The Best Climbing Camming Device Review
We took the 16 best spring-loaded camming devices (usually just called climbing cams) and put them in head-to-head competition in hundreds of placements. We scored them on how well they did in parallel cracks, flared cracks, tight placements, horizontal placements, free climbing and aid climbing. We also scored them on how prone they were to walking and how durable they were. After months of tests we picked our Editors' Choice for small cams for aid climbing and free climbing.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Medium and Large Camming Device
Black Diamond Camalot C4
Best Overall Small Camming Device
Black Diamond Camalot X4
Best Bang for the Buck
Metolius Master Cam
Top Pick for Aid Climbing
Metolius Offset Master Cam
Most other cams we tested had something they were best at:
DMM Dragon Cam - lightest and best for alpine rock and ice.
Black Diamond Camalot C3 - best in tiny spots.
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Analysis and Test Results
We score both bigger and smaller climbing cams in this review. We feel most climbers should not worry about what single set of cams to get. Instead, you should think about what set of small cams you want (sizes .33-1.25") and what kind of medium/big cams you want (sizes 1.5-5+").
Flared cracks usually come in the form of pin scars in Yosemite and Zion. However, they are found just about everywhere to some extent. By far the best cams for flared cracks are offset or hybrid cams. The Metolius Offset Master Cam narrow head width scored the highest. For pin scars, it is pretty awesome, especially because the flexible stem helps it get inside deep "boxed out" scars.
The Camalot C4 and the Totem Cams performed the best of the medium sized cams. Neither has offset lobes but both had relatively narrow heads and flexible stems to help the cams grab.
Horizontal Placements and Awkward Placements
Cams with flexible stems and narrow stems did the best in horizontal cracks or weird pods. The flexible stems of the Aliens came in handy in awkward placements. The Totem Cam also performed very well as it was the most flexible bigger cam. The Master Cam was stiffer and had a piece of metal in the stem that held back its performance just a little. Cams with stiffer stems caused the cam to be more levered out. They also got more battered when either weighted or fallen on. For example, when bounce testing TCU's, their cables got warped faster than other cams. All cams get a little worked when you bounce on them, but flexible stems did better.
Cams with the narrowest heads got in tight placements the best. A clear standout is the Black Diamond Camalot C3 that was 10-40 percent narrower than the rest of the small cams. In spots like The Nose's Great Roof, you can really shove them up in tiny little spots and feel secure. Second place was the Master Cam and Offset Master Cam. The TCU's were the widest and really didn't get in tight spots that well.
For the bigger cams, the Camalots, Totem Cams and Dragons all performed about equally as well.
The Camalot C4, CCH Hybrid Alien, and CCH Alien scored the highest marks in this category. Flexible stems made for less walking, and we also liked extendable slings. Of course you can always attach a runner to any piece, but having a sling that can quickly extend means it is much faster to make the piece safe (and you have to carry fewer draws and runners). The C3 and TCU, with only three cams, stiff stems and short slings walked the most of the small cams.
For the bigger cams the clear winner is the Totem Cam. It is way more flexible than any other cam. Another high scorer is the Dragon Cam because it has a single stem and an extendable sling built in.
All cams eventually get beat up, but the Aliens showed the most wear the fastest. Their soft metal caused the cams to lose their teeth and become difficult to open. Their stems, however, were well protected with a protective sheath and even after a ton of bounce testing the stems usually stayed in shape. Most other cams were about the same for durability. The TCU was the most burly because it had a beefy cable and lasted the longest. The Master Cams have a very durable stem and cams but their Kevlar cam "wires" are still of unknown durability.
History of Climbing Cams
For the modern rock climber, it's hard to imaging starting up a climb without at least a dozen different camming devices clipped to your harness. Today we have a huge variety of brands and styles of spring loaded camming devices or SLCD's (we typically just call them "cams" these days). But the modern high tech cam, made with space-age metal alloys and perfectly machined pieces is a surprisingly recent invention in the long history of rock climbing and few inventions have revolutionized the world of rock climbing like the advent of cams.
Spring Loaded Camming Devices are a fascinating piece of engineering and machining mastery. The quarter circle lobes of cams are based on a logarithmic spiral, a spiraling pattern that we find in nature with abundance. We see the logarithmic spiral in the twisting shape of seashells and in the galactic spinning pattern of our very own Milky Way Galaxy. By basing the lobes on this spiraling design, it allows the cam lobes to contact the rock at the same angle regardless of how open or closed the cam is placed. There is a delicate balance between the size range a cam is able to span and its holding power. If you increase the range of too much, it increases the angle at which they contact the rock, this in turn reduces the force applied outwards by the lobes, thus reducing the holding power. So striking a fine balance between the range and the required force for maximum holding power is a key aspect to the design.
