In the market for a new belay device? After researching over 30 models, we put the top 14 to through side-by-side tests to help you find the best one. We used them on granite big walls, short sport routes, for gym sessions, and many other things in between. We assessed their smoothness while paying out slack and how well they worked for a variety of climbing scenarios, and also conducted some lab tests to gauge their auto-block resistance. Whether you're purchasing your first ever belay device or replacing your twenty-year-old original GriGri, we have some great recommendations for you, including options for new climbers, those on a budget, as well as a new product for climbing teams with a large weight difference.
The Best Climbing Belay Device
We've updated this review over the summer to bring you some of the new options in the belay device market. We tested the tiny Mad Rock Lifeguard, an active assisted braking device. We also completed some head to head tests of some "passive" assisted braking devices, including the brand new Black Diamond ATC Pilot and the newly redesigned Mammut Smart 2.0. While the two are similar, only one could win our Best Buy award… read on to find out which did!
Best Overall for New Climbers or those who want extra safety
First, there was the GriGri in 1991. The GriGri 2 came 20 years later to accommodate a broader range of rope diameters. In 2017, we welcomed the GriGri+ with anticipation and speculation. Did Petzl mess with perfection, or would we love the newest iteration as much as the last? After plenty of field use, the answer is a bit of both! It pays out slack and auto-blocks the same as the GriGri 2, which we love. The + has an anti-panic handle which adds a layer of safety when lowering a climber or single-strand rappelling. If you go too fast or pull too hard, it locks up you, which has the potential to reduce accidents. This feature alone makes it our top recommendation for climbers just starting out who may not have mastered the art of belaying yet, or for anyone who wants the most safety options out there. We know climbing guides who prefer the old 2 for their personal use, but have purchased a + for times when they need their clients to belay them.
Now the not so good news… the anti-panic handle that makes this device safer also makes it lock up more frequently if not lowering or rappeling smoothly and slowly. It takes some adjustment if you're used to opening your 2 at full bore, and it has caused more than one climber we know to instantly offer their new + up for sale at a deep discount. The lead/toprope switch is difficult to operate. You need to stick a key or other thin but hard object in it to activate the lever, and then it's one more thing to remember to switch if you are going back and forth between leading and top roping. We're guilty of switching it to top rope mode, forgetting to switch it back, and then short-roping our partner when they got back on lead (it's harder to feed out slack in top rope mode). It is also $50 more than the 2! It does offer a larger rope diameter range though (8.5 to 11mm), and increased durability thanks to a stainless steel wear plate. If you're just starting out, we heartily recommend the + over the 2, and think the extra price is worth the added safety. We know plenty of experienced climbers who have "dropped" a partner as well, so even the most seasoned of us could use some extra help sometimes. However, those who've long used the 2 safely might find the + hard to adjust to, and so we also recommend that device (see below).
Read review: Petzl GriGri+
Best Overall for Experienced Climbers
Petzl GriGri 2
The Petzl GriGri 2 remains the most popular assisted braking device in the world. Other companies have introduced their own assisted braking models that might surpass the GriGri in a few narrow areas, but for overall smooth handling and strong catch it is hard to beat - except of course, by the GriGri+! We like the lower better on the 2 than the +, but they both offer a reliable catch and similar handling while feeding slack.
The downsides to the GriGri 2 are its heavy and bulky housing, and the plastic lever. Those who are looking for a smaller active assisted braking unit or who are afraid they will break the lever (very rare) should look to the Mad Rock Lifeguard. There is also the issue of it getting caught in an "open" position if the climber falls while the belayer is feeding out slack (and doesn't let go), which is addressed in the + version. While most experienced climbers who have used the 2 for years might prefer to stay with this one, if you already have a smooth lowering hand you might not notice any difference with the +, and will appreciate its extra safety features. The GriGri 2 is also still on the expensive side (now $100), only that might seem like a bargain compared to the + ($150). If you want the assisted braking in an even cheaper package, check out the Mammut Smart 2.0 below.
Read review: Petzl GriGri 2
Best Buy for an Assisted Braking Device
Mammut Smart 2.0
Passive assisted braking devices are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, with Black Diamond releasing a new model (the ATC Pilot) and Mammut updating their Smart model. Both devices are one-strand only models that work well for single-pitch leading and top-roping. They're called "passive" devices because there are no moving parts in the device; instead, the whole unit shifts when the rope gets weighted, which pinches the rope against the carabiner and impedes its movement. While you still have to keep your hand on the brake end, you don't have to hold the weight of the climber, taking the pressure off your hands and elbows. It's lightweight and fairly simple to use once you get used to it. We like the way the Smart 2.0 feeds out slack better than the ATC Pilot, and since it's $10 cheaper it was a no-brainer for us to give it our Best Buy award.
