Kit- helmets and harnesses
Scrambling can expose you to falling rock or head trauma from falling. Wearing a helmet can substantially increase your safety, often allowing you to walk away from an incident that would otherwise have resulted in a serious, or even fatal, head injury.
Helmets absorb the energy applied to them - whether that is a falling rock or the wearer falling to the ground. Most small impacts will simply result in a few dints in the helmet shell, but a major blow will be absorbed by the helmet - by it breaking apart, crushing or shattering - allowing the energy to be dissipated.
Even if damage is not visible, you should retire your helmet after any major impact, as there may be unseen structural damage
Helmets are made from a variety of materials including Kevlar and carbon fibre, nylon (plastic), polystyrene and fibreglass. The particular materials chosen depends upon the helmet's intended use (e.g. mountaineering, ice climbing, rock) and the way they are designed to react on impact.
Your helmet should be a snug but comfortable fit. The chin and head straps must be adjusted so that they stop the helmet from shifting around when you move or shake your head. The actual level of protection varies considerably between different models. This might sound alarming, but provided you are wearing a helmet you will have a fair degree of head protection, as all helmets bought in the UK must pass European CE standards. It is more important to purchase a model that fits you comfortably and is one that you will wear regularly, rather than simply how strong it is.
Climbing helmets fall into two categories:
Rock helmets are a new breed of head protection - they are featherweight, cool and comfortable. They are generally made from polystyrene with a plastic shell; they are intended to give a high level of protection in a falls. Hence they are very similar in appearance to cycling helmets (the polystyrene will compact or break in the event of impact). They do not give as much protection as a traditional mountaineering helmet, but their ease of use has made them highly popular and has greatly advanced the widespread adoption of helmets in the UK.
These traditional climbing helmet designs are intended for general mountaineering and climbing. They are heavier than their polystyrene cousins but far tougher and more robust. They are recommended for routes where the danger from falling objects is more likely than falling oneself.
Harness © ARochau
Your harness is the crucial the link between you and the rope. A harness is not only designed to keep you connected, it also keeps you upright in a fall, protecting your head and spine, and allows you to hang for long periods without being suffocated - a major danger if you simply tie a rope around your waist.
It's best to purchase a harness from a store that has a good variety of designs and sizes. Although you will find both women's and men's models, the only real difference is in the leg to waist ratio and the rise (the connection between the leg and waist). It is quite possible that you will be more comfortable and achieve a better fit with an opposite sex model.
Try on the harness - the leg loops should be snug but not restrictive when you squat down. Make sure you can slide four fingers down between your leg and the loop, as this should give you room for a pair of fleece pants and waterproofs. Remember, you can't wear too many layers under your harness, as you'll get far too hot once you're moving. Many modern harness feature elasticised leg loops, so they fit a broader range of people and still feel snug.
Try on the harness - the leg loops should be snug but not restrictive when you squat down
The belt should close up so that the padding and Velcro (if fitted) overlap (may vary with make) when wearing only a T-shirt. There should be enough tail (the free end of the belt) to allow you to wear a fleece and a thin shell garment. If you wear more layers, the padding and Velcro do not need to meet, as this is there primarily to stop the harness rubbing on your skin. Make sure the harness sits properly on your body, with not too much tension on the belay loop and leg risers - this can be a problem for some women or if you have a high waist.
Non-adjustable leg loops are best for rock climbing because they're low bulk, light and cheaper. But if this style doesn't fit you, then try a model with adjustable leg loops. These are generally more expensive and a little heavier but will allow you to customise the fit to your own dimensions.
Try hanging in the harness. The store should have a sling or rope in place to do this. Place your feet on a chair or wall as if you were abseiling and hang there for a minute. Don't expect complete comfort, but you shouldn't feel any real pain.
Once you've done all of the above just walk around, jump and climb (if they have a little wall). How does the harness feel? A big, thick harness may feel great for 'hanging around' but it must be comfortable generally unless you're going to spend all your time dangling instead of climbing!
For most climbing activities you need a minimum of four racking loops. These should be sewn into the right places, neither too far forward nor too far back and out of reach. Clip some onto the loops and see how accessible they are.
Pay for what fits you and ignore the price
There is no difference in safety between a cheap and expensive harness, only quality of materials and complexity of construction. High quality foam that won't compact down, and webbing that's light yet robust and abrasion resistant costs money. If you're on a tight budget, go for a cheap simple harness rather than a cheap complex one. The simple model will save costs on its simplicity but should still be made from good quality webbing whereas with a more complex model the quality of material will have to be compromised to keep the price down. In the end, pay for what fits you and ignore the price.