How to Choose the Best Carabiner

Scott Ring traversing out  high up on the Muir Wall  El Capitan. Whether you are just learning to climb or getting geared up for your next El Cap adventure  you're going to need some carabiners.
Article By:
Cam McKenzie Ring
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Monday
January 19, 2015
Almost all styles of climbing (save bouldering and free soloing) require carabiners, and if you are looking to buy individual ones you are most likely a traditional climber, or hoping to become one. If you only sport climb, then you'll want to have a look at our locking carabiner advice guides instead, as well as quickdraws. These products are not that expensive individually, but you end up needing a lot of them when traditional climbing, and 20 can cost as much or more than a rope. They do tend to have a long lifespan compared to soft goods like a harness or rope, so make sure you purchase something you really like as you might be using it for the next 10 plus years.

When buying and organizing your first rack of gear, it can be tempting to buy 20 or more of the same biner, but if you look at most peoples' racks they tend to have a hodgepodge of gear, and there is nothing wrong with that either. You may prefer one style for certain applications, like racking your cams, and other styles for racking your nuts or for "alpine" draws. If, after reading this article and our individual reviews, you are still not settled on which models to buy, you can create your own mini review setup. Choose a few products that pique your interest or feel good in your hand in the store. Buy one or two of each and start using them. Once you've settled on your own personal favorite, you can expand your rack with those, and keep the others for lesser jobs like carrying webbing or your nut tool.

In this article, we will go over the types of metal and forging methods used, the different gates you can choose from, and what all those strength ratings actually mean. We'll also discuss weight and size, as well as which types of carabiners are preferred for different styles of climbing and what the lifespan of the product is. To learn more about the products we tested, be sure to check out our full review.

Cam McKenzie Ring finding sinker jams and good placements in Red Rock. Most individual carabiners are purchased for traditional climbing.
Cam McKenzie Ring finding sinker jams and good placements in Red Rock. Most individual carabiners are purchased for traditional climbing.

Construction



Metal
Climbing carabiners are manufactured out of stainless steel or aluminum. Steel biners are stronger and more durable than aluminum ones, but they also weigh twice as much (or more!) and are mainly used for fixed draws or anchors. All of the products that we tested in this review are made of aluminum.

Anodizing
Aluminum biners are anodized to increase their resistance to corrosion and to dye them different colors. The anodized layer is microscopically thin, and doesn't increase the strength of the aluminum, but it does prevent the metal from deteriorating, particularly when/if the user exposes it to salty water and air. The anodized layer will wear off the rope bearing surface fairly quickly, but it still provides protection on the rest of the product. Even if your biners are anodized, if they are ever exposed to salt water be sure to wash them thoroughly afterwards as it will quickly deteriorate the metal. Check out this thorough video from DMM to learn more about anodizing, and the corrosive effects of the sea on your gear.

Unless you regularly climb on sea cliffs, anodizing is more of a cosmetic concern and also a convenience to you. Manufacturers are now dyeing the same models in multiple different colors and selling them as "rack packs" so that you can color code them to your camming devices. This might seem silly to you - in fact, the first time our main reviewer and her partner saw the rack pack around a decade ago, they laughed and might have made some comments along the lines of "who needs that anyways?" The laughing lasted all of about two pitches once they started using them, as they quickly realized that this was a huge step forward for trad climbers. No more fumbling on the harness or gear sling looking for the right piece, and re-racking after a pitch was a breeze. Ten years later, they wouldn't consider racking any other way.

Which purple biner to put on this .5 Black Diamond Camalot?? Color coding different sizes  from the carabiner to the sling to the cam heads allows you choose the right piece each time and speeds up re-racking after a pitch.
Which purple biner to put on this .5 Black Diamond Camalot?? Color coding different sizes, from the carabiner to the sling to the cam heads allows you choose the right piece each time and speeds up re-racking after a pitch.

Another advantage to anodizing is that you can have one color for the top of a quickdraw or alpine draw and another color for the bottom. If you buy a preassembled draw they usually come this way already, but when setting up a rack of "alpine" or "extendable" draws (2 carabiners on a tripled-up shoulder length sling) you should also do this, because the steel of a bolt, piton or even a nut wire will quickly gouge the soft aluminum. If the rope bearing surface does get gouged, there's a possibility that it can snag the sheath of your rope and in extreme cases lead to rope failure. As an example, the Mad Rock UltraLight Bent Gate comes in red and the Mad Rock UltraLight Straight Gate comes in silver so you can easily distinguish which side is for clipping gear and which side is for the rope.

Tracy Martin has one silver Mad Rock UltraLight straight gate on top of this alpine draw and a red bent gate UltraLight on bottom. The silver end clips into hardware  and the red end is only ever used for the rope. Aluminum carabiners are easily gouged by bolts  etc. and this protects the rope from damage.
Tracy Martin has one silver Mad Rock UltraLight straight gate on top of this alpine draw and a red bent gate UltraLight on bottom. The silver end clips into hardware, and the red end is only ever used for the rope. Aluminum carabiners are easily gouged by bolts, etc. and this protects the rope from damage.

