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What Harness?

29 August 2019

What Harness?

How to work out what's important and what isn't

Category: Q&A

Hi Andy,

Love your blog, really helpful info. You were a great speaker also in Wales a couple of years ago!

Wanted to ask you about what harness to get, as hit a Black Diamond momentum when I first started out on trad. What would you get next?

Thank in advance and really love the Instagram films most people haven’t seen. Some classics in there mate.

Cheers
D

Thanks for the question!

Harness selection can be a little over-complex at times, with buyers getting bogged down in details that aren’t really that important in the real world, but ignoring - or being unaware - of things that are really important.

I started writing this as Vanessa gets her hair cut, intending it to be a short response, but instead, it’s ended up being pretty long, so I apologise for that.

I thought it best to list, in order, what I feel are the most important aspects of a harness.

Safety

This is a good one to start with, as this is the reason you’re wearing a harness in the first place. But now we’ve acknowledged it we can forget about it, as all harnesses are constructed to pass stresses and forces far larger than any human could survive. It’s also maybe worth saying you should avoid second hand or too good to be true harnesses off eBay, with a new harness being one that’s current.

Fit

If we take safety as baked in, then this is the most important aspect of any harness and one reason why - like rock boots - you cannot really give personal recommendations. Instead, you need to try on a load of different brands and models, or even just buy the same again and again if it’s perfect for you. The right fit also translates both into dynamic comfort (climbing and falling in it), and static comfort (hanging in it), and will dictate if the gear loops are where you need them to be.

When getting a new harness got to a shop that has plenty of models (generally a specialist retailer), and talk to an informed staff member (ask them what kind of climbing they do). Ask what harnesses are selling well, and why (‘they’re cheap”). Also wear what you’ll wear when climbing, not your jeans with a phone and car keys in the pocket and a belt Walker the Texas ranger would wear. Don’t get too hung up on hanging in the harness (see below), but more on how it feels (if they have a bit of all wall check how it feels climbing). If you’re a man make sure the leg loops don’t trap your balls (easy to spot!), and if you’re a women check the rise isn’t too short (the belt will be pulled down as if the belay loop is too small), and check the rear risers out for going to the toilet.

Fit wise; you want any padding in the belt to overlap, as bare webbing will rub and shows the harness is too small, and you have enough tail in the webbing to allow extra clothing to be worn. For fixed leg loops you want to be able to do a squat without any pressure and be able to slide your fingers comfortably between your thigh and the leg loop.

Racking

For me, after safety and fit, racking (which is connected to ‘fit’ anyway) is the most important factor to consider when choosing a harness, because although comfort is important, if the racking is bad it doesn’t matter how comfortable a harness is. I’d also view racking as a safety issue actually, as not being able to get at the gear you need efficiently can be dangerous.

Here are some thoughts on racking:

  • Position & Fit

    It is vital your racking is balanced on both sides. This means both your right and left gear loop are forward of your hip bone, not the right one forward and the left one to the rear, but balanced. If there is an imbalance you’ll find it hard to grab gear on the left, meaning your right loop will get overloaded (both when leading and cleaning). If you clip everything into the one gear loop when cleaning, you’ll bunch it all up and risk dropping something. As an aside, when cleaning, try and do so neatly, breaking everything down as you go, with all wires placed onto one krab or draw, alpine draws shortened, cams split from draws. If you’re leading the next pitch, then rack ready to lead as you clean. The best way to get your gear loops balanced is to just hit the sweet spot in terms of size, or get a harness with twin buckles.

  • Number Of Loops

    For many years I used an old BD harness that only had three gear loops, two large and one small, and I found to my surprise that I could carry almost the same as a harness with eight loops. What this taught me was you’ve only got so much real-estate, and very often the number of loops on offer is just marketing, to get the buyer to buy X model as it has more loops than Y. My big wall harness at the moment is a Yates Big Wall, which I think has 11 loops, but I rarely use more than four. There’s also a point when you can have too much gear on a harness, when the rack will not only hold you back but drag the harness down to your knees! For me, four loops is the ideal number, but I must have them where I want them.

