Are you tired of chafed hips and a sore back from hours of belaying, jugging, and climbing on big walls? We've been testing big wall harnesses for over ten years. After researching 35+ of the best, this review pits three of the best models side-by-side, all tested while multi-pitch climbing and big walling. Our expert team has spent hundreds of hours climbing, camping, and living on big walls all across North America. We've also put each harness to the test while doing one-day speed ascents. Using five main areas of criteria to rate each harness, we assigned a score to each and noted their pros and cons. After all this hard work, we offer you our best recommendations to keep you comfortable while you climb, aid, and work your way up your next big wall.If you're looking for other big wall climbing gear, our experts can help. Check out our write-ups of ascenders, aiders, haul bags, and more.
Our favorite overall big wall harness is the Metolius Safe Tech 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, giving 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 route, 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
While the Black Diamond 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 other harness we tested. This gives you a lot of options, but it also requires you to 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 just 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
Don't be surprised if the Yates 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.
However, all this comes with a big weight penalty as the Shield is by far the heaviest harness we tested. It's also the most expensive. 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 want the biggest beefiest thing out there. However, we prefer the comfiest harness that doesn't feel like 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 your hips on Day 3 of a big wall. The most comfortable harnesses have a wide waist and hip belts 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 the 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. We 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 we like big wall harnesses with fixed leg loops, most 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.
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 was 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, we prefer to take the harness off completely when sleeping and use a two-inch swami belt (or thinner), so it all 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 wall harnesses have tons of gear loops at two separate heights. We prefer just one set of gear loops. If you have two tiers, the bottom tier can be 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. We 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.
On 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, we almost always climb with a normal free climbing harness. Sure, our hips will hurt a little, but we'd rather make that trade-off than worry about whipping out of the Stovelegs pitches. On a multi-day hard aid route, we want a super comfy harness, damn the free climbing consequences.
For a wall like The Nose or Half Dome, a big harness like the Yates Shield or Waldo can be heavy and cumbersome. The Black Diamond Big Gun was relatively light, and right at the border of being a harness we would consider taking on a Nose-in-a-day psuh (usually we'd recommend a normal free climbing harness for this). The Yates Shield and Waldo are great serious aid route harnesses, but not the best for climbs that involve lots of free climbing.
The Waldo and Big Gun are the only harnesses that come with two belay loops. We used to think this was overkill, but now we're 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 backup 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, we don't care about this feature. But if you climb tons of hard aid, Yates is the only harness with a useful built-in 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.
— Chris McNamara
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