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 piece of mind.
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 is 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 Best Overall harness, the Black Diamond Solution, is designed specifically for sport and gym climbing, and is an excellent choice for this purpose. Another good option is the Petzl Sama, but the truth is that any harness will work well for sport and gym climbing.
Traditional climbing is the style where there are no fixed bolts to protect the leader, and one will have to place their 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 less stuff must be carried. 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 the 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. Harnesses with large enough gear loops for trad cragging are the Petzl Sama, Arc'teryx AR-395a, the Black Diamond Chaos, the Petzl Corax, and the Edelrid Zack.
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. Based on our testing, the Arc'teryx AR-395a and the Petzl Sama are the best choices for this style of climbing, as they have the most gear storage capabilities. The BD Chaos, Petzl Corax, and Edelrid Zack will also work suitably.
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. Some harnesses come with sewn-in slots where these ice clippers can easily be attached. A secondary consideration for many people is that the harness has adjustable leg loops to accommodate for the bulk of extra winter clothing. The Arc'teryx AR-395a is the best choice for this purpose, as it has four ice clipper slots and adjustable leg loops. The Petzl Aquila has two slots and adjustable leg loops, as does the Petzl Corax. The Petzl Sama also has two slots, but has fixed elastic leg loops.
Alpine climbing is taking traditional, ice, or mixed styles of climbing 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. Without doubt, the most versatile choice for this style of climbing is the Arc'teryx AR-395a. The Black Diamond Chaos, Petzl Sama, and Petzl Aquila are also decent choices, but are a bit bulkier and don't have as much gear storage or ice clipper slots.
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 Arc'teryx AR-395a, but the Petzl Aquila, or even the Black Diamond Solution are great alternatives.
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.
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. 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 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 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. Finding a fixed leg loop harness that fits perfectly is often a challenge. Assuming they fit well, you may need to think about how they'd fit while wearing several additional layers of clothing. This is especially key if you plan on climbing in the cold. Harnesses that fit great over lightweight shorts for the gym are often constricting when used over softshell pants and a base layer.
Additionally, if you buy your climbing harness at the end of an active summer then throw it in the closet until spring, you might appreciate a harness with good adjustability to accommodate that winter weight you put on (or the extra leg muscle from shredding the slopes all season). 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 had four. 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 AR-395a, 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 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.
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 piece 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 was a mere 3.4 ounces. Unless you're climbing with the mental intensity of a professional climber, saving an extra three ounces on your harness is like shooting pees at a battleship. That 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.