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How to Choose a Belay Device for Rock Climbing

For both belaying and rappelling  there are countless devices available for you to use  and each have both their own unique advantages as well as disadvantages.
Wednesday April 24, 2019
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In the early days, "climbing" meant mountaineering and a "belay device'" was merely your body. Throw a loop of rope around your hips and use quick reflexes and mighty hand strength to keep your partner from taking the ultimate ride. Unsurprisingly, this was also an era of many accidents and the adage, "the leader must not fall." As time went on, things improved. The boot axe belay was invented and eventually, the first mechanical belay device, the stitch plate, was introduced. As technical rock climbing gained popularity, falls became more common and even greater braking force was required. This need is fulfilled today by a bewildering array of gizmos that each promise maximum safety and convenience. We compare 15 of the most popular choices in The Best Climbing Belay Device Review. Here we will try to point you in the right direction based on your experience level and climbing interests, and we'll also explain what the different types of devices are.

Types of Devices


There are three different types of belay devices included in this review: Tubes, Passive Assisted Braking Devices, and Active Assisted Braking Devices. All of these are designed to be used clipped directly to the belay loop of a harness with a locking carabiner. There is also another method of using some of them, however, the Auto-Block mode, which is a means of belaying the second up a pitch by attaching the belay device directly to the anchor. These four methods are described in much greater detail below.

NOT included in this review are figure eight belay devices. Although some grampas and sport rappelers still use these types of devices, they are considered antiquarian at this point, and are not recommended. On the other hand, one belay device that everyone already has with them is the Munter Hitch, provided you know how to tie and use it, which we highly recommend learning. The Munter Hitch can be used to belay both a leader and second, as well as rappel single or double ropes. Although it usually twists your ropes into a coiled mess, it provides an invaluable insurance policy in case you happen to drop your belay device, which can happen.

Tubes


The most basic type of belay device covered in this review is the tube. Modern versions of these devices continue to look less and less like an actual tube, but they're all based on the concept of a tube-shaped slot to pass a bight of rope through. You clip a carabiner to this bight, and the bend it creates produces the friction and braking power. One of the more popular early models was the Black Diamond ATC ("Air Traffic Controller"), and this acronym is sometimes used to refer to the entire category in North America. Although the original ATC is still available, many of today's best performing tubes are asymmetrically shaped to give stronger braking force. They include a toothed groove on one side that "bites" the rope better when catching lead falls. Most tubes include two slots to enable you to belay with half and twin ropes and rappel on two strands. We reviewed four devices in this category: the Black Diamond ATC XP, Petzl Verso, Black Diamond ATC Guide, and Petzl Reverso, but there are many more available. In addition to the basic tube design, the ATC Guide and Reverso also feature auto-block capability.

The body and wire loop on the Black Diamond ATC XP (left) are both larger than the Petzl Verso (right). The difference wasn't large enough to have a significant impact on our scoring.
The body and wire loop on the Black Diamond ATC XP (left) are both larger than the Petzl Verso (right). The difference wasn't large enough to have a significant impact on our scoring.

Auto-Block


Auto-block devices, sometimes called 'guide' devices, are tube derivatives that include an extra hole to clip the device into an anchor. This allows you to belay a climber directly off said anchor with an assisted locking mechanism. The belayer needs to be especially careful to orient these devices the correct way, just as you would when loading the belay device on the ground, or they will not provide the auto-block. They automatically block by creating friction between the two ends of rope running over each other. The second climber's end of rope is on top, and pinches the brake end of rope beneath it when there is tension. Most passive and active assisted braking devices can also be used in auto-block mode off the anchor, since they already have a rope pinching mechanism in their design, but they don't all work in the same way.