Hot-forged vs. Cold-forged
Cold forging is the original method of making carabiners whereby the rod of aluminum is bent into the desired shape and then stamped in a die at room temperature. In the hot forging process, the rod and forge dies are heated before stamping, which typically allows a manufacturer to create a lighter product with a more intricate design. If you compare a cold-forged vs. a hot-forged model, it is easy to tell which is hot-forged as it will have a more sculpted look. I-beam or cut-out spines can be created with both processes. Wild Country's entire line-up, including the Wild Country Helium Carabiner and Wild Country Astro, are hot-forged, along with the Mad Rock UltraLight and the Black Diamond Oz Carabiner, Black Diamond LiveWire, and Black Diamond HotWire.

The CAMP Orbit (left) and Petzl Spirit (center) are cold-forged and the Wild Country Helium (right) is hot forged. Cold forging can produce different shapes  including the Spirit's I-beam spine  but hot-forging is what gives the Helium its sculpted lines.
The CAMP Orbit (left) and Petzl Spirit (center) are cold-forged and the Wild Country Helium (right) is hot forged. Cold forging can produce different shapes, including the Spirit's I-beam spine, but hot-forging is what gives the Helium its sculpted lines.

CAMP uses only cold forging for their CAMP Photon Wire Straight Gate, CAMP Nano 23 Carabiner, and CAMP Orbit models, because they feel it results in less irregularities in their product and it's more reliable than hot forging. Petzl also uses cold forging for the Petzl Spirit Straight Gate and Petzl Djinn Straight Gate. As a climber, you might never actually notice the difference between the two methods. Most hot-forged models are more expensive, except that our Best Buy winning Mad Rock UltraLight is actually hot forged. And while our Top Pick for Lightweight Black Diamond Oz is hot-forged, the even lighter CAMP Nano 23 is not.

In perusing other reviews and message boards, we noticed some concern about hot-forged biners being less durable. People are grumbling that their gear used to last ten years and is now wearing out in one or two. This is not necessarily a result of the forging method but of how much metal is used in the process. A lighter weight model, hot or cold forged, will have less material overall, specifically on the rope bearing surface, which leads to quicker grooving. If you are more concerned with longevity over weight, choose a big and beefy model like the Petzl Djinn, which has a large rope bearing surface and should last a while.

If you're fascinated by this topic and want to learn more, and have a spare 30 minutes, check out DMM's factory tour.

Gates


Improving gate technology has always been a top engineering concern for manufacturers, and climbers. The enhanced designs of the last few decades have created safer, lighter, and snag-free gates. The two main types of gate are solid or bar stock gates, and wiregates.

The keylock solid gate Petzl Djinn (left) has not notch to snag on your rope or a bolt  unlike the wiregate CAMP Photon Wire (right).
The keylock solid gate Petzl Djinn (left) has not notch to snag on your rope or a bolt, unlike the wiregate CAMP Photon Wire (right).

Solid
Today's solid gate biners are much improved from older models. Virtually all solid gates on the market today are "keylock." Instead of a pin on the end of the gate that latches on a notch in the nose, now the nose itself latches on a groove in the barrel of the gate. Since it does not have that notch in the nose, a keylock design won't snag on your rope when unclipping, or catch your gear or bolt. One rare, but dangerous scenario that can occur with a notched nose is a "nose clip." This occurs when a carabiner isn't clipped on the bolt properly to begin with, or if it shifts as the climber moves past it, leaving the biner's notch hooked precariously onto the lip of the bolt. While rare, this can result in gear failure at loads of less than 10% of the closed gate strength (<2 kN.) This small amount of force is easily reached in a fall or even a bounce test. In part to help avoid this scenario, most sport-climbing specific quickdraws now have keylock biners at least on the top, and often on the bottom too.

Wire
Wiregates are 20 years old now, and have become the preferred type of gate for traditional climbing. The single loop of metal weighs less than the bar, pin, and spring of a solid gate, and can shave 7 grams or more off the total weight. These weight savings are crucial, particularly since you carry a lot of biners when trad climbing - and because your camming devices already weigh a lot. Another advantage of the wiregate is that it's less prone to icing up than a solid gate in cold conditions, and they are the preferred model for ice and alpine climbing. Since the wire is much narrower than the bar, they also have a larger gate opening than a similarly sized solid gate model, and a wider opening is also useful when climbing with gloves on.