  • Location

    You don’t want gear loop over your thighs, but somewhere between your thigh and your hip bone, running from there to a few inches back. The rear loops tend to be blind loops, and so hold the gear you either don’t need or gear you can identify by their position, so alpine draws for example. One important feature to look for in alpine or winter harnesses is that the gear loops are sewn to the bottom of the belt so that they hang below a rucksack.

  • Strength

    Unless you’re using something like a Metolius Safe Tech harness, all gear loops have a guide rating of about 5 kg (don’t belay off them!), but in reality, tend to be pretty strong when new. There is a wide range of styles and materials, and all have pros and cons, but in all these things, simplicity is often best. One thing I have found is that webbing gear loops that are stiffened by a plastic insert are not as robust as softer inserts, or webbing threaded through plastic, and often it’s the racking loops that start to fall apart before anything else.

  • Rear loop

    As stated in my Cragmanship piece ’The Rear Gear Loop’, I’m against the clipping in of any hard object inline with the spine, even a chalk bag karabiner (use a belt or better still some 5 mm or 6 mm cord), as this can cause life-changing injuries even in short falls, or even if you swing in hard or flip over on a route. For this reason, all gear loops should be placed away from the spine (I had several emails after publishing the article that proved I wasn’t hysterical).

  K  
Finding the right piece of gear when you need it is key when pushing your grade

Climb-ability

This is a bit of a one way street, in that once you’ve started using lighter, slimmer, what were once ‘sport’ harnesses, which compromise wearable comfort (how they feel when moving) to hanging comfort, then switch back to a heavy model, it’s like going from running shoes to leather boots. So personally I tend to focus more on just how a harness feels in terms of climbing conform than hanging comfort, the idea being you don’t even feel like you’re wearing a harness (just how when the new generation of helmets came out people would drive home in them, not realising they had them on). This means that I’d now use a harnesses I’d never have dreamed of using in the past, such as the last time I climbed the Nose I used the Petzl Sitta (300 g) and found what its good points (light, unobtrusive, neither hot or sweaty) out-weight its low points (hanging comfort).

Durability

This is the practical, real-world side of safety, as the CE stamp of approval is for a brand new harness, not a harness that has been used and abused, got wet and dry, pissed on, heated by the sun, dunked in the sea and sweet chilli sauce, and held a hundred falls. The subject of how long a harness lasts has a technical and a practical answer. The technical answer varies, but a baseline answer would be:

  • Replace any harness as soon as you question its reliability. If you can’t make a call on this, then ask someone with more experience, like a good climbing shop or climbing wall staff, but always side with caution.
  • A default guide for harness age would be, if it’s over ten years old, whether you’ve used it or not, then retire it. Unfortunately, this is a very rough guide, and some brands would recommend as little as five years or seven years. But even these do not take into account the type of harness, as a 150 gram harness is the equivalent of a disposable poncho compared to an 850 gram harness.
  K  
Some forms of climbing really grinds up your harness, like bieng dragged along the road by a motorbike!

The practical answer is more nuanced.

I recently congratulated Tony Howard, one of the fathers of the climbing harness (Tony made his first harness by hand out of leather!), on the Troll 9, a featherweight harness from the early 90s that weighed only 200 grams (so well ahead of its time). Tony replied that he was still happy with his ancient Troll Black Master harness, which was last made in 1995. Tony is also the kind of man who uses gear in places modern gear does not live long! Is Tony crazy? Not really, as older harnesses were made before you had really sophisticated testing, and so were overbuilt like tanks, using the kind of webbing you’d find tying down logs to trucks these days.