Belaying in this manner is ideal for multi-pitch routes or belaying two followers at once. The extra automatic braking frees up a hand too, letting a belayer snack, rehydrate, or snap photos at the same time. But, never take your braking hand off the rope or ropes under any circumstances. The drawbacks to auto-blocking tubes are higher weight, cost, and complexity. Belayers also need to be experienced enough to handle the sometimes involved procedures to lower a hanging partner in auto-block mode. Check out our specs table to see which devices allow for belaying directly off the anchor and which don't.

The Reverso 4 in auto-block mode. Belaying directly off the anchor on a multi-pitch route is often the preferred method  though the friction with the Reverso 4 was the second highest of the devices we tested.
The Reverso 4 in auto-block mode. Belaying directly off the anchor on a multi-pitch route is often the preferred method, though the friction with the Reverso 4 was the second highest of the devices we tested.

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 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 allow their automatic braking capability to encourage bad belay techniques, they can become as dangerous as any other type of device. Their function also requires more complicated hand motions that can create their own accidents or inhibit precise rope management, which is especially crucial for near-ground clips. Therefore, we suggest only experienced belayers use assisted braking devices for lead belays.

Passive

We 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 sometimes capable of double-strand rappels. However, their performance is highly dependent on the type of carabiner used. We tested the Black Diamond ATC Pilot, Mammut Smart 2.0, Climbing Technology ClickUp+, Mammut Smart Alpine and Edelrid Mega Jul in this category.

A passive device has no moving parts other than the device itself. Here's the Black Diamond ATC Pilot in its "engaged" mode.
A passive device has no moving parts other than the device itself. Here's the Black Diamond ATC Pilot in its "engaged" mode.

Four of the passive assisted braking devices we tested  for comparison of their size. Not shown here is the BD ATC Pilot. In the center is the ClickUp+  with the carabiner that comes with it. On the left is the Mammut Smart 2.0 on top  and the Smart Alpine on the bottom. To the right is the smallest of all  the Edelrid MegaJul.
Four of the passive assisted braking devices we tested, for comparison of their size. Not shown here is the BD ATC Pilot. In the center is the ClickUp+, with the carabiner that comes with it. On the left is the Mammut Smart 2.0 on top, and the Smart Alpine on the bottom. To the right is the smallest of all, the Edelrid MegaJul.

Active

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"). These have become the most popular and common devices for sport climbing and most cragging, and while they often require a long period to learn the very specific techniques required to safely use them, quickly become the devices that require the least effort to belay with. Our review includes the Petzl GriGri+, Petzl GriGri, Trango Vergo, Edelrid Eddy, Mad Rock Lifeguard, and Camp Matik. These devices are the most expensive but provide the greatest braking power, handle smoothly, and are our favorites for most belays.

The Petzl GriGri+ has a camming mechanism that pinches down the rope when a climber weights it.
The Petzl GriGri+ has a camming mechanism that pinches down the rope when a climber weights it.

A look at all of the active assisted belay devices that we tested for this review. These include the GriGris on the left. The Edelrid Eddy on top  the Camp Matik center bottom. And on the right is the Trango Vergo and the Madrock Lifeguard at the bottom  the two smallest devices.
A look at all of the active assisted belay devices that we tested for this review. These include the GriGris on the left. The Edelrid Eddy on top, the Camp Matik center bottom. And on the right is the Trango Vergo and the Madrock Lifeguard at the bottom, the two smallest devices.

The Right Tool for the Right Job


The selection of belay devices has grown large and specialized enough that it's now essential to choose the right tool for the right job. Despite what the marketing material might tell you, no device can do it all (at least not well). Therefore, we believe the best way to approach a belay device purchase is by first deciding what type of climbing you intend to do. Then we can explore the devices suited for that discipline.

