If you’ve got a head for heights and want to take your climbing to the next level, you’ll need to invest in the right gear. Here we take an in-depth look into one of the most important pieces of equipment for any climber: the harness. Designed to catch you when you fall and hold you safely against the cliff when needed, in this guide, we’ll take you through the parts of the harness, the different harnesses available and how to find the right fit.
The waist belt is the main part of the harness and provides safety and comfort, as well as being somewhere to lean your weight against on descents. Waist belts are made from different materials and feature different designs to accommodate different weights and fit, so it’s best to try a few on and work out which is best for you. They generally all have a buckle fasten-off centre at the front to take in the rope tie-in.
A waist belt should fit securely to give the necessary support without causing chafing or pinching, as this will quickly ruin your experience. That’s why most waist bands come with adjustable buckles to help enable you to personalise the fit.
Waist belt construction has improved significantly in the past few years, so it’s easier than ever to find a more comfortable fit.
The leg loops fasten to the waist belt with the belay loop positioned in front and the elastic straps at the back. Many are padded to give you more comfort when hanging or resting.
Most harnesses come with adjustable leg loops to help you find the best possible fit and comfort and so that they can accommodate layers for climbing in different conditions.
Buckles are located on various points of the harness to allow you to customise the fit according to your size and clothing. The more buckles a harness has, the more versatile it is, as it can accommodate different layer thicknesses.
Typically buckles on climbing harnesses are made from carbon steel or aluminium to provide strength without adding weight. Most modern harnesses use auto-locking buckles which are very quick and easy to adjust, especially when on the rock face and wearing gloves. However, double-backed buckles are still available for those who prefer the security of locking off themselves by passing the webbing back through the buckle.
Gear loops are used to attach your rack, usually made from tough moulded plastic or webbing and are placed at intervals around the waist belt. They make clipping and unclipping much easier.
Although strong, gear loops aren’t designed to take a lot of weight, so you should never attach a belay using a gear loop.
Most harnesses come with between two to four loops, although this depends on the type of harness. Sports harnesses tend to have fewer gear loops to reduce bulk, whereas more advanced trad climbing harnesses tend to have more to enable longer routes.
The haul loop is a small loop on the back of the waist belt, used for trailing a second line or carrying lightweight gear like your chalk bag.
Like gear loops, haul loops aren’t load-bearing, so shouldn't be used as an attachment point to the rock.
The belay loop is a sphere of nylon webbing which fastens the leg loops and waist belt. It’s the strongest part of the harness and designed to bear the total load in the event of a fall or while rappelling. Belay loops are load-tested, so you can be sure they will hold your weight.
The vertical orientation of the belay loop ensures the karabiner and belay plate orient in the right direction for smoother belaying.
Some of our stores have suspension points at which you can try harnesses, so you will be able to find one which you find the most supportive.
Tie-in points are two loops connected to the belay loop used to connect your ropes. Your ropes should go through the upper and lower tie-in points in a rethreaded figure of eight or bowline knot. This ensures the waist belt and leg loops are independently attached to the rope, which isn't only safer but helps to spread the load.
Rise or elastic straps connect the two leg loops at the rear of the harness. They can be adjusted to alter the fit of the harness. They are often detachable, enabling you to remove the leg loops whilst keeping you tied in at the waist, which is useful when you need to add or remove legwear or when nature calls.
ICE CLIPPER SLOTS
An additional feature to look out for if winter climbing is your thing, ice clipper slots are designed to hold special karabiners in place for easy access to ice screws.
There are loads of different climbing harnesses, from lightweight sport harnesses to traditional harnesses with more gear loops, all-round harnesses and even winter-specific options. Which works best will depend heavily on your experience and the type of climbing you plan to do.
Trad climbers tend to need a large rack, and as a result, trad harnesses usually have a minimum of four gear loops, but some come with more. Most also feature adjustable leg loops for the wearer’s comfort and rear haul loops for your second line.
Sport harnesses tend to be lightweight first and foremost, so feature minimal hardware beyond a set of quickdraws and are often made from light, breathable mesh-based foams. Most come with two gear loops and feature fixed leg loops to minimise bulk and weight.
The perfect option for those just starting out to more experienced climbers, all-round harnesses are suitable for indoor and outdoor pursuits.
Designed for tackling a range of challenges, they tend to be made from breathable foams, be midweight, come with four gear loops and feature adjustable waist belts and leg loops so you can optimise fit. Some even come with ice clipper slots for even greater versatility.
Alpine harnesses are made from simple webbing and aim to be very light and packable. They are designed to be worn over full mountaineering clothing and accommodate accessories, so have a clip buckle system on the leg loops and a drop seat buckle to be put over crampons, ski boots etc. Alpine harnesses can also be used for mountain and ski tours but are not suitable for rock climbing or ‘proper’ alpine climbing, where a more substantial and fully-geared harness will be better.
In wintry conditions, ordinary harnesses using open-cell foam can absorb water and freeze, creating a solid, cold harness. Therefore, winter harnesses use a closed-cell foam that doesn’t absorb water. This foam is more substantial and robust but is less breathable, so is less suitable for summer climbing.
If you’re planning to climb a lot over winter, investing in a winter-specific harness is a good idea.
Some women can find harnesses a bit bulky, so some brands have introduced special harnesses designed to fit the contours of a woman’s body better. They feature a smaller waist-leg loop ratio and have a longer rise between the waist and leg loops. However, it’s always best to go for the harness which fits you best.
Getting the fit is important for your safety and comfort, which is why we recommend coming in-store to get some expert advice. It’s also a great opportunity to try a few different makes and models to see which suits you best. Below we share the things to look out for when having your harness fitted:
- The waist belt should lie on top of the hip bones and should not be able to be dragged down over your hips
- When the waist belt is fastened, there should still be around three inches of webbing left from the buckle
- The harness should not hamper your breathing
- The leg loops should be secure but not restrictive as you’ll need full movement of your legs when climbing
- You should also think about what you’ll be wearing when climbing. For example, if you’re mainly into summer cragging or indoor climbing, you’ll probably just wear a t-shirt, whereas winter climbing enthusiasts will need to layer up. For those who do a bit of everything, try and find a harness with sufficient adjustment to work in different scenarios
- Try hanging in-store if you have the chance because the true test of comfort and fit comes when the harness has to take your weight
If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a climbing holiday in the UK this summer, look no further. There are few who know more about climbing than the BMC, especially in the UK, so check out their top 10 best UK sport climbing destinations.