A climbing harness is one of the first purchases that you'll make when getting into the sport of climbing, and one you'll continue to make every five years, or sooner depending on wear. While a soft good like this might not have the same lifespan as a carabiner, it will most likely outlast your first rope and pair of shoes, so it's important to make an informed (and comfortable) purchase. We've put our decade's worth of experience climbing and hanging in harnesses together to give you all the things you want to keep in mind when selecting your first, or next, one.
Women's Specific Climbing Harnesses
The first thing you need to ascertain is if you even need a women's specific model. It was not too long ago that such a thing didn't even exist, and we ladies had to suffer in uncomfortable models designed for a man's proportions. Finally, enough women were climbing (and complaining) that gear manufacturers began to deliver models suited for a woman's physique. How are women different? First the rise of our waist tends to be longer. There is more distance between where the leg loops sit and where the waistbelt fits. Second, our legs are slightly larger relative to our waist when compared to men, and so our harnesses require different waist-to-leg ratios. Third, the angle that the hip bones sit at is different than a man's body, and more variable. In fact, all of these measurements are highly variable in women, and much more so than in men.
We measured a dozen different women with different body types and found that the majority had rise lengths of 7-8 inches whether they were a petite 5.3 or a tall 5.9. About 1/4 had rise lengths of 6 inches, and/or, preferred to wear the waistbelt more around their hips than their waist, and that measurement was also around 6 inches. So, to find out your rise length measure from your pubic bone, or where the leg loops sit, to your natural waist, typically your belly button, or where you like to wear your waistbelt. If you measure 7-8 inches, then you are with 75% of the women we surveyed, and you'll be happy with the women's versions from brands like Black Diamond, Mammut, Camp and Arc'teryx. If you measure 6 inches or less, check out the women's Petzl Luna and Petzl Selena models, as their rise is a little shorter than the other manufacturers. Your other option with a shorter rise is to shop for men's or unisex models.
Why is rise even important, you might wonder? When the rise is too short or too long, not only will the harness fit poorly, but you will also hang in it uncomfortably. A too short rise will have you falling backwards when hanging, and a too long rise will pitch you forward.
Women's specific climbing harnesses might also have curvier waistbelts, which can be more comfortable on a female frame. Finally, they tend to come in brighter, and often "girlier" colors, which you may, or may not prefer. Ultimately, the best advice we can give is to try on several different male and female models from as many manufacturers as you can to find the one that will work for you best.
Sizing and Fit
Climbing harnesses typically come in four different sizes, from x-small to large. Each manufacturer has their own idea as to what measurements constitutes each size, and will typically display that information on their website. When sizing one, we recommend that you try it on first with the lightest clothing you would be climbing in, say a pair of leggings and a tank top for the gym or a hot day, and make sure that the waistbelt is almost completely cinched down tight to fit. This will give you more room to wear layers underneath it on colder days. If you size it too small (even if the waistbelt buckle closes) the gear loops will probably be off center and hard to use. If you fall on the cusp between two sizes, we'd generally recommend sizing up for that reason, however you can always check out a different brand first as you might find a better fit somewhere else.
We spend a lot of time discussing comfort in The Best Climbing Harness for Women Review, but we'll mention again here how important this feature is when buying one. You could find a model that has all the extras you like and a super hi-tech design, but if it's uncomfortable to hang in then what's the point? For example, we love the look and feel of the Arc'teryx AR-385a when climbing, hiking, and just sitting around at the crag, but when it came to hanging, the thin tape design of the leg loops dug into the backs of our thighs and was really uncomfortable. And the reality of climbing is that we spend a lot of time weighting our harnesses, whether it's at hanging belays on a multi-pitch route or working a sport climb.
Climbing harnesses come with either fixed or adjustable leg loops. Whether you prefer one over the other is sometimes a matter of choice, and other times because of necessity. By an informal poll of our male climbing partners, we've deduced that most of them prefer fixed leg loops. The buckle and extra webbing on adjustable loops can be annoying, create a pressure point, and it adds more weight. Many women prefer fixed legs as well, but only if it fits us right, which seems to be an issue. Ladies with larger legs relative to their waist size can have a particularly hard time finding a fixed leg loop that actually fits. Comparing all the models that we've tested in this updated review as well as past reviews, we've found that Petzl and Arc'teryx models tend to have particularly tight leg loops that fit only the skinniest of legs. Mammut seems to have more generously sized leg loops, and Black Diamond has created a unique trakFIT slider for their Black Diamond Siren and Black Diamond Primrose models; this gives some adjustability to a fixed loop, though there is still a small buckle involved.
