The aim of this article is to cover as many aspects of belay devices to help beginner climbers make an informed first purchase and to help more experienced climbers to choose the best belay device to compliment there current gear.
To start with it is imperative to think of the belay device and the carabiner used with the belay device as one. As a unit they provide a critical safety element to rock climbing. The performance of many belay devises varies according to which end of the carabiner is used to provide the friction surface and the cross-sectional profile of the carabiner.
There is a wide range of belay devices and carabiners to choose from, and as many different scenario’s where one combination of devices will be more suitable than another.
Before choosing a device that suits you let’s talk about belaying.
Standardise Your Belay set-up process
Always use the same procedure when setting up your belay device. To illustrate what I mean I will describe what I do. I always store my belay device on the right hand side of my harness when I am not using it. When I take my device off my harness to use it I use my right hand, ensuring that the spine of the carabiner is in the palm of my hand. That leaves the gate side on the left hand side allowing my fingers to open the gate to remove my belay device. I then clip the carabiner onto the belay loop of my harness and push it forward ensuring the belay loop is at the narrow end of the carabiner. I then put the rope through the belay device and clip it to the carabiner. I then tighten the screw gate, making sure that the dead end of the rope comes out the bottom of the belay device. I then build some redundancy into the set-up by either tying a stopper knot at the end of the dead end of the rope or by tying the dead end of the rope to my harness with a figure eight and stopper not creating a closed system. Finally I perform a buddy check with the climber to ensure both parties are happy that the set-up is correct and safe before the climber starts climbing.
It is easy to be distracted when setting your belay device up and make a potentially fatal mistake.
Following a standard well practiced procedure builds an element of safety into your climbing when you reach the point where complacency tends to creep in.
Carabiners for Belaying
The shape and design of carabiners means that they can take a much greater load / force across their length than their width. Once a carabiner is set-up and loaded the chance of it being cross loaded (having force applied across its width) reduces. For cross loading to occur the carabiner will need to move.
Types of Carabiners
There are many different types of carabiners to choose from and can be broadly split into locking and non-locking. A locking carabiner must be used when belaying. Locking carabiners come in a variety of designs and use a number of methods to ensure the gate will not open when belaying. Some locking carabiners have additional design aspects aimed at reducing / mitigating the potential safety risks caused by movement. I am pro any device that utilises a poke-yoke (only fits one way) style approach to reduce potential risk. As a result I use a
black diamond gridlock screwgate carabiner for my belay set-up. It is very difficult to set-up incorrectly and easily noticed if it has been set-up incorrectly. To me that is good, I have a level of inherent safety build into by belay set-up.
Below are some examples of carabiners that are designed for belaying.
Belay devices can be split into three categories, Traditional, Assisted breaking and Non-assisted breaking.
Traditional belay devices
These include devices like a figure of eight and devices that are usually associated with abseiling or repelling. It is worth noting that most climbing gyms will not allow you to use a one of these devices to belay a climber.
Assisted breaking belay devices
These devices include devices like the gri gri and the click-up. This is the area of the market where the new advances have been taking place with new products being released. Over the past couple years we have seen new devices like the gri gri +, wild country revo and the click up released. It is also worth noting that assisted breaking devices usually more complex and more expensive than non-assisted and traditional devices. As with most things in life, complexity increases the difficulty / skill needed to operate the device. The more complex belay devices are initially more difficult to use, requiring more effort and practice to become competent vs simpler devices.
Below are some examples of assisted breaking devices.
Non-Assisted breaking belay devices
These are the most cost effective and most commonly used devices. They are simple and easy to use. They don’t have any moving parts and hence are very reliable and robust with almost zero chance of failing. The down side is that they don’t have any back-up to them, relying solely on the person belaying to ensure the climber is safe.
Below are some examples of Non-Assisted breaking belay devices
What to consider when choosing a belay device
Climbing environment and belay skills
The correct device for your needs is going to depend on the type of climbing, where you are climbing and your belay skills. Most people start climbing in a climbing gym with top rope and progress to sport or trad climbing outdoors. Conditions change and hence you might want to choose a better suited device for that scenario. For instance you would most likely want to choose an assisted breaking device when your climbing partner is working a route and they are going to be hanging on the rope for extended periods of time. If your climber is climbing a route that is pushing their abilities, where they would rely on a quick smooth supply of rope, you would choose your ATC instead of your Gri Gri. That is if you were more competent using the ATC vs the GriGri.