Beginners


A classic tube-style device.
A classic tube-style device.
There is enough stuff to learn when you first start climbing that you don't need to complicate things with a sophisticated belay device. Keep it simple. That's why we recommend new climbers first master belay techniques with a basic tube device. These devices feature a slot for feeding a bend of rope through and a wire keeper loop. Nothing else, no moving parts. This simple design has been used to climb some of the hardest routes in the world. They can accomplish all the standard tasks of a belay device—catching falls, lowering, rappelling—in one light, compact, package. Because these devices are so simple, there's not much difference between different models, and we only chose to review two of them. Of those, we liked the Black Diamond ATC XP best, but the Petzl Verso or any other basic tube is sure to fulfill the needs of most beginner climbers.

Cragging: Sport, Trad, or Gym


No matter the type of protection or the medium, climbing single-pitch routes places certain demands on a belay device. Falls and resting on the rope are common, so good braking assistance and lock-off strength can make belaying a lot easier. Partners also frequently ask to be lowered to the ground instead of rappelling. Finally, weight and size can be overlooked in favor of convenience and toughness when you don't have far to walk. For these reasons our favorite device for cragging is the Petzl GriGri+ for most climbers, as well as the standard GriGri.

Using a GriGri to lead belay on the classic arete climb Latest Rage at Smith Rock. The GriGri is the most popular belay device you can buy  but requires learning the proper techniques to belay safely and effectively.
Using a GriGri to lead belay on the classic arete climb Latest Rage at Smith Rock. The GriGri is the most popular belay device you can buy, but requires learning the proper techniques to belay safely and effectively.

They both have the smoothest belay action of any assisted locking device combined with a reliable catch and pleasant lowering. Of course, they are limited to single ropes only, but this doesn't matter when the belayer's feet never have to leave the ground. If the GriGri+'s $150 price tag seems outrageous to the occasional cragger, consider a passive assisted braking device. These will provide some extra bite and good lock off strength but for less than half the cost. The drawback, though, is in smoothness and ease of use. Our favorite of these is the Mammut Smart 2.0, which won't break the bank at $45.

Multi-Pitch Climbing


Whenever you get a rope-length off the ground, it's wise to have a device that can get you back down. While there is always the option of walking off (if the route allows) or simul-rapping, it is wise to take into consideration the worst case scenario and have a device capable of rappelling two strands of rope, which is the most common form of rappel anyway. Multi-pitch climbing can also be made easier with devices capable of belaying a follower (or two) directly off the anchor. Although we know many multi-pitchers don't use auto-block mode, it can greatly enhance your comfort, and we see few reasons not to use it.

Moderate Classic

The most common multi-pitch use we envision is moderate classics. Sport or trad, it doesn't matter; what we're talking about are routes within your limits. It could feel hard, and you might even fall, but you're unlikely to flail or completely hang dog. For routes like this, we prefer tube designs with auto-block capability. Our favorite of the four we tried was the Black Diamond ATC Guide. Nothing stood out in particular. It just has the best overall performance across our five comparison categories. Two of its competitors, the Edelrid Mega Jul and Mammut Smart Alpine, both offer tempting braking assistance for lead belays but have deficiencies in auto-block mode.

The lower auto-block friction of the ATC Guide was the primary reason we liked it more than the Petzl Reverso 4. This type of configuration  in which you use the belay device connected to an anchor to belay a second climber can be confusing. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
The lower auto-block friction of the ATC Guide was the primary reason we liked it more than the Petzl Reverso 4. This type of configuration, in which you use the belay device connected to an anchor to belay a second climber can be confusing. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully.

Hard Free Climbing or Big Walls

For multi-pitch routes closer to your free climbing limit, or for big wall aid routes, we prefer to take a GriGri along. This can give the leader greater confidence in the catch and save the belayer's hand strength after they make one. Prudent climbers will still need to bring along a dual slotted tube device for rappelling. Your choice for this purpose should be whatever is light, small, and available.

The trust between you and your belay device is as important as the trust between you and your partner.
The trust between you and your belay device is as important as the trust between you and your partner.

