The Best Climbing Belay Device
What is the best belay device for rock climbing? Over a six month test we took ten of the top products on the market up and down rock, ice, and snow, from the storied granite walls of Yosemite Valley to the ephemeral colored routes at our local climbing gyms. Throughout the process we tried to consider each design's ability to catch falls, feed slack, lower partners, and rappel. We even got the hanging scale out to systematically measure auto-block resistance. The good news: they all work well for most cragging or gym situations. Where the differences came out was for specific applications such as belaying a second and use with varying rope diameters. Read on to see which were our favorites.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Gone are the days of hip belays and the adage "the leader must not fall". Along with dynamic ropes, the reliability of modern belay devices has transformed climbing from a borderline suicidal endeavor to a boring choice for a kid's birthday party. If you climb enough though, you'll eventually wonder which device offers the best friction in the lightest, most affordable, package?
Follow the Manufacturer's Instructions Carefully
Belay devices are important pieces of climbing life-safety equipment, but can be confusing to master. This is one piece of gear where learning exactly how to properly use it is crucial. Improper use of a belay device may result in death or serious injury. It is very important that you read and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. We encourage you to visit the manufacturer's website and make sure you have their latest documentation for your particular belay device, as manufacturer's recommendations sometimes change over time as new safety guidelines are developed. Climbing is dangerous. Climb at your own risk.
Types of Belay Devices
Black Diamond ATC XP, Petzl Verso, Black Diamond ATC Guide, and Petzl Reverso 4, but there are many, many more available. In addition to the basic tube design, the ATC Guide and Reverso also feature auto-block capability.
Assisted Braking: Passive vs. Active
The next step up in sophistication is assisted braking devices. These devices, also called 'assisted locking', use a variety of mechanisms to pinch the rope and automatically catch a fall. The automation and reliability of this catch, however, is not fool-proof so we will refrain from using the popular, but incorrect term, 'auto-locking'. No matter the belay device, always keep your braking hand on the rope(s).
Assisted braking devices are great because they reduce the grip strength required to hold a hanging partner, letting you save your energy for climbing instead of belaying. Their safety benefits though are more dubious. If you let their automatic braking capability encourage bad belay techniques, they can become just as dangerous as any other type. Their function also requires more complicated hand motions that can create their own accidents or inhibit precise rope management, which is especially important for near-ground clips. Therefore, we suggest only experienced belayers use assisted braking devices for lead belays.
We will separate today's assisted braking options into two categories: passive and active. Passive assisted braking devices generate their braking power by pinching the rope between the device and a carabiner and are dependent on the position of the brake hand (classified under UIAA En 15151-2, "Manual braking devices"). These devices are lighter and less expensive than their active counterparts, and are usually capable of double strand rappels. However, their performance is highly dependent on the carabiner used and they offer less braking power. We examined the Mammut Smart Alpine and Edelrid Mega Jul in this category.
Active assisted braking devices generate their braking power via a variety of mechanisms inside the device itself. They're not dependent on the position of the brake hand or the carabiner used (classified under UIAA EN 15151-1, "braking devices with manually assisted locking"). Examples we tested include the Petzl GriGri 2, Edelrid Eddy, Camp Matik, and Trango Cinch. These devices are the most expensive but provide the greatest braking power, handle smoothly, and are our favorites for most belays.
Criteria for Evaluation
We think it's important to emphasize the difference between the passive assisted braking of the Smart Alpine and Edelrid Mega Jul versus the active assisted locking on devices like the GriGri 2, Trango Cinch, Edelrid Eddy and Camp Matik. In the GriGri et al. braking is created by a pinching mechanism inside the device itself; the passive assisted braking models rely on a pinch between the carabiner and the device. The Smart Alpine and Mega Jul are thus dependent on this carabiner and its shape and size can have a significant impact on performance (up to 35% differences in our tests).
Furthermore, passive models do not generate the same braking force as active devices. The German Alpine Club conducted tests measuring the braking force without a hand on the rope for several models and found the Smart and Mega Jul could only handle 0.6 kN and 0.5 kN, respectively. Active assisted locking devices like the GriGri 2 and Camp Matik each withstood more than 2.0 kN. Contrary to what we've seen on the internet, the Smart and Mega Jul cannot be expected to catch even small falls without a brake hand on the rope. To say it another way, if your belayer gets knocked unconscious by rockfall, these passive assisted braking devices are unlikely to catch your fall.
The difference in lowering/rappelling scores came down to the smoothness of the action and the range it was good for. We saw the most consistently good performance from the tube devices. Although the assisted braking models all provide the ability to lock the device and rest hands free, they also exhibited narrow ranges and jerkiness. No matter which device you choose, it's important to tie a knot in the end of the rope—rappelling and lowering accidents are two of the most common types and are often easily preventable.
Our favorite of the active locking devices was the Petzl GriGri 2, however, one study showed that even with this popular and longstanding device, up to a quarter of all users pay out slack improperly, momentarily taking their brake hand off the rope (we've said it before, but it bears repeating, never take your braking hand off the rope!). Therefore, no matter which device you choose we urge you to find out how to use it correctly. And that's especially true for the more complicated techniques required on active assisted braking models.
Auto-block (resistance belaying a second)
Belaying a second directly off the anchor is a convenient way to ensure a reliable catch and a comfortable belay while multi-pitch climbing (be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully, as this type of belay configuration is more complex and mistakes can result in death). All the devices we tried, except the Black Diamond ATC XP and Petzl Verso, feature some way to do so. Unfortunately though, many of these devices create substantial friction that can exhaust a belayer's shoulders and elbows. We were inspired by Blake Herrington at Cascade Climbers to run a test on the resistance of each device in auto-block mode. Our full procedures are explained in the How We Test section, but the important thing to know is that the actual numerical value (in lbs) is not very meaningful. Rather the relative performance of each device compared to the others is what you should focus on. Lower scores are better and indicate less energy required for auto-block belays. The 1-10 scores we awarded for this category assume each device is capable of properly locking and only reflect the relative resistance.
Like all climbing gear these days, belay devices are getting lighter and smaller. Devices ranged from 2.0 to 13.0 ounces. Three or more of the smallest, the Petzl Verso, could likely fit inside the volume of the massive Edelrid Eddy. This category is obviously not crucial to device function but we decided to include it because it's important to alpine and multi-pitch climbers. In the end we summarized both components into this one rating and it represents ten percent of the overall score.
It's impossible to belay without a climbing rope. See our picks for the best in The Best Rock Climbing Rope Review.
Purchasing a belay device can be confusing with the more evolved and specialized options on the market today. It is important to identify the type of climbing you intend to do in order to select the appropriate device for your climbing needs. Read through our Buying Advice article for specific recommendations tailored to different disciplines and experiences levels.
— Jack Cramer and Chris McNamara
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