A climbing harness is a key piece of your personal climbing equipment. Your climbing harness, with a waist belt and leg loops constructed of sturdy nylon webbing, is what you connect yourself to your climbing rope by tying the rope into the harness with a figure-8 follow-through knot. The waist belt of your harness sits on your hips and, when combined with snug leg loops, transfers the energy and force of a fall onto your pelvis. The climbing harness also forms a comfortable seat for lowering and rappelling off a cliff.
Evolution of the Harness
Harnesses evolved for durability, safety, and comfort for climbing. Prior to the invention of harnesses, climbers tied the rope directly around their waist, using a bowline-on-a-coil, which created a lot of discomfort if the climber fell or hung from the rope. This sometimes caused broken ribs, or, in some cases, a tight rope around a climber’s waist which led to suffocation when the rope tightened around the diaphragm and the climber was unable to breathe.
The First Harnesses
Climbers then began making “Swiss seats” by taking long lengths of tubular webbing, tying leg loops in them, and wrapping the remainder of the webbing around their waist and then tying the rope into it. This basic harness is what I first used as a beginning climber in the 1960s and is still used by outdoor programs like Outward Bound. By 1970, the Swiss seat evolved into the precursor of today’s modern harness.
The Modern Climbing Harness
One of the first commercial rock climbing harnesses made, and the first one I owned, was designed and sold by Colorado climber and gear innovator Bill Forrest. It featured a three-inch-wide waist belt, what climbers call “swami belts,” that could be used alone on a climber's waist or with leg loops, which made it into a sit harness similar to today’s models. Another landmark climbing harness was the famous Whillans Harness from Troll in England, which was designed by the famed British climber Don Whillans.
What is the Best Climbing Harness for You?
There are lots of climbing harnesses available. As of 2013, over 150 climbing harnesses are available from over 25 equipment manufacturers. If you plan on doing much climbing, then you would be wise to purchase your own harness rather than rent or borrow one. A harness can be purchased as part of a beginner climbing package, along with rock shoes and a chalk bag.
Buy a Harness that Fits Well
The best climbing harness is the one that fits you comfortably, is easy to take on and off, and fits the type of climbing you’re doing—indoor gym climbing, sport climbing, big wall adventures, or mountaineering and alpine climbing in the big ranges.
Harness is Essential Climbing Gear
Your harness is the key piece of climbing equipment that links you to your climbing rope, which you tie into the harness. A good harness keeps you safe all of the time that you're on the rock and allows you to climb in relative comfort. The old-style alternative to the modern climbing harness is the rope tied directly around your waist, which is definitely not comfortable. Buy a comfy harness and you will be lots happier when you fall, hang, and climb. For more information about buying a new climbing harness read the article Seven Tips to Help Buy the Right Harness.