The PlanetFear Guide To Harnesses

Article by planetFear
Monday 30th March 2009

Buying a harness is easy isn't it - you just stick one on that fits, pay, and away you go, don't you? Well you can buy a harness this way but some way down the line you may end up regretting your haste, but don't worry you won't be alone.There are countless examples of climbers who've suffered for their haste when buying a harness. This article is designed to cover all the major points to address when considering which harness to buy, so that you can have a better chance of making the right choice.

Of all the paraphenalia in a climbing rack, a harness is one of the most important - yet commonly overlooked - components.

I've met winter climbers who've been forced to teeter terrifyingly above some vast icy abyss while trying to feed their crampon and booted foot through a very small unadjustable leg loop opening, a job made all the harder by the fact that the leg loop had been fitted while wearing shorts in the shop, not several layers of fleece, Gore-Tex and rapidly expanding underpants. Getting the wrong harness can be either just annoying - like when all the gear loops for your right hand are all placed where you can't see them, right through to a fit that is not only uncomfortable to climb in, but also risks causing serious damage in a fall.

This article is designed to cover all the major points in climbing harnesses, so that you can have a better chance of making the right choice.

Petzl Adjama: Although the first generations of Petzl's revolutionary harness range had some teething problems, the Ajama is one of the best do-it-all climbing harnesses around at the moment. Click here to find out more about the Adjama.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT HARNESS FOR YOU

My first harness was a white and orange Troll Whillans and, although it's the butt of many a joke, there wasn't much you needed to think about when it came to buying one. This type of harness fitted everyone and what's more it worked for all types of climbing, from redpointing The Prow at Raven Tor to jumaring on the South West Face of Everest.

Unfortunately the Whillans was probably the instigator of its own demise as it allowed climbers to fall - which they had been doing for years anyway - but the difference was now they didn't have to die. This falling lark led to climbers who'd tested out the nut-crunching Whillans design to look for something that would leave them feeling as if they'd been in a street brawl, leading to the modern two-piece sit harness of leg loops and belt. My second harness was one of these, the great Troll Technician harness, but already problems were cropping up, now you needed two different leg loop designs, fixed and adjustable - something unnecessary in the Whillans and things sort of got more complicated from there.

Now we have several different harness types, all of which are dedicated to one specific area of climbing and it's not uncommon for climbers to own three of four harnesses these days. I won't dissect these different harness types, which can be roughly broken down into sport, trad, Alpine and winter: they all do the same basic job, providing a safe interface between you and your rope(s). Instead I'm going to cover the major points of interest when buying a new harness.

 

Wild Country Elite ZipLock Ajustable: A new kid on the block and a great all-rounder, being very comfortable yet lightweight and with good racking and Wild Country's new auto locking buckles. Click here to find out more about this harness.


COMFORT

The most important aspect of a harness - if we take it for granted that it won't break - is the level of comfort it provides. You should not even be aware you've got a harness on until that moment your rope yanks you away from the ground. Badly fitted harness problems can range from it rubbing big open sores in your skin, trapping your nuts in baggy or too broad leg loops, buckles that dig in, right down to simple things like restricting your movement slightly. If you're aware of your harness at any other time than when it's actually needed, then something's wrong. The comfort level of a harness is determined by several factors and isn't necessarily just about how comfortable it is to hang in, or how much padding the harness has. These factors are:

FIT


Firstly an ill-fitting harness will not only feel uncomfortable to fall, hang and climb in, but it may also be dangerous. A correctly fitting harness will spread the impact of a fall between the legs and waist and in doing so allow the body to absorb the energy without damage (the remaining energy the rope, gear and belayer haven't been able to absorb). In this situation the leg loops take the brunt (around 70%) of the impact, as your thighs, comprising of muscle and bone, can much more easily and safely absorb the shock, unlike your vulnerable waist full of delicate organs. If the harness doesn't fit properly then the waist belt may end up taking more of the force, potentially dangerous as it may not only injure you while falling, but also restrict your breathing when hanging, perhaps by slipping up and pressing on your ribs. A correctly fitted harness also keeps you orientated properly in a fall, reducing the chance of plunging headfirst into the rock and holding you upright if you're unconscious.

