Black Diamond Camalot Z4 Review
Cons: Not the most affordable, smaller units lack double axle and aren’t as smooth, trigger wires can’t be replaced at home
Manufacturer: Black Diamond Equipment
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Z4's replace the X4s in BD's lineup, which have been discontinued, and also overlap with the size range of the old C3s, which were discontinued a while ago. They are currently the only micro cams that BD makes. They range from #0 up to .75, with the .3-.75 overlapping with standard Camalot C4s and .4-.75 overlapping with Camalot Ultralights, so prospective buyers will need to decide which types of units they want in these sizes. They use the same color scheme as other BD cams, but the sewn Dynex sling comes in a checkered pattern (white/cam color) so that they can be easily differentiated on the harness. They also come in offset sizes with bicolor slings for identification.
The most notable feature on these cams is the new RigidFlex stem, which uses two twisted cables as a stem in the larger sizes, and claims to be flexible when placed, but rigid when the trigger bar is pulled, thereby aiding in placement and removal. This feature does work, although it is a lot more effective in the smaller sizes than the larger ones, where the weight of the head works as an effective lever to induce some stem floppiness. This feature directly addresses one of the principal complaints against the X4 — that they were too floppy — and in this regard is an improvement. Other complaints against the X4 were that the stems were easily kinked, they were too heavy, and the heads were too wide. With the Z4's dual twisted wire stem, it should be much harder to kink the stem, and these units are also considerably lighter and have narrower heads — in line with the old C3 head width. While there is no perfect micro cam, these units are a vast improvement over their predecessors and have quickly become our favorite small cams.
When free climbing, you want to be able to quickly identify the cam you need, remove it from your harness and place it properly and effectively — and you may need to do this very quickly! The Z4 help accomplish all of these tasks and are a fantastic choice for free climbing on all types of stone. They use familiar BD color schemes, the most common and well known, especially in the larger sizes, so there is no need to memorize a new scheme, or perform a translation in your mind. They also use a double-axle design down to the .3 size, which allows for a wider range per cam. If you slightly misjudge the size of the crack, chances are that you can still place a Z4 that will hold a fall, whereas this might not be the case with a cam that has a smaller range, forcing an under-cammed placement. The convenient thumb loop makes it easy to quickly grab the cam and pull the trigger, with no adjustment needed.
The new RigidFlex stem design also aids in these cam's efficacy while free climbing. A rigid stem is preferable when placing and removing cams, because it transfers the movement of your hand into the camming head, making it easy to wiggle in or out. Conversely, a flexible stem is preferable for a placed cam, as it reduces walking and also the likelihood that the cam will become damaged if weighted over edges. The RigidFlex design makes the stem less wiggly when the trigger is pulled, although it doesn't become completely stiff, and this seems to work better on the smaller units than the larger ones, which we are thankful for since smaller cams often need a lot more fiddling to get in and out of thin cracks. When the trigger is released, the stem becomes flexible, and so both desires are accomplished with the same design.
On our independent scale, a purple .5 size weighed in at 2.8 ounces, which was a tad heavier than the 2.71 ounces listed on BD's website. An entire set of these seven cams would end up weighing 14.82 ounces, according to BD's weights, or slightly less than a pound.
This is pretty light, especially considering how many wires are used to make up the stem, that it's a four cam unit, and that many of the units have double axles in the heads. It weighs about 0.4 ounces less than the old X4, so weight has been cut. That said, most of the "Alien" style designs, which have single axle heads, single wire stems, and a woven trigger sheath, are a fair bit lighter.
The full range of Z4s includes seven different cams that go from the smallest currently made (7.5 mm, .29 in.) up to the green .75 size (42.1 mm, 1.66 in.). For small cams, this is a very wide range, and the flexible stem design is not practical for any larger head size. Most notably, the green 0, with a 7.5mm bottom range, is now smaller than the smallest C3, and adds a fair bit of range on the bottom end below the .1, which used to be the smallest size.
