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Choosing The Right Harness
Weighing Comfort, Safety and More.

Whether you're a veteran alpinist or a beginner, the weight and design of your harness will affect your performance. Fortunately, there are a number of all-purpose harnesses that can adapt to the occasional foray to aid or ice climbing. Look for a slim harness with features like detachable leg loops, a haul loop, belay loop, and four gear loops that can easily handle a large trad rack or 15 quickdraws. (For added comfort at hanging belays, buy a lightweight nylon belay seat or "butt bag" - it will keep your feet from going numb.)

Harnesses range from the $5 self-made webbing seat to $125 monsters that simulate a Lazy Boy. Most of us will find an excellent all-around harness for between $50 and $100. If you're spending less, you'll probably get shorted in the way of padding, gear loops, or fit. If you're spending more, look around for a comparable harness at a better price. Fit. The most important thing to remember when you buy a harness is that it should fit comfortably and snug. Wear your climbing clothes when you test the harness. Put the rig on and hang in it. Does the waist loop ride up to your rib cage or do the leg loops slide up into the depths of your crotch? If so, it's too big. Are you unable to pull the waist belt to the top of your hip bones? Too small.

The amount and composition of padding varies widely between harnesses. For summer rock climbing, when you're in skimpy attire, you'll want a padded harness. In winter, however, you can get away with seat-belt material because you'll probably be hanging less and your abundant clothes will act as padding. Rock-climbing harnesses vary from ropes-course models with plain webbing that fit like a trenchcoat to those with diaper-like cushion. Ice-climbing and alpine models generally have no padding in the legs, and may or may not have a padded waist.

Over the years, closed-cell foam padding has all but replaced fleece, creating a sleeker, lighter fit. Even some alpine harnesses now use waist-belt padding; the extra comfort and support costs only an ounce or two. Most sport-climbing designs seek to save weight and obstruction by opting for scantily-padded legs and waist, and using narrower webbing. Most trad harnesses have full padding, which give comfort while hanging at belays and carrying heavy racks. In reality, the difference in weight and mobility between sport and trad harnesses is minimal; most trad harnesses are now cut trim enough to be almost unnoticeable when climbing.

Belay loops
An optional feature for harnesses is a belay loop. This sewn loop connecting your waist and leg loops makes clipping into anchors a snap, whether you're anchoring into cold shuts at the top of a sport climb or trying to put your partner on belay while wearing thick mittens. The belay loop is not meant to be used as a tie-in point for your rope (it creates a high center of gravity). Always tie in by threading the rope through both your leg and waist loops. Regardless of what outing you choose, a belay loop is a handy extra that is worth the additional money.

Haul loops
Many harnesses come with a haul loop, which is a loop of webbing sewn at the back of the waist belt. It is useful for clipping on trail ropes, approach shoes, or chalk bags. Some are runner strength, some aren't, so be wary about how much trust you put on this point.

Gear loops
Harnesses vary in the placement and number of gear loops they offer. Some ultra-light sport-climbing harnesses have only two gear loops, while a big-wall harness may have as many as eight. Choose a model with enough gear loops to comfortably accommodate your rack, but not so many that they become cumbersome. Big-wall harnesses, for example, sometimes have double-decker gear loops around the waist. While this is handy for carrying lots of gear on an aid climb, it can obstruct a quick grab for gear on a difficult free climb. The number of gear loops you choose depends largely on where you like to carry your gear: if you prefer to use a shoulder sling when lugging a large trad rack, you can get away with only two or three loops. But if you like to keep your gear on your waist, you'll want four. I prefer to have extra loops because even if I'm not using them for carrying gear, I can tie a light jacket through one of the rear loops or clip a water bottle there.

Loops vary in size and location on the waistbelt. So, regardless of their number, check to see that the loops put the gear where you want it. The front loops should be placed far enough back so that your gear doesn't fall into your lap when you high step. The back loops should be accessible enough for you to see all your gear and make a desperate grab for that large cam you stashed for a steep offwidth. The loops shouldn't sag too far below the waist belt either, or your gear will start swinging into the backs of your knees. Nor should they be so large that you hold 15 carabiners per loop, making it impossible to grab the biners that become wedged in the middle of the pile.

Harnesses also vary in the number of buckles and their positioning. Most high-end rock-climbing harness designs assume you'll be wearing a relatively constant thickness of shorts or pants, and use fixed leg loops to save the bulk, weight, and cost of extra buckles. Ice harnesses, on the other hand, often have leg loops that you can adjust in size to suit the number of layers you're wearing. All harnesses have adjustable waist loops that can compensate for a full belly or an extra belay coat.

Detachable leg loops
The elastic that holds up the back of the leg loops can be detached if the harness has plastic buckles or velcro here. This feature allows you to heed the call of nature or don rainpaints without untying from the harness, and allows you to slip out of the leg loops while staying tied into the waist belt. This feature is mandatory for big-wall climbing or when you'll be in the saddle for long periods of time.

All harnesses have a slightly different cut, and if the leg loops do not taper correctly to your thighs, even the most expensive models will chafe and hinder your mobility. When you try on a harness, make sure the leg loops taper enough at the inside of your thighs so they don't bunch up or rub your crotch. And look for waist belts that taper at the front so the webbing does not push against your thighs while high stepping.

Women's styles
Some manufacturers offer women's harnesses. Women generally have proportionally smaller waists and larger legs than men. Also, the vertical rise between women's leg loops and waist loops is longer, so, until the advent of women's harnesses, some female climbers found that their harnesses didn't fit quite right. But note that not all women fit better in a women's harness. If you're a woman, try on models for both genders before heading to the cash register. The same applies to men: if the harness is too large in the waist or if the vertical rise is too short, try a woman's design. The models look almost identical, so don't worry about feeling like a drag queen at the crag.

One last comfort tip
Even with a well-padded harness, pants that have bulky inseams along the inside of the legs will slowly dig into your thighs. Similarly, side-zip pants or jackets with low-placed zippers can form divots in your skin and make hanging belays a nightmare. Avoid this unnecessary discomfort by wearing clothing with smooth or no seams at the harness' pressure points.

Tyler Stableford is the photo and copy editor at Climbing. He recently spent four days hanging in his harness while photographing on El Capitan, and expects to regain feeling in his legs sometime this spring.

Contributed By: Tyler Stableford

Rock and Ice Editor,

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