The five components that make up the fit of a standard harness are:

1: THE BELT

This should be able to be cinched down tight enough to breathe easily when wearing just a T-shirt, yet have enough spare tape to allow you to add a fleece and a shell - which should be around 30cm of tape remaining - with winter and Alpine harnesses having even more spare tape for more layers. This should fit around your waist - not your hips - and should be secure enough that it can't slip over your hips easily (you could fall out of it in a headfirst plunge) and remain below your ribs (see rise and belay loop below).

The main areas of discomfort are the sides and the kidneys and the load-bearing surfaces (not just the padding) should be broad enough to dissipate the load into the largest possible area for the intended purpose. This load-bearing area must be balanced with ease of movement, as having several inches of thick webbing at the waist is obviously not a great idea as this is a flex point and will be restrictive, or even dangerous as it may put pressure on your lower ribs.

Most belts will be broadest at the back and taper around to the front. The actual padding of the harness (padding meaning the soft stuff rather than the actual load-bearing stuff) is of secondary importance and is primarily there to reduce chafing of the load-bearing webbing/foam, with its inner face fabric designed to further increase skin comfort by absorbing sweat or allowing the harness to be comfortably worn next to the skin (plain tape or Cordura faced padding aren't great next to the skin fabrics unless you're into wearing rubber and keep your nut key clipped into your Prince Albert).

Be aware of hugely padded harness that have the padding sewn to very narrow webbing, as it will be the webbing that supports you, not the padding, and is designed to mislead you into thinking you are buying a cushy harness when, in fact, you'd be better off with a plain, unpadded Alpine model. Padding also increases weight, cost and lowers hot weather comfort and also absorbs water and freezes if it's open cell foam (a winter harness must be closed cell), so a balance must be struck. One way to increase the load-bearing abilities of the harness is to reinforce it with plastic inserts, which although heavier and more expensive does increase load transfer at specific points rather than making the whole belt overbuilt.

Black Diamond Primrose AL: A perfect example of a very high quality harness designed specifically for women - it's light and robust and loved by both professional climbers and instructors. Click here to find out more about this harness.

2: LEG LOOPS

These should be snug without being restrictive. You should be able to squat down without the loops biting and a good guide is that you should be able to slip four fingers down the side of the loops comfortably. Semi-elasticized leg loops are designed to make fitting easier and work well, with another bonus being you can fit more layers under them compared with simple non-elasticized loops. Adjustable leg loops allow you to custom fit the harness to what you're wearing, but adds some weight and bulk to the harness, plus where the tape runs over the buckle can be a wear point, meaning the loops may not last as long as fixed loops.

Hot weather and dehydration will often cause the leg loops to bag out, as your leg muscles shrink slightly, giving you the impression they have stretched, but a far more uncomfortable problem for men climbing in cold weather is that their harness can become very uncomfortable to hang in as their testicles (snigger) retract into their body, giving them the impression that the harness isn't fitting perfectly. The only way to avoid this is to make sure that your leg loops can be cinched tight and your bits are well-insulated.

3: THE RISE

 

The rise on a modern Petzl harness. Getting the right rise fit is crucial when choosing a new harness. 

This is the tape that connects the actual leg loop to the belay loop (see above) and is crucial in the correct fitting of the harness. Women climbers generally need a longer rise due to having a higher waist, but this isn't always the case so women may find a male/unisex harness fits better than a dedicated woman's one and vice versa. If the rise is too short then you will end up hunched over, with the belt being pulled down by the belay loop, or if you're using adjustable leg loops then you'll be forced to loosen up the legs, which isn't ideal. If it's too big then the legs may end up taking a larger percentage of the impact of a fall.

Most harness companies seem to produce harnesses that have a rise that works fine, but if your body doesn't fit that template then you may have problems, requiring you to go for a harness like the Metolius 3D as this not only has adjustable legs but an adjustable rise.


4: BELAY LOOP

If the 'rise' is one of the most important aspects of harness fitting then so is the belay loop as this is a key component of the rise. If this loop is too short then even if the rise is correct you'll feel hunched up. If you are unable to find a perfectly dimensioned loop then a longer loop is better than a shorter one (women's harnesses often have a longer belay loop), as when tying in you can form a shorter loop with your rope customizing the fit to your body shape. The length of the belay loop should keep the leg loops comfortably in place at the tops of your thighs without pulling down at all on the waist belt.

