How to Choose a Climbing Harness: Some Pointers!

Before we get started on how to choose a climbing harness, let’s get one thing straight: If you purchase any climbing harness from a big name company like Petzl, Arc’ Teryx, Black Diamond, Camp, Mammut, etc. you are buying a perfectly good piece of equipment. This guide is to help you optimize that choice! Some harnesses come with extra features, some fit differently than others, some are lighter, some are a little more bang for your buck. We want to make sure you are making the best possible choice when you pick out your next (or first!) harness. No matter what you choose, you are going to receive a rigorously tested product that will bring you to the ground safely after you climb.

Before we talk about what makes some harnesses preferable over others, let’s break down the anatomy of this thing:

Anatomy of the Climbing Harness

  • Waist Belt
    • Probably the biggest determiner of comfort and a huge contributor to the overall weight of the harness. Houses gear loops, buckles, and the top tie-in loop or “hard point.”
  • Gear Loops
    • Designed to hold quickdraws, cams, carabiners, extra belay devices, slings, shoes, gloves, glasses, wallets, watches, pretty much anything. Gear loops vary in quantity, size, and location from harness to harness. A trad climber may want a higher number of gear loops towards the front of their harness for easy access to gear while a strictly sport-climber may want them as out of the way as possible. Please note that gear loops are not meant to be weight bearing. Never tie-in or anchor to your gear loops.
  • Buckles
    • You’re going to have 1 or 2 buckles on the front of your harness (a couple of inches to the left or right of your belay loops). Back in the day, most if not all harnesses came with a single buckle which meant you had to “double back” your harness manually. These days, many harnesses come with an automatic double back feature which means you simply tighten the strap and you’re good to go! Leg loops may also have buckles which allow for a more custom fit.
Harness Anatomy
  • Tie-in or “Hard” Points
    • The two loops connecting your belay loop or “donut.” When tying in to climb, you will thread the rope through both of these points for redundancy sake. Sometimes the hard-points have a plastic cover to reduce wear. Please note that when you are rappelling or belaying, you should never have the carabiner through the tie-in points because it distributes force unevenly through the carabiner making it weaker. You always want to rappel and belay off of the belay loop.
  • Belay Loop
    • The star of the show! This is the strongest point on the harness and is where you are going to attach anything hard and load bearing (carabiners, belay devices, etc.). Belay loops have been getting thinner as companies release newer and newer harnesses, but not to fear, the belay loop is always load tested before distribution.
  • Leg Loops
    • Like the waist belt, leg loops are built for comfort and the material contributes to the overall weight of the harness. Please note that some harnesses have adjustable leg loops while others do not. This may be a huge factor for some people when purchasing a harness but is ultimately a personal preference.
  • Elastic Straps
    • Lastly, we have the thin, oftentimes adjustable, elastic straps that control the distance between the leg loops and the waist belt. Some harnesses have permanent straps that you cannot adjust while others may change the length of the strap or even disconnect altogether (called a “drop-seat” harness). Whether or not you want this feature depends entirely on what type of climbing you will be doing. Alpinists and trad climbers may need drop-seat harnesses while sport-climbers may prefer permanent straps because of the fewer number of buckles.

Features

Alright, so that’s what all of the pieces do. Now, let’s use that knowledge to pick out a harness that works for you. What features do you want to look for in your harness?

Sport harnesses are light with good mobility.

“I mainly single-pitch sport climb outdoors..” or “ I mainly climb in the gym…”

  • Waist Belt: You’re probably looking for a lighter, thinner waist belt because you aren’t going to be sitting in it all day, just one climb at a time.
  • Gear Loops: Fewer the better. Look for out of the way gear loops because you aren’t going to be lugging cams up the wall. Usually, you are going to want to look for 2-4 gear loops on these harnesses.
  • Buckles: You definitely want an automatic double-back buckle to get in and out of the harness quickly.
  • Elastic Straps: Less important for sport and gym climbing. You probably don’t care how adjustable they are or if they have buckles. This is ultimately personal preference.

“I mainly trad climb…” or “I usually multi-pitch climb…”

  • Waist Belt and Leg Loops: You’re looking for a thicker, more durable padding on the waist belt and leg loops.
  • Gear Loops: The more the merrier!  Usually, you are going to want to look for 4 or more gear loops located more forward on the harness for easy access to gear. It’s also important to note that some harnesses have special gear loops that spring upwards rather than hang down to conveniently hang gear. This is a nice bonus feature.
  • Buckles: This doesn’t matter so much because once you’re in the harness, you’re pretty much there for the day.
  • Elastic Straps: We’re definitely going to want adjustable straps so that you can stay tied in when you’re taking care of business.