The flip side of this is the well-documented death of Todd Skinner, who died due to harness failure, a harness many had commented needed changing as it was worn out and looked dangerous (he had a new one in the post). His belay loop was very worn, and had a cut in it, and had had a sling larks footed into it for a long time. This resulted in all the wear being focused onto one small spot. The details are still pretty sketchy, but I presume Todd was working routes a lot, with a Grigri or ascender clipped to his belay loop (help in one orientation by the sling), which just made the problem more acute. Each time Todd would fall onto the belay loop, it would be creating friction with the leg risers (you need to avoid nylon on nylon). Then, one day, Todd was transferring onto a belay, and clipped in his sling (probably a daisy chain), and dropped onto it. The shock load broke the belay loop, and there was nothing connecting Todd to anything. Like almost all climbing fatalities, Todd’s harness failed at the belay loop due to several factors, and it’s worth noting that Tony Howard’s harness might have been old, but he had replaced the belay loop, and older belay loops tended to be far stronger anyway, often being three layers of webbing (now many will be two layers in order to save weight).

I’ve experienced quite a lot of gear loop failures, as well as axe clipper retainer failures, and a partial failure of the webbing on a leg loop riser (caused by bounce testing on a very tired harness, again, nylon on nylon), but only know one person (apart from Todd) who actually broke the harness itself, Ian Parnell, who broke the leg loops on a harness and ended up hanging by the waist belt. When I set this beside the number of people I know who had an accident because they didn’t tie in correctly or didn’t do up their harness, well, I don’t worry too much about harness failure, but a lot about human failure.

Where I do give it some thought is when using very lightweight harnesses, and here it’s worth breaking harnesses into five categories:

  • Super heavyweight (1 kg +/-): This would include all industrial harnesses; very heavy, expensive, but designed to withstand a great deal of abuse.  The only climbing harnesses that would be in this category would be big wall models from Yates and Metolius.
  • Heavy weight (800 g +/-): This would have been the old standard, with the Wild Country Syncro being maybe the best example, with lots of racking, lots of padding, and lots of weight. This kind harness is a do-it-all harness, as many feature adjustable leg loops as well (not that necessary for most users, but vital for some women and skiers), and twin waist buckles. This type of design tends to use older school fabrics, with a laminate of texturised nylon (light Cordura style), closed-cell foam and a brushed fabric on the inside.
  • Mid-weight (500 g +/-): This is the new norm, with high tech fabrics often being employed in order to remove webbing (which is heavy) from the design, and high tech laminated fabrics being common. Super thick padding is often removed to create a more breathable harness, with width now being viewed as being as important as bulk and thickness. The Arc’teryx harness range would be the best example of this trend, with most companies producing an Arc’teryx style harness, or else using cutting edge or futuristic materials. This is the kind of harness most climbers need to be using.
  • Lightweight (300 g +/-): This is a shrinking category, as it’s being squeezed out by mid-weight harnesses getting lighter, and also specialist featherweight harnesses taking their place. This category would cover the old school pure webbing harness designs, such as the BD Bod, DMM Alpine, and classic lightweight models such as the Petzl Hirundos.
  • Featherweight (sub 200 g): This category would cover all the featherweight -  almost disposable - ski, race and high altitude harnesses, a harness that probably just sneaks in over the minimum strength. These are really specialist and are for climbers who are willing to make big compromises for performance (or else get them for free).

What category your harness is in, as well as its construction and what it’s made of, will give you an idea of how long your harness will last.

My own experience of both using and selling harnesses is most climbers, who climb every week, and have a medium weight harness, should replace their harness every three years, and five years with minimal use. If you’re using lightweight and featherweight harnesses then you should half that, but if you only save it for best, then replace it after ten years (a ski harness might only get one months use in ten years).

Personally, I will get about two years out of a harness, but I’m a heavy user (and just heavy all round), and also have a big wall harness (I tend to use my general harness for everything else). All these guides do not take into account what kind of rock you’re climbing, and if your thing is chimneys and off-widths, then a harness (and everything else!) Will wear out very quickly, so a lightweight harness is not the thing to use.

So how does this affect the buyer? Well it’s good to know that if you get the lightest climbing harness on the market, one with dyneema and Kevlar bells and whistles, you’ll pay a huge premium (very often such harnesses are just technology and design demonstrators), and you’ll have to replace it sooner than a cheaper heavyweight harness.