5: REAR RISERS

These are the tape or elastic tapes that hold the rear of the leg loops attached to the rear of the harness. Although simple they fulfil an important role and should neither be too tight nor too slack, as they will either allow your leg loops to slop down, or restrict your legs from bending when high stepping. Avoid harnesses that have rear risers with poor fastenings: if they are constantly coming undone they are a constant pain in the proverbial. For women, or for climbers who need to remove their leg loops (putting on more clothes, going to the toilet), make sure the quick release system is foolproof - after all you may be in a hurry.

On the subject of going to the toilet, a lot of climbers are under the misapprehension that you need adjustable leg loops to go to the toilet, which isn't the case, in fact you should be able to totally remove your leg loops without removing the belt on most harnesses.


OTHER IMPORTANT FEATURES:



WEIGHT

 

 

 

The feather-weight Camp Air is the world's lightest harness climbing harness currently available at a staggering 233 grams. Click here to find out more about the Camp Air.

The weight of a harness is immaterial for many climbers, as unlike like a lot of other gear, there isn't much scope for excess features or fluff. Generally the higher the weight the more harness you get: thicker foam, broader webbing and beefier construction - all of which should translate into more comfort. For climbers who usually have short approaches to their climbs, carrying just a cragging load for example, then weight and bulk shouldn't be much of a concern and will be low on your list of priorities when picking a new harness.

If on the other hand you're into adventurous cragging, perhaps making multi-day approaches, carrying camping gear as well as climbing gear, then weight and bulk is far more important, because these loads can be as big as they get so any weight savings you can make will add up. Alpine climbers also require lightweight harnesses, both because they will often have to carry them on the approach and because at high altitudes the weight of everything their body must support needs to be kept to a minimum. Ski mountaineers and via ferrata users also need something lightweight as the chance of using it should be minimal and it's purely there as a back up and may end up being carried for much of the trip.

Sport climbers should also choose the lightest harnesses, both to maximize their strength and stamina and, most importantly, to help keep within their baggage allowance.

RACKING LOOPS


Racking loops can range from as many as nine loops - big enough for even the most paranoid of leaders - to none at all, useful if your car's been broken into and all your gear's been stolen on the way to the crag. The average number of gear loops is four, which is good enough for everything from bolt clipping with a dozen quickdraws to big wall extravaganzas.
More gear loops doesn't necessarily give you more room (after all your waist remains the same size), as it can actually reduce the effectiveness of your racking, bunching up your gear on smaller loops. Clever mega racking (five to nine loops), such as found on harnesses like the Troll and Wild Country (their Synchro has nine loops) allows you the opportunity to better organize your rack into its different components, say small cams on one rack, wires on another etc. Limited racking is generally found on 'centre' or instructional harnesses (designed to safeguard novices when top roping), or on ultra lightweight Alpine/ski mountaineering harnesses and those for via ferrata. On these mountain harnesses it's assumed that only a limited rack will be taken (a couple of screws, nuts, prusik loops and a pulley) with any larger rack being carried on a sling or bandolier (where it is easier to access when wearing lots of clothing and gives the racking a dual role).

The lack of racking also can make wearing a 'sack more comfortable and also keeps down the weight and cost. If you are carrying a big rack then consider a bandolier like Black Diamond's Zodiac, which not only takes the weight off your hips but also has the added advantage of helping to reduce the risk of the harness slipping down on to your hips, a common problem when rope drag is thrown into the equation along with a heavy rack. Winter climbers should also consider this system, or a bandolier, as a heavy waist belt is even more likely to creep down when wearing slick waterproofs.

 


 

The Edelrid Sartorius D: a lightweight Alpine / sport harness with superb racking facilities. Click here to find out more about this harness.


RACKING LOCATION

For me the two most important things about my harness are that it's comfortable and that I can access my gear efficiently. Unfortunately on several harnesses I've had this hasn't been the case, the problem being that most harnesses buckle up on the right side, meaning the right gear racks are never fixed in one place (of course, if you are left handed then that's fine).
Sure they may be okay when wearing the right amount of clothes, but as soon as you add more they start creeping away. Two ways to overcome this is to have a floating belay loop, as found on a Troll harness, or have a double buckle system. Both of these systems allow you to set the racking exactly where you need it, no matter what you've got on. The downside with the double buckle system is that it adds more weight, bulk and complexity to the harness but I, for one, think it's worth it in order to have the protection right where you want it.