Alpine Climbing

In the winter things can change dramatically. Ice climbers and alpinists often climb with skinny twin or half ropes and rarely take falls. For these situations, we think the ideal combination is an Edelrid Mega Jul paired with a Black Diamond ATC Guide shared between a party of two. The follower belays the leader with the Mega Jul's braking assistance. When the leader stops they can bring the follower up in auto-block mode with the ATC Guide. Reach the belay, swap devices, and repeat. Two dual slot devices are at hand when it's eventually time to rappel.

The Edelrid Mega Jul rigged in auto-block mode. This was one of our favorite options to use with skinny alpine ropes  however the rigging for auto-block mode is more complex than others and easy to get wrong.
The Edelrid Mega Jul rigged in auto-block mode. This was one of our favorite options to use with skinny alpine ropes, however the rigging for auto-block mode is more complex than others and easy to get wrong.

Safety Considerations


All climbers need to be safety conscious, but we realize some are willing to sacrifice extra comfort, money, and convenience to minimize their risk further. Two ways to improve safety that we think all climbers should embrace are belay gloves and belay glasses. Gloves not only save your skin, but allow you to stop an out of control rope without getting terrible burns. The benefits of belay glasses sound less significant but in our experience are just as dramatic. They use prisms or mirrors to reflect light so you can keep your neck in a neutral position while watching your partner climb. The side-effect is you become a much more attentive belayer. No more neck pain and no more surprises from unannounced falls.

The Edelrid Eddy (black) and the Camp Matik (blue) both boast the largest number of safety features. The Matik is smaller and substantially lighter (9.7 vs 13.0 oz).
The Edelrid Eddy (black) and the Camp Matik (blue) both boast the largest number of safety features. The Matik is smaller and substantially lighter (9.7 vs 13.0 oz).

The most common problems when belaying are of course due to user error, however, user error is more likely when the belay technique needed is complicated or unfamiliar. One knock on active assist belay devices is that there is the potential for more accidents, and indeed there have been plenty where the particular features of the device played into the outcome of an accident. This argument is similar to the one with airbags in cars; they have obviously saved countless lives, and yet can also at times be blamed for costing lives.

The first thing to do when using any belay device is check that it is loaded properly. Most devices need to be loaded a certain direction, and have pictorial representations of climbers and brake hands to assist in this. Check your own device, and also check that of your belayer before every pitch. Andy Wellman, the lead tester for this review has been climbing for 23 years, and honestly cannot count the number of friends who have been dropped by an improperly loaded belay device, ending the climbing careers of more than one friend due to chronic pains from shattered bodies. Complacency kills, make it part of your routine to check every time!

Of critical importance with the Vergo is clipping it in the properly oriented way to the harness. To help  Trango has printed this instruction on the device. Before the leader heads up  check that this arrow doesn indeed point left  as it is here  which means that the device is oriented correctly. This way is confusing because it may seem backwards compared to a GriGri.
Of critical importance with the Vergo is clipping it in the properly oriented way to the harness. To help, Trango has printed this instruction on the device. Before the leader heads up, check that this arrow doesn indeed point left, as it is here, which means that the device is oriented correctly. This way is confusing because it may seem backwards compared to a GriGri.

Make sure you know how to use your device properly. All the active assist devices use different techniques, which are not necessarily intuitive, so don't try to just figure them out at the crag. Watch YouTube videos to learn the necessary techniques beforehand, and practice in your living room (or outside if you live in your van!) We were surprised by how much time it took to master each device that we tested.

Conclusion


Whatever device you choose, learn all you can about it. Read the manual, watch videos. Take your belay responsibilities seriously. You only have to thumb through Accidents in North American Mountaineering to realize how dangerous this sport is.

The GriGri is the most popular sport climbing belay device in the world  perfect for clipping bolts at a place like Smith Rock. It also works great for all other styles of climbing as well.
The GriGri is the most popular sport climbing belay device in the world, perfect for clipping bolts at a place like Smith Rock. It also works great for all other styles of climbing as well.


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