Best Climbing Cams of 2020
Best Overall Medium and Large Camming Devices
Black Diamond C4 Ultralight
The Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights are everything we love about the original Camalot C4s with a weight reduction of 25%. We were initially skeptical that these lightweight cams wouldn't hold up as well as their predecessors, but after a couple of years of use at this point, they've held many falls, been up quite a few large walls, and are in just as good a shape as when we bought them. Whether you're racking tons of cams for a long splitter or climbing a big wall, these lightweight cams will give you a big advantage. Our testers "oohed" and "aahhed" over how light these cams felt on their harnesses and were amazed that the #4 Ultralight weighs the same as a #2 C4!
As with most things, these amazingly light cams come with a few downsides. The range stops at a #4, so, unfortunately, you can't buy them in the super large and heavier sizes where significant weight savings would be really nice. They also cost a good chunk of change more than regular C4 Camalots, and Black Diamond recommends that you retire them after only five years because of the potential of the Dyneema used in lieu of a metal cable to degrade faster. These cams are absolutely ideal for anyone who wants the lightest rack possible, whether they intend to tackle big walls, alpine missions, or even for simple cragging.
Read review: Black Diamond C4 Ultralight
Best Overall Small Camming Devices
Black Diamond Camalot Z4
The new Black Diamond Camalot Z4 was released in the spring of 2020 with much hype around its innovative RigidFlex stem design. Each stem features dual, twisted cables that are flexible in any direction, combined with a trigger mechanism that increases the rigidity as it is pulled. This design effectively combines the desire for a flexing stem when a unit is placed, reducing the likelihood of walking — while also providing the rigidity needed to place and remove the cam with ease. Compared to its BD predecessors, these cams are also lighter, have a far narrower head width for easier shallow placements, and include a new addition, the green 0. Considering these improvements, and their super smooth trigger action and overall ease of use while free climbing, we think these are the best small cams you can buy, and wholeheartedly endorse them as our Top Pick.
Despite the fact that the RigidFlex stem does work as advertised, we found that it works a lot better in the smaller sizes that have less weighty heads; the larger sizes are still a bit wobbly, even with the trigger pulled. These cams are also a bit heavier than DMM Dragonflys, FIXE Aliens, and Metolius Ultralight Mastercams. Expect to pay a bit more per unit than any of those cams as well, although the prices are by no means budget breaking. While no small cam is perfect, and there are great advantages inherent in the different small cam designs, we feel that the Z4s are the perfect backbone for any rack in the smaller sizes, especially when free climbing.
Read review: Black Diamond Camalot Z4
Best Buy for Building Your Rack
Black Diamond Camalot
Are you new to trad climbing and looking to start building up your rack? Then we highly recommend you begin stocking it with Black Diamond Camalot C4s. Simply put, these cams not only set the standard for quality and durability, but are by far the most popular camming units in the world today. They have the widest range of sizes, from the finger-sized .3 all the way up to the Monster Offwidth protecting #6 (and the newly released #7 and #8!), and due to their double-axle design also allow for great range of placement for each individual unit. While they aren't the lightest, the newest versions of these cams are now 10% lighter than in previous years, while you can save a decent amount of money if you opt for these cams over the lighter but more expensive Black Diamond Ultralight Camalots.
Since these cams are so popular, building your rack around them will accustom you to the color schemes used for different sized units, making it easy to climb using a friend's rack, or to combine the two seamlessly for Indian Creek mega-splitters or Yosemite big walls. One of their few downsides is the rigid stem doesn't easily bend over edges or protrusions, limiting their use for tight placements and horizontals. This is especially true in the smallest sizes, and most people will opt forZ4s, Metolius Ultralight Master Cams, DMM Dragonflies, or Aliens once they are shopping for anything below the .5 purple size. For beginning climbers and old trads alike, Camalots are the way to go.
Read review: Black Diamond Camalot
Best Bang for the Buck — Small Cams
Metolius Ultralight Master Cam
Durable, reliable, and made in the good ol' US of A, the Metolius Ultralight Master Cam takes home our Best Buy Award for finger-sized camming units. They have a more flexible stem than the Camalots and are available in larger sizes than the Aliens. Lightweight and compact, these cams are great for alpine climbing or whenever you need to shave ounces off your kit. While they wouldn't be the first cams we would recommend in larger sizes, for finger sizes and smaller, purchasing a set of these will save you a significant amount of cash over almost every other option.