“What is the difference between the Men’s and Women’s models?”

  • Companies often will try to fit a harness for a woman’s build so that the harness fits more naturally and comfortably. This includes the shape of the waist belt, the leg to waist ratio of the elastic straps and overall build, and the location of the gear loops. At the end of the day, you are trying to find a harness that fits the most comfortably and has all of the features that you require, and a woman’s-fit harness simply expands your options, which optimizes that choice.

So you’ve got an idea of what type of harness you want, now what? The next step is either to hop online and pull the trigger, wait for the harness to come in, and hope it fits the way you thought it would. OR if you are lucky enough to have access to a gym or store that carries that particular harness, you can go in and try it on. Whether you’re pulling it out of the box or at a store trying it on, here’s how to check the fit.

Fitting

  • The first thing you should do when trying on a harness is to pull the waist belt all the way up to your belly-button and tighten the strap so you have about 2 fingers of free space between you and the harness. You want to be roughly in the middle of the adjustable portion of the strap. If you had to pull all the way to the end or barely tighten at all to get to this point, you will want to try a smaller or larger size harness respectively. You always want to be able to adjust in or out with your harness.
  • Next, you want to tighten the leg straps (if that is an option). Tighter = more comfortable while hanging, but restricted. Looser = less comfortable when hanging, but less restricted.
  • With the harness now on, place your toes and nose against a wall to simulate the amount of space you will have in front of you while climbing. You’ll feel silly, but trust me. Turn left and right to feel if the harness is too stiff or loose.
    • From this position, also check the location of the gear loops (pretend to reach back for gear). Are the gear loops close enough? Facing a good direction for you?

Some Final Tips

  • NEVER buy used. Like any other piece of climbing gear, be sure to spend the extra couple of bucks and buy a new one. It’s not worth the risk of not knowing how the piece of gear was stored or treated before you owned it.
  • Set a budget. Often, companies have tiers of harnesses from the $40-$60 range, to the $75-$100 range, to the > $120 range. You are simply going to get more features, more in-line with your wishlist, as the price goes up. So if you set your budget in the mid-range, you may have to sacrifice something like the number of gear loops or the comfort of the leg straps.
  • Lastly, you always have to make sure you store your harness in a temperature controlled space AKA NOT the trunk of our car.

 

With all of this in mind, you should now have no problem swimming through the sea of climbing harness options on Amazon, Backcountry, REI, and countless other gear sites. Right?

Maybe. There really are hundreds of options when it comes to picking out a harness and, as I said before, it’s difficult to go wrong. However, now you have the tools to make that process a bit easier and pick a harness that hits all of your climbing needs.

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Year you started climbing?
2010

Year you started working at Sportrock?
2014

Favorite climbing spot?
New River Gorge, WV

Most memorable climbing experience?
Splurging on a cabin at the New and getting to soak in a hot tub every night after climbing. Not so much the having to sleep on the couch after.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee?
Summer Camp instructor, Belay instructor, Front Desk staff, Marketing Manager, Brand Manager.

Passions in life?
My family, all animals (especially my two cats), design, and popcorn.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words?
Creative, loud, and obsessed-with-animals.

What would surprise us to learn about you?
Surprisingly, there are still people at Sportrock who don’t know I have an identical twin sister...even though we climb together. Also that I’m originally from California and married to my high school sweetheart.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why?
Definitely a cat. I love naps in warm, cozy places.

Lillian Chao-Quinlan
Lillian Chao-Quinlan

President

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2000

Favorite climbing spot? Kalymnos, Greece.

Most memorable climbing experience? Too many and all memorable for different reasons - sending a hard climb, being in a beautiful place, climbing with my husband and friends...

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Instructor, Investor, President.

Passions in life? Creating opportunities in the climbing community that support people in discovering their potential!

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, driven, reliable.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I LOVE M&Ms (dark chocolate specifically!).

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Grizzly bear because I love the great outdoors, eating fish and scaring campers!

Andrew Kozak
Andrew Kozak

Senior Director | Director of SR Sterling

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

Favorite climbing spot? Red Rocks, NV.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Great Arch in Stone Mountain, NC.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I’ve done them all.