Even more pertinent, however, is the individual cam range, which means how much space a single unit can fill in a crack. A wider range means you can far more easily shove a slightly mis-sized unit into a placement. The individual size range for Z4s is as good as all Camalots, and far better than any of the single axle competitors, which greatly adds to both their ease of placing, as well as their versatility.
The flexible wire stem means that it can bend over edges and makes it a great candidate for horizontal cracks. Furthermore, the double-twisting cable design in the .3 and above sized units means that if weighted over an edge, the two cables can actually shift somewhat dynamically in relation to each other, lessening the chance of a catastrophic kink in the cable that would necessitate retirement. These stems also bend equally well in all directions, so it's not only pure horizontals where the flexibility proves to be an advantage.
The plastic sheath that encases the stem and the four trigger wires is cut in a slinky-like pattern so that it can accordion itself to bend in any direction. While it seems this sheath may be a durability concern, we have yet to hear of, or experience, any issues.
Placing cams into tight, shallow cracks requires a narrow head that won't bottom out before all four cam lobes have the opportunity to make contact with the rock. One of the biggest improvements made with the Z4 is the narrowing of the head, as they are narrower than old X4s, comparable to C3s that only have three lobes, and even narrower than competing "Alien" style designs like the Dragonflys, which should have the advantage of cam springs recessed inside the lobes. In short, these are narrow-headed cams that fit well in shallow cracks.
We tested these cams extensively for three months immediately after they were released, and had no issue with their durability during that short time. Our only complaint is that on our yellow .2 sized unit, which has a single axle rather than the double axle in the larger units, it was possible for the cams to become aligned crookedly. Also, Black Diamond is not selling trigger repair kits, and is also not authorizing third party repairs, and so if you experience a blown trigger wire, you must send the unit back to them for repair, for a fee.
Our gut tells us that there may end up being some issues with the plastic, slinky-like trigger sheath tearing, although we searched reviews and forums for hours and found no reports of durability concerns — yet. Climbing gear is put under incredible strain, and as of publication, there simply has not been enough time and use in the community in general for us to comment on what true durability concerns, or advantages, there are.
Walking is when the interaction between the cam sling and the rope once the climber is above the unit causes the head to move positions, often deeper into the crack. These cams have relatively short slings (3.75"), making it more likely that the rope may pull on the unit if you don't extend them with a quickdraw or extendable runner.
The flexible stem helps to cut down on the walking action, as the movement of the sling from the rope can be mitigated by the stem flexing. However, placed poorly or not extended properly, these cams can walk just like other Camalots do.
Due to the shutdown of national parks during the Covid-19 crisis, specifically Yosemite, we were not able to test these cams while aid climbing before publishing this review. Check back later for our opinions and experiences as we manage to use them for this use.
In general, narrow cam heads, flexible stems, very small sizes, and offset units are all great advantages when aid climbing, and the Z4s have all of these attributes, so we expect them to function pretty well, at least on mellower clean aid routes. They lack two features that are a boon while aid climbing: the ability to independently manipulate individual lobes, a large reason why Totem Cams are the top choice for aid climbers, and round shaped lobes, common among the "Alien" style designs, that often fit into blown out pin scars a bit better.
These units retail for the same price, regardless of which size you choose, and are only a few dollars more expensive than comparably sized Camalot C4s, but are significantly less expensive than Camalot Ultralights. We think they present great value, considering they are our favorite small cam, but if you are shopping purely based on budget, you can find better deals on cams that are still really high quality and perform well; check out our Best Buys.
Black Diamond Z4s present an upgrade over previous versions by unleashing new and innovative technology while also addressing the concerns raised by both athletes and consumers. These are some high tech gadgets that are simple and easy to use, and are easily among the most versatile small camming units you can buy. We think both new and experienced climbers alike will appreciate having them on their rack, and will benefit from their many advantages over other small cam designs.
— Andy Wellman