Wiregates are less prone to "gate flutter," a rare but serious issue. When a carabiner catches a fall, the forces generated cause the gate to vibrate. The more mass in the gate, the more vibration, and the gate itself can flutter open and closed. The strength of a biner with an open gate is roughly 2/3 of its closed gated strength, anywhere from 7 kN to 10 kN. This level of force can be achieved in a real-life fall, and could result in carabiner failure. While this is a rare phenomenon overall, it is even rarer in wiregates than solid ones.

The downside to a wiregate is that on most models there is still an exposed notch in the nose that the wire latches on, just like the old-style solid gates. More and more companies are devising ways to eliminate this notch, effectively creating wiregate/keyock hybrids, which is the best of both worlds. Wild Country has buried the notch in the nose of its Helium biner, and Black Diamond has developed a stainless steel wire hood that is swaged around the notch of its Oz and LiveWire models, protecting the notch from catching on anything. Another advantage to these hooded designs is that they protect the wiregate from scraping open against the rock. We should note, however, that it can be difficult to fit these noses in tight situations, like bolts stuffed with rappel slings or pitons with narrow openings.

Not only do the shrouded noses of the Black Diamond Oz (left) and Wild Country Helium (right) eliminate any snagging on your gear  but they also protect the wire from scrapping open against the rock.
Not only do the shrouded noses of the Black Diamond Oz (left) and Wild Country Helium (right) eliminate any snagging on your gear, but they also protect the wire from scrapping open against the rock.

Bent vs. Straight
Both solid and wiregates can be straight or bent. Most climbers tend to find bent gates easier to clip than straight gates, and that's why you'll find them on the rope end of a quickdraw, but according to Petzl there is a higher risk that the rope will become unclipped from a bent gate model in a fall. Check out their great info-graphic for tips on how to avoid dangerous clipping situations.

Petzl Spirit Straight and Bent gates (left) and CAMP Photon Wire Straight and Bent gates (right).
Petzl Spirit Straight and Bent gates (left) and CAMP Photon Wire Straight and Bent gates (right).

Tension
The tension on a gate determines the clipping action: fast and snappy, stiff and slow, or soft and easy. This is often a personal preference issue, though it is very important that there is some spring tension that returns the gate to its fully closed position. In solid gates, that tension is created by a spring in the barrel of the gate, and in wiregates it's created by the pivoting of the wire itself. That tension can decrease over time, due to the build-up of dirt or grime, or due to corrosion. An open gate reduces the product's strength by roughly 2/3rds (see Strength section below) and creates the potential for the rope to come unclipped or the carabiner to break in a fall. If your gates become "manual" and no longer close on their own, wash your them according to the manufacturer's instructions and lubricate the joints.

If, after a thorough cleansing and lubricating a gate still does not close on its own, you must retire that piece. Even if you manually close it back after clipping, the gate can scrape against the rock back into a dangerous open configuration.

Strength


Most climbing gear is CE certified. This certification is from the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), which requires gear to meet certain standards to be sold in the EU. Even though the U.S. has no set standards for climbing gear, most American manufacturers build to this specification and are CE certified in order to sell their products overseas. All of the models we tested in this review are CE certified. To check if your own gear is, look for a CE and four numbers stamped or printed on the side. If it's not, as long as it meets the minimum strength requirements below (also stamped or printed on the side) it should be alright.

The minimum CE requirements for a non-locking carabiner are:
Major axis - 20kN (along the spine)
Gate open - 7kN (along the spine but with an open gate)
Minor axis - 7kN (cross-loaded spine to gate)

Many products have even stronger ratings within the following ranges, particularly if they are full sized and heavier:
Major axis - 23-25kN
Gate open - 8-10kN
Minor axis - 8kN

How much should strength influence your purchase? A lot depends on the type of climbing you'll be doing most. A stronger, heavy duty biner(like the Petzl Spirit or Djinn) with a large major axis strength is preferred for sport climbing where you are more likely to take repeated falls on your gear. When alpine or moderate trad climbing, you can use a lighter weight and lower strength rated biner, like the Black Diamond Oz or CAMP Nano 23, but be sure to inspect your gear thoroughly after a major fall, as it can become warped and unusable. Check out this article from Black Diamond's Quality Control Lab, to learn more about the tests they perform on products of different strengths.

You should also consider the gate open strength of your gear as there are many scenarios that can accidentally cause your gates to open slightly, or fully, and an open gate strength of 9 or 10kN is that much safer than 7kN.

Size



This gear comes in many different sizes:  "keychain" size CAMP Nano 23 (left)  small Black Diamond Oz (middle)  and full size CAMP Photon Wire (right). The smaller a biner gets  the less it weighs  but the harder it is to handle.
This gear comes in many different sizes: "keychain" size CAMP Nano 23 (left), small Black Diamond Oz (middle), and full size CAMP Photon Wire (right). The smaller a biner gets, the less it weighs, but the harder it is to handle.

