What is an anchor chain, do you need one, and what should you look for if buying one? We answer these three questions and more below. Be sure to also check out our anchor chain review to see how various anchor chains compared against each other.
What is An Anchor Chain?
An anchor chain is a daisy chain alternative for climbers and canyoneers. (They are typically too short and don't have enough loops to be useful for aid climbing.) We made up the term "anchor chain" to differentiate it from a daisy chain. Metolius made the first popular version, called the Personal Anchor System. We would call them "personal anchor systems" except Metolius probably has that trademarked. (If you know of a better term, please post below). They are a convenience device and are not mandatory. They allow you to quickly clip into an anchor at variable lengths like a daisy chain does.
However, unlike a daisy chain, which is only rated when clipped end-to-end, anchor chains are rated to full strength when you clip into any of the loops. This means that another climber can clip into your anchor chain or you can belay off it. You can also clip multiple parts of an anchor with an anchor chain. With a daisy chain, you have to be very careful if you ever clip more than one loop as demonstrated in this video below:
Do You Need an Anchor Chain?
In general, you don't need an anchor chain. You can often use the rope to tie into an anchor or extra slings. But, like a daisy chain, anchor chains add a lot of convenience. If you are preparing to rappel and you don't have a daisy chain, you often end up scrounging around for slings that are never quite the right length. If you are threading the rope through an anchor on a sport or trad climb, you often end up improvising a temporary tie-in system using lots of quickdraws. If you are climbing with three people it is often a mess to get everyone safely connected to the anchor. An anchor chain can be a convenient solution in these situations.
There are downsides to anchor chains. They are more bulky and you either have to have it bunched on the side of your harness (making it harder to access gear loops) or you have to put it through your legs and clip it to the back of your harness, which has its own downsides. Anchor chains are generally more bulky than short daisy chains.
But the main downside to an anchor chain is that they are not very dynamic. If you get a nylon anchor chain it is more dynamic than a Dyneema or Dyneema/nylon mix. But even then it has much less fall absorption than if you either belay off the lead rope or you use a nylon accessory cord to tie in with a Purcell Prusik (video link)
Another downside to an anchor chain is that unless you have an equalized master point, you often end up clipping into just one piece directly with the second piece as a backup. If that first point fails you are likely to shock load the second point. This situation is especially common on rappels. So you need to be extra careful with your systems. For example, say you are doing a multi-pitch rappel with three climbers. You are the last climber to a hanging station. With just two daisy chains (no anchor chains) you would have had to wrestle the other climbers to find two points to clip into with your daisy chains or slings. But since now the whole team has anchor chains, you feel you can safely clip into just one of your partner's chains. Easy. However, you are now trusting your life to the fact that you partner clipped into an equalized anchor, locked the biner, etc. It means you must be much more careful with equalizing anchors, locking carabiners, etc. Convenience is great but it means you have to be extra vigilant with safety in the situation described above and others.
All anchor chains are about the same length: 40 inches. They are not long enough to aid climb with and some free climbers may wish they were a little longer. However, I think it is a good length – long enough to reach most anchors but not so long that it bunches up and snags on the side of your harness.
Dyneema/Spectra vs. Nylon
These is a good debate about the benefits of Dyneema/Spectra vs. nylon in anchor chains, climbing slings, and daisy chains. This debate has been educated and made higher profile by the following video. What is clear is that nylon absorbs more force than Dyneema and Spectra. What is also clear is that using an anchor connection with the climbing rope absorbs a lot more force than even a nylon anchor chain. It's a long debate and you can read some pretty heated comments at the bottom of the Metolius Personal Anchor System page. Here is our take-away opinion: an anchor chain, whatever it is made of, is not intended to be shock loaded. Slack in your anchor system followed by a fall can cause significant forces on both you and your equipment no matter what you use.
So the above said, what material should you use: Dyneema, nylon, the climbing rope, a prusik made of nylon accessory cord? That question is debatable and one material is not the best for all applications. Dyneema is lightest and strongest material but absorbs the least force. Nylon anchor chains are heavier, more susceptible to wear but absorb more force. The climbing rope absorbs the most force but is not practical to use if rappelling or threading an anchor…and it uses up the rope if you are climbing long pitches. The Purcell Prusik is bulky and not as convenient for some people.
The Bottom Line
If you are currently using a daisy chain when free climbing, the anchor chain is a great alternative. In many instances it is far superior to a daisy chain. If you don't use a daisy chain, or don't know what one is, chances are you don't need an anchor chain. Before you buy an anchor chain, it is important you know the basics of fall force, and how using a (more or less) static connection to your anchor needs to be managed.