Whether you are purchasing your first climbing harness or your tenth, knowing what factors are the most important to you will help you find your perfect harness match. In this article, we will discuss many elements that were not expounded upon in our main Best in Class article, so read on if you are curious about harness safety, the best harnesses for different forms of climbing, size and fit, or all the various features of a harness.
Almost anyone who has any interest in climbing has probably seen the old Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger. The opening scene in particular is unforgettable and is the stuff of climbers' nightmares: A woman performing some unfathomable Tyrolean traverse thousands of feet above the ground panics as the buckles of her harness inexplicably snap and disintegrate, causing her to fall right out of her harness before Stallone comes to the rescue, holding onto her outstretched arm with one hand before his strength fades and she inevitably slips into the void and falls to her death. Rest assured newer climbers; this scenario is not going to happen to you!
Back when we started climbing in the mid-'90's, the mantra when putting on our harness was "make sure your buckle is doubled back." We would check this feature of our harnesses religiously, because buckle designs were such that if you only threaded the webbing through the buckle one way, without doubling it back, the harness could loosen and even come undone mid-climb or rappel, leaving you dangling like the woman in Cliffhanger. These days, buckles found on climbing harnesses are designed to be already doubled back and auto-locking, meaning that you merely need to pull the end of the webbing tight, and this concern is taken care of for you.
While it is possible that some older or more esoteric harnesses may still feature buckles that need to be manually doubled back, all the ones found in our review are of the auto-locking variety. Of course, a simple check when putting on your harness to make sure that it is threaded correctly and the auto-locking aspect is working is probably prudent, and can provide some extra peace of mind.Safety Ratings
Harnesses, like all climbing gear that is part of your safety system — such as carabiners, belay devices, ropes, slings, bolts, cams, etc. — come with mandatory ratings certifications that live up to the standards set by the CE and UIAA. The article in Rock & Ice Magazine has more in-depth descriptions of what these ratings organizations are, but suffice to say they keep the climbing gear that is on the market up to quality standards so that buckles don't suddenly snap, like they do in Cliffhanger.
While carabiners and other climbing gear may have a specific force in kilonewtons (kN) that the gear has been tested to printed or stamped on them, harnesses instead have a numerical CE standard that they must adhere to, and this is printed on every harness you can buy, usually on a white fabric tag. It is probably not worth knowing the exact force ratings a harness is rated to, and indeed this is not even easy to find or look up, but suffice to say that as long as you use your harness correctly, it is plenty strong enough to survive the forces put upon it.
There are three important parts of every harness that meet safety standards: the waist buckle, the belay loop, and the tie in points on the waist and leg loops. Waist buckles need to be doubled back (as they all are automatically in the designs we have tested) and must have at least a three-inch long tail of webbing. The belay loop and the tie in points that the belay loop is looped through are the only strength rated attachment points on a climbing harness. What this means is that you must tie in or belay through these two tie in points, or the belay loop, and any other part of a harness is NOT strength rated. Tying in through only the leg loops, or through the harness waist belt itself, or into any of the gear or haul loops is not safe! Always be sure your waist buckle is doubled back correctly and you only tie in and belay through the tie in points or belay loop.
Harness Wear and Retirement
Climbing harnesses wear out over time and eventually need to be retired. If you are ever in doubt as to whether it may be time to retire your harness, the answer should automatically be: YES! Frankly, this goes for each and every piece of climbing gear that you own. Harnesses are made of nylon webbing, which must be stored properly in order to maintain its integrity over time. Even if a harness has been stored perfectly, it should be retired after 10 years. In most cases, the life of a well-used harness should likely not exceed three years.
Black Diamond discusses when to retire a harness, and also goes on to explain the integrity of a belay loop that has become damaged. The main takeaway is that you should inspect your harness regularly, and if anything at all seems amiss, such as torn or frayed webbing, extra wear, damage to the buckle, exposure to chemicals — anything — then you should retire your harness and purchase a new one. Unfortunately, at least one climber, the professional Todd Skinner, who possibly contributed more to the sport of big wall free climbing as any other, fell to his death in Yosemite due to harness failure while using an excessively worn out harness.
