How to Choose the Right Climbing Harness

A harness links you to your climbing rope, so it's important to be an informed shopper. It should fit your body shape for comfort and safety, and be designed to meet the needs of your climbing style. REI offers harnesses for alpine, big wall and competition climbing as well as general-purpose crag climbing. Construction varies among these categories to meet your specific needs. Women's and children's harnesses, for example, have special fit characteristics. REI makes the following suggestions to help you find the right harness.


Step #1: Consider Your Climbing Style
What kind(s) of climbing do you plan on doing most often? This will help you decide what features are the most important.

* Multi-Purpose -- These are also known as all-around, crag or sport harnesses. Ideal for beginners, they are designed to function well in a number of climbing applications such as top-roping, sport and gym climbing. Most have padded leg loops and waistbelts for maximum comfort when working a route or taking a fall. Detachable leg loops let you answer calls of nature without untying from the rope. Most models also feature convenient gear racking loops for easy access to hardware or ychalk bag without the need for a shoulder sling. These harnesses typically feature a dedicated front loop so you can easily attach a belay/rappel device.

* Alpine -- Designed for long mountain trips, these harnesses typically feature minimal padding and features in order to save weight and bulk. Non-absorbent materials are used to withstand the rough weather often encountered in glacier and alpine climbing. Highly adjustable waistbelt and leg loops allow for clothing changes between pre-dawn chill and afternoon sunshine. Leg loops are usually detachable so you can take toilet breaks while staying tied into the rope at the waist.


* Big Wall -- These harnesses are used by climbers doing multi-pitch, multi-day climbs such as those in Yosemite Valley. They feature lots of padding on the waistbelt and leg loops to relieve pressure during hanging belays or aid climbing. Multiple gear loops allow handy on-harness and take some of the weight off your shoulder gear sling. They usually feature a full-strength haul loop in back for towing a rope or heavy gear bag.

* Competition -- These streamlined harnesses are the best choice for climbing competitions such as On Sight Difficulty or Speed Events. Their slim design and narrow webbing allow a full range of motion. They typically have little padding and few, if any, frills or extras.


Step # 2: Compare Types of Harnesses

* Leg Loop/Waistbelt -- This popular style of harness consists of a padded waist (or "swami") belt and a pair of leg loops joined together in front with a belay loop. The waistbelt buckles in front or off to the side, and the leg loops are typically held up in back with elastic straps. These straps are often detachable for ease of changing clothes or answering calls of nature. Leg loop size may either be fixed or adjustable. Some manufacturers sell swami belts and leg loops separately to offer a truly customized fit.


NOTE: For safety and comfort reasons, never attempt to climb in just the waistbelt or the leg loops by themselves.

>Diaper -- Diaper-style harnesses are normally constructed of flat webbing that wraps around your waist and legs. It consists of a buckled waistbelt with adjustable leg loops sewn to it. This design allows you to adjust the fit for varying thicknesses of clothing. Some diaper-harness leg loops can be released while the waistbelt remains tied to the rope, making clothing changes and calls of nature safer. These harnesses typically do not have a separate belay loop.

* Full Body -- Full-body harnesses are designed for children or adults with narrow waists and hips. The harness holds shoulders as well as legs, preventing you from slipping out should you rotate upside down during a fall. Since full-body harnesses have a higher tie-in point than seat harnesses, they reduce the chance of flipping over backward in the first place. Despite this, many climbers prefer separate seat and chest harnesses for their comfort and versatility.


* Chest -- Chest harns are typically worn only on climbs where you could likely turn upside-down. Falling into a crevasse during a glacier climb or rappelling with a heavy pack are examples of such situations. The chest harness is really a component part. It must be worn in conjunction with a seat harness. The resulting combination is the same as the full-body harness, but with the versatility of adding or removing the chest portion, as needed.


* Women's Cut -- These models take into account the proportionally smaller waists and larger leg sizes of many women. The rise (or distance between the leg loops and waist belt) is longer than that on men's or unisex harnesses. This category allows many women and climbers with special fit needs to find a comfortable, safe harness.


Step #3: Check for Fit
Finding a harness that fits you well is essential. Too tight, and it will restrict your movement and/or pinch. Too loose and it will slip, chafe and, in an inverted fall, maybe even let go of you. Just like clothing, different harness brands fit different body shapes better than others. Be sure to find one that works well for you.

Whenever you test-fit a harness, make sure you're wearing the kinds of clothes you're likely to be climbing in. If you plan on carrying a pack with you as you climb, have it handy as well so you can make sure it doesn't cause any discomfort when worn in conjunction with the harness.

The Waistbelt -- Your harness waistbelt should be snug, but not uncomfortably so. It should ride just above your hipbones, but it shouot interfere with your breathing. You should not be able to pull the harness down over your hips, no matter how hard you try. Children and narrow-hipped adults -- if you can't get a harness to stay above your hip bones, use a full-body harness until your body shape works with a waistbelt-style harness. Be sure that there is at least 3 inches of webbing extending out of the waistbelt buckle once it has been properly secured and doubled back.

Leg Loops -- Your harness leg loops should also be snug, but not uncomfortable. If they are an adjustable design, their webbing straps should be long enough for you to double them back through their buckles with at least 2 inches left over.

Be especially careful when fitting a seat harness. If you choose one that's too small, it will squeeze your hips and legs, reducing mobility. If you choose one that's too large, the harness may slide up onto your lower ribs, compressing your diaphragm and leaving you gasping for air. You should have between 1 and 3 inches of clearance between the tie-in loops at your waist.

Buckling up and tying-in
Most harnesses use full-strength buckles to join the waistbelt. Read the manufacturer's instructions carefully and learn how to use your harness and the buckle correctly. If your harness and buckle are not secured properly, you risk injury and possibly even death.

Most harness buckles must be buckled a specific way to be secure. Be sure you follow the recommended procedure every time. ALWAYS double back all webbing straps through your harness buckles. Under the impact force of a fall, webbing straps that are not doubled-back can pull through buckles, causing you to fall out of the harness altogether.

Remember that your harness is only as reliable as the knot you use to tie yourself into it. Make sure you know how to tie into your harness correctly. Read, understand and follow the manufacturer's instructions that come with the harness. Be careful -- different styles have different tie-in procedures. It is your responsibility to know how to use your harness correctly, along with all of your other climbing gear.

Harness Care
Protect your harness from direct sunlight, heat and harsh chemicals like bleach. Wash your harness in cool water with mild, non-detergent soap. Always check your harness before you climb for frayed stitching, cuts or other forms of damage.

Remember that your harness will not last forever. If you climb every weekend, your harness should last a couple of years. The harder you climb and the more often you fall, the weaker your harness will become. Replace your harness whenever it shows signs of wear or damage.


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