Climbing Harnesses 101

Climbing harnesses are an integral and vital part of every climbing arborist’s daily work life; and though some tree folk may put a great deal of thought and energy into harness selection and purchase, a large number just go with whatever’s available or costs the least. While cost certainly has to be a component of harness selection, particularly given the current economic climate, it should not be the only criteria considered when it’s time to replace “ol’ faithful.”

A climber’s harness not only provides safety and security day after day and job after job, it’s also a piece of gear that is intimately familiar with some pretty important parts of the user’s body. In short, a harness is going to be used on every job involving climbing and is going to affect the user’s comfort and abilities more than any other piece of gear or equipment they might employ, so it follows that a poorly designed harness or one that’s not properly adjusted is going to have just as great a negative effect.

Not all that long ago, climbers simply created a harness out of the end of their climbing line, sometimes adding a board or stiffener for additional comfort for their “seat of power.” This field expedient harness creation is not a bad skill to have, especially for emergency situations, but, in general, current production climbers would be less than happy with the pinching, lack of support and general discomfort that a field expedient climbing line harness provides.

Thankfully there are a wide variety of harnesses available specifically designed and intended for the “rough trade” of production tree work. While this variety allows climbers to find the harness that is right for their particular style and body type, the large number of choices can also be confusing. Some basic knowledge about the intended applications and the features of modern harnesses can help make the process less confusing and result in a more satisfactory outcome for the climber and their pelvis.

Bear LeVangie using both the suspension and work positioning features of her climbing harness while working aloft. Photo: Melissa LeVangie.

Bear LeVangie using both the suspension and work positioning features of her climbing harness while working aloft. Photo: Melissa LeVangie.

Types

Industrial harnesses can be divided into four basic types: fall restraint, fall arrest, work positioning and suspension. Many tree industry-specific harnesses will have elements of each.

1. Fall Restraint.

This harness system is intended to prevent the user from getting into a position where they can get hurt or fall. In general, its use in the tree care industry is pretty limited, and most commonly would be seen in the use of a body belt with the appropriate lanyard in an aerial lift or device. The lanyard used with a fall restraint harness is the key component, as it is what prevents the user from getting to the “bad place” where a fall could occur. Personal experience has shown that using a longer lanyard with a fall restraint harness or body belt is an extremely bad choice, and should a fall be taken, will most certainly lead to an entry to the user’s top 10 unpleasant things they have experienced.

2. Fall Arrest.

A fall arrest system is designed to not only stop a fall, but also lessen the forces and accompanying pain and soft tissue injuries that the “fallee” experiences. In tree care, these types of systems are most often called full-body harnesses, and they are often used in aerial lifts. There are harnesses available with beefy suspenders that at first glance look like a fall arrest harness, but users/purchasers should check carefully that the harness is intended for fall arrest, as sometimes the additional straps over the shoulders are just meant to help support the weight of all the gear that arborists love to hang off their harness, and not to arrest a fall.

A dorsal attachment point is a key indicator of a fall arrest harness and is located on the back of the user approximately between the shoulder blades. A deceleration lanyard should be used with the fall arrest harness to get the maximum benefit out of the system. These types of lanyards have an additional bundle of material sewn into them that is intended to separate under specific forces, thereby slowing down and decreasing the force of the fall. This deceleration works with the full-body nature of the fall arrest harness, which tries to spread the force of the fall over the user’s body as much as possible, instead of focusing it on one or two possibly more vulnerable or fragile points like other harnesses.

As with so many other systems or pieces of equipment used in tree care, the whole purpose and intent of the fall arrest system can be negated by an unfamiliar user or one trying to take a shortcut. In this case by attaching the deceleration lanyard to some other point on the harness other than the dorsal attachment point. For users who climb and work out of a bucket, there are harnesses available for both applications. Fall arrest and the ones listed below, but the typical fall arrest harness issued with an aerial lift or device is not intended for climbing, and to attempt to do so is not only unsafe, but quite uncomfortable.

3. Work Positioning.

This system is meant to give the climber exactly what the name implies, the ability to position themselves safely and correctly to carry out the needed work — hopefully with both hands free — and preventing or lessening the likelihood of a fall.

An example of a work positioning setup in tree industry harnesses is the side attachment points, commonly called D-rings. Climbers use these with some form of lanyard around the pieces/parts that make up the structure of the tree to position themselves securely or to maintain a desired spot while carrying out work. The D-rings are meant to be used with the lanyard attached on one side, going around the branch or trunk, and then reattached to the opposite side D-ring. Having the lanyard returning to the same D-ring on the same side can set the climber up for an awkward and moderately painful body position should a fall occur. Should the user need to have the lanyard attached at the same point, a much better option would be one of the front center attachment points discussed below in suspension systems, as these would allow for an easier recovery in the event of a fall.

