How to Choose a Harness for Climbing and Mountaineering

One harness for each activity: climbing, mountaineering, canyoning, caving...

The harness; a fundamental element for climbing and mountaineering. Photo: Álvaro Lafuente

Harnesses are a fundamental part of mountain and climbing equipment. They convert the climber into a grip and retention system, which is integrated into the safety chain.

In the early (and not so early) days of climbing and mountaineering, mountaineers and climbers used a variety of ways to tie the rope directly onto themselves. But they were not very effective, especially in the event of a vertical fall. They were able to hold the climber to avoid greater evils, but, it was really better not to fall with these harnesses.

It is generally considered that the first harness for mountaineering and climbing was designed by René Desmaison in 1959. He designed a full-body harness inspired by those used for parachuting. To find the first and currently widespread sit harness we have to go back to 1970, when Don Whillans designed one for the British Annapurna expedition.

Compared to ice axes, crampons, ropes, carabiners, etc, the harness is a very recent piece of equipment in the world of mountaineering. However, today it would be impossible to imagine climbing and mountaineering without it: the harness has not only greatly improved the safety chain, but has also pushed the sport climbing grade (and mountaineering and trad.) to unbelievable levels, by allowing the climber to repeatedly fall safely.

Although harnesses are quite versatile, for example, a sit harness designed for mountaineering or big wall can also be used for sport climbing, different types are available. And as is often the case, it is the harness certified standard that initially informs you which category it is designed for.

But first, let''s look at the different parts of a harness: this is very important, since, with the most commonly used type of harness, you do not use the same part for tying into the rope as clipping onto a carabiner.

It is essential to close the harness properly, as indicated in the manufacturer''s instructions. Although closures are usually similar, before using a harness, it is important to read the safety instructions and follow the closure steps indicated.

Parts of a Harness

1. Sit Harness With Double Tie-in Loops

These are the most commonly used for climbing, mountaineering, etc. The rope always passes through the two tie-in loops, while the belay loop is used for clipping on a carabiner (for belaying, rappels, etc). We will explain why when we look at the types of harnesses for different activities.
Petzl Corax harness, double tie-in point for the rope.

2. Sit Harness With Single Tie-in Point

It used to be known as the rappel or belay harness; today, this system is only used for canyoning, multi-adventure, via ferrata, etc. We will explain why.
Singingrock Top Canyon 2 single loop harness

3. Full Body Harness

Petzl 8003 full body harness

The Importance of Size. Harnesses for Men and Women

. It is essential that the harness is the right size. If it is small, it will be uncomfortable, and the closure strap may also be too short (for safety reasons, there has to be a decent amount of remainder once closed). If it is large, your safety is compromised in the event of a fall.

Since it is essential that the harness fits perfectly, so that in the event of a fall the force is evenly distributed, most models include a women''s version, which feature a higher waistbelt, and longer elastic leg straps so that they fall in the right place.

Types of Harnesses According to Safety Standards

The standards that certify harnesses for any mountain activity are UIAA 105 andEN 12277:2015, Mountaineering and Climbing Equipment. Harnesses.

In addition to indicating the resistance of the belay loop, which is 15kn, it indicates the types of harnesses available:

1. Type A

These are the full body harnesses. As we have said, they are the first to be created, and many consider them the safest in case of a fall (although some studies in recent years, put this in doubt), since they distribute the impact force, and prevent the climber from flipping over.

However, these harnesses limit movement, and their use today, in climbing and mountaineering, is marginal. But they can be a good choice for heavier climbers and for special situations.

It is always very important to get the harness size right (more on this later), and full body harnesses, contrary to popular belief, are no exception: if the harness is small, and the attachment points are too far apart (especially on those with 4 points), in the event of a fall, the rope will tend to pull them closer, causing constriction.

2. Type B:

Like type A, these are full body harnesses, but for children (or adults under 40 kilos). They cannot be used on users over this weight. According to the norm the resistance must be 10kn, which is lower than the 15kn required for adult models.
CAMP Bambino, type B children’s harness

3. Type C

These are sit harnesses.

These are the most commonly used. Sit harnesses are currently used for all activities (mountaineering, climbing, canyoning, caving, etc.), and the features vary depending on the activity. We will talk about these later.

4. Type D

These are chest harnesses. They are a complement and are always used in combination with a type C harness, to create a full body harness, for moments when it is considered necessary (e.g. on an alpine climb with a heavy load; in the event of a fall with a type C harness, the weight would flip the climber over and it would be difficult to return to the normal position).
CAMP Fig.8 Chest, type D chest harness

Sit Harnesses According to Activity

Harnesses, as we said, are a very versatile piece of equipment, and normally the differences are not radical (they usually have to do with the number of gear holders, type of leg loops, etc.)

On the subject of comfort, the latest models have recently shown that comfort depends more on design, width, and the distance between the belay loop and leg loops than on padding. In fact, models with a lot of padding can be more uncomfortable.