Passions in life? Family.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Caring, Committed, Clean.

What would surprise us to learn about you? On hard, crimpy boulder problems, I only climb with 9 fingers.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pet panda for my daughter because she LOVES them.

Sean Taft-Morales
Sean Taft-Morales

Director of SR Alexandria & Outdoor Programs

Year you started climbing? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Yosemite in early spring.

Most memorable climbing experience? One of my most memorable moments came at the end of the first day of my first big-wall climb. I was hating life, had been belaying on a 6 inch ledge for hours, was cold, hungry, and had forgotten my headlamp in the bottom of the haul bag. I was just about ready to give up on climbing forever when the sun started to set, and a cloud of a thousand swifts started feeding all around me. Climbing to me is all about stepping back to find beauty in these extreme environments and experiences. You have to get out of your head and recognize that it's a pretty cool planet.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Outdoor guide, Desk staff, Closing manager, Basic Skills instructor, Camp Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Outdoor Programs.

Passions in life? Aside from climbing, I love baking bread, sailing, and playing dungeons and dragons.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Evidence-based, Glittery, Color-coordinated.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I once hitchhiked over 2,000 miles in 8 months around the southwest US climbing. I also started climbing after attending a Sportrock birthday party.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? I would be a blue whale - it's the most alien landscape and fundamentally different experience I could imagine.

James Anastasion
James Anastasion

Director of Membership

Year you started climbing? 1994

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2003

Favorite climbing spot? Chattanooga, TN.

Most memorable climbing experience? Leading my wife up Old Ladies at Seneca Rocks to propose on the south summit.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I started as a routesetter and continued with that part-time through most of my Sportrock career. I was also the SR Rockville Gym Director, Operations Director, Instructor, IT Department, Cleaner, Builder, Repairman, Purchaser, Installer, etc. And I continue to do many of these roles while also working as the Director of Membership.

Passions in life? My family is always at the top of my list. A recent and strong passion of mine though has become obstacle course racing. If I'm not spending time on either of those things, then you will probably find me in the shop fixing or building something.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Sarcastic (from my wife), Strong (from my daughter), Blank stare (from my son).

What would surprise us to learn about you? I can add poop and fart lyrics to most Disney tunes, especially Frozen and Descendants. If you want to get your daughter laughing, just sing “let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.”

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Okapi. It is rarely seen and rarely heard of. However, when it finally comes to light you can only think that Prometheus’s children got a hold of the clay one day.

Molly Donelan

Director of Programs & Events

Year you started climbing? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2007

Favorite climbing spot? Echo Cliffs or Red River Gorge.

Most memorable climbing experience? Deep water soloing in Mallorca, Spain.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Yoga Instructor, Climbing Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Outdoor Instructor, Lead Manager, Assistant Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Programs & Events.

Passions in life? My family, jigsaw puzzles, my dogs, camping, climbing, running, baking, neurobiology, and eating.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, Crazy, Independent.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I used to run my own catering baking business, DC Treats, which served to over 15 bars/restaurants in the DC area, including Good Stuff Eatery and Sticky Rice.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? An elephant because they are strong, intelligent, loyal to the group, and unstoppable.

Leah Thomas
Leah Thomas

Assistant Director of SR Alexandria

Year you started climbing? 2010

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Red River Gorge and Reeds Creek.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Red River Gorge was my first outdoor trip ever. I knew nothing and went with experts! It was my first lead belay and the first time I cleaned a route. I fell in love. And the experience reminded me that I was improving, growing, and getting over my fear of heights every day.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Birthday Party Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Front Desk Manager, Instructor, Retail Manager, Assistant Director of Alexandria.

Passions in life? My passion in life is helping others work for and achieve goals. Every personality test I’ve taken led me to the same common theme: helping, teaching, and motivating others. Currently, I want to share the love of climbing with those who may not have the opportunity to do so and introduce a new mental and physical challenge into their lives.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Loyal, Enthusiastic, Supportive.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Other than being absolutely afraid of heights...I love love love the sound of lawnmowers because it reminds me of warmer weather and free time. It's the sound of summer! I played soccer since I was 2 years old, was a Middle School PE teacher, and completed a 500 mile hike. I also lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six months and scored free tea and coffee almost daily for three of them!