These products come in many different sizes, from a standard full size (roughly 4 inches long and 2.5 inches wide) to "keychain" size (3.5 x 2), and many options in between. While this might not seem like a big variance in size on paper, our testers really noticed a difference between them in practice. Full size biners are generally easier to clip and handle, particularly with gloves on. So if you do any type of cold weather or big wall climbing, make sure you purchase a full size model. You'll also want a larger sized biners for sport climbing, where you want your clips to be fast and easy. On the flip side, when choosing a product to rack your cams, you might prefer something that is a little smaller and more narrow, like the Black Diamond Oz or Black Diamond Neutrino. They'll take up less space on your harness or gear sling, and are lighter than a full size option. If you have very small hands, or are looking for the lightest model possible, then a "keychain" size one, like the Metolius FS Mini or CAMP Nano 23, is a reasonable option.

Another consideration is the rope bearing surface. When the rope catches your fall, it is bent around the basket of the biner. The wider the basket, the gentler the bend on the rope and the less impact it has on it. So, for sport climbing, where you might be taking repeated falls on the rope in the same place, a wider rope bearing radius is preferred; both the Black Diamond LiveWire and Petzl Spirit are good options here.

Weight & Types of Climbing


The weight between products can vary greatly, from 19 grams (the lightest known biner - made by Edelrid) to 64 grams for a full size oval. You'll want to closely consider the weight of your gear if you do any sort of multi-pitch climbing, be it sport or trad, are hiking your gear long distances into the backcountry, or trying to climb light and fast on a big wall. While a few grams here or there might not seem like much difference either way, remember that between your cams and draws, a full rack of gear will have around 40 biners on it, and those few grams will quickly add up to ounces and even pounds saved.

Here are the products that we tested, broken down by weight and types of climbing.

Lightweight - Alpine, multi-pitch, speed ascents
Camp Nano 23 (23 grams)
Metolius FS Mini (24 grams)
Black Diamond Oz (28 grams)
Wild Country Astro (28 grams)
Camp Photon Wire Express (29 grams)
Mad Rock UltraLight (32 grams)
Trango Superfly (32 grams)

All-around - Traditional or sport
Wild Country Helium (33 grams)
Black Diamond Neutrino (36 grams)
Black Diamond HotWire (37 grams)
Petzl Spirit Straight (39 grams)

Heavy - Sport or big wall
Black Diamond LiveWire (44 grams)
Petzl Djinn (45 grams)
Camp Orbit Bent (45 grams)
Black Diamond Oval Wire (45 grams)
Black Diamond PosiTron (49 grams)
Black Diamond Oval (64 grams)

Ovals are mostly used on big wall climber's racks. They're good for pulleys as they prevent shifting when weighted, and for the top of your jumars (to prevent them from twisting off your rope.) But even for racking your pins and triple set of camming devices, you'd be better off switching to a lighter model as it will shave several pounds off your rack.

Lifespan


The lifespan of your gear will be determined by the amount of use it gets, the way you care for it, and its exposure to corrosive elements. Our main tester's entire set of anodized biners had to be replaced after a season of climbing in Thailand thanks to the corrosive effects of the sea and uniquely active limestone (she might not have washed them after getting dunked on a rappel off Ao Nang Tower either.) Once she learned how to care for her gear, she now has biners that are more than 10 years old and still perfectly serviceable.

Rope wear is one of the main ways your biners will wear out, particularly when sport climbing. Repeated lowering and top-roping causes small amounts of metal to wear away, and eventually a pronounced groove will develop. This is different from the intentional groove that many baskets have across the rope bearing surface. This slight depression is there to guide the rope as close to its main (and strongest) axis as possible. According to Petzl, any groove caused by wear more than 1mm deep is warrant for concern since sharp edges can start to form on the edge of the rope bearing surface; edges like these can sever your rope in a fall. Black Diamond has conducted several tests about this at their Quality Control lab - you can read more about them here and here.

The two sides of a Petzl Spirit used to lower off the top of a popular warm-up at Mt. Charleston  NV. Both sides are worn down  but on the right side a sharp edge has developed. That side was facing towards the rock and not immediately obvious.
The two sides of a Petzl Spirit used to lower off the top of a popular warm-up at Mt. Charleston, NV. Both sides are worn down, but on the right side a sharp edge has developed. That side was facing towards the rock and not immediately obvious.

To increase the longevity of your gear, inspect it regularly, particularly if it's been dropped from height or caught a severe fall, and clean/lubricate any sticky pieces. Petzl's
inspection procedures document has more detailed information on this, including recommendations on when to retire pieces. No one like to throw away gear that might still be ok, but in a sport like rock climbing, where your life is literally on the line, you're better off playing it safe and spending a few dollars on some new gear.

Now that you're armed with just about everything you need to know about buying the right product, be sure to check out our full review, to see how each model scored in our side-by-side comparison testing.



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