Adjustable leg loops are also a key feature if you plan to use your climbing harness in many different climates and applications. The fixed leg loop that is tight when you are only wearing leggings is not going to fit over softshell pants and long underwear when ice climbing. Bottom line, if you are looking for versatility then an adjustable leg is the way to go.
- Can fit over multiple layers of clothing. You can wear long underwear on those chilly climbing days without cutting off circulation to your legs.
- Fit a wider variety of women. Women vary in proportion, but overall have thicker thighs compared to their waists in relation to men. Finding a fixed leg loop model that fits your waist AND your legs can be difficult and frustrating. Many women opt for adjustable leg loops for this reason.
- Having a buckle on the loops creates an extra point for wear.
- Buckles add weight.
- Once you adjust the leg loops to fit, you rarely change them, making the buckles seem unnecessary.
- Adjustable models usually cost more.
There are several aspects of gear loops to consider, the most important of which is their placement. If they are arranged on the waistbelt for easy access, then you will be comfortable when climbing — whether leading or cleaning gear. While most sport climbers will mostly use the front gear loops, traditional climbers will need to have easy access to all four of them, particularly if racking their gear on their waist and not a separate gear sling. Our testers found the rear gear loops on the Petzl Luna and Selena models to be so far back that they were almost impossible to reach, limiting our racking options. We much preferred the gear loop placement on the Black Diamond Lotus and Primrose models, as their loops are all further towards the front of the waistbelt.
This often comes down to personal preference, but you should also look at the climb you are going to do. A gear sling will allow you to re-rack by size when cleaning, and can be moved from one side of your body to another depending on the terrain, so if you need to squeeze your left side into a chimney you can place the sling on your right. But if you are climbing a steep roof, a gear sling will fall to your backside and leave your gear out of reach. Practice with both, and evaluate the best option for the climb you are about to do.
Another important thing to consider with gear loops is how easy they are to clip. Our testers found that loops coated in hard plastic hold their shape well and are very easy to clip. All of the models that we tested have rigid gear loops, some with plastic on the outside, or in the case of Petzl, rigid loops with a fabric exterior. Our testers preferred the rigid loops that have a flexible attachment point on the waisbelt, as is the case with the Camp Supernova and Arc'teryx AR-385a. They are easy to clip, and if you put a pack on over your harness, the gear loops fold down comfortably and don't push into your back. The Black Diamond models all have completely rigid gear loops that do not fit comfortably underneath a pack.
The more sport-specific climbing harnesses that we tested have unique gear loops, some of which we liked and some we didn't. The Black Diamond Siren has only one "Mondo" gear loop on each side, but each one has a plastic divider, so really you are still getting four loops but with a small weight savings. The advantage to this design is that the divider prevents your quickdraws from shooting to the back of the loop when climbing on steep terrain. Our testers found that this happened on the Mammut Zephira. The extra-long front gear loops on that model can hold a staggering ten quickdraws, but we had a hard time reaching them on steep terrain. Sometimes a design feature seems like a good idea, but in practice it just doesn't work out.
A final word on gear loops is that, unfortunately for the most petite of us, there is often not enough room on the x-small sized models for four gear loops. This can be frustrating, particularly when traditional climbing, as three gear loops doesn't always cut it space-wise. The Camp Supernova and Black Diamond Lotus still manage to fit four loops on their waistbelt and are good options for a traddie lady.
Climbing harnesses have many different options when it comes to haul loops in the back. Some models, like the Black Diamond Siren, don't have any. Others, like the Mammut models that we tested, have only a small, p-cord style loop. Then there is the Black Diamond Lotus, with a haul loop rated to 12 kN. Having a "full-strength" haul loop is useful in two scenarios. One is the worst-case scenario of your lead line getting cut and the haul line or tag line arresting your fall (assuming it is attached to the lower belay). While this might prevent you from falling to the ground, the length of the fall and impact forces on your body could be enormous. The other, more pleasant scenario, is that occasionally you might like to have a rear clip-in point, say when belaying a partner up to the top of a climb where you want to face forward and watch them. We would still stay clipped in with a rope from the front of our harness in this case, but you could weight the back attachment if you needed to lean forward, etc.
