How To Choose a Belay Device for Rock Climbing

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab - Tuesday August 20, 2013

Belaying and rappelling is an action you will go through countless times throughout your climbing day. As with any heavy use tool, picking the right one increases safety and confidence. When buying a belay device, ask yourself if weight, function or price is the most important issue, and whether you intend to go multi-pitch climbing or simply cragging.

Mark Miller rapelling Pine Line with clearing storm clouds above. Pine...
Mark Miller rapelling Pine Line with clearing storm clouds above. Pine Line dries quickly after storms.
Credit: Chris McNamara

There are three main types of devices:
  • Tube Style (also called manual or standard belay devices)
  • Auto-locking (also called auto-assist or self-locking)
  • Auto-blocking (also called guide's style)

Click to enlarge
The three types of belay devices (from left to right): Auto-locking, Tybe Style, Auto-blocking.
Credit: Chris McNamara

Which style you use depends on which application you are using it for.

Tube Style
Tube Style belay devices are handy and well priced for traditional belaying and rappelling methods. This is the type of device you get when you first start climbing and will probably hold onto forever. There are many choices on the market that work generally the same way. Cost depends on size, weight and additional features.

Auto-blocking
If you're planning to get off the deck for more than one pitch, many climbers bring an auto–blocking device. This way they can belay directly off the anchor, thus saving energy. You can tell a guide’s device by its additional, full–strength, clip-in point.

These devices are great because
  1. Belaying off the anchor is less effort than off your waist.
  1. You can escape the belay (you've already escaped when setting it up).
  1. Works great for lead, following or rappelling; they are very versatile.

Auto Locking
These devices only work with a single rope of a specified diameter. They are ideal for situations where you are either belaying for a long time (big walls) or are going to have a climber who is hanging a lot on the rope (gym, sports climbs, cragging). These devices are generally heavy and expensive (except for the Mammut Smart, which is light and cheap). Because they only work with a single rope, you need to also bring a tube style or auto-blocking device if you want to rappel two ropes.

Rope Size
What diameter ropes you intend to use is very important. Some devices won't work for small ropes while other devices won't perform well with thick ropes. Make sure to check out our Ratings Overview tab above so that you can see which device will work with which diameter rope and which device will work with two ropes. For example, our top rated auto-blocking device did not do very well with thick ropes. Almost all tube style devices work fine in the gym on 10.5mm ropes but have much different handling characteristics if belaying on a 9.2mm rope.

Durability
Durability is something to consider when purchasing a belay device. But honestly, it's the least important point. How the device handles is definitely most important. Most climbers, with moderate use, can go many years before they wear out their device
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris’ sanity. He’s climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?” Outside Magazine has called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He’s the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts.

Chris is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA, and Rowell Legacy Committee. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also runs a Lake Tahoe Vacation Rental.

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