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My second, er, third (and maybe fourth) rock climbing harness: how to buy a rock climbing harness

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
7 min read

I am nearing my fourth anniversary of climbing. I almost can’t believe it, but more on that another time. When I first started I picked up a Black Diamond Primrose ladies’ harness… back before they made them in “pretty” prints, back when they looked just like the men’s but were apparently cut differently. I wore that harness indoors and out, on trip after trip, for three and a half years. It held up great, it was relatively comfortable, the gear loops were adequate, and it served me well. Over the last season, though, it started to show its age, and I started shopping for a new harness to retire my beloved BD. The first contender was a Petzl Luna harness, received in a gear review pack from Urban Climber. The harness didn’t work out ideally for me… the harness I received was not the right size for me and didn’t adjust enough to fit. The gear loops were pretty tiny, also. I was skeptical about its comfort since it’s so lightly padded and lightweight, but it turned out to be plenty comfy in the limited testing I did. I don’t know that I’d routeset in it, but for sending hard sport routes, it would be my harness of choice, in the right size. The friend for whom it was a perfect fit adores it, so it’s getting good use from her.

After the Petzl experiment, I went back to my beloved BD. Read on for the rest of the shopping saga, as well as tips on how to choose and buy a rock climbing harness.

I climbed a few more trips in it, and many more gym sessions, before deciding on a recent trip that it’s time — I have to get serious and find a replacement. Initially, I had my heart set on one of the fancy new Arcteryx harnesses, but read user reviews of use in the field, and spoke with a climber who owned one during my last Smith trip, and was concerned about the durability given the conditions I climb in, so decided to keep shopping.

I shopped REI’s selection of climbing harnesses a few times half-heartedly… the newer womens’ BD Primrose wasn’t a perfect fit, despite its pretty colors, and the Black Diamond Iris seemed close, but I never managed to bring one home with me. In retrospect, that may have been the harness to go with — relatively decent gear loops, good but not ideal fit, relatively comfortable in a hang test at REI. I didn’t like the way the leg loop rise adjusted in the back, though, so the quest continued.

During my recent field trip to Portland, OR, I discovered Next Adventure, one of the world’s greatest (and most fun) gear shops. While my climbing partner shopped the entire rest of the store, I spent a ridiculous amount of time camped out in the climbing section with a very friendly Erik helping me shop for harnesses (and chatting about Pacific Northwest climbing areas). I tried on every harness they had in my size, starting with the womens’ and moving to the mens’. The womens’ harnesses on the market right now just plain don’t fit me… the rise is too short, so I can’t get the harness waistband properly around my waist; instead, it rides down around the top of my hips, which is unsafe and uncomfortable. The waist of the harness should sit properly around the narrow part of your waist.

To achieve that fit, I had to branch out and start trying mens’ harnesses. I tried the whole range they had at Next Adventure, including Black Diamond, Metolius, Mammut and Petzl. I hang tested many of them, before finally settling on the Black Diamond Focus SA.

I’ll call it “unisex” to make myself feel better, but really, it’s the men’s version of the Iris, which I’d come close to buying earlier. In the store, the men’s felt like a good fit, it was comfortable for my test hang, and it seemed solidly constructed with relatively adequate gear loops. It had the same adjustment system as the Iris, but I figured out how to work it quickly with just a bit of playing around. I liked the quick release / speed adjust buckles, after experiencing them on the Petzl Luna, so those were a buying criteria for me. The size that fit gives me a little bit of adjustment in the waist, and just a tiny bit of adjustment in the legs — my recollection is that the Iris had a bit more adjustment in the legs, so I’d encourage climbers to try on both the mens’ and the womens’ models in any given harness since you never know what’s going to fit better.

Anyway – the real test is in climbing. I haven’t yet gotten my new Focus SA outside, but I have climbed in it several times (including some hard toprope falls but not big lead falls yet) in the gym. Overall, I’m relatively happy, although not in love with the harness.

The upsides… this is one SOLID harness. It looks and feels incredibly well-constructed. It’s well-padded, and has the speed adjust buckles I like. The gear loops are some of the better of what’s available on the market right now, and, it is very comfortable on the wall.

The downsides… for some reason, it pinches a bit in places it shouldn’t when I’m on the ground; it’s not the world’s most comfortable harness for me for belaying. It took me awhile to get it adjusted to fit, which has helped the comfort a bit, but it’s still not just right. Perhaps (I’m being optimistic) it just needs to break in, or I still need to tweak the adjustment, so I’ll keep at it.

The ridiculous downside… apparently, people care what climbing harnesses look like on the body. I don’t — I don’t pay any attention, since fit and comfort and quality are my main buying criterion. But, after climbing in the new harness in the gym a few times, my main climbing partner just had to go and make a comment that the new harness isn’t attractive on me. After an incredulous dirty look from me, he settled on the comment that it looks “really, really safe.” Which it does — it’s one sturdy looking harness. I bitched to one of my best girl climbing partners about “can you believe he’d say something like that,” and she replied to the effect that “Yeah, I can — the harness looks kinda ‘special kid.'”

Wrong answer, sunshine! We climbergirls are supposed to stick together!

So — apparently I acquired a harness that looks kinda “special kid” on me. The upsides outweigh the downsides (and that ridiculous downside)… but instead of being in love at first sight with this harness, I think it’s going to
have to earn my adoration through shared experiences on the wall. I have no doubt it will (once I get this adjustment/pinching issue worked out).

The whole lengthy shopping experience has taught me a thing or two about shopping for climbing harnesses, and I don’t think the saga is over. I’m about to order a Black Diamond Diva, since even without the adjustable legs/chalk bag loop/drop seat I seem to fall right spot in the middle of one of their sizes, it’s BELOVED by some girlfriends shaped kinda like me (including my sister, who’s shaped differently, but I’ve tried hers on and it was a good fit)… or a Petzl Luna in my size. Edit… found a Petzl Selena on sale, so am going to give it a shot. I’m hoping that one of those will work out for the gym and sport cragging and then I can use the Focus for all day and long routes where comfort is key. Here’s my short list of advice:

  1. Try on every harness available. Even if you don’t think you’ll like it. Trying on as many harnesses as possible and messing with their fit and adjustment system teaches you what you like and dislike from the various manufacturers. Try multiple sizes, and try the mens’ (I mean, unisex) and womens’ versions since you just never know what’s going to fit.
  2. Emphasize fit over features. In retrospect, I’d trade my adequate gear loops for a harness that fits perfectly (e.g. — maybe should have gone with a different size of the Petzl or different style of BD despite small gear loops or other finer points).
  3. Hang test the harness, but also pay close attention to how it feels when you’re just standing around. I paid way more attention to the hang test, when really, you spend as much if not more time standing around and/or belaying than climbing. Comfort on the ground is very important.
  4. Ignore your friends. Who gives a crap if a harness isn’t cute. Your harness is a critical piece of safety equipment.

What do you think? What have I missed? Any advice for folks shopping for harnesses? Please add your thoughts, below.


Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.