There is a learning curve though, and the Smart 2.0 uses a unique belaying method. The thumb of the brake hand presses up against the lever when feeding out slack. If you don't press hard enough you'll short rope your partner, but with a bit of practice, it becomes more intuitive. It also has a different lowering method; you have to pull the lever up slowly to let out slack, and the lower wasn't quite as smooth on the 2.0 as the ATC Pilot. While both of these options might seem a little gimmicky at first, they do fill a much-needed niche: assisted braking at an affordable price. If your hand is tired from using tubular devices and you long for the lock-off power of an assisted braking device, but don't want to shell out the big bucks for one, the Smart 2.0 ($35), is a good compromise.
Read review: Mammut Smart 2.0
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond ATC XP
The Black Diamond ATC XP is the best for new climbers or anyone on a budget. It's designed in the classic tube shape with two friction channels to enable double strand rappels. It's one of the easiest to learn how to belay with and includes a toothed groove on one side of the tube for superior braking strength when catching lead falls.
Compared to its closest challenger, the Petzl Verso, the ATC XP is slightly heavier (0.2 ounces), and the Verso can accommodate a slightly thinner rope (7.5mm vs. 7.7mm). The Verso even retails for $2 less, however, we preferred the ATC XP because it's slightly more durable and has stronger lock-off friction. They're both great devices though, so look for deals and consider whichever one is on sale.
Read review: Black Diamond ATC XP
Top Pick for Multi-Pitch Climbing
Black Diamond ATC Guide
For climbers that like to do it all, our recommendation is the Black Diamond ATC Guide. This device offers the same ideal characteristics as the ATC XP for standard belays while also providing auto-block capability for bringing up followers directly on an anchor. The GriGri's are only able to belay a single strand, and that limitation classifies it as a luxury in our eyes. Most climbers will also need a two strand device for rappels, and the ATC Guide is our favorite.
The Petzl Reverso 4 put up stiff competition by offering similar features and weighing an ounce less. They both retail for around the same price ($30), but the ATC Guide eked out the win thanks to its superior durability and lower auto-block resistance. If you need a versatile option for multi-pitch climbing, look no further.
Read review: Black Diamond ATC Guide
Top Pick for Big Weight Differences
When climber weighs substantially more than their belayer the possibility of the climber hitting the ground (or their belayer) when falling increases. We've seen guys at the crag specifically ask petite ladies for a belay because they like a "soft catch," but that catch could be dangerous in certain situations. Edelrid created the Ohm device for scenarios where there is a 30 pound or more (and/or 30%) weight difference between the climber and belayer. It gets attached to the first bolt and reduces the amount that the belayer gets yanked up to the first bolt, thereby reducing the distance that the climber falls. Note that this device is in addition to your regular belay device, just in case anyone was wondering!
We tested it extensively and it does indeed reduce the amount that a lighter belayer will travel upward when a heavier climber falls. It has some drawbacks though, including increasing resistance and drag when clipping. It ends up being a pain when working a route because it locks up every time the climber weights the rope and then it needs some jiggling to get it to disengage. It also weighs over a pound; this thing is like adding a brick to your backpack! However, if it saves you from dropping your partner the extra weight is certainly worth it.
Read review: Edelrid Ohm
Compact Assisted Braking Option for Multipitch Routes
Mad Rock Lifeguard
We know plenty of climbers who like to take an assisted braking device up long routes for extra security at the belay. If that sounds like you, but the GriGri just seems too cumbersome or heavy, consider the Mad Rock Lifeguard. The Lifeguard is only one ounce lighter than the Petzl GriGri 2, but it's a lot more compact, taking up less room on your harness that may already be packed with gear.
There's a little more friction on this device compared to a GriGri, which we noticed when using it with larger diameter ropes and in our auto-block resistance test. It also felt a little small for some of our testers with larger hands. Finally, it didn't completely lock-off on us when belaying a child with it, and it seems to require more weight than a GriGri to engage fully. Mad Rock has priced the Lifeguard at $89 ($10 less than the GriGri 2) perhaps hoping to entice some people to switch over. If you've been looking for something small that can provide you with some extra security when multi-pitch climbing, the Lifeguard is worth a look.
