful trait if think you will need to go to the toilet whilst wearing the harness.
Not too long ago this was a moot point, due to the fact that pretty much all harnesses used a standard double-back buckle to adjust all points on both waist belt and leg loops. In recent years the introduction of “auto-locking” buckles, used by most major manufacturers on at least some of their products, has given another dimension to the previously simple feature. Both types of buckle are fully safety and CE complaint, however the advantage of the new “auto-locking” style is that, unlike the manually thread double-back system, it is impossible to forget to fully thread it, plus it’s an obvious benefit for climbing in colder climes where fiddling with buckles is an obvious difficulty. One thing to remember with auto-locking buckles, is to ensure the loose end is always tucked into the elasticated loops provided. This will prevent loosening when the harness is not loaded.
Gear Loops & Racking
This is not a complex area of consideration; however it may be worth taking a moment to see that your desired harness offers a practical number of gear loops. The number of loops per harness will generally range from 1 to 8, depending on what the product is designed for. For example an Alpine harness will generally have a low number of loops (1 to 2), a Sport harness a couple more (3 to 4) and something designed for big walling or very long routes may have up to 8 loops. For general purpose a harness offering 4 to 5 loops will be more than adequate. Another consideration may be the shape and position of the racking loops, which can vary from harness to harness; this however is a purely personal choice.
Care & Maintenance
As your harness is the critical connection between you and all other components of your climbing system – rope, gear, belay etc. – it is important to keep your harness in good condition and when possible, away from harmful elements, such as chemicals and direct sunlight. When in storage keep your harness at room temperature in a dark place and ensure it is dry before being put away. If your harness becomes overly dirty or is exposed to sea water/spray, wash it in lukewarm water with a product such as Nikwax Tech Wash. Dry the harness in a warm (not hot) room away from direct sunlight.
Finally, if purchasing a harness for a child it is worth noting that for children below 35/40kg (usually under 9 years old) it is generally recommended that you opt for a full body harness. This is due to the fact that children below these specifications tend to have thin low volume hips, and it is possible that they could come out of a standard sit harness if inverted. For older children to early teens a kids sit harness will be perfect.