In both of these scenarios, this only works with a "full-strength" haul loop, or one that is rated 9 kN and up (similar to the maximum impact force of a climbing rope). Of the models that we tested, the Lotus is currently the only one with a manufacturer stated rating. The Black Diamond Primrose and Camp Supernova appear to have similarly strong loops, but as there is no stated rating we cannot recommend using them for that purpose. Arc'teryx has gone the opposite route, stating that their AR-385a model has a 0 kN rating on both its haul loop and gear loops. Metolius, on the other hand, engineers every component of their models to be full-strength, including the gear loops and haul loop. Even the leg loop elastic is rated to 6.6 kN. This aims to prevent the occasional accidents that occur when a novice clips into a belay on their gear loops and not their belay loop.
Nowadays, almost all climbing harnesses come with some form of a self-locking buckle. We like these buckles since they are easy to use, safer since you cannot forget to double it back, and quicker to put on. Sometimes these buckles can feel like they loosen a bit over the course of the day, but all that is required is a little extra cinch before starting your next pitch. We prefer this feature whenever possible, and all of the models in this updated review came with one. With the traditional, double-back buckle almost a thing of the past, we wonder if future generations of climber will even know what to do with one?
Leg Loop Elastic Release
The ability to drop the leg loops on a climbing harness is a vital feature to most women. When nature calls, squirming out of your harness is cumbersome, or on a multi-pitch climb, simply impossible. All of the models that we tested have this feature, some with very easy buckles, and some with hard to re-attach hook closures. One of our favorites was the Petzl snap buckle, which was easy to detach and re-attach one handed. However, this buckle creates a pressure point on our backs when chimneying. We also liked the Mammut system, which has only one hook to disengage both leg loops at once, however on the Zephira we had it detach accidentally when hiking with a pack on. Camp avoids this on the Supernova by having the attachment point on the leg loops themselves: no buckle to hit your back when trad climbing or accidentally detach itself. The Black Diamond models have a separate attachment point for each leg loop, which is more cumbersome, but the hooks are small and low profile. If fussing with leg loop attachments bothers you, practice just pulling the elastic to the outside of your legs before dropping trou. Once you perfect this move you will rarely need to detach the legs.
Weight & Compactability
Climbers are notoriously obsessed with weight, both on their bodies and racks. Of the different models that we tested, the weight range was between 10 and 15 ounces, with the Mammut Zephira being the lightest and the Petzl Luna the heaviest. Could we tell a difference between the two? Well, yes — the Zephira felt noticeably lighter on. Would this be the difference between sending a hard climb or falling at the crux? Most likely not. Five ounces is less weight than two quickdraws, or the apple and bar you had for lunch. A high-end competition climber might disagree, but for most of us this won't be a deal breaker. What you might want to consider instead is how small it can pack down, particularly when going on long alpine missions in the backcountry where you want to carry the smallest pack possible. Here's where the Arc'teryx AR-385a, which fits into a bag half the size of most models, is a great choice.
Most climbing harnesses have additional features included to increase the safely of the wearer. Keep an eye out for the features that matter most to you:
- Self-locking buckles.
- Color indicators on key tie-in points that will start to show through with wear and let you know when to replace it. (Mammut and Arc'teryx)
- Reinforced tie-in points that reduce friction with the rope where it matters most. (Mammut and Petzl)
Longevity & Care
Everything wears out eventually, and the longevity of your climbing harness is typically more associated with use than time. We know some full-time climbers that go through a new one every six months to a year, and some weekend warriors who've been wearing the same model for a decade. Most manufacturers recommend replacing it every five years, as the material does degrade over time. You should inspect your climbing harness every now and then for signs of wear, particularly around the waistbelt and belay loop. Some models, like the Mammut Ophira and Zephira models, have wear indicator threads sewn into the belay loop. If the belay loop gets worn down enough that you start to see red, it's time to retire it.
Sometimes our harnesses are fine structurally, but so dank and stinky that we can no longer stand to wear them. Periodic cleaning will help avoid this problem, as will letting it air dry if it gets sweaty before stuffing it in your pack and forgetting it until the next weekend you get out. You should carefully follow the washing instructions for your specific model, which generally tend to involve using only a mild dish soap or body soap, not laundry detergent, as well as gentle cycles and air drying in the shade. Also, if you are going to store your climbing harness for a while, say while you spend the winter skiing, it is better off left hanging in a closet than stuffed in the bottom of a pack in a damp basement or garage.
If you have any concerns about the soundness of your harness, you're better off just buying a new one. While you'll regularly see people with half their harness covered in duct tape, this is not a sensible thing to do. Considering how affordable some models are, it seems silly, and reckless, to keep using one past the point of reasonable wear.