The point I am trying to make is that you will most likely require a variety of devices as you progress with your climbing. Having a choice is convenient but also fills a safety element. You never know when you will require a different kind of device. A good example of this was on our last trip to Margalef in Spain. Margalef is a brilliant climbing area that has two to three day’s rain a month and hardly ever has more than two days of rain in a row. We were blessed with six days in row with rain in the afternoon. On one of the days were caught with four routes up in a heavy down pour of rain. When the rain stopped we had the task of dogging up the routes to retrieve the gear. This would have been almost impossible without the use of a GriGri and a clemheist knot with a carabiner and a foot sling.
Manufacturer guidelines and scope of use
When looking at belay devices it is always a good idea to look at manufactures guidelines for use as they often recommend a carabiner that suites the device you are looking at. It is also a good idea to see if the device is sold with a carabiner as a set. This is a good indicator that the device requires as specific carabiner to operate at its best. Examples of this are the edlerid and the clickup which get sold with and without the recommended carabiner.
Most devices have an indication on them stating the range of rope sizes they work with and often the size they work best with. If you are buying your first belay device I would look at ones that handle the larger rope sizes best. As a beginner most of your climbing will be indoors where the gyms purchase thick durable ropes. The issue is that the gym ropes become miss formed and tend to jam a little when passing through the belay device.
Modes of use
A lot of devices provide a number of modes. They often provide different levels of friction and the ability to use one or two ropes. Some provide the ability to anchor the device and use it in guide mode.
For me I always try to spend the least amount of money for the greatest variation / flexibility of use. Before buying an item I like to try it out / test it. Don’t be afraid to ask someone who has a device you are looking to buy if you could have a look at it and have a quick test. Don’t forget to ask them what they like and dislike about the device.
In general it makes sense to use a carabiner that has been designed for belaying where the carabiner is used to provide part of the friction surface. A normal locking carabiner can be used for devices like the GriGri, where the carabiner doesn’t provide a friction surface. The difference is that the hole in the GriGri for carabiner is small enough to restrict the carabiners ability move and be cross-loaded.
Below are some examples of carabiners that are designed for belaying.
Belay Devices for beginners
In general I would avoid devices built for one rope only. They don’t provide any flexibility in use apart from two levels of friction and the cost benefit doesn’t out way the lack of flexibility when you’re climbing progresses.
A good first belay device is the Black Diamond ATC. It is the first belay device I owned and has been a very good companion. However it does lack a couple modes of use. If I was looking to buy my first belay device again I would buy DMM’s Pivot. It offers all the modes of use with great build quality. The pivot is a little pricey compared to the ATC but not that much more when compared to other devices that provide two levels of friction like the black diamond big air.
Belay Devices for advanced climbers
There aren’t strictly devices for more advanced climbers, just devices that require more skill to use and devices that cater for certain scenarios better than others. The idea is to have a variety of devices with you, allowing you to best cater for the conditions you are climbing in.
All the more advance devices can be used by beginners and in some cases it would be advisable to purchase one as a beginner. If you know you’re not going to progress to climbing outdoors and find comfort in having an assisted breaking mechanism then a GriGri might be best for you.
The aim for more advanced climbers is to minimise the number of devices you own and maximise the number of scenarios you can cater for. For me this means having a simple robust device like the Pivot by DMM and an assisted breaking device like the GriGri by petzl. The combination of these two devices means that I can cater for almost any scenario both indoors and outdoors.
I must admit that some of the newer devices like the click up are tempting, but on closer look they aren’t suited for repelling / abseiling and hence less flexible and less attractive.
Above all you need to purchase a device that works well for you. Being comfortable and competent while belaying is very import. Your primary objective when belaying is the safety of the climber. Knowing your gear and using it properly allows you to focus on the climber making sure they return safely to the ground.
I hope this article has helped you. We have a wide selection of belay devices to choose from. Click here to go to our belay devices section where I am sure you will find what you need.