Uncomfortable Climbing Harnesses

My harness is uncomfortable. It is fully padded but, like LBJ said, it “rides me like a wire fence.” What gives?

My harness is uncomfortable. It is fully padded but, like LBJ said, it “rides me like a wire fence.” What gives?

—Jim Davis (the second!) via rockandice.com


Padding and its relationship to comfort are as misunderstood as, well, Gear Guy. People think I’m an angry trad guy who doesn’t like the new way of climbing, pulling on bolts and screaming, but I do some of that myself, and especially like screwing around on those smaller rocks in the woods and falling on a bed mattress. That’s because I like everything.

Now, as we know, mattress padding smooths out the lumps and gives your bones a place to settle, but my office chair isn’t padded and is more comfortable than if it was stuffed with the feathers of 500 eider ducks. This is because it uses a mesh fabric for load distribution. It is PROPERLY engineered with support where you need it and no support where you don’t.

Harnesses are basically chairs, so let’s learn from that and move forward. There is a trend now of minimal or completely unpadded harnesses (one is reviewed in this issue, in fact). This isn’t because the companies making these harnesses are trying to save a few bucks, but because they are studying how a living human body hangs in a harness and where there is or isn’t pressure, and they are adjusting their designs accordingly. Compare this to the historical padded harness, where every inch was stuffed dog-toy style with foam. These models were improvements over the Whillans Sit Harness and its single strap that ran right between your legs, garrote style, so no one complained, but now that three or four decades have passed, it’s OK to ask for “a little thoughtful engineering, please!”

Certainly, any harness maker worth its stitching now has anatomically correct models—over 100, in fact, enough so even Gumbys, poltroons and mesomorphs can, like the three bears, find one that’s just right. But we shouldn’t blame discomfort entirely on harness design, any more than we should blame water for being too hot. Instead, do something about it. A poor fit may be the culprit. For any harness to reach its comfort potential, it has to place just the right amount of pressure in the leg loops and waistbelt. A harness that is too large or too small will weight one area too much over the other. When the leg loops are too large or the “rise,” the distance between the leg loops, is too long, the waistbelt can slip up to your short ribs. Leg loops that are too little concentrate the weight on your thighs.

Guys and gals who are on the cusp of sizes—max out a small but are loose in a medium—will be the ones most likely to have issues with comfort because the harness fits like an older-sister’s hand-me-down. Fully adjustable harnesses solve the issue, and that’s what I often use even if they do have “crusty old tradster” written all over them. Next!


Feature Image: Ben, via flickr.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 231 (January 2016).

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