How safe is it to use a chest harness without a sit harness? I ask this question because of an experience I had while on holiday.

A couple of years ago I was in China and hiked/climbed HuaShan (see this link for some info/pictures). This is basically a hike but with some very steep sections protected by chains. The most dangerous (but optional) sections are cordoned off and, to access them, you are provided with what seemed like a chest harness by staff - I found a photo of one here. Would a harness of this kind be effective in the event of a slip/fall? I'm not sure; naively I'd have thought that a fall could leave you in an awkward position from which self-rescue would be impossible, or you could even slip out of the harness??

EDIT: thanks for the responses. Some more info about the specific situation at Hua Shan...

  1. Until a few years ago there was no safety equipment whatsoever, despite the fact that this is an extremely busy route with access seemingly regulated by the authorities. I guess that China is not well known for its high standards of health and safety.

  2. The harness photo doesn't tell the whole story; there are also some very steep (almost vertical) sections - the first link contains some photos which hint at these sections.

  3. It's not 'real' climbing - it is, however, a spectacular example of a situation where the use of wooden planks and pieces of iron has allowed access to terrain which would otherwise be considered a very highly graded and exposed rock climb.

  4. Some people would probably be happy to follow this route without any protection. However, I think that many people would prefer to have some level of protection on the route. I'm just concerned that the protection provided may offer only a false sense of security.

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    I saw people doing similar stuff, seems this was popular some time ago. I guess it might hold your fall but it won't be comfortable at all if all your weight is pulled upwards and only held by your shoulders/upper body. It seems more natural to use your center of gravity, also to hold a fall as effective as possible.
    – Wills
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:47
  • Yikes! Incredible. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 5:59
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    The 'safety' has to reflect the danger. I'd happily wear a chest harness walking down the high-street. I might not even wear one at all (how dangerous would that be ;-) For the route shown in the image, the harness is to prevent a slip turning into a fall. The question should become, does such a harness prevent the walker slipping out of the harness itself? Some harness arrangements are likely to be ineffective. It has a very similar issue to PFDs in boating where you can slip out. Ensure you get one that fits! Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 12:45

3 Answers 3


Never ever use a chest harness alone.

It depends on what you mean by effective: It can stop a fall, there was a time (before the seventies) when chest harnesses (alone) were used in mountaineering. The big problem comes after: suspension trauma.

This is not limited to breast harnesses at all. This is the main life-threatening problem apart from direct mechanical injuries after a fall in climbing. Without movement the blood will get stuck in the lower extremities leading to orthostatic shock, leading to a circulatory collapse. According to Pit Schubert[1]:

after only 2min hanging in a chest harness the arms are paralysed.

This means you cannot rescue yourself anymore. According to Schubert hanging freely (in any kind of harness) is deadly after a maximum of 2h, potentially much earlier.

So assuming on this trail you may be alone a chest harness can prove fatal in case of fall. Even if somebody arrives in time to save you (i.e. bring you into lying position before you are in shock) you will likely sustain damage to your arms/chest.
In addition an operator using chest harnesses does not show off competence. You have to wonder whether safety is precarious in other regards as well. I would immediately stop using their services.

[1] Pit Schubert, Sicherheit und Risiko in Fels und Eis (Band III), pp. 45.

  • Thanks for your answer. This is what I suspected... but was unsure about. This particular trail was extremely busy, so I don't think you would be left dangling for long in the event of a fall. Still, I don't think it's a very safe setup. Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:33
  • I can only assume the chest harness is used to have a fixed point to avoid losing balance easily. But yes, definitely won't help if you actually fall.
    – Roflo
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:48
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    If you're hanging by the harness, sure. But from the pictures, there isn't enough slack to let you fall past the ledge. Worst-case, even if your feet completely leave the ledge, the ledge is only at knee-height. If it takes anyone 2 minutes to plant knees on the ledge and stand back up again, they have such severe mobility problems that they probably couldn't have got there in the first place.
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 14:14
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    I really want an english copy of that book.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 14:44
  • @ShemSeger You would love it. He is an expert that worked (beneath others) for the German alpine security council. He writes about all kinds of things that can go wrong and illustrates them by actual accidents, tests, ... A pitty it is only available in German (afaik).
    – imsodin
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 14:51

In this sort of situation a chest harness is reasonable because its main purpose is to keep you attached to the route via a short sling as protection against slips as opposed to actual climbing where long, high energy falls might be expected. So it should not be loaded with much more than you body weight and it it more about stopping a fall than arresting one.

Also for a harness issued to the general public a chest harness is likely to fit better, be more comfortable and be harder to fall out of than a sit harness, which generally needs to be well flitted and adjusted to work and may fail if you fall inverted (more likely for an inexperienced climber on a 'walking' but exposed route).

Also in this situation you are less likely to be actually injured by falling and you aren't going to fall far there is a good chance that you could self rescue by pulling yourself back onto the ledge.

Note that this is an entirely different situation from climbing on a long rope while belayed.

  • A thin limber person could slip chest harness in a heart beat.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 23:01
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    In the questions he mentioned "steep sections", so even if it is going up/down just shortly, a fall of one/two meters is easily possible and that already means high forces, even if there is a correct via ferrata device used (which I doubt). So while your point of them fitting easier is true (that is most probably why they do it), it is still certainly not a good idea. There are combi harnesses which are appropriate for a wide range of statures and easier to adjust than seat harnesses, but chest harnesses alone is bad.
    – imsodin
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 9:12

This is basically a hike but with some very steep sections protected by chains.

If I'm interpreting the photo correctly, this is a sort of horizontal via ferrata, and the protection is the steel cables, not the chains.

This does not seem like a setup that would have been designed by anyone whose background was in mountaineering. A more normal setup based on standard mountaineering practices would use a seat harness, and in addition the would be some provision for allowing the climbers to pass the bolts while staying protected. As far as I can tell from the photo, the guy in the red shirt is going to have to unclip his (non-locking?) carabiner, then clip it onto the next section of cable. While it's unclipped, he has no protection.

But I don't know if any of this matters, because they're walking on horizontal wooden boardwalks, and they have the cables or chains to hold onto with their hands. I wouldn't really feel any need for a belay in this situation, so it might not matter much if the protection is not reliable or mainly psychological.

How safe is a chest harness when used without a sit harness?

This is really a whole separate issue that doesn't apply to the situation being described, where the belay is unnecessary. For real climbing, you use a seat harness because you need more than a psychological belay.

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    Looks to me like the guy has two ropes with carabiners attached to his harness; he just happens to be holding his hand in front of one of them so that only part of the carabiner (which he's presumably just about to unclip) is visible behind his fingers. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 0:26
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    Ben, I understand your point "because they're walking on horizontal wooden boardwalks, and they have the cables or chains to hold onto with their hands" BUT unless this is just a short dangerous horizontal section, they probably did some climbing up or down to reach it and even on an easy climb, a mishap may occur such a s a slip, equipment failure or something dropped from above. And wearing just a chest harness would be a very bad idea.
    – Paul Lydon
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 11:13

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