Best Harnesses for Specific Types of Climbing
The most important question to ask yourself before buying a harness is, "What kind of climbing am I going to use it for?" While all types of climbing (except for bouldering) require the use of a harness, different harnesses will suit certain styles better, and in some cases, are designed specifically for one particular style in mind. On the other hand, some harnesses are designed to be versatile enough for all types of climbing. Identifying your preferred styles of climbing will allow you to quickly narrow down the selection to a few considerations. Below we give a quick rundown of the most important harness features for each style of climbing and let you know which harnesses we tested are best for that style.Sport and Gym Climbing
Sport climbing is the style of climbing where fixed bolts are clipped for protection. These climbs typically focus more on athletic ability than adventure, and are usually single-pitch. Gym climbing is sport climbing while indoors, as bolts are the form of protection used in the gym as well. Top-roping, while possible regardless of what sort of protection was used to lead the pitch, generally has the same needs from a harness as sport climbing.
The main concerns for a sport, gym, or top-roping harness are that it is comfortable for hanging in and belaying. The size of the gear loops can be small because you will only need to carry a selection of quickdraws. While adjustable leg loops may be helpful, most sport climbing harnesses are designed with fixed elastic leg loops, as they are lighter, lower profile, and one probably doesn't need to make many adjustments while sport climbing. Our Top Pick for Sport Climbing, the Black Diamond Solution, is designed specifically for sport and gym climbing, and is an excellent choice for this purpose. Another good option is our Best Overall award-winning Petzl Sama, but the truth is that any harness will work well for sport and gym climbing.Traditional Cragging
Traditional climbing is the style where there are no fixed bolts to protect the leader, and one will have to place their own protection as they climb. Traditional (or "trad") cragging is a bit different than long free or multi-pitch climbing, in that it is performed close to the ground, so no "all-day" equipment like shoes, jackets, food, and extra anchor building materials need to be carried on each pitch. Indian Creek is a perfect example of a traditional cragging area.
The main feature needed for this style of climbing above and beyond comfort is that it has large enough gear loops to hold an entire rack. How large of a rack depends on the climb and style, but the ability to carry a triple rack, with quickdraws or slings, on the harness is what you are looking for. While some climbers rack their trad gear on an over the shoulder sling, we find that most prefer the even balance and mobility that comes from racking up entirely on the harness. Our Top Pick for Trad and Multi-pitch Climbing, the Black Diamond Solution Guide, is an ideal choice for this purpose. Another great choice is the Petzl Adjama.Long Multi-Pitch Climbing
Multi-pitch climbs in North America are typically trad climbs, although there are a few places, such as Red Rocks, NV, where long multi-pitch sport routes are common. Regardless, for multi-pitch climbing, you need a harness that is comfortable for hanging at belays and rappelling and can also carry an entire rack plus extras like shoes, water, a windbreaker, and the collection of slings, belay device, and extra biners needed for setting up and belaying at anchors. The BD Solution Guide and Petzl Adjama are some of the best choices for this purpose, as is the Arc'teryx AR-395a.
When ice climbing, the main option for protection while leading is ice screws. While it is possible to hang ice screws from a biner on a gear loop, we find that most climbers prefer to hang them on special ice clippers attached to the waist belt of a harness, where they can be accessed and removed much faster when under duress. Petzl sells the Caritool and Caritool EVO, while Black Diamond sells the Ice Clippers. Some harnesses come with sewn-in slots where these ice clippers can easily be attached. A secondary consideration is that if your harness has adjustable leg loops, it can more easily accommodate the bulk of extra winter clothing. However, we still often wear elastic leg loops in the winter and find it generally fits over our winter clothes, no problem.
