Harnesses

Q:

 

When choosing a harness-and-container system, how much do you need to know about the harness portion of the system, and are all the different options just upgrades?

 

A:
Designers of parachuting systems take very similar approaches toward developing harnesses that must abruptly suspend a human body upright, from any orientation, without inhibiting movement in freefall or under canopy. That makes all harnesses approximately equal. In fact, harness designs and materials have changed very little since World War II and even less since around the time of the first lunar landing.

Paratroopers in the Normandy Invasion would have hung under their domed canopies in harnesses made of 7,000-pound-test type-13 nylon webbing with a solid saddle (in which the leg straps connected across the buttocks by fabric or straps of webbing). You will still find type-13 webbing in a number of popular designs on the new and used market. In 1961, the troops descending into the Bay of Pigs might have used almost the same harnesses equipped with the B-12 leg-strap snaps. These became the standard for sport rigs at the time, and manufacturers still use them for rigs equipped with leg-strap snaps today.

The controversy in sport skydiving over the military-style solid saddle or the more flexible split saddle was settled in the 1970s, about the same time that “harness” and “container” became one inseparable module. (Before then, harnesses and containers snapped together.) All contemporary sport harnesses use the split-saddle design, which is similar to independent suspension on a car in that the left and right sides are separate units.

By the time of the first step-through leg-strap designs in the 1970s, parachute designers still had only military parachute hardware to choose from for the leg-strap and chest-strap adjusters. The only leg-strap hardware available was still made for a single pass of type-13 webbing. In spite of that, most sport harnesses had migrated to the lighter 5,000-pound-test type-7 webbing for main lift webs and leg straps. Some had gone to the even lighter 4,000-pound type-8 webbing, especially for the chest strap. Using webbing lighter than that designed for the hardware led to a variety of solutions to prevent slippage and twisting. By the 1980s, the sport had seen almost every possible combination of type-7, -8 and -13 webbing used for harnesses. Today, some combination of the trio still does all the heavy lifting in every sport rig, with the addition of 2,500-pound-test type-17, used for the one-inch-wide chest straps some jumpers prefer.

Imaginative use of the hardware that was originally used for the 3-ring-release system addressed the needs of the new breed of freestylists in the early 1990s, and the articulated harness was born. Most jumpers prefer the flexibility that joining the harness with rings affords and are willing to pay significantly more for it. Others call it jewelry.

By the mid-’90s, stainless-steel harness adjusters designed especially for the sport-parachute market began appearing in Europe, giving skydivers the choice for the first time to move away from the dull, plated, military hardware. The new hardware also worked better with the variety of webbing combinations now on the market. There were a few years of growing pains, but the initial problems with slippage and difficulty of adjustment are largely behind us.

Today’s Options
That oversimplified version of how we got to where we are today with harnesses might help explain why harnesses all look about the same, except for the details, and how to prioritize your own preferences.

The first and foremost consideration when choosing a harness is fit. How it integrates with the container system will play a big role here. Try a few brands, because comfort and fit in a harness-and-container system are as personal as they are with blue jeans.

  • Articulation
    Next, decide how much you’re willing to spend for articulation: a lot, a little or nothing. Nobody needs articulation, and not everyone wants it. One definite advantage to articulated hip rings is inexpensive replacement should you ever slide in hard enough to damage your leg straps. Some manufacturers give you more bang for the buck on the articulated option, so check the price on the manufacturer’s order sheet if you are considering it. Smaller people may find that articulation is not possible given the dimensions of their harnesses—there simply may not be enough webbing to accommodate pockets for the cutaway and reserve handles, as well as the hip rings.
    ASKARIGGER20114-1 ASKARIGGER20114-3
    Conventional leg-strap attachment point design. Photo by Kevin Gibson.
    Articulated leg-strap attachment point (hip ring). Photo by Kevin Gibson.
  • Stainless or Plated?
    ASKARIGGER20114-3
    A plated 3-ring system (left) showing some wear and a stainless steel system (right).

    The 3-ring system will give you better service in stainless steel, since stainless seems to generate less residue, which may result in less wear from the interaction between metal and nylon. In other words, everything stays cleaner. Ditto with the rings for articulated leg straps. For chest-strap hardware, you may want stainless for the same reason, and also because it’s a good idea to minimize contact between your caustic hands and cadmium plating, which can be toxic. But it’s all going to cost you, and the standard cadmium- or nickel-plated hardware all works well. With reasonable care, it should outlast the webbing.
    Choosing leg-strap hardware is only a little more difficult. Manufacturers continually change their preferences for which webbing-and-hardware combination to use. Buying new gear, you’re getting their most current solution, and only time will tell whether it’s the best design. So you’ll want to make sure that the manufacturer has a good track record with the combination of leg-strap adjusters and harness webbing currently offered. You can get this information from a jumper who is built like you and has a few hundred jumps on the same brand and configuration you are considering.

  • Webbing
    Although all harnesses are more than strong enough, you’ll want to consider how each wears. Type-8, the weakest webbing, wears poorly. Type-7 is in the middle, and type-13 is the toughest. For that reason—and so that the webbing works well in the hardware—you will often see type-8 double layered or matched with type-7.
    If you’re buying a used rig, you have the advantage of seeing how the hardware and webbing have been working together over time. You can also see whether there are any problems with the hardware-and-webbing combination by having a rigger inspect for telltale damage.
    ASKARIGGER20114-4 ASKARIGGER20114-5
    A single layer of type-13 webbing (top) and type-13 sewn in a double layer (bottom). Photo by Kevin Gibson.
    Cadmium-plated leg-strap hardware with a marriage of type-7 and type-8 webbing. Photo by Kevin Gibson.

Despite the challenges manufacturers face with providing the right combination of hardware and webbing, skydiving harnesses enjoy a nearly spotless history. We owe that to an underlying design philosophy articulated more than two decades ago at a Parachute Industry Association meeting, when parachute manufacturer Mike Furry remarked that a jumper’s body should fail long before a harness ever does.

—Kevin Gibson | D-6943
Master Rigger
Orange, Virginia

Comments

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Larry Fojt
Thu, 12/21/2017 - 01:01

I Have a vector that I have been using since 1989 and the cadmium plating on the main 3 rings has worn off. I keep them buffed off with green scotch brite and apply a light cote of 100% silicone. Is there any type paint I can apply to them that wont degrade the webbing?

Webmaster
Mon, 01/29/2018 - 12:10

Check with the manufacturer of the harness and container for the best advice and guidance when it comes to the harness and harness hardware. - Jim Crouch, Director of Safety and Training

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