How to Choose Climbing Harnesses

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Close up of 2 climbers getting their harnesses ready for an outdoor climb

The importance of choosing the correct climbing harness can become quite clear when you are on a rock or ice face. Your type of climbing will determine of right harness for you.

Our video walks you through the basic considerations:


Parts of a Climbing Harness

Anatomy of a climbing harnessIf you’re new to climbing, your first step is to understand the parts of a harness.

  • Waistbelt (aka swami belt): Most seek to provide some combination of comfort with the minimum amount of weight. One or 2 buckles help to adjust the belt.
  • Buckles: These consist of 1 or 2 pieces of metal to allow for manual double–back or automatic double–back respectively. The buckle is usually a bit off–center to avoid conflict with rope tie–in. A harness must have a buckle for the waistbelt but does not necessarily need buckles on the leg loops.
  • Leg loops: Padded for comfort; adjustable to allow clothing changes while staying tied in. Made from a variety of materials.
  • Gear loops: Designed to carry equipment such as quickdraws and cams. Most harnesses have 4 gear loops, but specialized belts have additional loops to carry even more gear. Gear loops are commonly made from plastic and/or webbing. Some harnesses even have removable plastic gear loops that allow for the ultimate in customization. Warning: These loops are never intended to be clipped into as a piece of protection at an anchor.
  • Haul loop: Located on the back of the harness, this loop of stitched webbing is used to attach a second rope or haul line. Warning: It’s not intended to be load bearing or clipped into for a piece of protection. Similarly, never use this loop to attempt a forward or Australian–style rappel.
  • Belay loop: This is the strongest point on the harness and the only part that is load tested. Anything hard should attach to the belay loop (e.g., a locking carabiner while belaying or rappelling). Warning: You should not tie anything around the belay loop, including a daisy chain or sling. The belay loop will wear through quicker and is not designed to be used in this fashion. Belay loops are made of nylon webbing.
  • Tie–in points: These are the 2 loops connected to the belay loop. While not strength tested, they are quite strong. Independent studies show tie–in points breaking around 12–14 kiloNewtons (2,700–3,100 lbs.). Any cord, rope or webbing should be attached through both the lower and upper tie–in points. This distributes the wear and adds redundancy to your system. Warning: Do not belay or rappel with your carabiner attached through the 2 tie–in points—this weakens the strength of the carabiner; use the belay loop instead.
  • Rise/elastic straps: The rise is the distance between the 2 leg loops and the waistbelt. It is connected with thin webbing or elastic straps. If the straps are removable from the waistbelt, the harness is considered a drop–seat harness. Many alpine and trad harnesses are drop–seat harnesses and allow a climber to take off the leg loops without untying, when nature calls. Many sport and gym harnesses have permanent straps that cannot be temporarily removed. These straps can be adjusted up and down, altering the shape of the harness and affecting how it feels when you hang in it.


Types of Climbing Harnesses

Harnesses are designed for specific climbing styles, including:

Sport or gym harnesses: Stripped down for fast, ultralight travel, whether indoors in the gym or on outdoor sport routes. Typical features:

  • Single automatic or double–back waistbelt buckle: Quick and easy to get on and off.
  • 2 gear loops: Only 2 since minimal gear is needed.
  • Thin belay loop: Saves on weight.
  • Minimal leg adjustability: Many have no adjustment buckles on the leg loops to shave weight and create a sleek look; instead, they use material that will stretch and give. Rarely is layering of clothing require in these activities, so it is alright for the leg loops to have minimal adjustability.

Traditional (trad) harnesses: Trad climbing usually requires much more gear than sport climbing, so a trad harness maximizes space while being relatively light and comfortable. Typical features:

  • Adjustable leg loops with buckles: Either auto or manual double–back.
  • 4 or more gear loops: Designed to hold lots of gear.
  • Thick and durable padding: Increases comfort when spending a long time in the harness (introduction of hanging belays and multipitch climbing require thicker padding).
  • Extra lumbar padding: Helps to stabilize the lower back and waist.
  • Haul loop: For carrying up a second rope.

Ice and mixed harnesses: Similar to trad harnesses but designed to cope with winter conditions. Typical features:

  • Adjustable leg loops using buckles: Either auto or manual double–back. Fully adjustable to fit over winter clothing.
  • 4 or more gear loops: Designed to hold winter gear such as ice screws and ice tools. One to 2 clipper slots allow for the attachment of ice clippers to hold screws and tools.
  • Extra lumbar padding: Helps to stabilize the lower back and waist.
  • Haul loop: For carrying up a second rope.

Alpine/mountaineering harnesses: These offer all–season versatility. Lightweight, adjustable leg loops for easy on and off. Typical features:

  • Fully adjustable leg loops and waistbelt: Either auto or manual double–back; allow easy on and off.
  • 4 or fewer gear loops: For carrying a minimal amount of gear; won’t interfere with a pack.
  • Thin material: Designed to be worn easily with a pack. Thin material also creates a smaller and more packable harness that might not necessarily be worn the entire day.
  • Thin belay loop: Saves weight; on some models, it is even completely removed from the harness, and one must belay/rappel from the waistbelt and leg loop.
  • Haul loop: For carrying up a second rope.

Specialized harnesses: Harnesses are designed for other climbing niches, too. While REI doesn’t usually carry these, they’re worth a mention.

