This article is intended to help a beginner climber or somebody buying their first harness to more easily find one that is ideal for them. There are some parts, such as recommendations for specific purposes, that may also be of use to more experienced climbers. We will discuss some of the attributes of a climbing harness that are most important, and walk you through a step by step buying process based upon which type of climbing you intend to do most often. If you want to know which harnesses are the best and the ones that we recommend, check out our Best Climbing Harness Review. While the advice presented here will likely work just as well for women as it does for men, we also have a Women's Climbing Harness Review.
Do I Need to Buy a Climbing Harness?
If you are new to climbing and don't have a harness, then you will need to buy one. It's one of the first pieces of equipment a beginner will need to buy, along with shoes and a belay device. Any sort of roped climbing requires the climber and belayer to both have a climbing harness, so the only type of climbing that one can do without a harness is bouldering. If you cannot afford a harness immediately, then bouldering in a gym can be a fantastic way to practice climbing, and gain necessary strength, before taking up roped climbing.
All climbers need to have their own climbing-specific harness. For those new to the sport, it is important to realize that other forms of safety harnesses, such as those designed for tree climbing or trimming, construction work, or other high angle work or rescue applications, are not suitable for climbing.
Features of a Climbing Harness
In general, harnesses will all have the same basic features: two leg loops, a waist belt with one or two auto-locking buckles, a belay loop that joins the leg loops to the waist belt, and gear loops along the sides of the waist belt for clipping in gear. These features will be found on every climbing harness.
There are several features found on harnesses that are optional, and the different combinations of these various features tend to dictate what a harness will be best used for. These include adjustable buckles on the leg loops, number, and size of gear loops, ice clipper slots that accommodate adding on ice clippers that hold ice screws or tools, wear indicators on the belay loop, or extra buckles on the waistband for added adjustability. Below we discuss which feature sets tend to work the best for each style of climbing, and you can find out what features a harness includes on its individual product page.
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!
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 rating 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. While there are quite a few harnesses designed specifically for sport and gym climbing, the truth is that any harness will work well for sport and gym climbing.Our Favorites: Black Diamond Solution, Petzl Sama, Black Diamond Momentum, Black Diamond airNET.
Any type of harness will work just fine for sport or gym climbing!
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. Not all sport and gym climbing harnesses are capable of holding this much gear.
Our Favorites: Black Diamond Solution Guide, Edelrid Sendero, Petzl Adjama, Petzl Sama, Petzl Sitta, Arc'teryx AR-395a
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. In short, you need a lot of carrying capacity, combined with awesome hanging comfort.
Our Favorites: Black Diamond Solution Guide, Edelrid Sendero, Petzl Adjama, Petzl Sama
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.
Our Favorites: Edelrid Sendero, Petzl Sitta, Arc'teryx AR-395a, Black Diamond Technician, Mammut Ophir 4 Slide
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. Add lightweight to this long list of desires, as you don't want to carry any extra grams than you have to.
Our Favorites: Petzl Sitta, Edelrid Sendero, Arc'teryx AR-395a, Black Diamond Technician
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, or ice tools. 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. A few harnesses in this review will work, but we would also recommend looking up specific mountaineering harnesses that we did not cover in this review for the lightest and most nimble options.
Some Options: Petzl Sitta, Black Diamond airNET, Edelrid Sendero, Black Diamond Technician
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 belts 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.
A climbing harness is an essential piece of climbing equipment, so choosing the right one is important. First, identify the type of climbing you will mostly be doing, and your budget, so you can narrow down the list to the most appropriate choices for you. We hope you have found this article helpful, and happy climbing!