It is important that the belt and leg loops have a ventilation system, with mesh fabric, etc. This is similar to the ventilation system used in backpack back panels.

1. Sport Climbing Harnesses

Agility and lightweight are key

  • They usually feature just two gear holders. Just enough to carry the quickdraws and little else. They may feature just one if designed for competition or indoor climbing,
  • They are not adjustable, so it is important to get the right size. Non-adjustable leg loops.
  • The simplicity of the design makes them very easy to put on and take off
  • .
  • The belt is usually narrower than on other types
  • .
  • They always have double tie-in loops and a belay loop
  • The belay loop is usually thinner to reduce weight as it is not often used for this discipline.
  • Arc''teryx AR-385A W. Women’s minimalist harness.

    Why is there a belay loop for the carabiner and a double tie-in point for the rope?

    . There is no difference in strength between the belay loop and the double tie-in points. But, if the harness is attached to the rope at just one point, the impact on the rope is much greater than if you are tied into two separate points. With the double tie in point the impact force is evenly distributed, and it means there is also a double safety system in case, one of the tie-in points breaks from wear, in the event of a fall.

    However, the double tie-in point, which must be used for attaching the rope, cannot function correctly if a carabiner is clipped to both points. This would cause cross loading and it would work laterally, (with reduced strength, we recommend you read our article on How to choose carabiners for climbing and mountaineering).

    Therefore, the belay loop should always be used for attaching the carabiner during a rappel or belay manoeuvrer. And when you need to tie on the rope, you should use the double tie-in point.

    2. Harnesses for Mountaineering, Ice Climbing and Trad

    Strength, adaptability and capacity for gear

    • Four or more gear holders. There is often a fifth, larger, reinforced gear holder at the back.
    • Rear Haul Loop

      Five gear holders and haul loop
    • Leg loops are adjustable with elastic straps or, even better, a buckle. These harnesses are used with more or less clothing, depending on the activity, so it is absolutely necessary that both the leg loops and belt have greater adjustment capacity. Buckle-adjustable harnesses are also easier to put on while wearing mountaineering boots, crampons, etc.
    • .
    • The belt covers the lumbar area and leg loops are wider, for when you spend hours hanging from the harness, especially on Big Wall and aid climbing routes.
    • Very durable materials with moisture resistant treatment prevents them from absorbing moisture, gaining weight and becoming uncomfortably cold in bad weather.
    • Some, designed for ice climbing, already incorporate an ice-screw carry system.
    Petzl Luna, versatile mountaineering harness for women.
    Although some models are more focused on Big Wall, and others more to mountaineering, ice and mixed climbing, nowadays these harnesses are very versatile, and almost all will serve for these actvidades. If you only want one harness, and practice sport climbing, mountaineering, etc., this is the best choice. It may be less comfortable for sport climbing, but it will permit the climber to carry out the activity perfectly, while a sports climbing harness would lack basic features such as the number of gear holders required for mountaineering.

    Be Careful of Gear Holders!

    It should be very clear that gear holders are not a safety element. They are used for transporting material, but they should never be used for attaching the rope, lanyards, for belaying, or any other similar manoeuvrer.

    Gear holders are not designed for this and the climber would be at serious risk.

    3. Multi-Adventure Harnesses

    These harnesses used to be called belay or rappel harnesses. They have the same resistance as the harnesses with double tie-in points, they usually have thin webbing (since their function is more for anchoring than for stopping long falls), and a fundamental feature: they have a single, high belay loop.

    The elevated belay loop is more comfortable when rappelling, for lowering another climber or for using carabiners on a via ferrata route. In addition, in the case of groups, it facilitates the work of tying and attaching a client to the guide.

    This type of harness can be very useful for via ferrata, multi-adventure parks, groups, even for non-technical alpine climbing and mountaineering (light and foldable). It is also used for expeditions.

    4. Canyoning Harnesses

    Harnesses for canyoning have two main features:

    • A single belay loop, located at the top. In canyons we do not climb, we rappel, so this design is more comfortable. But also, this higher position of the belay loop means the body’s centre of gravity is higher, which prevents the climber from flipping over from the force of a waterfall, or the weight of a backpack (the pack is usually worn during a rappel in this activity).
    • A reinforced seat. This protects against friction when sliding down a water slide, for example.
    • Absence of any gear holders (perhaps one, to avoid snagging).
    • Petzl Canyon Guide, canyoning harness

      5. Caving Harnesses

      Ultralight, with a strap design and no padding. There is also no belay loop, to avoid snagging. Its two anchor points are low, to facilitate use with ascenders (this allows greater pull).
      Petzl Superavanti

      When Should I change my Harness?

      Harnesses do not last forever. It is important to regularly check the stitching and, above all, possible wear in the areas prone to rubbing, especially in the lower tie-in point.

      Never store them wet and try not to dry them in direct sunlight.

      Any webbing on climbing gear (quickdraws, harnesses) should not have contact with chemical products, resins, etc

Leave a comment

Be the first to comment on this article.