1. Waist Belt and Buckle
If the waist belt on your harness hasn't been cinched tightly and doubled back through the buckle, you might as well be roped in to your Speedo—if you fall, the rope will catch the harness, but you'll keep going. Since a harness should be safe and comfortable, here are two things to keep in mind: First, the buckle should be easy to thread; look for small tabs that help spread the two plates apart when doubling back, or a design that automatically cinches the waist belt when it's weighted. Second, firm closed-cell foam inside the belt is better than squishy foam because it rebounds better over time. Look for soft wicking materials in areas that make contact with your skin, and a belt that's wider at the back and tapered toward the front so as not to dig into the hips.
2. Belay Loop
This simple loop of webbing makes belaying clean and manageable by holding the master carabiner away from your tie-in point. Although some belay loops are made with reassuringly chunky one-inch webbing, try before you buy. You'll quickly discover that clipping, detaching, and belaying with a locking carabiner are all easier if you have webbing that's narrower, say three-quarter inch.
3. Leg-Loop Stays
Stays keep leg loops from sagging down your legs and dangerously transferring the load to your hips. They also help you tell if your harness is the right size. Here's a quick test: Position the front tie-in point at your navel. The leg-loop stays should now meet at your spine, or—if they join the waist belt at different points—they should be positioned symmetrically on either side of your spine.
4. Leg-Loop Riser and Waist Belt Tie-In
When you're hanging from a harness in the shop, check not only for tightness but also for balance. If the leg loops are too low, the waistbelt will be forced to carry too much weight; too high, and all the loading will be on the legs. A balanced fit—and therefore a safe fit—spreads the load between hips and legs. In addition, check for sturdiness in the leg-loop riser, which receives the greatest wear. The finest harnesses are built with resilient nylon webbing joined by equally rugged bar-tack stitches (look for a line of rounded stitches—the more the better).
5. Leg Loops
When you're hanging in a harness, much of your weight will be on the leg loops. Wide loops—made with broad strips of webbing—are great, though narrower leg loops that have very firm padding can absorb shock just as effectively. Look for a contoured cut that's narrower at the inside to prevent pinching. If you plan on climbing in cold weather wearing additional layers, look for loops with buckles to adjust thigh width (a nice feature that doesn't compromise safety, though you'll pay about $10 extra).
6. Gear Loops
Nylon loops for clipping extra carabiners and attaching equipment like quickdraws and hexes.
IN THE STORE
Test drive the Trango Fly ($50; 800-860-3653; www.trango.com) and the Black Diamond Dyno ($50; 801-278-5552; www.blackdiamondequipment.com)—both comfortable, and moderately priced. For large climbers, the Fly, with its wide leg loops, is a good choice. Cheaper harnesses generally have mushier padding and uncontoured waists. Pricier models have firm, well-sculpted waist belts and leg loops. But with harnesses, fit is everything. Try the harness by hanging from it—better shops are equipped for this. Women, who have longer pelvic rises and narrower waists than men do, generally prefer—duh— women's models, though adjustable leg loops usually work for anyone.