Different types of rock climbing harness – How to choose

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The rock climbing harness design has come a long way since it was invented back in the 60s by Yosemite climbers. Harness designs had evolved as climbers are becoming more specialized and require specific functions catered to different types of climbing. To many casual climbers, a harness is a harness. We are all very familiar with the harness we have but do we really? Have you looked at your harness and asked yourself what the hell is this for? If you had not is ok, as we will look at these unique features on your harness and answer all the questions which you should have asked before buying a harness.

Parts of a harness

Different types of rock climbing harness

Gym harness

Petzl Gym Climbing Harness

Gym harness is commonly used for training purposes. It is most likely the first harness you’d put on when you started climbing. Gym harness has only the most essential features a harness needs making it very cheap thus it is commonly used for introductory climbing programs and courses. Gym harness mostly come in just 1 size and is made of nylon webbing without any padding hence extremely uncomfortable.

If you are looking at getting into climbing you should NOT buy a gym harness for personal use.

Sport harness

There are many different types of sport harnesses. Each design serves a unique purpose for different types of climbing.

Standard sport harness

Black Diamond Solution

Most sport harness design comes with a single waist belt buckle, 2 or 4 gear loops and a non-adjustable leg loops. Sport harness is suitable for climbers of all levels and it great for gym sessions and a day out at the crag.

Sport harness with 2 waist belt buckles

Petzl Macchu

You might have come across sport harnesses with 2 waist belt buckles. It might not make sense to have 2 waist buckles especially if you are climbing in an area that is hot and humid. However, if you are climbing in an area that is cold you’ll understand why harness with 2 waist buckles is necessary.

Climbers wear multiple layers of thick clothing when climbing in a cold climate. You’ll need to loosen your harness waist buckle if you are wearing your harness over thick clothing. Loosening harness with a single waist buckle will cause the belay loop to move off centre and the gear loops out off position.

The purpose of having 2 waist belt buckles is to allow climbers to loosen the harness using both left and right buckles to maintain the belay loop at the centre of the harness when wearing over thick clothing.

Sport harness with adjustable leg loops

Harness with adjustable leg loops allows leg loops to be tightened or loosen according to climbers’ needs. Climbers and mountaineer that climb in cold conditions will need to wear thick clothing hence necessary for adjustable leg loops.

Another important purpose for adjustable leg loops is so that climbers can remove leg loops without having to take off their harness. For climbers and mountaineers, there will be situations where it is necessary to remove leg loops while still keeping the harness on and clip into safety. It is not uncommon for climbers to loosen or undo their leg loops when resting on a portaledge. It is also absolutely necessary to undo your leg loops when you need a change of underwear or when taking a shit on the portaledge.

Lightweight sport harness

Petzl Sitta

Manufacturers are constantly experimenting with new lightweight materials to reduce the weight of climbing gear and harness is no exception. Ultra-light and thin materials are used to construct lightweight harnesses that can weigh as little as 300grams. These harnesses are light and compact which is great for travelling. However, lightweight harnesses are lightly padded hence can be quite uncomfortable when worn for long climbs, eg multipitch routes.

Big wall harness

Singing Rock Dome

Imagine spending days on a wall, having to sleep and poop on a portaledge while strapped into your harness. For such expedition climbs you’ll want to be in a harness that is well padded and comfortable. The harness waist belt and leg loops will need to be highly adjustable to accommodate cold weather clothing. Harnesses designed for big expedition climbs have a wide and thickly padded waist belt and leg loops to provide comfort and support while you hang on your safety for hours at a time belaying your partner.

For big wall climbs you properly need extra gear loops as well. Most harnesses designed for big wall have up to 6 or 7 gear loops for climbers to load up on extra climbing gear.

Black Diamond Big Gun
PC: Black Diamond Equipment


For most casual climbers a simple sport climbing harness will be more than sufficient for gym climbing or a day out at the crag. However, as you progress and move towards climbing outdoors and wants to explore big wall climbs you’ll need to equip yourself with a more purpose-built harness.

Climb more work less!

Related post

When to replace your rock climbing harness

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