The most noticeable disadvantage to these cams is the lack of thumb loop, which helps to cut out the extra grams, but also makes them harder to quickly grab, and also limits the height you can clip into if aid climbing. They also use their own unique color scheme progression, which can take some practice to memorize if you are used to the schemes used by BD, DMM, or Aliens. While they have to be sent back to Metolius for repair if a trigger wire is damaged, this isn't such a big deal because Metolius is super easy to work with and very accommodating. Whether you want lightweight, or simply the most affordable, the Ultralight Master Cams are an ideal choice.
Read review: Metolius Ultralight Master Cam
Best for Aid Climbing
Totem Cams are total game changers when it comes to clean aid climbing. Thanks to an ingenious and unique design, you can load just one side of the camming unit, engaging only two lobes at a time. This creates a much stronger, more reliable bodyweight placement in flares or holes too shallow to get all four lobes in. Since each side of the cam is independently loaded, each size can essentially function like an offset. They have narrower heads than the BD Camalots, and a more flexible stem, making them super effective at holding in horizontal and shallow placements. While they get an award for their aid climbing prowess, we wouldn't hesitate to bring them free climbing because they can protect pockets and holes better than any other cam.
The downsides to these really unique cams are that they are quite expensive, and a fair bit bulkier than most other camming devices. They can also be difficult to extract at times, and as somewhat of a cult phenom product, haven't always been easy to purchase either. That said, if you are a big wall climber, or want to be one, then your rack is not complete without a set or two of Totem Cams.
Read review: Totem Cam
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is a collaboration between expert reviewers and climbers Andy Wellman and Matt Bento. Andy has been climbing for the past 23 years, having begun as a fledgling trad climber on the crags around Boulder, Colorado, in the late 90s. He made friends with older climbers with racks as he worked his way through the grades in Eldorado Canyon, Boulder Canyon, and in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Eventually, he purchased his own measly, bargain basement set of cams and proceeded to get many of them stuck on his first trip to Yosemite. In the years since, he has climbed all over the world, ascending tough single pitch routes and giant alpine walls alike. He lives in Ouray, CO, where he has quick access to desert towers and the large walls of the Black Canyon. Matt is a long-time Yosemite Valley denizen, YOSAR veteran, frequent desert rat, and life long road dog. Before reviewing cams professionally, he was falling on the cheapest rack he could put together from for-sale ads on the Camp 4 board. From finagling body weight placements in granite to blindly slamming cams in the endless corners of Indian Creek, he's become quite intimate with every make and model over the last 10+ years of climbing.
Testing cams takes place all-year round, as we use these devices every time we go traditional climbing — which is a lot! As hot new devices are released, or old favorites updated, we make sure to purchase a set and set to work finding out how well they work, comparing them against all of the other cams in this review. Since every different climbing area and rock type places different demands on a camming unit, we make an effort to test devices in as many different areas as possible. Recently, we've put these units to use on steep cracks at the Ophir Wall in Colorado, catching falls at Trout Creek and Smith Rock in Oregon, and on adventures to Squamish, the Bugaboos, Pine Creek in the Eastern Sierra, and of course, Indian Creek.
Related: How We Tested Climbing Cams
Analysis and Test Results
Our review includes two main styles of camming devices. First, we have the more rigid traditional cam designs. The Black Diamond Camalot C4, Black Diamond Camalot Ultralight, DMM Dragon Cam, and Wild Country Friend fall into this category. While these cams are by no means as rigid as old-school first generation Friends, their plastic and metal sheathed stem prevents them from flexing and bending in the way that is typical of smaller cams. They also typically feature a double-axle design that offers a wider range than single-axle cams. The lobes are relatively thick to disperse energy over a more substantial portion of the rock and increase holding power, while the heads are wide and stable and are less prone to walking than narrower cams. Their stems are flexible enough to bend in the direction of a downward pull when placed in a horizontal crack, but they tend to lever out of shallow, vertical placements.
Related: Buying Advice for Climbing Cams
The other style in our review is the small camming device. The DMM Dragonfly, Fixe Hardware Alien Revolution, Black Diamond Z4, Totem Cams, and the Metolius Ultralight Master Cam are all narrow-headed, flexible stemmed cams that bend easily in a horizontal and vertical orientation so they can hold in pin scars and shallow placements. They fit in a wider range of placements than the traditional style cams and are sometimes available in offset sizes to protect flared cracks and make even better use of pin scars. These cams aren't as durable as the traditional style cams, and their tiny parts make them harder to repair. Each of the smallest camming devices have their own advantages and disadvantages, making it harder to build consensus within the community as to which are the best.
When you need to trust a piece of equipment as much as a climbing cam, it can feel a little counter-intuitive to worry about getting a good value, but we know cost is often a factor in your purchase decisions. The Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are a solid choice if you are on the tightest of budgets. Due to their versatility and incredible durability, the Black Diamond Camalot C4s are another option that give fantastic value for the dollar.