Read review: Mad Rock Lifeguard
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 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 eventually wonder which device offers the best friction in the lightest, most affordable package.
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 use it properly 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 device, as manufacturer's recommendations sometimes change over time as new safety guidelines are developed. Climbing is dangerous. Climb at your own risk.
We use a lot of specific climbing terms in this review to discuss the various devices and their pros and cons. If you aren't even sure what an auto-block vs. an active assisted braking device is, then head on over to our Buying Advice article, where we break down the various types of belay devices and make recommendations based on your experience and intended objectives. In the rest of this article, we'll discuss the results from our test metrics and highlight which ones scored the best (or worse) for each category. We'll also discuss the value of each model relative to their performance, and have some budget recommendations below.
A new belay device can run anywhere from $20 to $200. The lower end of the price point is populated by tube-style devices, whereas the more expensive models are the active assisted braking devices. The simple tube-style devices can get the job done for a fraction of the cost, so why would anyone want to spend so much more on one? Most assisted devices provide an extra level of safety should the belayer let go of the rope for various reasons (gets slammed into the wall, is knocked unconscious, or simple operator error). But often climbers require one of each - an assisted device for belaying and a "tuber" for rappels. If you're looking for the best value out there, consider the chart below. We've graphed each model according to its price (y-axis) vs. its performance (x-axis). Those that don't cost a lot but still perform well are where the value is found (look at the lower right-hand corner). Note that our Best Buy for Assisted Braking, the passive Smart 2.0, didn't have a very high score because we couldn't rate it for its auto-locking ability. However, it's a good deal at $35. We also like the $100 Petzl GriGri 2 much better than the $200 Camp Matik.
This category tries to measure the strength of the catch across all disciplines from sport to trad, winter ascents with half frozen ropes, to summer big walls and their marathon belays. We also considered the hand strength required to hold a hanging climber in place, what we'll be calling 'lock-off' in the individual product reviews. Most of the assisted braking devices outperformed the basic models in both aspects.
The Camp Matik has a gradual camming action, which lets a small amount of rope slip through as the cam rotates. These few inches reduce the impact forces on the gear, climber, and belayer, without a noticeable "why am I falling so far?" feeling. Second best were the tried and true GriGris, which lock up quickly and stay that way, along with the Edelrid Eddy. The only assisted model that we weren't so confident in was the Mad Rock Lifeguard, as that unit had issues engaging with a smaller climber (50 pounds).
Second best when it came to this category were most of the "passive" assisted braking devices, like the Edelrid Mega Jul, Mammut Smart 2.0, and Black Diamond ATC Pilot. In "active" models, braking is created by a pinching mechanism inside the device itself; "passive" models rely on a pinch between the carabiner and the device to hold the rope. Passive models 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). Always use these devices with the manufacturer recommended carabiner whenever possible (usually an HMS type), and expect that any deviance (along with changes in rope diameter) will affect its performance.
Passive models also 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 (older model) 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. While the hype might lead you to believe that they are "locking" devices, they 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 might not catch your fall. Passive models do offer substantial lock-off though and save your brake hand from cramping up on long top rope belays.
The standard tube-style devices, like the Black Diamond ATC models and the Petzl Verso and Reverso are what scored the lowest compared to the rest of the field. These devices require substantial strength on the brake hand when catching a fall and continued lock-off when top rope belaying or belay your second.
Catching a falling climber is only half the duty of a belay device; getting that climber safely back to the ground is the other. That's where lowering and rappelling come in. Six of the devices we tested began with an automatic advantage in this category — the ability to rappel two strands. Those models are the ATC XP, ATC Guide, Verso, Reverso 4, Smart Alpine, and Mega Jul. Rather than include that difference in our numerical scoring, we chose to separate it as a simple 'yes or no' double strand question in our comparison matrix. Shoppers should recognize that the none of the active assisted locking devices can rappel a doubled rope, nor can the passive Balck Diamond ATC Pilot or Mammut Smart 2.0. Consider these models only for single-pitch routes or multi-pitches in combination with a two strand device.
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. The tube style belay devices offered the smoothest lowering and rappelling of all models reviewed.
