How to Choose the Best Climbing Harness for Women

Libby Sauter throws a heel  hook with ease in our Editors' Choice winning Camp Supernova.
Article By:
Cam McKenzie Ring
Senior Review Editor

Last Updated:
Sunday
April 12, 2015

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.

The new all-around models from Arc'teryx in the women's (AR-385a  left) and men's (AR-395a  right) versions. Note how the women's version has a longer rise to sit on the waist  and larger leg loops relative to waist size.
The new all-around models from Arc'teryx in the women's (AR-385a, left) and men's (AR-395a, right) versions. Note how the women's version has a longer rise to sit on the waist, and larger leg loops relative to waist size.

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. 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 models from Petzl, Mad Rock, and Edelrid, 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.

Different rises on the same climber. The Mammut Zephira (left) has a longer rise and is designed to sit on your waist. The Petzl Selena (right) has a shorter rise and fits more around the hips.
Different rises on the same climber. The Mammut Zephira (left) has a longer rise and is designed to sit on your waist. The Petzl Selena (right) has a shorter rise and fits more around the hips.

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 it will also be uncomfortable to hang in for long periods. A too short rise will have you falling backward when hanging, and a too long rise will pitch you forward.

The Camp Supernova (left) has a higher rise  leaving you in an upright position when hanging. The Petzl Luna (right) has a shorter rise and it tilted us backward.
The Camp Supernova (left) has a higher rise, leaving you in an upright position when hanging. The Petzl Luna (right) has a shorter rise and it tilted us backward.

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


A properly sized harness should still fit well over heavier layers.
A properly sized harness should still fit well over heavier layers.

Climbing harnesses typically come in four different sizes, from x-small to large. Each manufacturer has their own idea as to what measurements constitute each size, and will usually display that information on their website. When sizing, 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 can cinch down almost all the way. 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.

This is too small for the climber. Even though the waistbelt closes  it is off kilter and the gear loop gets shifted too far to the back.
This is too small for the climber. Even though the waistbelt closes, it is off kilter and the gear loop gets shifted too far to the back.

Comfort


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 uncomfortable. And the reality of climbing is that we spend a lot of time hanging in our harnesses, whether it's at hanging belays on a multi-pitch route or working a sport climb.

Always try to hang in a climbing harness before purchasing it. Most climbing gear shops should have a clip in point that you can use to test it out. Sit in it for at least 10 minutes, and you'll know pretty quickly if you should buy it or not.

Leg Loops


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 they add 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 the Arc'teryx FL-355 had the tightest fixed leg loops that fit only the skinniest of legs. Mammut and Black Diamond seem to have more generously sized fixed leg loops. Black Diamond also uses a unique trakFIT slider for their Momentum harness; this gives you some adjustability to a fixed loop, though there is still a small buckle involved.

If you want the adjustability of an adjustable buckle but the low profile of a fixed leg loop  Black Diamond's trakFIT buckle is a great compromise.
If you want the adjustability of an adjustable buckle but the low profile of a fixed leg loop, Black Diamond's trakFIT buckle is a great compromise.

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.

Here are the pros and cons of adjustable leg loops as we see it:

Pros:
  • 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.

Cons:
  • 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.

Ice climbing harnesses usually have fully adjustable leg loops to accommodate heavier pants and extra layers.
Ice climbing harnesses usually have fully adjustable leg loops to accommodate heavier pants and extra layers.

Gear Loops


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 models, as their loops are all further towards the front of the waistbelt.

Petzl has placed the rear gear loops really far to the rear on the Selena and Luna models. This is fine for sport climbing  where most people only use the front loops  but not so great for traditional routes.
Petzl has placed the rear gear loops really far to the rear on the Selena and Luna models. This is fine for sport climbing, where most people only use the front loops, but not so great for traditional routes.

Should I rack on my waistbelt or a gear sling?
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.

Racking your nuts and cams on your gear loops or a separate sling is largely a matter of personal preference. AMGA Rock Guide Elaina Arenz likes to have her gear on her waistbelt so she can keep long slings around her torso.
Racking your nuts and cams on your gear loops or a separate sling is largely a matter of personal preference. AMGA Rock Guide Elaina Arenz likes to have her gear on her waistbelt so she can keep long slings around her torso.

