What is the best harness for big wall climbing and aid climbing? We took four of the best big wall harnesses and put them head to head. We evaluated these harnesses in five main areas: comfort, adjustability, comfort while sleeping, gear loops, and ease of free climbing. We climbed multi-day Yosemite and Zion routes as well as a number of one-day speed ascents. We also evaluated them at the crags to assess their versatility when no on the big rocks.
The Best Big Wall Climbing Harness
Metolius Safe Tech Waldo
The Editors' Choice award goes to the Waldo. Not only is it the most comfortable, but it also has our favorite gear loops. They are the strongest gear loops we know of which gives you confidence when clipping tons of gear to them. Also, they are "perky" and stick out which makes them the easiest gear loops to clip and unclip carabiners to.
The only significant downsides are that the waist belt is not very breathable and you can't remove the leg loops. You either have to sleep in the entire harness or remove it completely and improvise a harness out of webbing. If you go this option, we recommend bringing an extra piece of webbing to make a swami belt out of at night. Those two cons aside, this is the best big wall harness we know of.
Read Review: Metolius Safe Tech Waldo
Most Versatile Wall Harness
The Calidris used to be our Best Buy winner but they jacked the price $20 to be the same as the Metolius Waldo. So it's no longer a great value. However, it is the most versatile big wall harness. Because it weighs 50% less than the Waldo, it is much better as a gym climbing or trad climbing harness (we would not recommend the Waldo on anything but big walls). So if you want "one harness to do it all", the Calidris is a good bet. It's comfortable, just not nearly as comfortable as the Waldo when hanging around for hours and hours. Since the harness only comes in two sizes, sizing can be tricky. We found we were in between the two sizes.
Read Review: Petzl Calidris
Above Average Across All Metrics
Black Diamond Big Gun
While the Big Gun doesn't excel at any one metric, it is consistently good across them all. It's a good all-arounder. For example, while it's not as comfortable as the Waldo, it's much lighter and better for free climbing. Unlike the Waldo, it's easy to remove the leg loops at night for sleeping. It has more gear loops than any harness we tested. This gives you a lot of options, but it also requires you manage all the loops. It takes some time to develop a system between the upper and lower loops. We prefer the loops of the Waldo that are all at one level. We don't see the need for an upper and lower tier of gear loops. But some people love the extra options. Also, it's a bummer the gear loops are not more bomber as they don't give as much peace of mind as the Waldo. Otherwise, this harness has everything you need: a bomber haul loop, two belay loops. The leg loops are easy to drop when the urge arises. Overall, it's a solid big wall harness.
Read Review: Black Diamond Big Gun
Comfy and Durable But Heavy
Yates Shield Harness
Don't be surprised if The Shield harness lives longer than you do. Everything about this harness is beefy and bomber. The buckles are massive as is the webbing that goes through them. The leg materials are plush and comfy. The gear loops are everywhere and there is even a loop for your hammer. All this comes with a big weight penalty as the Shielf is almost a pound heavier than most other harnesses in the review and a half pound heavier than the Waldo. At $160, it's also by far the most expensive harness we have tested. But if you want a burly and comfortable harness, this might be a good option for you.
Read Review: Yates Shield Harness
The big decision when buying a big wall harness is how much comfort you want versus how light and streamlined you want it to be. Some people say, "I want the biggest beefiest thing out there." I prefer the comfiest harness that still doesn't feel too overkill. Here are some key factors to consider when buying a big wall harness.
There are a lot of harnesses that start out comfortable but start to chafe my hips on Day 3 of a big wall. The most comfortable harnesses have wide waist and hip belts that are lined with fuzzy material. They are soft around the edges so they won't cut your hips. In general, the wider the padding, the more comfortable the harness. However, if a harness does not fit right, it will ride up at awkward angles and cut into your side. Try and hang in harness in the store. You will know right away if it fits right or not. Keep in mind there are tradeoffs for comfort: the most comfortable harnesses don't breathe well and are clunky to free climb in.
This comes down to personal preference. I prefer just one buckle on the waist but many people like having two buckles so that the belay loop can always be perfectly centered. Also, two buckles give you a wider range of sizing options. While I prefer a big wall harness with fixed leg loops, all big wall harnesses currently come with adjustable leg loops. If possible, get a harness where the extra leg loop and waist belt material tucks away cleanly.