The standout performance from assisted braking devices came from the GriGri 2. The lower on that unit is smooth and jerk free, largely due to the absence of an anti-panic mechanism. The GriGri+, Camp Matik and Edelrid Eddy all have anti-panic levers that operate in a similar manner. If you pull back too far on the lever, the unit locks up. While this is to prevent someone from accidentally dropping themselves or their partner, it creates a narrow window between lowering and locking up. The Matik and Eddy locked up on us more than the GriGri+, but all require a deft hand that does improve with practice.
The passive assisted devices had some of the poorest lowering action. We found them jerky when compared to the tube devices. However, because you need to push and pull on them quite a bit to lower your partner, they are quite safe to use and lock up as soon as you let go.
Feeding slack is a category we included to measure each device's usefulness for belaying a lead climber. A lead climbing belay requires more attentiveness and rope management skill than a top-roping belay. The ability to take and give slack quickly and precisely is important to ensure a good belay — especially when close to the ground. Tube devices require the simplest motion to take or feed slack and received the best scores in this category because of it. The Black Diamond ATC XP and Guide units and the Petzl Verso and Reverso all had the smoothest and easiest action.
When it came to the passive and active assisted braking devices, results were more mixed. For the passive devices we like the Edelrid Mega Jul the best, followed by the Mammut Smart 2.0. These units use similar movements to tubes but require upward pressure on a handle or loop to disable the device's locking mechanism when feeding out slack quickly. The Smart 2.0 needs only a little upwards pressure to prevent it from locking, whereas the Black Diamond ATC Pilot requires substantial and continuous pressure.
The active assisted braking devices had some of the more complex methods for giving slack quickly, and each featured a different method. The Petzl GriGri+ and 2 fed slack well and we felt less friction. The Ederid Eddy and Mad Rock Lifeguard had more friction which made it more challenging to pay rope out quickly. The Camp Matik uses a unique "pistol" grip design which does take some getting used to if you've belayed differently for years.
Even if you think you are belaying correctly, chances are pretty good you may be doing something wrong! A climbing gym study in Germany showed that a quarter of all GriGri 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!). When it came to tube-style devices, each user committed at least one error when using them, either keeping their brake hand too close to the tube or not keeping the brake end down low enough. Therefore, no matter which device you choose, 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 during 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 Pilot, Mammut Smart 2.0, and the 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, focus on the relative performance of each device compared to the others. 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. Both GriGri models scored top marks in this metric, while the Mega Jul fell to the bottom.
Another interesting finding from our tests was the difference between new and used models. We only encountered 8 pounds of resistance from a worn ATC Guide on a 10.1 mm rope, but over 10 pounds with a new model. (Note that we averaged those scores in our test results.) So if you're new auto-block device is killing your arms out of the package, it should improve a bit with use.
Like all climbing gear these days, belay devices are getting lighter and smaller. Weights ranged from 2.0 to 13.0 ounces. Whether the weight is a critical component for you depends on a few things: whether or not you are climbing with your device on your harness, and whether or not you appreciate the "training" weight in your backpack.
When it comes to something you'll likely carry on your harness, the Edelrid MegaJul, Petzl Verso and Reverso, and the Black Diamond ATC XP are the lightest options. The ATC Guide adds another ounce to your harness but not much more bulk, whereas the Mammut Smart Alpine is both a little bulkier and heavier still. As we mentioned earlier in this article, the Mad Rock Lifeguard is a nice alternative for those that like to multi-pitch climb with a GriGri. It's only a little bit lighter but a lot more compact.
We expect all of the products we reviewed to last for a couple of years of heavy use. Different climbers, though, might decide to retire the same device at different levels of wear. Instead of estimating lifespans, we tried to objectively determine relative durability between all the devices by considering materials and design.
Stainless steel was the clear winner and devices that used it for their friction surfaces, like the Camp Matik and Edelrid Mega Jul, received some of the best scores. Petzl and Black Diamond both use aluminum for their tube designs but the hardness is different. We believe the BD stuff lasts longer. Durability represents five percent of overall score. If you ever suspect your device is worn out or no longer working properly, retire it immediately.
Purchasing a belay device can be confusing with the more evolved and specialized options on the market today. Hopefully, we have helped you narrow done the options and set you on the "route" to finding the perfect one for your needs. Once you have selected your next model, please take the time to educate yourself fully on how it operates and employ the standard safety checks routinely to ensure that climbing remains a fun pastime and not some less pleasant alternative.
— Cam McKenzie Ring, Jack Cramer, and Chris McNamara
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.