Many people credit the first SLCD designs to the famous mountaineer Greg Lowe in the early 1970's; however, the Russian climber Vitaly Abalakov was working on a similar idea across the globe around the same time. In 1972, Greg Lowe developed a now comical "cam nut" which was a single lobe attached to a single stem. While functional, the design was difficult to place and proved to be relatively impractical. Soon after the Cam Nut Lowe added a second lobe to the design for a single stem, two lobed "Split Cam." Again, the idea was extremely inventive but failed to gain mainstream interest.
By the mid 1970s, several other inventive climbers of the day had begun to work on futuristic designs for rock climbing protection in order to replace the passive Hexentrics, Stoppers and chocks most commonly used at the time. It took an inventive and eccentric aerospace engineer turned rock climber by the name of Ray Jardine to come up with the breakthrough design that would change the face of climbing forever.
Jardine had concluded that the SLCD design needed be exceptionally strong with a great strength to weight ratio, it needed to be manipulated with a single hand and it needed to have a significant range in order to protect multiple sized cracks with a single piece of gear. By about 1975 Jardine had his first prototype cams which quickly became known as "Friends." Climbing Magazine reports that Jardine required absolute secrecy from his select group of climbing partners during development of the first Friends. When meeting up to go climbing for the day a larger group of climbers was present when one of Jardines partners began to ask if he had brought the cams, mid sentence he realized he shouldn't mention it and so he asked if Jardine was going to bring any "Friends," the name stuck and in 1978 Friends hit the market. Their first advertisement in the magazines with slogans like "Get High with a little help from your Friends" appeared in January 1978.
The release of Friends was one of the biggest game changers in rock climbing history, alongside sticky rubber climbing shoes which were released in 1982; no other inventions have caused such dramatic advances in the sport. The first Friends came in 4 sizes, starting at a tight hand size (about two inches) and spanning up to fist sized cracks at about four or five inches. Soon Jardine released several more cams to protect cracks down to finger sizes and to cover all of the sizes between his existing 1, 2, 3 and 4 Friends. Within a few years other inventive climbers across the nation and around the world were looking to improve the design of Friends.
Climbers were primarily interested in creating a camming unit that could cover the sizes much smaller than what the Friends protected, cracks below about three quarters of an inch. Steve Byrne created Wired Bliss out of Flagstaff Arizona and was one of the first to find the engineering solutions to these tiny cams. Byrne successfully designed a very small rigid stem cam, he manufactured over fifty of them and the legendary Alan Watts took them to Yosemite where they sold like hot cakes. But the smaller the placements became, the more that the rigid stem would hinder performance, so Byrne began experimenting with replacing the stem with a cable to create a more flexible unit. This idea gave birth to an SLCD that only had three lobes, instead of four, and had a U-shaped stem instead of the typical straight stem, these became widely known as TCU's (three cam units) and were the smallest cams on the market for many years.
During the 1980's there were several different companies releasing slightly different versions of the same thing. Because of Ray Jardines patent on the basic design of Friends, other companies were forced to create variations to the trigger and stem which fueled innovation over the years. In 1987 Black Diamond joined the list of companies selling different versions of cams; however, the Black Diamond "Camalot" was unique. The lobes of the Camalot were not set upon a single axle as all other cams had been, they possessed a double axle which improved the range substantially without decreasing the holding power at all. Over the years this design has seen several improvements, but is still based up the same sizes and double axle design. The Camalot remains the gold standard of rock climbing protection today.
Today there are many different SLCDs on the market and all provide excellent protection and safety. Black Diamond has released C3's, a futuristic three cam unit that comes in incredibly small sizes and the new and impressively flexible X4's. Colorado Custom Hardware (CCH) pioneered the flexible cable stem in the 1990's creating an extremely flexible device with springs integrated into the lobes which allowed for an incredibly narrow width to the head and lobes. CCH was also the first company to use two different sized lobes, called offsets. One set of lobes is a size smaller than the other which allows for incredible holding power in flared cracks and piton scars, these have become an essential tool in Yosemite Valley and on big wall routes around the world. Recently Totem Cams reinvented the cam with an incredible design that offers a whole new lobe shape allowing for unsurpassed security in irregular and flared placements. The Totem Cams are quickly becoming the protection of choice among climbers on the big walls of Yosemite Valley and the strange, flaring limestone routes of Europe.
Whichever piece of protection you choose, remember how lucky we are to reach for a lightweight, strong and easy to place spring loaded camming device instead of always grabbing for those stoppers and hexes.
— Chris McNamara and Robert Beno
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