Technical Bushwalking: Rope and Harness or Nerves of Steel

Should a bushwalker with little or no climbing experience be using a rope and harness at all?  What skills do you need to use a harness and rope safely? If you are a Club bushwalker, does your insurance policy cover such activities? When does a bushwalker need a harness?  What are the benefits and risks of making your own harness? What is the minimum gear you need to take?

 There are some bushwalks in Australia where less confident walkers, carrying a heavy pack, would benefit from having a rope to keep balance, especially when wearing a pack, or offer support in the event of a toe hold or hand grip collapsing. I have in mind the Western Arthurs , one spot on the Mt Anne Circuit and possibly Federation Peak, all in Tasmania and  in South Australia, Bunyip Chasm and Edeowie Gorge.

Some would argue that if a rope is needed then bushwalkers shouldn’t be there. I see a rope as an added safety precaution to reduce the risk of a fall perhaps in a location where more confident climbers would not need a rope at all.  Lowering a pack on a rope and then climbing down is often a safer alternative. The danger is that bushwalkers with little climbing experience may become over confident in their ability to use a rope and start to attempt climbs or descents that are quite rightly in the domain of serious climbers.

Considerable training and experience is needed to know how to tie on to a rope, how to set an anchor and how to adjust and tie into a harness. In my view at least one person in any group which is intending to use a rope, should have climbing experience, so they can act in an advisory role and check all equipment before use.

 Many Bushwalking Clubs have insurance policies which explicity forbid the use of ropes during bushwalks.

If you are going to use a rope (11mm), then a lightweight harness is invaluable, for both comfort and safety reasons. Without a harness, even a minor slip can lead to injury.

Making your own harnesses: Dulfer (sit) and Parisian Baudrier (chest) from 6 m of 25mm climbing tape, 2 m of 7mm cord with a prusik knot and a karabiner  is simple, lightweight, low cost (less than $30) and effective but it is not a simple task to fit, especially if you are using a chest harness, as recommended with a heavy pack. The danger is that inexperienced bushwalkers may use the wrong knot, have the harness too loose, close the karabiner incorrectly, use the prusik knot or descender incorrectly, not use a suitable anchor etc. The list goes on!

Lightweight, commercial harnesses have now become available for around USD $50 and weigh less than 100g. Take care if you decide to buy one as they have few adjustments and several people have reported that they only fit limited sizes. They are light, quicker and easier to fit, possibly more comfortable, tested for strength and not much dearer but they are less versatile.

I still think an improvised harness with webbing is much cheaper, more than adequate for bodyweight (not a fall), and tubular webbing is probably stronger than a lightweight harness. It also has the advantage of being useful for other things such as an anchor, then you could do a body rappel to get down something less than vertical. I have played around with many improvised harnesses for crevasse rescue, and the best I have found for a sit harness (you will need a chest harness also with a heavy pack) is simply a double length sewn dyneema sling (120cm). The other day I just bought a 240cm sewn dyneema sling (8mm) which is the perfect length for a full body harness. This is what I will carry this season for my emergency kit.

Disclaimer: Please check the information above with a qualified climbing instructor before applying on a walk. I have no climbing qualifications and base my comments on some recent practical experience and some advanced bushwalking courses I did years ago.

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