Weight

The weight of a harness is also tied to its longevity, but I’ve made it a separate section here. This is because for most climbers weight comes low on the rankings of what’s actually important (well it should) once you’ve got it on (unless you’re climbing a 9b roof), but if you’re travelling a lot by plane, or do routes that require long approaches, then weight is actually very important, meaning modern mid-weight and lightweight models are ideal. On the flying point, although you can’t take a rope or hardware on as cabin baggage, you can take a harness, and a lightweight harness will easily fit in a laptop bag, rucksack lid, or even a jacket pocket (or sleeve!).

Buckles

Not all buckles or webbing are the same, and you’ve got to hope the company has done its homework, but don’t assume they have. I’ve discounted harnesses in the past where I felt the buckles were mismatched, meaning they became sloppy as soon as they weren’t under tension, or the webbing was so thick you could not do them up, or they did not have enough tail to thread. One issue I have with some harnesses is that in order to keep the published weight down they make the webbing too short, the first version of the 150 g Petzl Altitude being a good example, which although fine over your ski gear on the Vallée Blanche, was almost impossible to buckle up when wearing high altitude clothing and mitts (you don’t want to take off your mitts to do up a high altitude harness). On the subject of buckles, I hope we’ll not see any more double back designs, the reasons many (safety and wear), but would also like to see the slow elimination of the auto-locking buckle as well, and hope the Petzl Fly - which is really a tech demonstrator - with its soft link legs, and buckle less design, might move us in that direction (soft links, already well established in sailing and paragliding, are going to become the next ‘thing’ in climbing).

Comfort

You’d think this would be high on the list, but it’s a tricky one, as comfort has to balanced between two competing elements, namely breathability when you’re climbing in it and comfort when suspended. In the past, the former was pretty much ignored, with harnesses being big and beefy, with plenty or foam and plenty of webbing. As the webbing slimmed down, from 40 mm to 38 mm and 25 mm, the width of the padding also decreased. Harnesses like the BD X and XY, Petzl Crux, Wild Country Jedi etc, slimmed things down, making harnesses more comfortable to wear when climbing, but less so to hang in. The problem with hanging comfort, in my opinion, is that the difference between a skinny harness and a big wall harness, when fully hanging, can be measured in minutes. No harness is comfortable to hang in, for real hanging comfort you need a belay seat, and even that’s not that comfortable for too long. What a thicker harness is good for is shorter hangs, hauling, and generally not climbing, but that should not be a priority of a climbing harness. Yes, you can hang on a rope in a climbing shop and check your balls don’t get pinched by a wide leg loop, or that the rise is not so small the waist drags on your hips, but you can’t check how happy you’d be in some Toni Kurz scenario.

One way companies have tried to both increase breathability, and suspension comfort is to employ mesh panels and open-cell foams, or load-bearing strands (tape, wire, mesh), so you get the best of both worlds. But in my experience, the more complexity you add to a harness, the more breathable the fabrics, the less beef a harness has, and so things wear out faster, mesh especially, but this is just a comprise climbers need to understand and accept.

The last breakthrough harness I had - one that changed how I looked at the climbing harness - was the first green Petzl Hirundos (I jokingly called it the Horrendous), which was still pretty old school, but took a lot of gear well, was lightweight and low bulk, could be worn winter or summer, and was pretty tough (just webbing and foam). Since then I’ve used a couple of more advanced harnesses, but none really hit the mark for me, which is not a reflection of the harnesses, but really about how hard it is to nail all the things you want from a harness.

