Choosing a harness

By Roger Dyke


This is an email Neville sent me 3 years ago when my harness had become quite fluffy and no longer inspired confidence.   Why had I asked Neville for his advice?  Because he had been Chairman of the BMC Technical Committee for 13 years, Vice-President of the UIAA Safety Commission for a similar length of time, and knew as much about the technical aspects of climbing gear as anyone else in Britain.

This is what Neville replied:-

Firstly you should realise that all models of harness sold in Europe have to meet the requirements of the CEN standard for mountaineering harnesses (EN 12277) so they are all strong enough to hold you in the event of a fall. But that doesn’t mean you will find them all comfortable or convenient in use. So think what you need a harness for……

Most of the time, if you are leading, it is to hold your dangly bits suitably stacked, where you can quickly get the chock you want, then clip it back on the gear loop and change it for the size you should have chosen in the first place. So make sure the harness has the right number of gear loops for you, and placed where you want them. Gear loops used to be floppy, now they are more rigid. Make sure they hold your gear where you want it, and in the manner you want. Although you can rule some harness designs out on this basis, the only way to check for sure is to try a harness on, see where the loops are, and clip some gear to it. So although websites and photographs can help, never buy a harness without trying it on in a friendly shop.

The above only applies to trad climbing - if you only do sport climbs or lead at a climbing wall, you only need a couple of gear loops for quickdraws.

All harnesses are used for belaying:  so, when wearing the harness check out the belay loop.  Is it too big, or too small?
Where will your brake plate be when someone falls off above you? Or falls off below you?
Think of where the brakeplate will be when abseiling.
Will you be comfortable with all that?

Finally think of falling off.
Will you be acceptably comfortable hanging in space for 10 minutes?
This is where the friendly shop comes in:  hang from the ceiling for several minutes to see if you feel OK.
I have found some harnesses hold me in a position that I find very stressful, very quickly.   When we were developing the standard, I spent quite some time hanging around in harnesses; surprisingly I found some of the cheaper, more basic models more comfortable to hang around in than some expensive ones.  No doubt it is a personal thing, but you need to find out before you buy the harness, not afterwards.

So, buy from a friendly shop that stocks the harnesses you are interested in.
Test the gear loops and the belay loop, and do a hanging test before you decide to buy.