  • Canyoneering:
    • Extra seat protection, usually featuring water–resistant materials.
    • Single tie–in point doubles as belay loop.
    • Thick and beefy to accommodate frequent rubbing against rock.
  • Competition:
    • Removal of gear loops since nothing is getting carried up.
    • Thin belay loop, sometimes completely removed.
    • Designed to feel like you are wearing nothing at all.
  • Big wall:
    • Extra wide padding to ensure comfort for many hours of hang time.
    • 2 belay loops to maximize safety and allow for various rigging configurations.
    • Extra gear loops, 6 to 10 total, for carrying the large amount of gear needed to aid–climb a big wall.
  • Full body/rescue:
    • Usually a combination of a chest harness system and a sit harness system.
    • Provides more body support, which is needed to help carry heavy loads or to stabilize large objects (e.g., a rescue litter, large tree branch).
    • Not for climbing.


Harnesses for Women and Kids

Women’s Harnesses

A number of styles are specifically designed for a women’s physique, with unique fit and comfort characteristics built in. Be aware that a men’s version of a harness will not fit the same as a women’s version. Women–specific aspects include:

  • Shaped waistbelt.
  • Increased rise.
  • Reduction in the leg–to–waist ratio.

Shop women's harnesses 


Kids’ Harnesses

These share many features with adult harnesses but are designed to accommodate a child’s physique.

Very young children have a relatively high center of gravity (due to a larger head–to–torso ratio) and should be outfitted with a full–body harness. A child’s full–body harness is considered a type B harness and is designed for weights no greater than 40Kg (88 lbs.). Full–body harnesses usually work best for children 5 and under.

As your child’s center of gravity lowers (due to a lowering of the head–to–torso ratio), a sit harness becomes the better choice. A sit harness teaches children basic harness safety at a young age, since a child’s sit harness and an adult’s sit harness are built in the same fashion and must pass the same tests. The lack of an upper restraining system also allows for the tie–in point to be lower. This helps keep the knot out of a child’s face when top–roping.


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How to Fit and Test a Climbing Harness

The text below provides some general information that applies to many harnesses. However, it’s important to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific harness model.


Steps for Putting on a Climbing Harness

  1. First loosen the straps on both leg loops (if they are adjustable) and then the strap securing the waistbelt.
  2. Step into the harness. Pay careful attention that the leg loops are not crossing, the belay loop is not twisted and that the waistbelt is not upside down. The belay loop should face the front of the harness.
  3. Situate the waistbelt slightly above your iliac crest, which is near belly–button level for most people. Having the waistbelt above your hips ensures that you will not accidentally slip out of the harness in the event you fall upside down. Once the waistbelt is situated, tighten it securely.
  4. You should have no more than a 2–finger gap in slack between your waist and the harness. Make sure that the buckle is doubled back (not necessary if the buckle is an auto double–back model).
  5. A well–fitted harness should have the ability to adjust to a larger and smaller size equally, allowing the harness to grow or shrink in diameter. A harness that is “maxed out” or at the end of its range of adjustability is not unsafe; however it may be difficult to get in or out of and may limit versatility.
  6. Adjust the leg loops, 1 at a time. Some harnesses do not have adjustable leg loops and will use a piece of elastic to allow the leg loop to stretch.
  7. The exact placement of leg loops is less important than the waistbelt; it is based more on comfort. Make sure that the loops allow mobility and do not pinch in a manner that could hurt. I find that placing the leg loops close to the groin and having a 2–finger gap in slack between the loop and my leg works best.
  8. The tighter your leg loops, the more snug and comfortable you will be while hanging freely, although range of movement can be restricted. Conversely, looser leg loops allow for more mobility and motion but are not as comfortable to dead–hang in. The harness is safe in either case, so ultimately you must make the personal call on comfort.
  9. Finally, make sure the buckles on each loop are doubled back. You are now ready to test your harness.


Steps for Testing a Harness

  1. It is impossible to tell if a harness will truly be comfortable without hanging in it or weighting it. Many REI stores have either a harness testing station or a rock wall where you can hang on a rope. Ask an REI climbing associate for help if you have any questions. When the harness is weighted, it should feel relatively comfortable and be easy for you to sit upright (like a chair).
  2. The waistbelt should not shift or move excessively. If it does, tighten it until the shifting stops. The harness should also not feel like it digs too hard into your skin. If there are any noticeable points of pressure, then consider trying a different harness. You can also test for shifting by trying to pull the waistbelt down over the hips. You should not be able to. If the store lets you hang from a rope, slowly inverting yourself is another way to test a waistbelt for slippage.
  3. If you feel like you are using too much of your core to keep yourself upright, you might need to adjust the rise of the harness. Each leg loop has an elastic strap on the back that can be adjusted in length. Shortening the rise should help allow you to sit upright in the harness without using too much of your core. If adjusting the rise does not help, try a different harness.
  4. Just remember, every body is different and not every harness will fit perfectly. There are many harness styles though, so be willing to try on a few different models to see which works best for you.


Harness Standards

Harnesses, like most climbing gear, are engineered for safety. The forces required to break the harness would far exceed the force required to do internal bodily harm. This may not be important to you when choosing a harness, but it’s information that every astute climber should be aware of.

All harnesses must be submitted for stringent testing to satisfy the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA 105) or the European Committee for Standardization (EN12277). Both of these are independent testing groups that help ensure quality standards among a variety of products.

Harnesses are categorized and defined by their shape and use. All climbing harnesses mentioned in this article that consist of a waistbelt and 2 leg loops are classified as a Type C sit harness. On a Type C sit harness, the belay loop is tested to 15kN (3,372 lbs.). A full–body harness that is child–specific is considered a Type B small–body harness and is designed for weights ≤ 40 Kg (≤ 88 lbs.). A Type B small–body harness’ tie–in points must be rated to a minimum of 10kN (2,240 lbs.).

For harness care instructions, see the REI Expert Advice Caring for Your Climbing Harness article.

For general climbing information and video instruction, see the REI Expert Advice Getting Started Rock Climbing article.



Learn more about How to Choose Climbing Gear