4. Suspension.

A suspension system is one that is probably most familiar to climbing arborists and the one most often used in ascending, descending and working in the tree. The suspension system’s intent is to somewhat cradle the user in a relatively comfortable and stable semi-seated position while suspended from an overhead tie-in point (TIP). When set up and used properly, the system allows the user to work with both hands safely and securely on the task at hand.

Most tree climbing harnesses currently available incorporate components of both suspension and work positioning systems, though some are also available with the addition of a fall arrest component.

Matt Logan preparing to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation while using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo by Scott Prophett.

Matt Logan preparing to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation while using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo by Scott Prophett.

Legs

Many of the types of harnesses described are available with different leg position options, particularly in tree industry specific harnesses. This is going to be a very personal choice for climbers, one that should be carefully considered — hopefully by hanging in the options — prior to purchase.

The two typical options are a sit harness or a leg strap harness. Sit harnesses, though they may have supplemental leg straps for security, primarily bear the climber’s weight on a strap beneath their buttocks, often supplemented by a batten or stiffener. This setup provides a great deal of support to the user, and in a quality harness can almost feel like sitting in a swing. Sit harnesses without stiffeners can tend to push the hips and legs together, not only decreasing comfort, but also limiting leg movement during climbing operations.

A harness with individual leg straps will put most of the weight of the climber on those individual straps, which in a quality harness can be adjusted to the point of greatest comfort for the climber. The individual straps can allow greater freedom of movement for the climber, but if poorly adjusted or worn by the wrong body type can pinch and bind.

Typical applications should be considered when deciding on the type of leg positioning, as the sit harness option will be most comfortable when hanging free for extended periods of time such as cabling, bracing and crane operations; and the leg strap more comfortable and user friendly when a lot of canopy movement is involved.

Matt Logan prepares to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation and using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo: Scott Prophett

Matt Logan prepares to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation and using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo: Scott Prophett

Attachments

There are a variety of attachment options for suspension available to today’s climbing arborist, but they can be divided into two simple types: sliding or fixed. In addition, many of the newer models offer both options on the same harness, a distinct advantage as experienced climbers will often find that the different attachment options are better or worse in specific situations or positions they may find themselves in aloft.

The simplest type of fixed attachment point is a single one on the front of the harness, but multiple ones at various spots in the front will not only help to better distribute weight, but can also separate the climbing system to the user’s advantage.

A sliding attachment point, or sliding D, usually uses some type of strap or rope in the front of the harness that the attachment moves or “slides” along. This is intended to adjust to the climber’s movement, easing the amount of torque on their hips and back.

James Luce uses a rope wrench with the sliding D attachment ring on the treeMOTION harness. Photo: James Luce

James Luce uses a rope wrench with the sliding D attachment ring on the treeMOTION harness. Photo: James Luce

Fit

Although it is not always possible, prospective harness purchasers would be well advised to try out or hang in a harness for at least a short time before laying down their hard-earned cash. This could be as simple as borrowing a bud’s harness for a job or trying it out after work, though some arborist supply retailers have tie-in points in their stores for just this purpose.

The reality is that every climber’s body structure is going to be subtly or widely different, and while modern harnesses have a lot of adjustment options to “personalize” the harness, one size is not going to fit — let alone be comfortable for — all. What looks so cool and hip in the catalog or on the video may feel like some form of medieval torture device after only an hour aloft in that shagbark hickory. A climber would be well served to find that out beforehand.

Cost

The cost of a comfortable, high-quality harness certainly has to be a consideration to production climbers. After all, it may come close to equaling a week’s wages if not more. The first and most important consideration for the climber has to be researching and trying out harnesses to make sure that comfort, safety, security and ease of use are all a part of their new harness. However, once the right harness has been selected, the climber should view the price realistically.

A quality, well-designed and manufactured harness, properly used and cared for, should last a production climber at least a year, most likely longer. Breaking down how much the harness costs for each day of climbing should show that it’s actually costing the climber less than all those cups of coffee and bags of pork rinds, making the purchase a little easier to swallow.

Climbing arborists use their harnesses every day in pursuit of their livelihood and the professional care of trees, making this piece of equipment a vital part of their work life. Given the importance of a safe, comfortable climbing harness, a little bit of extra knowledge and time spent in research cannot help but lead to climbers getting the job done more comfortably, safely and efficiently, which is what the whole industry should be about.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2011 and has been updated.

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