Different Harnesses for Different Climbing Styles

Determining Which Gear is Best for You

Dr. Bill Springer climbs on Pine Cone Dome at Elevenmile Canyon.

Stewart M. Green

Harnesses are specifically made for different types of climbing, including sport, gym, and competition climbing, general all-around climbing, big wall climbing, alpine, and ice climbing, caving, and kids climbing. Specific harnesses are made for women and children.

How to Know What Kind of Harness You Need

What kind of climbing harness you purchase and use depends on what you plan to climb. Before buying a harness, the first thing you need to decide is how you’re going to use it, what kinds of climbs you plan to do, and what features are important to you and your climbing style. To determine what kind of harness you need, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you a beginner and just planning on climbing in an indoor climbing gym and doing occasional top-rope routes outside?
  • Do you want a super lightweight harness or a big beefy one?
  • Are you just hanging occasionally on sport climbing routes or do you need an ultra-comfy harness that you can sit in all day without cramping your calves?
  • Do you want padded leg loops and a plushly padded waist belt?
  • Do you want detachable leg loops to easily answer the call of nature?
  • Do you need an easily adjustable harness because you’re alpine climbing or want to use it for friends of varying body types?
  • Are you buying the harness for a child to wear climbing?
  • Do you need four gear racking loops or are two enough?
  • Which is more important to you—weight or comfort?
  • Do you need a woman’s harness with a smaller waist belt, larger leg loops, and longer rise than a man’s or unisex harness?

Harness Styles

Five basic styles of harnesses are manufactured for specific types of climbing and climbers.

  1. Gym and Competition HarnessesThese thin specialized harnesses are used for hard sport routes, gym training, and competition climbing where lightweight and free movement is essential. They have narrow leg loops and waistband; just enough padding for falls, hangdogging, and belaying; and are very lightweight. They are generally uncomfortable for most general climbing. Prices for sport harnesses range from $50 to $125.
  2. All Around or Multi-Purpose Harnesses: Multi-purpose harnesses are exactly that—harnesses for all kinds of climbing, including crack climbing and multi-pitch routes. These are ideal if you’re just starting out climbing as well as if you’re an experienced climber. They come in a wide variety of styles to fit all kinds of body types as well as budgets. Almost all of them feature padded leg loops and padded waist belt; detachable leg loops so you can answer nature’s call without taking it off; either two or four gear loops for racking carabiners, quickdraws, and gear on the waist belt; and a sewn dedicated belay/rappel loop on the front, connecting the waist belt and leg loops and allowing you to belay or rappel from it. Prices for all-around harnesses range from $50 to $150.
  3. Big Wall Harnesses: Big wall harnesses are big beefy harnesses intended for climbing multi-pitch routes on big walls that might take several days. Comfort on these long steep walls is very important so these harnesses have thickly padded waist belts and leg loops, which relieve pressure on the climber’s upper legs and waist when they are at hanging belays or standing in aiders while aid climbing. Big wall harnesses also have multiple gear loops so lots of equipment can be racked on them, as well as a sewn haul loop on the back of the waist belt and a thick sewn belay loop on the front. Prices range from $75 to $200.
  4. Alpine Harnesses: Alpine harnesses, designed for mountaineering, are lightweight bare-bones harnesses that are easily adjustable so they fit over a variety of bulky clothes since alpinists often change layers of clothes for different weather conditions. Leg loops are usually easily detached for bathroom breaks or to change pants. Look for ones with a padded waist belt for extra comfort. They are also constructed from durable water-repellent nylon so they can handle all kinds of wet and snowy mountain conditions. Alpine harnesses make a good beginner harness or an extra harness to bring to the crags for a friend since they are adjustable for various body types. These no-frills harnesses are inexpensive. Expect to pay around $50 for a good one.
  5. Chest and Body Harnesses: Chest and body harnesses are harnesses that either accompany a seat harness or are an integrated seat and chest harness. Chest harnesses are typically not worn by climbers but are essential equipment for caving. The usual situations where a climber might wear one are on routes where there is a chance of flipping upside-down in a fall such as falling into a crevasse on a glacier or ascending fixed ropes with a heavy pack. A chest harness is always worn with a seat harness. Prices range from $35 to $75 for a chest harness.
    1. A body harness, incorporating the leg loops and waist belt of a seat harness with a chest harness, are made specifically for children and adults with narrow waists and hips. When kids climb, they have a tendency to turn upside down when they fall since they are top-heavy. Body harnesses have a higher tie-in point than a seat harness, reducing the chances that a climber will flip upside down during a fall. It’s highly recommended that you always use a chest harness and a helmet on kid climbers under the age of 10 to avoid injury. Prices range from $50 to $125.