The harnesses with ice clipper slots for easier racking of ice screws and tools are: Arc'teryx AR-395a, Arc'teryx FL-365, Black Diamond Techician, Petzl Sitta, Petzl Aquila, Petzl Corax, Mammut Ophir 4 Slide.Alpine Climbing
Alpine climbing is taking traditional, ice, or mixed styles of climbing to the high peaks. In some cases, like in the Eastern Sierra of California, the routes will be entirely rock climbing, in which case your harness concerns will be the same as for long multi-pitch routes. If snow, ice, or mixed climbing is part of your alpine route, then you will also want to have ice clipper slots on your harness, and other factors, such as weight, packability, and having a low profile so it can be worn comfortably with a pack on as well, become considerations. Some people also like to have removable leg loops in their alpine harness, a comfy feature if you are going to need to bivy and also need to stay tied in. Far and away the most versatile choice for this style of climbing is the Petzl Sitta, and is our first recommendation.
Other good choices: Arc'teryx AR-395a and Arc'teryx FL-365, Black Diamond Technician, as well as the Petzl Aquila.
Mountaineering differs from Alpine Climbing in that the primary action more closely resembles walking or hiking, rather than actual climbing using our hands and arms. Don't confuse this to mean it's easier, as mountaineering generally involves serious situations like glacier travel or exposure to avalanches where being roped together and using protective gear is necessary, and often takes place at high altitude. The most important considerations for mountaineering are that the harness is light and very comfortable for walking in, and that it has adjustable leg loops. Typically, a relatively small amount of gear must be carried on the harness compared to alpine climbing routes. Once again, your best choice would be the Petzl Sitta, but the Petzl Aquila, Arc'teryx AR-395a or Black Diamond Technician are great alternatives. We would also recommend looking up specific mountaineering harnesses that we did not cover in this review for the lightest and most nimble options.Big Wall Climbing
Climbing big walls like those found in Yosemite Valley or Zion National Park will place an entirely different set of demands on your body and harness. Most climbers will be happiest if they purchase a specialized "big wall" harness, which we have not reviewed here. These harnesses are generally ultra padded and have super fat waist and leg loops, as the amount of hang time stretches into days and days. Be sure to get one that isn't too loose to start, because by the time you hit the summit of El Cap, you will surely have tightened that waist belt up a few inches! Climbers who are attempting to climb big walls free or in a day will likely want to use a regular harness instead of a specialty big wall harness, and for those people we recommend you look at the multi-pitch traditional climb recommendations.
Size & Fit
If you've read through our Climbing Harness review, you might have noticed that we place a huge emphasis on selecting a harness that's comfortable. Together, our comfort based metrics make up 70% of a product's weighted score. We focused primarily on the padding and feel of the harness, but one thing that attributes greatly to comfort is buying a climbing harness that fits well. The most padded harness in the world won't feel very good if it's the wrong size for your body. Because everyone has a slightly different body type, the best way to determine fit for yourself is to go to a local gear shop and hang in several different harness models and sizes.
Depending on your body type, you will either wear the climbing harness on your waist (just below or on top of your belly button) or on your hips. If your hips are much wider than your waist, you'll probably be more comfortable wearing the harness on your waist. If your waist is about the same size as your hips, you'll probably wear the harness directly over your hip bones. Women usually wear their harnesses on their waists. The best for you is whichever feels more comfortable.
The waist belt should be able to be cinched tight. It should be loose enough that you can slip a couple of fingers between you and the harness but not much more. Harnesses that are too loose tend to ride up when you're hanging; if it is too tight, it'll be uncomfortable when standing or walking around. A waist belt that fits well will ensure that the belay loop and gear loops are centered. The space between the belay loop and the front gear loops should ideally be equidistant on each side.
Leg loops don't need to be quite as tight as the waist belt, but they should still be snug. In the past, most leg loops were adjustable just like the waist, but new harnesses with fixed leg loops have become popular, in part to save weight and bulk. While they are "fixed" in the sense that they lack any buckles, these usually have a small elastic piece that gives you up to a couple of inches of stretch. Leg loop sizes relative to the waist vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. For instance, while a Black Diamond climbing harness with fixed leg loops might fit you perfectly, one from Petzl may have a perfect leg fit, but the waist may be too big. If you have the chance, try on a harness before you buy.
