Choosing a climbing harness is a decision that should never be made lightly; your climbing harness connects you to the rope that is your lifeline, and a malfunction while climbing can have disastrous results. There are several factors to consider when choosing a climbing harness including comfort, style, climbing style, climbing conditions, and more. Understanding how different climbing conditions affect the type of harness you should have can make the decision process much easier.
Climbing styles, and therefore climbing environments, dictate how harnesses are designed. High elevation mountain climbing and glacier climbing have different requirements than day climbs and big wall climbs. Temperatures, contact with moisture, and the types of construction materials all have to be considered when choosing a climbing harness, as well as what type of gear you may need to carry with you.
Climbing harnesses are generally designed for one of four categories known as Multipurpose or Sport, Alpine, Big Wall or Varying Pitch, and Competition. Each one has specific qualities that make it more suitable to specific climbing environments and needs.
Multipurpose or Sport Harnesses
Multipurpose harnesses cover a wide range of styles catering to beginners and experienced climbers; these types of harnesses typically have thicker padding for the inevitable fall that will occur during the learning curve and are perfectly suited for learning new climbing styles. Multipurpose harnesses are commonly used for indoor sport climbing events where many different people of varying skill levels and body types may use the same harness. Multipurpose harnesses typically have optional rappelling loops and gear loops to fit just about any situation.
Big Wall or Varying Pitch Harnesses
Varying pitch climbing brings a whole new challenge in and of itself; varying pitch is one the most athletically demanding styles of climbing due to the changing orientation of the climber. This sometimes requires swinging long distances and climbing upside down, as is the case of the world famous El Capitan formation in the Yosemite Valley. These environments require extremely strong and durable materials and thick padding to endure the stresses of this type of climbing, as well as the time spent hanging with heavy gear and assisting other climbers.
Alpine climbing is commonly associated with what are sometimes called ‘traditional mountains’ but also includes glacier and crevasse climbing. These conditions present some of the most demanding situations a climber and their gear will ever experience. Climbing formations like K2 and exploring the fissures of glaciers present more challenges than just securing the climber, weight, moisture absorption, and temperature tolerances have to be considered as well. Alpine harnesses need to be easily adjustable to allow for clothing changes as conditions and exertion levels change and need to be thickly padded and comfortable for when hanging breaks are needed.
Competition harnesses are extremely slim versions of their real-world cousins, only including the bare necessities for a particular event. These harnesses are designed for speed and mobility during simulated conditions and rarely come with any extras like gear loops.
Harnesses can also be further classified by their physical construction; the waist belt and leg loop combination, diaper style harness, chest harness, and full body harness are all different physical styles of climbing harnesses. The leg loop and waistband combination is by far the most popular, but the other styles have their place in the climbing world. Many climbers prefer the diaper style that, as the name implies, wraps around the waist and legs to the other types; many climbers have difficulty with the leg loops cutting off circulation and limiting mobility. Chest harnesses are typically used in situations where the climber may tip over completely, as in crevasse and glacier climbing, while full body harnesses are commonly used for children.
Regardless of the climbing environment or the climber, the three most important things to ensure when choosing a climbing harness are fit, comfort, and safety. An improperly fitting harness is not only uncomfortable, it is also a serious safety hazard; several climbers have been injured and even killed by slipping out of a harness. Comfort is also a serious concern, securing a harness too tightly or using one too small can be painful and even cut off circulation to body parts and affect breathing. Lastly, always ensure your harness is certified for the style of climbing you intent to do. Following these simple guidelines can help you find the right harness to keep you safe and confident on your next adventure.