The very first rock climbing harness I ever purchased some 20-odd years ago was a lavender and grey thing. It got about two or three uses before being stored in a cupboard, a future trash-bin casualty rediscovered more than a decade later during the obligatory garage cleaning. I bought my first harness because, at the time, I was involved with one of those radical pop psychology therapy seminar groups. No, not NXIVM, no scar peeking out of my no-no square. But, just the same, the seminars were designed to push us to our limits, so we harnessed up at the local climbing gym for one of the seminar days designed to teach us about goal setting. Outside of that day, with a goal so unremarkable I can’t remember it, I haven’t shopped for a harness.
Lucky for me, when I started paling around with some friends who climb, one of them is nearly identical to me in body and shoe size. I started tagging along with them to climb, and eventually stuck my legs through my friend’s harness on my very first send. (If we are being honest, and I think we are, her husband more or less hoisted me up.) The buzz I caught that day was so good, I wanted to do it again.
When I started going to the climbing gym on my own, I knew I was really into it and not just for the social kudos. No one who subjects themselves to the punishment of an auto belay would do so just for cool points. That day, with a sternum full of bruises, I knew I was committed and I started looking around for my own harness.
The thing about being a new rock climber buying a harness for the first time (that therapeutic stint two decades ago doesn’t count) is that it’s pretty overwhelming. The REI app on my phone was a pretty great resource, but the selection was so vast I could smell the nylon through my phone. Like any self-respecting lackey, I asked my friend’s opinion on a grey-and-white Petzl I was eyeing. I also did some extra snooping around by myself and was very pleasantly surprised.
The first thing to know about buying your first rock climbing harness is that they, for the most part, are all good. Unless you order something suspiciously cheap from a far-off land, chances are you’re getting a safe harness. While the United States does not have legislation in place regarding the safety standards of harnesses, nearly all harness manufacturers meet or exceed the standards set forth by the European Committee for Standardization. This way, they can sell their products to more… well, more safety-minded countries. The UIAA has their own plump set of regulations as well that are widely recognized. Simply put, you’d really have to go out of your way to purchase an unsafe harness in North America, thanks to our friends across the pond.
The second thing you’d want to consider is comfort. When choosing a harness, the width of the padding on the waistband and leg loops impacts how comfortable you can hang or fall. The wider the padding, the more comfortable you’ll be. The funny thing here is that, as a new rock climber, you probably won’t need really wide padding. You won’t be sending big, multi-pitch walls anytime soon. Still, it does take some time to get used to the harness, and so you may want to look at a few varieties to make sure the width and padding are comfortable enough as to not be distracting.
Thirdly, try to resist the urge to buy all the bells and whistles for your first harness. As a new rock climber, it’s not like you are going to send El Capitan with a full rack on a multi-pitch. Yes, a few basics like a chalk bag and carabiner are useful and sure will come in handy, but ultimately you’ll likely be doing sport climbing and all that really requires is a simple harness. You can always add on a rack later if you are hauling equipment up, but the reality is by that time you’re likely due for a new harness anyways, as you’ll have put some serious hours in on the first one you bought learning how to climb.
Most outdoor gear stores have some kind of ability at their store to allow you to try the harness on before you purchase. Pump these people for their knowledge, they can be a great resource as you make your first major financial commitment to climbing. While you are pelting them with questions, make sure you get super clear about what to look for when retiring your harness. Depending on how often it’s used, cared for, and stored, harnesses can last between a year (for career climbers doing big walls) and ten years (properly stored). A harness is meant to keep you safe, but it only works if you treat it like a piece of equipment and not a supervisor. You are always in charge of your own safety.
As for me, I think I’m already sold on the Petzl set. My friend approves, and since she’s likely going to be the one staring at my looped-up butt while life-coaching me on a 5.0, I am taking her into consideration. And, it’s pretty. Priorities and such.