We all know the feeling of trying to select the correct sized cam from our harness and place it while our forearms are burning, our legs are shaking, and we're looking down at a potentially long fall. For free climbing, cams need to be easy to identify, grab, engage the trigger, and place. To this end, our testers prefer a cam with a thumb loop when they are climbing at their absolute limit. A somewhat rigid stem can also make cams easier to place on the fly, as it's sometimes possible to just shove them in a crack without engaging the triggers. With a floppier cam, you will always have to engage the trigger wires. Familiar color schemes are very helpful for quickly identifying the cam on your gear loops, although this is also dependent on which cams you normally use, and how much you've practiced!
Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights are our favorite cams for free climbing. They are lightweight, easy to grab, hold in your mouth, and easy to place. For pure crack climbing, they can't be beat. They are the easiest cam to place when you're pumped, and their light weight makes a big difference on those Indian Creek splitters where you may find yourself carrying 10 of the same sized piece. Close behind are the Black Diamond Camalot C4's, which make up the majority of most people's racks that we know, as well as the Wild Country Friends, which have a very similar feel and design.
When it comes to the smaller sizes, we feel that the newly released Camalot Z4s are the best choice for free climbing. They are lightweight, have narrow heads, and easy to grab thumb loops, but even more importantly follow familiar color schemes for easy identification and have the wide placement range that makes it easier to simply grab and plug. Another favorite is the DMM Dragonfly cams. Their narrow head and round cam lobes fit all sorts of weird pockets and places, and the doubled up extendable sling allows for convenient extension to prevent walking.
There are compelling arguments for and against all of the top small camming units, and on our free racks we typically double up with different types of cams. Sometimes the best cam for free climbing is the one that protects the best and feels the safest, so we wouldn't hesitate to free climb with Totem Cams or Fixe Hardware Alien Revolutions when free climbing in areas with pin scars. Since free climbing is what the vast majority of us do with our climbing cams, it makes sense that we rate it as the most important metric. It accounts for 20% of a product's score.
Light is right for most climbers, whether that means a lighter backpack on the approach, a lighter haul bag on the wall, or just less weight on your harness. The original Friends and rigid stem cams from Chouinard Equipment were heavy and strong. Today's cam manufacturers are in constant competition to make their product lighter while retaining holding power (around 12KN for most of the larger sizes). The average climber will have between 12-20 cams on their harness for each pitch, so even minimal weight savings per unit is important to the bigger picture. If you aren't convinced that weight is significant, try putting on a 10 lb. weight vest at the gym and see how much harder a route becomes. Then think carefully in the future about how much weight you are hauling up each route in the form of cams, nuts, draws, lockers, belay devices, shoes, water, jacket, and rope! It's probably a lot more than 10 lbs., and could be a reason why trad climbing feels so hard.
Comparing the weight of cams is a tricky undertaking. Black Diamond C4s come in sizes big enough to protect cracks over 12.5 inches wide. Comparing these to a line of finger size only cams like the Fixe Hardware Alien Revolution won't result in any useful info when it comes to deciding what cams to buy. Additionally, cams with a more significant individual range can protect more sizes with fewer cams. Metolius Ultralight Master Cams cover the same size range with seven cams that Black Diamond Ultralights do with six. Side by side, the Master Cams are lighter, but the BDs can protect more sizes with fewer cams. If you're free climbing at your limit, you'll probably be happy with more cams; if you're cruising easy alpine climbs, you'll want to go lighter with fewer cams.
The lightest cams in our review are the Metolius Ultralight Master Cams; the complete rack from micro cams to big hands weighs 26.7oz (759g). From the removal of the thumb loop to holes in the aluminum triggers, Metolius has pulled out all the stops to make the Mastercams as light as possible. Right behind the Mastercam is the Black Diamond Camalot Ultralight, covering fingers to fist with seven cams, weighing 29.7oz (843g). Lightweight comes with a heavy price tag, but folks are willing to fork over the dough when the feel the significant weight savings on their harness. The Wild Country Friends are lighter than the Black Diamond Camalots, and the DMM Dragon Cams are the heaviest at 41.2oz (1169g). The Dragons offer some weight savings due to their extendable slings, potentially enabling you to carry fewer quickdraws.
Among the finger size cams, the Fixe Hardware Alien Revolution are just a few grams heavier than the same size run of Master Cams. DMM Dragonflies are definitely light per unit, but a full run is six cams, so the weight savings would depend on how many you plan to carry. While the Z4s are a lot lighter than their X4 predecessors, they still weigh in a bit heavier than similar small size competition. Weight accounts for 15% of a product's final score.
