How to Choose a Climbing Harness
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Before we get started on how to choose a climbing harness, let’s get one thing straight: If you purchase any from a big name company like Petzl, Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Camp, Mammut, etc., you are buying a perfectly good piece of equipment. This guide is to help you optimize that choice! Some harnesses come with extra features, some fit differently than others, some are lighter, and some are a little more bang for your buck. We want to ensure you make the best choice when you pick out your next (or first!) harness. No matter your choice, you will receive a rigorously tested product that will safely bring you to the ground after your climb.
Before we talk about what makes some harnesses preferable over others, let’s break down the anatomy of this thing:
Anatomy of the Climbing Harness
Probably the biggest determiner of comfort and a huge contributor to the overall weight of the harness. Houses gear loops, buckles, and the top tie-in loop or “hard point.”
Designed to hold quickdraws, cams, carabiners, extra belay devices, slings, shoes, gloves, glasses, wallets, watches, pretty much anything. Gear loops vary in quantity, size, and location from harness to harness. A trad climber may want a higher number of gear loops towards the front of their harness for easy access to gear, while a strictly sport-climber may want them as out of the way as possible. Please note that gear loops are not meant to be weight-bearing. Never tie in or anchor to your gear loops.
You’ll have 1 or 2 buckles on the front of your harness (a couple of inches to the left or right of your belay loops). Back in the day, most if not all harnesses came with a single buckle, meaning you had to “double back” your harness manually. These days, many harnesses come with an automatic double back feature which means you simply tighten the strap, and you’re good to go! Leg loops may also have buckles which allow for a more custom fit.
Tie-in or “Hard” Points
These are the two loops connecting your belay loop or “donut.” When tying in to climb, you will thread the rope through both of these points for redundancy's sake. Sometimes the hard points have a plastic cover to reduce wear. Please note that when you are rappelling or belaying, you should never have the carabiner through the tie-in points because it distributes force unevenly through the carabiner, making it weaker. You always want to rappel and belay off of the belay loop.
The star of the show! This is the strongest point on the harness and is where you will attach anything hard and load-bearing (carabiners, belay devices, etc.). Belay loops have been getting thinner as companies release newer and newer harnesses, but not to fear, the belay loop is always load tested before distribution.
Like the waist belt, leg loops are built for comfort, and the material contributes to the overall weight of the harness. Please note that some harnesses have adjustable leg loops while others do not. This may be a huge factor for some people when purchasing a harness but is ultimately a personal preference.
Lastly, we have the thin, oftentimes adjustable, elastic straps that control the distance between the leg loops and the waist belt. Some harnesses have permanent straps that you cannot adjust, while others may change the length of the strap or even disconnect altogether (called a “drop-seat” harness). Whether or not you want this feature depends entirely on what type of climbing you will do. Alpinists and trad climbers may need drop-seat harnesses, while sport-climbers may prefer permanent straps because of the fewer number of buckles.
Alright, so that’s what all of the pieces do. Now, let’s use that knowledge to pick out a harness that works for you. What features do you want to look for in your harness?
Harness features for single-pitch, sport climb.
Waist Belt: You’re probably looking for a lighter, thinner waist belt because you aren’t going to be sitting in it all day, just one climb at a time.
Gear Loops: Fewer, the better. Look for out-of-the-way gear loops because you aren’t going to be lugging cams up the wall. Usually, you will want to look for 2-4 gear loops on these harnesses.
Buckles: You definitely want an automatic double-back buckle to quickly get in and out of the harness.
Elastic Straps: Less important for sport and gym climbing. You probably don’t care how adjustable they are or if they have buckles. This is ultimately a personal preference.
Harness features for trad or multi-pitch
Waist Belt and Leg Loops: You’re looking for a thicker, more durable padding on the waist belt and leg loops.
Gear Loops: The more, the merrier! Usually, you will want to look for four or more gear loops located more forward on the harness for easy access to gear. It’s also important to note that some harnesses have special gear loops that spring upwards rather than hang down to conveniently hang gear. This is a nice bonus feature.
Buckles: This doesn’t matter so much because once you’re in the harness, you’re pretty much there for the day.
Elastic Straps: We’re definitely going to want adjustable straps so that you can stay tied in when you’re taking care of business.
The difference between Men's and Women's harnesses
Companies often will try to fit a harness for a woman’s build so that the harness fits more naturally and comfortably. This includes the shape of the waist belt, the leg-to-waist ratio of the elastic straps and overall build, and the location of the gear loops. At the end of the day, you are trying to find a harness that fits the most comfortably and has all of the features that you require, and a woman’s-fit harness simply expands your options, which optimizes that choice.
So you’ve got an idea of what type of harness you want. Now what? The next step is either to hop online and pull the trigger or wait for the harness to come in and hope it fits the way you thought it would. OR, if you are lucky enough to have access to a gym or store that carries that particular harness, you can go in and try it on. Whether you’re pulling it out of the box or at a store trying it on, here’s how to check the fit.
Fitting your harness
The first thing you should do when trying on a harness is to pull the waist belt all the way up to your belly button and tighten the strap so you have about two fingers of free space between you and the harness. You want to be roughly in the middle of the adjustable portion of the strap. If you had to pull all the way to the end or barely tighten to get to this point, you will want to try a smaller or larger harness, respectively. You always want to be able to adjust in or out with your harness.
Next, you want to tighten the leg straps (if that is an option). Tighter = more comfortable while hanging but restricted. Looser = less comfortable when hanging but less restricted.
With the harness now on, place your toes and nose against a wall to simulate the amount of space you will have in front of you while climbing. You’ll feel silly, but trust me. Turn left and right to feel if the harness is too stiff or loose.
From this position, also check the location of the gear loops (pretend to reach back for gear). Are the gear loops close enough? Facing a good direction for you?
NEVER buy used. Like any other piece of climbing gear, be sure to spend the extra couple of bucks and buy a new one. It’s not worth the risk of not knowing how the piece of gear was stored or treated before you owned it.
Set a budget. Often, companies have tiers of harnesses from the $40-$60 range, to the $75-$100 range, to the > $120 range. As the price increases, you will get more features, more in line with your wishlist. So if you set your budget in the mid-range, you may have to sacrifice something like the number of gear loops or the comfort of the leg straps.
Lastly, you always have to make sure you store your harness in a temperature-controlled space, NOT your car's trunk.
With all of this in mind, you should now have no problem swimming through the sea of options on Amazon, Backcountry, REI, and countless other gear sites. Right?
Maybe. There really are hundreds of options when it comes to picking out a harness, and, as I said before, it’s difficult to go wrong. However, now you have the tools to make that process easier and pick a harness that hits all your climbing needs.
Now that you understand how to choose a climbing harness, learn how to choose climbing shoes.