As a new climber, the variety of gear available and required can be a little overwhelming. This article will tell you everything you need to know about how to choose a beginner climbing harness.
Anatomy of a Climbing Harness
Before diving into how to choose a rock climbing harness, it’s important to understand the standard features across all harnesses.
The waistbelt, sometimes called a swami belt, is the core of your climbing harness. The waistbelt is always adjustable, with one buckle or two. Two buckles allow for more precise fine-tuning of the fit. Most waistbelts are padded for comfort, but not so much as to be bulky or heavy.
Leg loops are attached to the back of the waistbelt and to the tie-in loops in the front. These keep you securely seated in your harness for hanging on the wall and falling. Not all leg loops have buckles, as leg loops don’t have to be adjustable for safety, but some do allow you to adjust the tightness and sometimes position of the leg loops for comfort.
For safety, every single buckle on your harness must be doubled back—threaded through in the opposite direction—before climbing. Some buckles are pre-threaded to double back automatically, while others have to be doubled back manually.
The belay loop is the only part of a climbing harness that is officially load tested. It’s also the only loop that’s meant to be load-bearing, meaning it’s designed to hold a climber’s weight. This is the point where a locking carabiner attaches to secure a belay device or for rappelling.
As a climber, you tie in by feeding your rope through both the upper and lower tie-in points for redundant safety. Note the difference between a climbing tie-in v belay loop—you will never attach a carabiner or belay device to your tie-in points.
Different types of climbing harnesses will feature different shapes, styles, and numbers of gear loops. They are usually made from plastic or webbing and may be fixed or removable. Gear loops provide a place for you to clip your gear, such as cams and quickdraws.
This loop at the top centre back of the waistbelt is not a load-bearing loop. Its sole purpose is to allow a climber to attach a second rope or haul line to their harness while climbing or approaching a climb.
Types of Climbing Harnesses
There are different types of climbing harnesses for different climbing activities. Here’s how to choose a climbing harness that will do what you need it to do.
Sport or Gym Harnesses
Sport or gym climbing harnesses are the lightest climbing harnesses you can buy. They’re designed for use in the gym or on outdoor sport routes where climbers don’t need a lot of gear on their harnesses. The leg loops are usually not adjustable, and there are only two gear loops.
Traditional (Trad) Harnesses
Outdoor traditional or “trad” climbing routes are not pre-bolted, which means that climbers must place their own protection in the form of cams and quickdraws. Trad harnesses have four or more gear loops to allow a climber to carry more than enough gear on the wall. They feature extra padding for comfort and adjustable leg loops for longer hangs.
Also under the same umbrella, an ice harness is a lot like a trad harness, but it has a few bonus features designed to help climbers deal with mixed and ice climbs and winter conditions. The adjustable leg loops are beneficial for adding or removing layers during winter climbs.
Mountaineering and alpine climbing are two subsets of climbing that are more about travelling up a mountain than climbing up a wall. These harnesses are lightweight and adjustable to be easy to put on and take off. Some don’t even have a belay loop, requiring climbers to perform the occasional belay or rappel from the waistbelt and leg loops instead.
Climbing has a lot of niche sports, too, and there are specialized harnesses for each one. For example, canyoneering harnesses are extra tough to handle rubbing against a rock in tight spaces and are made from water-resistant materials.
Competition harnesses are designed for indoor comp climbs, and so they do away with gear loops and sometimes belay loops altogether for maximum range of motion. Big wall harnesses are the opposite, with lots of gear loops and a second belay loop for more complex rigging configurations.
Choosing a Climbing Harness
Now that you understand the different features and types of harnesses, you can narrow down the list of contenders to find the one that’s right for you.
Trying It On
Step into the harness with the belay loop facing forward, ensuring that the leg loops aren’t crossed and that nothing is twisted. Tighten the waistbelt above your hip bones until you can fit two fingers or less between your waist and the harness. Adjust the leg loops, if applicable, so that they feel comfortable on your legs. Make sure all buckles are doubled back.
Test out your harness in-store or in the gym by tying in and hanging it on a wall. Your harness should be comfortable under load, with no pinching or digging. You should be able to sit comfortably in it on the wall, as though you were sitting in a chair.
Consider Your Needs
The most important feature of any climbing harness is that it safely and securely enables you to do the activity you bought it for, so consider your unique climbing needs. Beginning climbers do most of their climbing in the gym or on outdoor sport routes, so a sport or gym harness is usually a great place to start. They’re also generally the least expensive to buy.
If you’re learning from more experienced climbers outdoors, though, or if you plan to make the leap from sport to trad climbing sooner rather than later, a lightweight trad harness is an excellent place to start. Starting with a trad harness will save you from buying a new one too soon while allowing you to progress and learn how to use gear effectively from the beginning.
Now you have all the information you need on how to choose a harness that will keep you safe, secure, and comfortable while you’re learning to climb. With the right gear, you’ll feel more confident in exploring your climbing abilities.