A properly fitted caving harnesses cradles you and fits snugly. It moves with you, doesn’t fight your motions and helps you climb rope with ease. It has gear loops for all your stuff and cinches to hold you just so. A poorly fitting harness chaffes, restricts movements and can cut into you. No single harness is right for everyone, but hopefully this review will guide you in the right direction.
Note: these harnesses are reviewed with the Frog climbing system in mind. If you climb Ropewalker, Texas, Mitchell then my recommendations would differ.
The key element for a Frog Harness is a low attachment point which is why rock climbing harnesses are a non-option. Durability, fit, and ability to walk in the harness area all important. Caving harnesses link together with a D-shaped maillion (see GGG photo below) that holds the croll, cowstail and other vertical accoutrements. For an overview of the Frog System check this out.
GGG – Caver Seat Harness
I used a Gonzo Guano Gear (GGG) harness for about 3 years and at the time I loved it. Its simple yet effective design appeals to beginners, and its low price of $60 makes it budget friendly, too. It is a no frills harness for beginners and caving bums without two quarters to rub together. Made outside Austin, Texas – the center of the caving universe – the GGG basic design is essentially unchanged for over a decade. Overall these harnesses are great for budget conscious folks, grottos and other organizations with group gear.
On longer drops, however, this harness will rub you raw. I climbed about 2,000’ of rope in a day once on a GGG harness and paid for it dearly (I’ll spare you the gory details). The gear loops are rather small, but they are sturdy enough to hold lots of weight (many clip a large basket carabiner like the Petzl William in them and then clip everything to that). Another drawback – the harness can be difficult to walk in – the leg loops droop and restrict walking – but the simple addition of butt loops helps greatly (check out the straps that hold up the leg loops here). The buckles are doubled back which protects the essential weight bearing portions, and the waist attachment loops are very sturdy. GGG also makes a $60 ‘Ultralight’ harness – pass. Completely.
OR1 – Goliath
The OR1 Goliath is the Cadillac of caving harnesses. It is the biggest and heaviest in this review at 720g (and there is a 900g version) but it offers a supple ride, which is great for bigger guys or cavers looking to climb thousands and thousands of feet of rope at a time. The Goliath uses 3″ webbing – the rest typically use 2″ - and comes in multiple flavors, all of which are USA made in Chattanooga by cavers. There are ‘leg keepers’ (butt loops) to make walking easy, and there is a padding sleeve slid around the waist band which has thin gear loops sewn onto it. Hang a decent bit of weight off them (say a 200’ rope or a hammer drill or a bolt kit) and the entire padding gets pulled off kilter – bad. And with the amount of gear that I often have on my gear loops I’d rip them right off, sending my gear down pits. A bigger downside to me, however, is that the buckles expose weight bearing webbing to abrasion. All the other buckles in this review have a strap of webbing that folds back over the buckle (doubling back) protecting the main weight bearing webbing, but the OR1 models have this bit of webbing exposed – I have seen more than one harness retired prematurely owing to wear here.
Any Maker – Climbing Harness
By now it should be clear that climbing harnesses are not cut out for caving. They can’t take the out-and-out abuse, the attachment point (belay loop) is far too high, they don’t snug down well, and they hold the Croll in the wrong position. Gear loops are generally made of puny cord/webbing to hold quick draws/slings and not hammer drills/ropes. Climb Frog with this guy and your efficiency takes a significant hit. I don’t let clients on my trips wear them (they’d be the slowest person by far).
MTDE – Picos II
I include a MTDE harness here to encourage US cavers to look at gear outside the normal sphere. This Spanish company formed in 1995 by top Euro cavers but remains unknown in American caving circles (secretly I hope that someone will read this and start importing them to the US market). The MTDE Picos II is named after a mountain range in Spain that is home to many deep caves, and incorporates a ‘butt strap’ that takes weight – something that no American manufacturer offers. Slide it down to have a seat, slide it up and out of the way for walking. MTDE harnesses have unbelievably low attachment points – key for Frogging – and the reinforcing PVC prevents the webbing from digging into legs. The harness is a tad heavy at 590gg, but its before you shell out $100 USD realize that you’ll have to pay overseas shipping fees.
Petzl – Fractio
In 2007 a photographer friend gave me a Petzl Fractio after a shoot and its mess of straps discouraged me from even trying it on. Skip forward to 2010 when my GGG harness died a drawn out death and I finally donned the purple Fractio. Since then the Petzl has been my harness of choice – I regularly pit the harness against others but it always comes out on top. The attachment point is reasonably low, it is lightweight at 485g (Size 1) but the fit is exceptional. All those extra straps just seems to hold me in the groin area extremely well. The buckles have little flaps that protect the weight bearing webbing, and there are protective PVC sleeves that keep it from digging into legs. It performs well in technical caves with lots of short pitches/rebelays, but on long free pitches the narrow-ish webbing digs into me a bit. The dynema gear loops (read: will never break) are thoughtfully placed, but I would prefer 2 more of them for rigging. The $110 Fractio does come in a more budget friendly version, the $89 Superavanti that I outfit most clients in.
How to Wear a Caving Harness
While on rope in a cave the harness supports you the entire time, unlike a rock climbing harness that you only sit in occasionally. It is not uncommon to be on rope in a harness for 3-5 hours at a go, so fit is very important. A snug harness increases climbing efficiency and decreases chaffing, while an ill-fitting one is terrible in those departments. The harness should fit *snugly*.
Tip: adjust buckles with the harness off. It is overly difficult to tighten straps while wearing a harness, so take it off or at least disconnect the seat D maillion/Omni.
How tight is tight? It should be a small struggle to get the harness on and close the seat D-maillion. If you have to bend over, move it back and forth over your legs and pull up the waist belt before the D-maillion will close – it likely fits.