One key factor that contributes to the optimal performance of a harness is rise. "Rise" refers to the distance between the back of your leg loops and the waist belt. If the rise is too short (i.e., your leg loops sit too high), you will be thrown back when hanging. If the rise is too long (i.e., the leg loops sit too low on your legs) a fall will be absorbed too much by your hips and back and can be painful. When a harness fits well, it will keep you upright and balanced when you fall, or you're hanging. You can tell that a harness rise is wrong if it feels like you have to fight to stay upright.
Thankfully for us guys, our hip-to-waist ratio is less variable than it is for women. This makes it easier to design harnesses that consistently fit us well. None of our male testers complained about a poorly fitting harness or about its rise during our tests; however, this was a fairly big issue in the Women's Climbing Harness review. The rise can be adjusted using the dual elastic straps found on the back of every harness that runs from the bottom center of the waist belt to the back of each leg loop. These straps work to hold the leg loops in the correct and most comfortable place on your upper legs and should be adjusted person to person.
After determining what sort of climbing you are most likely to be doing in your harness, and then honing in on getting the perfect fit, you're going to want to think about comfort. We have distinguished three types of comfort in climbing harnesses: hanging comfort, standing comfort, and belaying comfort. Together these three aspects account for 70% of a product's final score, so they are supremely important. We have gone into great detail about these distinctions in our main Best Climbing Harnesses for Men Review, so check that out, as well as individual reviews, for more detail.
Leg Loops & Adjustability
Some harnesses have adjustable leg loops, while others are fixed without buckles, but include an elastic strap that helps them stretch or shrink a little bit as needed. Non-adjustable leg loops give you two fewer buckles to deal with and are slightly lighter. However, they are much more difficult to put on over crampons and mountaineering boots and sometimes they are impossible to slide over ski boots. For general rock climbing, however, fixed leg loops are nice as long as they fit well - "fit" being the operative word. That said, most elastic leg loop harnesses have a reasonably wide range that they can stretch to, and we find that as long as they find one that fits them okay, most climbers prefer having the trimmed down design of a fixed leg loop harness.
Of course, adjustability will always have its advantages. Super adjustable harnesses also have the added advantage of being easier to lend to friends. Models like the Petzl Corax that have two waist buckles are much more adjustable than others.
One of the most important aspects for differentiating a harness for different types of climbing is Features. We chose to grade each harness for this metric and weight it as 20% of a product's final score. You can find out which harnesses scored the best and worst regarding features in our main article and can find out exactly what features a harness has and how they performed on the individual product pages. Below we go into slightly more detail about specific harness features.
The vast majority of climbing harnesses have four gear loops, but some have two and some have five or six. All of the harnesses that we reviewed have at least four, and a couple have five. Gear loops that are larger can hold more gear, while smaller gear loops are lower profile and are more than sufficient for sport or gym climbing. Gear loops that are further forward are easier to access, but too far forward and your gear will hit your thighs and get in the way. Perhaps a bigger issue is how far back your gear loops are. The rear gear loops on the Petzl Sama are all the way on your back, making them much more difficult to access than the more forward gear loops on the Black Diamond Chaos. The construction of gear loops also has a part to play. Most of our testers were indifferent as to the rigidity of the gear loops, but some preferred the plastic loops on the Black Diamond harnesses while others liked the more flexible loops on the Petzl harnesses. Rigid gear loops are often easier to clip and unclip, but can be uncomfortable when used with a backpack or when scraping your way through a squeeze chimney. Finally, we found that flat gear loops made it easier to pick out and select the right piece of gear in a hurry, while gear loops designed with a specific dip in them, such as the ones on the Arc'teryx models, often meant that the biners all crowded close in to each other, sometimes overlapping, and made it harder to grab the correct cam quickly.