BUCKLES

 

 

 

 

 

Buckles come in two general types: auto locking and thread back. Thread back buckles, where the tape is threaded through the buckles then passed back again to secure it, are the most established and apart from a few exceptions have been the dominant buckle design on all harnesses of the last 30 years.

This type of design offers a high degree of strength and holding power, with all buckles having to pass CE tests for minimum slippage. The downside with some of these buckle designs is they can prove difficult to thread when the tape becomes worn, waterlogged or frozen - with the manufacturers' urge to produce the highest holding power actually leading to a buckle that can be impossible to thread. Luckily with increased computer aided design and better webbing this is becoming less of a problem.
However, this problem is minor when compared with the main drawback of the double back system, in that its security is dependent on the user remembering to do just that with failure to do so potentially leading to full harness failure. It could be argued that anyone who forgets to do up their harness is bound to have an accident anyway but nevertheless it is probably the most common form of pilot error found in all roped climbing.

The most famous case of this is no doubt the lawsuit against Chouinard Equipment, the world's biggest climbing company at the time, in which a guided client went to the toilet and forget to buckle up again properly and subsequently fell off and died when the harness came apart. Unfortunately for Chouinard the guide was too poor to be worth suing for not checking the harness and the client happened to have been a lawyer who, of course, had lots of lawyer friends who weren't happy about his untimely death.

The outcome was Chouinard went bankrupt (and turned into Black Diamond) and every harness now has tons of sewn-in warnings about doubling back the buckles. In order to overcome this problem and to eliminate problems in threading buckles, companies like Petzl and Wild Country have introduced auto locking buckles that simply have to be pulled tight without need to double them back (in fact I once did a multi pitch route with one of Wild Country's head honchos on
which he realized on about pitch six that he hadn't done his harness up).

This design is not only a boon for winter and Alpine climbers, meaning they don't have to battle with fiddly buckles in the cold, but also for general rock-climbing, as the wearer can safely slacken off the harness a little when at belays or when changing clothes on a stance. By far the most important factor though is safety, as this kind of harness is fairly (but not totally) foolproof and is a perfect system for novice, the beginner, or the plain incompetent, or those who are going senile and as long as they remember to tie on, this system eliminates a major danger area.

BUYING YOUR HARNESS

Firstly, put on the harness and see how it feels when moving around. Try having a climb in it on a piece of wall, then get some quickdraws and check out the racking. Are the loops in the right place? If you are buying an Alpine or winter harness stick on some gloves and check out how easy it is to operate the buckles and rear risers and make sure you have enough spare room for more clothing.

Also walk around in the harness to check it moves okay and doesn't rub or chafe, as for Alpine climbing you may spend more time walking in it than climbing. Then have a hang in the harness and see if it causes discomfort anywhere. Make sure the harness holds you correctly, with most of the weight being held by the leg loops. Overall you shouldn't really feel like you've got a harness on: if that's the case, buy it.

PRICE


This isn't high fashion: as with the majority of technical outdoor products, you tend get what you pay for. The awesome r320 from Arc'teryx is one of the most expensive harnesses currently available, and one of the best. Click here to find out more about the r320.


HARNESS CARE

Harnesses are probably the most overbuilt pieces of climbing gear you own, being able to withstand forces miles higher than your body, rope or karabiners, meaning a great deal of redundancy is built into the fabric of the harness. This means the harness is very forgiving and will retain its full strength even after being subjected to UV degradation and general dirt and grime. Nevertheless, you still need to look after your harness and there will still come a point at which it will need replacing. Areas to keep an eye on through your harness's life are abrasion at sticking points and the tie in point, as this will weaken the harness.

Keep an eye on buckles, making sure they don't become corroded, which will abrade the tape. Keep a particular eye on the belay loop, as serious fraying here can drastically reduce the strength of the harness: if the belay loop becomes severely frayed, you could be endangering yourself and your partners by continuing to use it. If the harness gets salt water on it, or becomes very dirty, then wash the harness in lukewarm water and dry in a cool, dark place. Store your harness somewhere dark and away from heat, chemicals or the sun and if it does become contaminated by any chemical then retire it.

The current advice on the expected lifespan of a harness is between five and 10 years, depending on use. This means that if you're still wearing one of those 1970's white and orange 'Whillans harnesses', you probably need to bin it.

 

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