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How to choose a climbing harness

Getting high off the ground on a rock climb is a feeling unlike any other. To reach that feeling, though, you need to have the correct gear to keep you safe in case of a fall. A climbing harness is a crucial piece of equipment: it’s the contact point between you, your rope and your belayer (the person on the ground on the other end of the rope to stop you from falling).

There are many climbing harness options to choose from, and you’ll see ones from brands like Black Diamond, Petzl and Edelrid in the mix. To help you find the best rock climbing harness for you, here are some things to think about:

  • What type of climbing are you doing?: Harnesses have different features for different styles of climbing.
  • How should a climbing harness fit?: Fit is more than just size. Find a harness that suits your body and the clothes you’ll be climbing in.
  • Do you need other gear?: Check out MEC climbing harness package deals.

Harnesses for different types of climbing

The first thing is to think about is the type of climbing you plan to do, so you can choose a harness with the features you need. You could be indoor or sport climbing; doing adventurous big-wall trad climbs or multi-pitch routes; ice climbing; or going fast and light on alpine climbs.

Gym and sport climbing

MEC Ambassador Alannah Yip climbing indoors

If you’re a new climber buying your first climbing harness, you’re likely starting out at an indoor gym or may be taking intro classes to learn about sport climbing outside.

Gym climbing and sport climbing require less gear than other climbing disciplines. Look for a harness with 2 to 4 gear loops and fixed leg loops. These harnesses are typically thinner and lighter to reduce weight and bulk, which leaves you free to focus on the send. If you’re climbing indoors, you may not need to carry any gear. Sport climbing outdoors, though, can be a different story. As sport routes continue to get longer and longer, some routes demand upwards of 30 quickdraws just to get to the top. A harness with 4 gear loops is more ideal for sport climbing to accommodate the increase in gear.

Trad and multi-pitch climbing

Trad climbing and multi-pitch climbing means carrying more gear than on a sport climb or in the gym. For multi-pitch routes, you’ll need to bring full anchor set-ups, rappelling gear, and clothes and water to last the whole climb. Because of that, you should look for a beefier harness with 4 or more gear loops to help with effective racking of all your protection. The thicker harness adds comfort and support for long days on route or in hanging belays.

Ice climbing

Close-up of ice clipper slots on a climbing harness
An example of ice clipper slots, circled in green above.

Ice climbing harnesses look similar to rock climbing harnesses, but with one key added feature: ice clipper slots. These are small loops of fabric that hold ice clippers – special carabiners that attach to a harness to help with racking ice screws. Look for a harness that has at least 2 ice clipper slots and adjustable leg loops to accommodate extra bulk that comes from wearing winter clothing.

Alpine climbing and mountaineering

MEC Ambassador Sarah Hart climbing in the Bugaboos

Alpine climbing involves going fast and light in the mountains. Alpine climbing harnesses offer similar features as ice climbing harnesses, but are extremely lightweight. Look for a harness that has a low profile so you can wear it comfortably under a backpack.

Mountaineering harnesses are trimmed down versions with little to no padding, and few gear loops, as they’re designed to offer protection at extremely low weights. Some mountaineering harnesses have fully adjustable leg loops to allow the user to put on the harness without removing crampons or skis.

Fitting a climbing harness

Climber putting on a climbing harness

Climbing harnesses come in different sizes, based on the waist circumference and leg loop circumference. If you can, it’s a good idea to try on a few harnesses to compare how they fit and feel.

A well-fitting harness should fit snugly above your hipbones and the “rise” (the distance between the leg loops and waist belt) should be comfortable. A harness that fits correctly cannot be pulled down over your hipbones. Whether fixed or adjustable, the leg loops should be snug but not tight. You should just be able to slip a hand between the leg loop and the upper thigh. There should not be any pressure points or hot spots around the waist or legs.

Adjustable vs. fixed leg loops

Fixed vs. adjustable climbing harnesses
Fixed leg loops (left) and adjustable leg loops (right).

Harness leg loops come in two styles:

  • Adjustable leg loops: have a buckle and webbing to fit a large range of leg sizes.
  • Fixed leg loops: have an elastic section to allow for a small amount of stretch, but do not have a buckle and webbing.

Adjustable leg loops are an excellent choice for anyone who’ll be climbing in a range of climates, because you can adjust the loops to accommodate extra layers of clothing. Fixed leg loops have a little less bulk and are lighter, which makes them a great option for climbers who want to shave weight and don’t need to add extra layers on their legs. It’s good to note that anyone who has large legs in proportion to their waist may find it hard to fit fixed leg loop harnesses.

Women’s climbing harnesses

When you’re choosing a harness, it’s important to make sure it’s supportive and comfortable since you’ll be doing lots of hanging in it. Depending on your body shape, you may want to look at women’s specific harnesses. Women’s specific harnesses are similar to unisex harnesses, but the difference is in the leg loops and waist belt proportions. They often have a smaller waist belt in proportion to the size of the leg loops, as well as a longer rise (the distance between the leg loops and waist belt). Some brands taper the leg loops and waist belt so that they sit better against some body shapes.

If you’re an expecting mother who is planning to climb through pregnancy, check out the Mad Rock Mountain Mama Harness.

Climbing harness packages

If you buy a harness and a pair of rock shoes at the same time from MEC, you can save 10% off your purchase of both. If you purchase a locking carabiner, belay device, chalk, chalk bag or helmet on the same transaction, you receive 10% off those items as well. These are all pieces of equipment that climbers will eventually need for route climbing.

Check out the rock climbing checklist to learn about other items you might want to boost your gear closet in the future.