Most of the time, the risers on the back of harnesses go unnoticed, but every now and again nature calls at the wrong time, and you just can't let the call go to voicemail. In situations like this, it's nice to have risers that can be dropped with haste. Plastic buckles like the ones on the Petzl Sama are nice and quick, but they are quite bulky compared with the hook system used on most of the other harnesses. The Arc'teryx AR-395a uses one hook that is easy to use while the BD Chaos uses two hooks. We would never choose a climbing harness based on the elastic risers, but if you can't decide between two and nature calls you a lot, make your life easier with a harness that has one riser attachment rather than two.
Ice Clipper Slots
If you are a jack-of-all-trades climber and you're looking for a harness as versatile as you are, you'll need one with two to four ice clipper slots. Many harnesses have clipper slots that are too far back…pair this with a poor-fitting jacket that bunches around your harness and restricts your view, and you'll have a serious issue when reaching for your ice screws. Having slots that are toward the front helps alleviate this problem and keeps your screws where you can see them. The Arc'teryx AR-395a has the most forward slots we've seen and has four slots total.
If you trad climb, a haul loop is a worthwhile feature. Whether you use it for tagging the second line, toting your shoes, or carrying your belay/rappel device, it's beneficial. A rated haul loop is also convenient in situations where you are climbing a chimney and need to tote a small backpack several feet below you. While the belay loop can be used for this purpose, hanging your pack with a short sling off the haul loop keeps it out of the way. If your pack gets caught on something while you're climbing, you can be sure that you won't rip the 9 kN haul loop no matter how hard you yard on it while freeing your pack.
Haul loops are either "rated" to hold body weight, or they are not. Haul loops that are rated to 9 kN or more are strong enough to hang from, but we don't recommend this. Unless your haul loop says that it's rated, you should assume that it is not rated. The Arc'teryx AR-395a has a prominent 0kN mark for its haul loop to prevent people from ever getting the idea that it's a good idea to hang from. Worth checking out before you purchase your harness is how easy the haul loop is to clip or unclip a biner from. Since it lives in the middle of the back of the harness, there is no way to see it to aid in coordination. We found that the haul loop on the Edelrid Zack was so small that it was impossible to clip or unclip a biner from it with the harness on, rendering it pretty much worthless.
Essentially, these are threads or strips of nylon underneath the reinforced tie-in points on the leg and waist loops. Harnesses should always be tied into by running the rope through both the leg loop and the waist belt, and typically these are the first parts of a harness to wear out. When these tie-in points wear through, it is critically important that you retire the harness. To help you make this decision, some harnesses have a wear indicator; when it becomes visible, retire the harness. While this feature has no bearing on the performance of a harness, it does give a little peace of mind that you are using a harness that is still fit to be used, and not a safety risk.
We've talked with a bunch of climbers who climb sport routes exclusively, and they agree that the weight of a harness is a non-issue compared to its comfort and other features. Weight makes a negligible difference at the crag. The difference between the lightest and heaviest harness in this review is about five ounces. Unless you're climbing with the mental intensity of a professional climber, saving an extra few ounces on your harness is like shooting pees at a battleship. An extra three ounces is about 0.12% of the weight of a 155-pound climber. If you have the mental fortitude to push yourself enough that 0.12% makes a measurable difference in your climbing performance, props to you! You are truly a world-class athlete. For the rest of us, weight should be secondary to comfort, fit, and features.
If you're an alpine climber, weight can and does play a larger role as you're going to spend substantially more energy carrying that extra 0.12% a much further distance than the sport climber who only climbs 30 meters or so. Packed size is also an important consideration, as you might need to cram the harness into a small alpine pack on the approach. While we didn't do any assessment or grading of these harnesses based upon weight, we did weigh each of them on an individual scale and have recorded those weights in the specs table for those who are interested.
The best harness for you is the one the fits your specific climbing needs, is comfortable and lies within your budget. Understanding what you intend to use it for primarily goes a long way in narrowing down your prospective list, and then you can home in on your perfect choice. We hope this article has been helpful as you shop, and happy climbing!