How To Choose the Best Climbing Harness

How To Choose the Best Climbing Harness

Whether you’re trying to choose the best climbing harness for an upcoming trip or you’re looking to buy your first harness ever, there are a number of factors to consider. Most climbing harnesses are made of nylon webbing and elastic straps, which work together to support your body in case of a fall. But that’s where the similarities end. Climbing harnesses come in a variety of sizes and styles, and everything from the level of cushioning to the number of buckles and gear loops can have a big impact on your experience.

Of course, if everything goes as planned, you’ll be climbing more than you’ll be hanging around. But it’s much easier to push your limits and have fun when you’re not afraid of an uncomfortable fall. After all, you wouldn’t swan-dive onto a frozen pond, or take a running leap into a hard wooden chair, would you? Likewise, it pays to give yourself some cushioning before you fall back onto the rope, too.

Here’s what this guide will cover:

  • Types of Climbing Harnesses
  • Understanding Harness Safety Standards 
  • How To Size a Climbing Harness 
  • Features to Look For 
  • How To Choose the Best Climbing Harness 

Types of Climbing Harnesses

Start shopping, and you’ll see everything from tiny, transparent mesh harnesses to beefy, well-padded harnesses with tons of loops for stashing gear. Each type caters to different climbing disciplines. 

Sport and Gym Climbing Harnesses 

Sport climbing and gym climbing harnesses tend to be comfortable but lightweight. They’re designed to have a sleek silhouette that won’t weigh you down or impede motion when you’re climbing hard. They tend to be moderately cushioned but lack extra gear storage loops along the waist belt. The leg loops often aren’t adjustable. 

Multi-pitch and Trad Climbing Harnesses

Multi-pitch and trad (“traditional”) climbing harnesses tend to be more durable and offer more padding than sport or gym harnesses. They have more loops around the hipbelt for clipping carabiners, anchor material, and traditional protection. Trad climbing harnesses also feature adjustable leg loops so you can dial in fit whether you’re climbing in shorts or thick insulated pants. 

Ice Climbing Harnesses  

Ice climbing harnesses have minimal cushioning. That’s because padding can absorb water—leaving you with stiff, frozen leg loops—and because you don’t need as much padding when you’re wearing heavy winter clothing. Ice climbing harnesses have built-in loops to hold ice-screw clippers—big, plastic carabiners designed to hold ice tools and screws. 

Alpine and Mountaineering Harnesses 

When you’re hiking far and weight is at a premium, it can pay to carry an ultralight harness that takes up the least amount of space in your pack. A lightweight alpine harness can also be a good choice if you’re planning to use a rope only for glacier crossings or short technical sections but won’t do much vertical climbing. Some mountaineering harnesses have buckles on the leg loops so you can put them on without taking off your crampons. 

Understanding Harness Safety Standards

In the U.S., harnesses don’t have to meet any set safety standards to be sold for recreational climbing. Fortunately, all reputable harness makers adhere to European standards: those set by European Economic Committee (CE) or the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA). If you see “EN 12277,” “UIAA 105” and/or “CE 0082” printed on your harness, that means it’s been tested to ensure that it can withstand any fall the human body can survive, and is therefore safe for all recreational climbing if sized and worn properly.  

Climbing gear on a rock

How To Size a Climbing Harness 

Climbing harnesses only live up to their safety ratings if they fit correctly. Think about it: If you flip upside down in a harness that’s hanging loose around your waist, there’s nothing to keep you from sliding out. Here’s what to look for when you’re trying on a harness. 

  1. The waist belt should hug the tops of your hip bones. You should be able to slide two fingers between your belly and the belt padding. There should be at least three to five inches of webbing “tail” leftover once you’ve pulled it snug. (If the webbing must be double-backed through the buckle, make sure this is done before you measure the tail.)  
  2. The leg loops should sit near the tops of your thighs. Make sure you can fit two fingers between the loop and your leg. 
  3. The risers, or elastic strands connecting the leg loops to the back of the waist belt, should allow the waist belt to support your lower back when you’re hanging in your harness. (Always hang in a harness for at least a few minutes before you buy it.) If you have to struggle to remain upright, you may need to adjust the risers.
  4. The padding in both the leg loops and waist belt should evenly disperse pressure while hanging. If you feel any pain or pinching, consider trying a different model.

Other Features To Look For

Gear loops: The plastic or nylon semi-circles surrounding the waist belt. They’re used for storing carabiners, quick-draws, and other gear for outdoor climbing. Plastic-coated gear loops are easier to clip. 

Haul loop: A small nylon loop at the back of a harness for towing a spare rope up a climb. 

Ice-screw clipper loops: Small sleeves for inserting plastic ice-screw clippers—very handy while ice climbing.  

Auto-locking waist buckle: A buckle that doesn’t have to be manually double-backed. Auto-locking buckles are more secure, plus they streamline pre-climb partner checks. 

Detachable leg loops: On some harnesses, you can clip the leg loop around your thigh instead of having to step through it—handy if you’re wearing crampons. 

Adjustable risers: If you’re curvy or have a high waist, consider a harness with adjustable risers. 

Women’s-specific fit: Women’s harnesses tend to have a higher rise, a narrower waist belt, and bigger leg loops. 

Extra lumbar padding: Thick padding behind the lower back adds comfort during aid-climbing, big-wall climbing, and other all-day objectives 

Chest harness: In lieu of a waist belt, which relies on defined hips to cinch securely around the climber’s waist, some harnesses for young children and pregnant women have a chest belt for added support.  

How To Choose the Best Climbing Harness  

The best climbing harness is the one tailored to your body size and personal goals. Here’s how to choose. 

If you’re just starting out:

Look for a sport- or gym-climbing harness. They tend to be comfortable and inexpensive.

If you have glacier-travel or mountaineering goals:

An alpine harness with detachable leg loops will be easy to put on over crampons.

If you’ll climb in snowy or icy conditions:

An ice climbing or mountaineering harness is the way to go.

If you’re aid climbing or tackling multi-day routes:

Look for a big-wall harness with thick lumbar padding and extra gear loops. 

If you’re shopping for a small child:

Look for a kid-specific harness that comes in small sizes. For a really young child who is still top-heavy and hasn’t yet grown into their waist, consider a full-body harness.      

If you have a hard time finding clothes that fit:

Fully adjustable leg loops and an adjustable rise will help you dial in your size.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.