We scored our range metric based on the range of the individual cams and the range of sizes available from each brand. A larger range for individual units is handy because it allows you to be slightly less accurate in your sizing of the crack. If you grab the wrong sized cam, you may be able to use it anyway. It also allows less cams to cover the same breadth of sizes, so can be more economical from both weight and money standpoints.
The clear winner when it comes to range is the Black Diamond Camalot. Their double-axle design allows for larger lobes to be contracted smaller, giving them a greater range. The Wild Country Friends, Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights, and the DMM Dragon Cams all share the double-axle design, but the Camalots are available in the most sizes (12), protecting cracks from tips to offwidths and even chimneys. This means that with Camalots, you'll be using one familiar color scheme to protect almost every sized crack, making selecting the correct cam much easier.
Cams available in offset sizes like the Metolius Ultralight Master Cam, the Fixe Hardware Alien Revolution all received an extra point in the range metric, though offsets are most often useful in areas with pin scars like Yosemite and Zion. Totem Cams scored well in this metric. Their oblong shaped lobes and ability to hold in parallel and flared cracks give them excellent range. Range accounts for 15% of a product's overall score.
Back in the days of yore, climbers had to tie off their rigid stem cams to prevent the stem from loading over an edge and breaking while in a horizontal crack. Today, all the cams are designed with stems flexible enough to bend in a horizontal placement toward the direction of pull. The more flexible the stem, the better a cam will hold in a horizontal, and the less likely it is to become permanently bent and unusable.
All of the cams described here use a metal cable as the stem, with a plastic sheath usually providing the extra stiffness where needed (the BD Camalot Ultralights are an exception, they use a dyneema sling in the stem). They are all rated to hold falls over an edge, so if you are in a tight bind, don't hesitate to use a less than optimal horizontal placement. Be aware, however, that if you fall on such a placement, where the stem is weighted over a prominent or sharp edge, it is possible or even likely that the stem cable will become kinked, bent, and damaged, necessitating that you retire the cam.
Fixe Hardware Alien Revolutions and DMM Dragonflies perform the best in horizontals because of their flexible stems and optional extendable slings. The extendable sling allows you to extend the clip-in point over an edge. This is important in deeper horizontal placements where the carabiner could be loaded on an edge, making these cams safer and more confidence-inspiring in this type of placement. Next up are the Metolius Ultralight Master Cams, BD Z4s, and the Totem Cams.
The larger hand sized cams that came out on top in this metric also have an extendable sling. The DMM Dragons have the longest sling, followed by the Wild Country Friends. The Black Diamond Camalots and the Ultralight Camalots will bend in a horizontal placement, but they don't have the extendable sling option. Horizontal placements account for 15% of a cam's overall score.
Cams with smaller, narrower heads cans fit in smaller, tighter placements, which is a huge advantage. Flexible stems are also nice for tight placements, as they don't tend to lever out on a piece the same way a rigid stem can, especially in shallow pin scars. The DMM Dragonfly is a top scorer, as its green #1 size measures down to 7.8mm, while also still testing at a 6kN strength. The newest green 0 BD Z4 protects down to 7.5mm, but only has a strength rating of 5kN, slightly less than the Dragonfly. The Fixe Aliens are another top choice, with narrow heads and the ability to protect cracks as narrow as .33 inches (8 mm). In terms of aid climbing, carrying a rack of these micro cams can mean the difference between relying on bodyweight only cam hook placement and being able to leave a cam as bomber protection.
Metolius Ultralight Master cams aren't the most narrow in the finger sizes, but they do beat out the Black Diamond Camalots, DMM Dragon Cams, and Wild Country Friends in the hand sizes. The Totem Cams are available in hands and tight hands sizes and fit into unique holes and pods where other hand sized cams are too wide to fit. Tight Placements is weighted as 15% of a product's final score.
Depending on how you climb, your cams are going to take a serious beating. Aid climbers are especially hard on cams, bounce testing them in marginal placements, and loading them in awkward positions. This can cause the stems to become permanently bent and trigger wires to fray or even break. Falling on cams, depending on their position, always has the potential to cause some damage. While our testers aren't actively trying to destroy these cams, they were on the lookout for any potential durability issues.
The Black Diamond Camalots are the most bombproof durable cams out there. Some of our testers have been using their Camalots for over a decade. The only durability concerns we have with these cams is the nylon sling, which should be replaced after five years. The trigger wires can fray and break, but they are relatively easy to replace, and you can buy new trigger wires from Black Diamond. Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are also durable, but you have to send them back to Metolius when their kevlar trigger wires wear out. The DMM Dragon Cams and the Wild Country Friends are durable like Camalots, but have a lighter Dyneema sling that needs to be replaced more often than nylon.
