There is a bewildering choice of paragliding harnesses available. How do you compare the market when there are so many different styles, so many features, and so many brands? We set out the fundamental principles of choosing the right harness so you can develop a clear sense of what suits your flying skills and aspirations.
In this series we will cover: classes of harness, features you need, matching harnesses to pilots and finding the correct fit, how to set up your harness and finally some maintenance issues.
Paragliding Harness Classes
Paragliding harnesses can be divided into three categories:
(a) standard upright harnesses where your legs are free,
(b) reclined pods (your legs are contained in a speedbag/cocoon), and
(c) specialist offerings (reversible, mountaineering, paramotoring, acro, etc).
Although there is no official classification system, most harnesses are tested according to EN 1651 (load testing) and LTF91/09 (protection testing).
(a) Standard upright harnesses
These are ideal as a first buy and suit many recreational pilots. There is a fallacy that buying a pod at the beginning of your flying career saves you money because you don’t have to buy again. This is like buying a Sports Class wing ‘to grow into’: it fails to acknowledge the increased risk you create by doing this during the learning phase. Wise gear choices should reduce your risk, not increase it.
Get the equipment that matches where you currently are in your progression, so you can build your skills on a solid foundation. Confidence is the cornerstone of all flying development. You can always sell your ‘starter’ harness again to someone else who shares your understanding of progressing step by step.
- Upright harnesses are more comfortable to use for ground handling, as the seat is designed to hug your body without the assistance of a foot plate, meaning that the harness might slide up less. The absence of a leg fairing removes the footplate that would knock against the back of your legs and possibly trip you up. This might encourage you to do more kiting, which benefits your flying skill set.
- There’s less fiddling involved just after launch (during the most risky phase of your flight) because you don’t need to step into any fairing.
- It is often easier to find the speedbar, so you have acceleration available to you, at a moment when you might need it fast. Low airtime pilots often misjudge the wind strength.
- The upright harness puts you in the best position for recovery from extreme situations, because your body can rotate with the yaw motion of a spin.
- It is easier to get your legs down for landing, which is a huge benefit. You develop good habit of keeping your legs down just after launch and well before landing, whereas pods encourage low level swooping (just watch pilots in pods launch and land) which looks cool until you fly through unexpected turbulence, when it becomes a painful mistake. If you develop the right habits at the beginning of your flying career, you have them forever.
(b) Pod harnesses
Pods offer a reclined position and a leg fairing. They are best suited for ambitious cross country pilots or regular fliers with at least a year of flying experience. Although more difficult on the ground and more unstable in extreme situations, pod harnesses are comfortable and offer more performance during long flights. They keep you warmer and reduce drag while flying, but you carry a little extra weight and bulk on the way back (depending on models, comparing like for like).
The reclined flying position takes some time to get used to. The lower karabiner position usually means more responsive handling (if you’re nervous, it feels more tippy), although this can be counteracted when a seatboardless design is used (which usually calms things down and makes a harness more wallowy). Turning requires a coordinated pressure on the footplate and seat area, and can often feel a bit awkward, one of the reasons why acro pilots favour the traditional upright harness with a seatboard. Pilots new to pods may find themselves being more unstable in rough air with more motion (yaw, pitch and roll) to contend with.
The performance advantage is dependant on setting the harness up correctly, so it’s important to spend time adjusting the angle. When correctly balanced, a well-trimmed pod harness can provide the added secure feeling of being completely supported.
In the past, pod harnesses were heavy and bulky, but modern designs have optimised the weight while retaining durability. You should expect a reputable harness to outlast your wing. However, when choosing the right harness you should pay attention to the fabric of the pod itself, as it is a high wear area where your boots drag on the speedbar and repeated leg extensions stretch the fairing.
The lightweight models (3-5kg) are designed for pilots who want to keep the weight of their kit down but don’t want to compromise other important aspects (e.g. protection, comfort and/or durability). Ultralight models (1.5-3kg) compromise some aspects to achieve stripped down minimalism for hike-and-fly racing, expeditions or regular travelling.
The competition models feature a large aerodynamic fin at the rear (a lot of extra size for a small performance benefit), a place for a second reserve (mandatory for international level competitions) and ‘all the bells and whistles’. Expect to pay a penalty in weight and bulk for all the features. If your flying involves regular high level competition, it is a good match. If you’re an eager adventurer or beginner XC pilot, you won’t notice the performance change but you’ll carry that towering backpack everywhere; a lighter and more compact system is recommended.
(c) Specialist harnesses
This is a broad category containing gear designed for special applications, like hike & fly, aerobatic flying, paramotoring, speed flying, speed riding or tandem flying. If you are diving into one of the offshoots of mainstream paragliding, you’ll probably need this as a second harness. Trying to find one harness that does everything will mean making compromises.
For example, lightweight ‘mountain’ paragliding harnesses (less than 1.5kg), for pilots who want to save every gram and are prepared to compromise protection, comfort and durability to achieve this. Some of these harnesses are only suitable for pilots wanting something minimalistic for short flights, whilst others are surprisingly comfortable and can be flown for longer.