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Golden Retriever - The extroverted, loyal cuddler that loves to play and meet new people. They are energetic, active, and they love and want to play with everyone. They also like meeting new people, going on long hikes and adventures, and sharing hugs and treats.

Gray O'Reilly
Gray O'Reilly

Marketing Manager

Year you started climbing? 2012

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2014

Favorite climbing spot? Leavenworth, WA.

Most memorable climbing experience? Freezing temps. 50-degree sleeping bags. Car stuck in the mud. Unable to start a fire. Finally start a fire. Snow. Fire goes out. Car still stuck in mud. Start another fire. Survive the night on body heat and sheer force of will. Climb at Endless Wall the next day!

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Belay bot for parties and open climb; Summer Camp instructor; Private Lesson instructor; Head Camp Coordinator; Marketing Manager.

Passions in life? School is and always will be one of my great passions. If I could professionally collect degrees in various fields, I would. Also, publishing a novel is a lifelong dream of mine. So I would say, besides climbing: learning, writing, music, environmentalism...and climbing.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Follows directions.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I was NOT in a fraternity in college. But I was in an all-male acapella group.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Humpback Whale. No natural predators, meals swim into my mouth, and people travel from around the world to watch me belly flop? Yes, please.

Jeremy Hardin
Jeremy Hardin

Senior Director | Director of Routesetting (L5)

Year you started climbing? 2002

Year you started setting? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

How many comps have you set for? 100+ including multiple World Cup and National Championships.

What is your goal when setting? For gym setting, I try to make every climb consistent in grade, with respect to height and reach, with flow and memorable sequences or movement. For comp setting, the goal is to create fun and fair routes or problems to separate the field of competitors. We try to test all abilities and styles for the overall "best" climber of the event.

How do you come up with route names? That's the hardest part of my day. Normally it comes down to the first two words I can rhyme that are appropriate.

Favorite route name? One Crazy Hooker.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? My reputation.

Setting pet peeves? When climbers do a sequence or move incorrectly or harder than what is obvious and then complain the movement was "awkward"... sometimes it's not the climb that’s awkward, it's the climber.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Try harder.

Passions in life? My wife and son, cars and trucks, fixing stuff.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? He’s a Workhorse.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I train and compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A Lion, because he’s the king of the jungle!

Stephen Meinhold
Stephen Meinhold

Head Routesetter (L4)

Year you started climbing? 1996

Year you started setting? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2017

How many comps have you set for? 32

Why did you start setting? Early on I was more focused on competing than setting. I competed in ABS & USA Climbing National events, UBC Pro Tour events, Mammut Bouldering Championships, Dark Horse Series, Portland Boulder Rally, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, and even an Ice Climbing comp. I thought comps started to neglect the competitor for "world cup" style problems so I started to focus on setting to better understand this style. I have been head setter for a few different gyms in NC, PA, and OR over the years, and I have set multiple USA Climbing National events.

What is your goal when setting? To force you to do whatever I want you to do.

How do you come up with route names? I stare at the computer screen and mumble until I come up with something.

Favorite route name? Manilla Vanure.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? Coffee and pastries.

Setting pet peeves? Metric bolts.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Seek out beta or work it out with a friend. Sometimes I can set very contrived with a specific sequence, so if you can't figure it out maybe someone else can. Just like outside, learning how to project routes can help with the redpoint process. More pull-ups always help.

Passions in life? My wife and baby boy... and cookies, all of them.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Slow-motion Train Wreck.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Before getting back in the gym I was a High School Chemistry/Physics/Math teacher. I have horrible balance. I am a huge fan of rap and hip-hop.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Gorilla, it’s my spirit animal.

JD Cantrell
JD Cantrell

Routesetter (L2)

Year you started climbing? 2005

Year you started setting? 2009

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2012

How many comps have you set for? Dozens.

Why did you start setting? I would skip class to go climb at Virginia Beach Rock Gym while my friends, Scott Johns and Tommy Morrison, were setting and they kind of took me under their wing.

What is your goal when setting? To force the movement, duh...

How do you come up with route names? I keep an ongoing list in my phone of things and phrases that I think would make good route names. There’s lots of pop culture references.

Favorite route name? All my favorite route names are NSFW.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? The bills don't pay themselves.

Setting pet peeves? Not having enough coffee.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Trade beta for baked goods.

Passions in life? Rock climbing, yoga, art, building things.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Doesn't follow instructions well.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I’m a bit of a neat freak.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pug, everybody likes pugs.

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