Smaller sized climbing cams are generally less durable and more difficult to repair. The Fixe Hardware Alien Revolution have soft aluminum lobes that bite in the rock and grip well but become rounded and break down faster than the harder metal alloys used on Metolius and Black Diamond cams. Totem Cams have trigger wires that wrap around the outside of the middle cam lobes, making them vulnerable to abrasion. Replacing the trigger wires on these cams is pretty challenging. Durability accounts for 10% of a cam's total score.
Walking refers to the phenomenon where a cam manages to work itself into a different position than the one you placed it in, most often deeper inside of a crack or to a tighter constriction, and not infrequently to a position where it becomes stuck. As the rope slides through the carabiner attached to the sling it moves the cam stem up and down, which in turn moves the cam lobes, creating the walking action by which the cam moves itself. The more outward pull the rope places on a cam, the more likely this is to happen, and thus cams placed under roofs, or as the first piece on a pitch, are most likely to walk. Check out this video of Beth Rodden for a very clear demonstration about how cams walk(as well as a lot of other good info about cam placements). The best way to negate this issue is to extend protection with a sling or alpine draw so that the rope pulls on it less. In the case of the first piece of a pitch, have your belayer stand closer to the wall to reduce the angle the rope runs through this cam at.
Cams with an extendable sling deployed walk the least. The DMM Dragonfly Cams and Dragon Cams have the longest extendable sling, and with a little practice, is easy for the second to re-rack on the go, so long as they always pull on the bar-tacked section of the sling so that the sling will slide through the thumb piece. Wild Country Friends also feature an extendable sling, but it's a little bit shorter than the sling on the Dragons. The Dragon's special thumbpiece keeps the sling from losing strength when extended, whereas the Friend suffers strength loss of 2KN when the sling is extended, though it's still a very strong 10KN. Black Diamond Camalots and Ultralights are wide and stable, but you'll need to extend them with an additional sling if you're concerned with walking.
A flexible stem both vertically and horizontally also helps prevent cams from wiggling out of their original placements. Fixe Hardware Alien Revolutions do well in this metric, as do DMM Dragonflies and BD Z4s. Totem Cams are flexible and aren't especially prone to walking, but our testers found that they were difficult to remove if they wiggled into an over cammed position due to the shape of their lobes. Realistically, a walking cam is often more of an indictment of the lead climber and the way they choose to control rope drag, than it is on the design of the cam, as any cam will walk if placed in a difficult position. As such, walking accounts for 5% of a cam's total score.
Aid climbing tests your perseverance, your nerve, and your ingenuity. When you just don't have the guns to crimp and jam your way up El Cap, you have to engineer your way up the wall with the tools you've got in front of you. We like to aid climb with cams that have a thumb loop, giving us extra inches for top stepping and plenty of room to clip our daisies, ladders, etc. We also like aiding with cams with rounder lobes, that often fit better into pin scars, and with cams that come in offset sizes, which are absolutely critical to a clean aid ascent on Valley granite.
The Totem Cams are our favorite cams for aid climbing by a long shot. They're like the Swiss army knife of cams! Totems have two plastic stems that join in the middle, allowing you to load two lobes at a time for more holding power in shallow, bodyweight placements, or you can load both sides equally like a regular cam. Because both sides operate independently, each Totem size essentially functions like an offset when you need to protect flaring cracks. Additionally, their narrower heads fit in more placements than traditional style cams, and their flexible stems make them great for pin scars and shallow vertical placements.
The narrow-headed Fixe Alien Revolutions are also an excellent choice for aid climbing. Their stems are very flexible, they have a thumb loop, and are available in offset sizes.
The Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are tough enough to stand up to the abuse of aid climbing, but they lack thumb loops and our testers unanimously agree that cams with thumb loops like the Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights, Z4s, and the Wild Country Friends are better for aid climbing. While the DMM Dragonfly cams are very small, flexible, and do have thumb loops, they currently don't come in offset sizes, and so are slightly less valuable for big wall missions. Aid climbing prowess accounts for 5% of a product's overall score.
Purchasing a set of cams is an expensive investment, so you want to be sure you pick the ones that will work best for you. While we think our recommendations will guide you well, it can also be helpful to climb on a friend's rack, and to try to gain experience with different camming devices before purchasing for yourself. If you only have a few cams, then having the same style and brand is usually advantageous. On the other hand, if you have multiple sets of cams, then a diversity of types can also help cover all your bases. We hope this information has been helpful in your purchase, and happy climbing!
— Andy Wellman and Matt Bento