The Petzl Calidris was the most readily adjustable. It was the only big wall harness in our review with speed adjust buckles. It has two buckles at the waist for keeping the belay loop at the center. We love speed adjust buckles but some people, especially in the big wall environment where you don't adjust your harness much, prefer the standard buckles. The Yates and Misty harnesses also were very adjustable. The Metolius Waldo had the most adjustable leg loops in some ways due to its 3-d system. But it also was one of the few harnesses where the extra leg loop material just wouldn't stay tucked away.
The most comfortable harnesses to sleep in allow you to remove the leg loops and then don't have too much hanging out on the sides. That said, I prefer to take my harness off completely when sleeping and use a two-inch swami belt (or thinner). So it comes down to your sleeping style.
The best gear loops are easy to clip and durable. On a big wall not only do you have a lot clipped to the side of your harness, often it is crucial not to drop that stuff. For example, you may need to clip the portaledge to your harness while transferring it from under the haul bag to the anchor. Or you might have your ascenders clipped to your harness and you don't want them coming off in a squeeze chimney. Some big harnesses have tons of gear loops at two separate heights. I prefer just one set of gear loops. If you have two tiers of them, the bottom tier is pretty hard to access if you have lots of stuff clipped to the top tier. We also prefer gear loops with some structure so they stick out from the harness. If the gear loops lay flat against the harness, it is harder to clip and unclip stuff.
The Metolius Waldo was the only harness with super strong gear loops (rated to 2250lb). We also like how the loops are super perky and stick straight out. They are easy to clip and don't get pulled down flat when weighted. We have never broken a gear loop on another harness, but that is because we're afraid to hang something heavy and important. Most other gear loops were adequate. The Big Gun and the Shield have tons of places to clip stuff. Some people will love this. I find that having too many gear loops is redundant and leads to clutter. If you clip stuff to every gear loop it is hard to get to the ones that overlap each other.
One some walls, you might free climb just a handful of pitches. In this case, how a harness lets you free climb doesn't matter. However, on many walls like South Face of Washington Column or The Nose, there are stacks of free climbing pitches. Remember, free climbing pitches on a big wall always feel harder: 5.9 feels like 5.10. This is partly due to fatigue and exposure. But it is also because you are more weighed down. You will already have a haul line and ascenders clipped to your harness as well as a big rack. Adding a bulky and heavy harness to the equation makes free climbing even harder. So here you have to make a tradeoff. For a route like The Nose, I almost always climb with a normal free climbing harness. Sure my hips will hurt a little, but I would rather make that trade-off than worry about whipping out of the Stovelegs pitches. On a multi-day hard aid route, I want a super comfy harness, damn the free climbing consequences. And then there is that middle ground where a light but comfy harness like the Calidris is the way to go.
The Calidris was the best to free climb in. It is light, breathes well, and there is not a lot of stuff sticking out to get caught in chimneys and offwidths. For a wall like The Nose or Half Dome, a big harness like the Yates Shield or Waldo can be heavy and cumbersome. Also, Calidris is one of the few harnesses to consider using as an everyday harness for gym climbing, trad climbing, and multi-pitch. This makes it a very versatile harness that can be used year round. The Misty Titan and Black Diamond Big Gun were also relatively light. But they are right at the border of being a harness I would consider taking on The Nose-in-a-day (usually I take a normal free climbing harness). The Yates Shield and Waldo are great serious aid route harnesses but I would not use them on a climb that involved lots of free climbing.
The Waldo and Big Gun are the only harnesses that come with two belay loops. I used to think this was overkill but now I am pretty sold on it. Two belay loops give you more options with daisy chain configurations and are great for any time your harness is loaded in two directions. For example, if you are ascending a rope you can have your top ascender attached to one belay loop and your back up knots attached to the other belay loop. Or when you are rappeling the East Ledges descent on El Capitan, you can have the haul bag into one belay loop and your rappel device into the other.
Another feature is a hammer holster. Because nailing is becoming more and more obsolete, I don't care about this feature. But if you climb tons of hard aid, Yates is the only harness with a built-in burly hammer holster. The hammer holster for the BD Big Gun does not work that well. The Metolius Waldo has gear loops that can be used as hammer holsters.
When it comes to wearing a harness on a big wall, the most significant factor is almost always its comfort around your waist and legs. However, depending on your personal preferences and climbing needs, other factors can vary in importance. Hopefully this review will assist you in the marketplace of harnesses.