Generation

I think you can roughly break harness down into the following generations:

  • 1st Generation: This is just made out of webbing, the BD Bod being the most common harness of this type. Although viewed as an alpine, beginners, or centre harness, this generation of harness is cheap, very tough, low bulk, and can be surprisingly comfortable. It’s an ideal first harness as it can later be used for mountaineering, ski touring or used by friends or even older children, having a much broader fitting.
  • 2nd Generation: This is a slimmed down 1st generation harness that is sewn over a padded inner harness of foam and texturised nylon. Beyond cosmetic changes, this is the same harness people have been using since the 80’s and makes up the bulk of harness sales from all the big brands, offering good performance, price and ease of manufacture (important as companies go offshore).
  • Third Generation: This is space-age stuff, and although they have a higher price, can sometimes be good value, as the actual margin is smaller, as the harness is just demonstrating progressive design; what can be achieved through advances in material technology. The Arc’teryx range is perhaps set the benchmark for this generation, with laminations being employed over straight sewing, creating a light, comfortable and low profile harnesses. Now almost all the brands carry one 1st generation harness, some more technical than others, some having very complex builds. Are they worth it? Well, you need to work out what you’re paying for. If you’re paying more for some designers vanity project without any real performance gain, or even a drop in performance (technology often doesn’t work, or has not been tested properly, but rushed), or a harness that looks tech but is just easier to build offshore, then no. But there are models - depending on fit - that offers everything you want, but at a premium.

Price

My only advice here is perhaps don’t assume the most expensive harness is the best or the one that’s right for you, and being an early adopter tends to come at a cost (instead of a Tesla, maybe go for a Toyota).

Extras Stuff

If you’re a woman, then having a really good mechanism for dropping your leg loops at the back is vital, and again, not all systems are equal, so try this out in the shop before you buy (just don’t go the full distance with the experiment!). If you do anything in winter, then avoid systems that are really tiny and fiddly, and again, avoid a harness that’s delivering a crappy solution just to save 5 grams (personally I’d modify a harness for my winter needs, but this voids the warranty). On the subject of going to the toilet, having climbed with a lot of women on long multi day or week climbs, I’d really try and match up my leg wear with my harness, with the Buffalo high altitude salopettes probably being the best, due to having a through the leg (bombay) zipper (learning to pee into a Nalgene bottle is also a vital skill to master).

Belay Loops

Yes, I can tell you’re feeling a bit jittery about the belay loop, well don’t be. In terms of strength, this is probably the strongest part of the harness. If you do a lot of big wall stuff than having two belay loops is handy, or use an alloy ring (you attach this via an insert that is screwed on with an Allen key).

Haul Loops

These used to be all the rage, with climbers clipping into the belay with them (it was thought to be better for body belays, as you did not introduce a twist when loaded), and for clipping in haul lines and taglines. These days you see them less often. If you do a lot of big walling they are handy, but I prefer to have my haul line offset from my spine, plus having it offset means it’s less easy to drop your line(I have my pulley pre-clipped into the rope for moderate stuff, and on heavyweight walls I tag up all your belay and haul gear). For taglines I don’t like having these hanging off me, and always carry them in a specific way, in a tiny rope bag in the second’s pack, but if you do want to trail it, then just clipping it off to a gear loop is fine.

Leg loop retention strap

This is one of those little things that’s easy to miss, but a harness either has a sewn strap that holds the belay loop in place in relation to the leg loops, or it has one that can be unbuckled and the leg loops removed (once you remove the leg loop risers). This is really only of use to someone who is sleeping on a mountain and wishes to remain tied into their harness, but without the bulk of the leg loops. Also removing them makes it easier to change trousers, go to the toilet etc. If you have a fixed retainer, then you can take the leg loops off, but they’ll remain in the belay loop.

One way to avoid all that bulk is to rotate the harness around when you’re sleeping, so the knot and legs are down one side. You can also just take off your harness and just tie the rope around your waist, or use a sling instead.

The reason for a sewn or fixed link is that it reduces the risk of partial harness failure if you tie the rope through the strap, and not the leg loops, by mistake. A sewn loop might hold you, but a buckled one will not.

Conclusions

As ever I’ve not given you any answers at all, just more questions. Just as it should be!

Note: If you'd like to ask a question - no matter how dumb - then email me and I'll try and help.

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Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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