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 waistbelt, as is the case with the Camp Supernova and Arc'teryx models. 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 gear loops on the Arc'teryx AR-385a are rigid and easy to clip and unclip. They sit flat against our hips thanks to their flexible attachment point  making this harness more comfortable to wear under a pack.
The gear loops on the Arc'teryx AR-385a are rigid and easy to clip and unclip. They sit flat against our hips thanks to their flexible attachment point, making this harness more comfortable to wear under a pack.

Some of the more sport-specific climbing harnesses that we tested have unique gear loops, which we weren't a big fan of. The Mammut Zephir has an extra-long front gear loop that's angled forward and can hold ten quickdraws, which works fine on vertical terrain. On steep routes, the draws went sliding to the back of the loop, and we had a hard time reaching them. Sometimes a design feature seems like a good idea, but in practice, it just doesn't work out.

The gear loops on the Mammut Zephira are not well designed for steep sport climbing. With only a few clips left on the loop  they shoot to the back and out of reach when the angle steepens.
The gear loops on the Mammut Zephira are not well designed for steep sport climbing. With only a few clips left on the loop, they shoot to the back and out of reach when the angle steepens.

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 don't always cut it space-wise. The Camp Supernova and Misty Mountain Silhouette still manage to fit four loops on their waistbelt and are good options for a traddie lady.

Haul Loops


Climbing harnesses have many different options when it comes to haul loops in the back. Some models, like the Mammut Zephir, have only a small, p-cord style loop. Others have multiple loops and one 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). Arc'teryx has gone the opposite route, stating that their models have a 0 kN rating on both their haul loops 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. Regardless of the rating, we do like to have at least one or two clip-in points in the rear, particaularly when trad climbing, for clipping our tag line, or shoes, or anchor system, etc.

The Camp Supernova has two clip-in points in the rear for carrying extra items when on a long route.
The Camp Supernova has two clip-in points in the rear for carrying extra items when on a long route.

Buckles


The "Speed Adjust" buckle on the Black Diamond Momentum. The waistbelt webbing is pre-threaded through a double buckle - all you have to do is pull the webbing to cinch the harness down.
The "Speed Adjust" buckle on the Black Diamond Momentum. The waistbelt webbing is pre-threaded through a double buckle - all you have to do is pull the webbing to cinch the harness down.

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?

The "old-school" buckle system on the Metolius Safe Tech. After passing the webbing through the buckle one time  it is doubled-back on itself  create a secure lock. Metolius puts a "DANGER" warning on the metal - if you can see that word  the buckle is not properly secured.
The "old-school" buckle system on the Metolius Safe Tech. After passing the webbing through the buckle one time, it is doubled-back on itself, create a secure lock. Metolius puts a "DANGER" warning on the metal - if you can see that word, the buckle is not properly secured.

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 Zephir 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.

The Black Diamond Momentum has a separate attachment point for each leg loop elastic. This is more time consuming than a single hook or buckle  but we do like the low profile nature of this hook closure.
The Black Diamond Momentum has a separate attachment point for each leg loop elastic. This is more time consuming than a single hook or buckle, but we do like the low profile nature of this hook closure.

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 Zephir being the lightest and the Misty Mountain Silhouette the heaviest. Could we tell a difference between the two? Well, yes — the Zephir 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 and FL-355, which fit into a bag half the size of most models, are a great choice.

The Arc'teryx models pack down much more compactly than most other models. This saves some room in your pack for other gear.
The Arc'teryx models pack down much more compactly than most other models. This saves some room in your pack for other gear.


Safety Features


Most climbing harnesses have additional features included to increase the safety 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 Edelridl)

Two safety features. The Mammut Ophira (left) has a plastic protector on the leg loop/belay loop attachment point to increase the longevity of this high wear area. Arc'teryx (right) has an orange indicator layer on the inside of the attachment. Once you see orange  it is time to retire it.
Two safety features. The Mammut Ophira (left) has a plastic protector on the leg loop/belay loop attachment point to increase the longevity of this high wear area. Arc'teryx (right) has an orange indicator layer on the inside of the attachment. Once you see orange, it is time to retire it.

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, 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.




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