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 thirteen 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
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 4, but there are many more available. In addition to the basic tube design, the ATC Guide and Reverso also feature auto-block capability.
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. These are 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.
Assisted Braking: Passive vs. Active
The next step up in sophistication are 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. 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 usually capable of double-strand rappels. However, their performance is highly dependent on the carabiner used, and they offer less braking power. We tested the Black Diamond ATC Pilot, Mammut Smart 2.0, Mammut Smart Alpine and Edelrid Mega Jul in this category.
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"). Our review included the Petzl GriGri+, Petzl GriGri 2, 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 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.
Cragging: Sport, Trad, or Gym
our favorite device for cragging was the Petzl GriGri+ for most climbers along with the GriGri 2.
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 was the Mammut Smart 2.0, which won't break the bank at $35.
Whenever you get a rope length off the ground, it's wise to have a device that can get you back down. We're of course aware of walk-off routes, simul-rappelling, and other rope tricks to descend a doubled rope on a single strand, but we're trying to talk about belay devices with two slots for standard two strand rappels. 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 had the best overall performance across our six comparison categories. Two of its competitors, the Edelrid Mega Jul and Mammut Smart Alpine, both offered tempting braking assistance for lead belays but had deficiencies in auto-block mode and rappelling, respectively.
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 2 along. This can give the leader greater confidence in the catch and save the belayer's hand strength after they make one. Prudent parties will still need to bring along a dual slotted device for rappelling. Your choice for this purpose should be whatever is light, small, and available.
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.
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. For these climbers, we suggest checking out the Camp Matik. Although we believe safety is most dependent on the skill and attentiveness of the belayer, we see some validity to claimed benefits of the Matik. The Matik features an anti-panic lowering mechanism that locks the device when the handle is pulled too far. It also has a gradual camming action that could theoretically lower impact forces. We don't feel these two features are necessary for most users or warrant its $200 price tag. However, we understand that some shoppers will disagree.
Two ways to improve safety that we think all climbers should embrace are belay gloves and belay glasses. Gloves not only save your hand strength 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.
Belay Device Outlook
At this point, we at OutdoorGearLab have been reviewing belay devices for seven years and surprisingly little has changed in that time. The Petzl GriGri (with multiple updates) remains our favorite while the Black Diamond ATC Guide and Petzl Reverso continue their fight for second place.
It seems like every year a new device gets released, and for a while, there's a buzz about how it's going to take over the market. Quickly though, early adopters discover the disadvantages the manufacturer failed to advertise. At best, the product becomes popular within a narrow niche, but more likely it's forgotten and quietly taken off the market a few years later.
Our best buying advice is thus to be skeptical of the 'latest and greatest' belay devices. This is one piece of gear you don't want to mess around with, and design flaws can sometimes take years to identify. Furthermore, a UIAA certification alone doesn't ensure your safety.
Whatever device you choose, learn all you can about it. Read the manual. Take your belay responsibilities seriously. You only have to thumb through Accidents in North American Mountaineering to realize how dangerous this sport is. Our attitude now, after spending the past six months again examining the latest crop of belay devices, is to stick with the popular, well-vetted stalwarts, read the manual carefully, and never take a hand off the brake.