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Belay devices are simply mechanical tools that create friction on the rope to stop its progress when a climber falls or wants to be held securely.
It’s all about friction
No matter which type of belay device you use, friction is the main force keeping the rope tight. Kinks in the rope wrapped around tight angles or locked in a camming device stick and allow you to do less work as a belayer.
A belay device makes it possible for the belayer to hold the weight of a climber with little more than a few pounds of force a lot of friction. We won’t go into details about the history of belay devices, but know that we’ve come a long way since wrapping the rope several times around your body to hold the climber securely. No thank you!
Modern belay devices come in several flavors. As a beginner, you’ll only need to worry about three of them and will likely only want to start out by using two of them. You can expand your horizons later as you learn more advanced skills. The three we’ll focus on are tube-style, auto-blocking, and assisted braking.
Belay devices can also be used to rappel down the wall after you reach the top.
Types of Belay Devices
Tubular Belay Devices
Tubular belay devices most often have two slots to push a bight of rope through (although some have only one) and a retainer wire to keep the device connected to a locking carabiner on your belay loop or directly to the anchor. The simple design of these belay devices means they’re relatively lightweight and will last a long since they have no moving parts.
There are two slots to accept two ropes – either for rappelling double-stranded or for climbing with twin ropes.
The various brands and models provide additional features such as added friction. The most common model is the Black Diamond ATC – ATC stands for Air Traffic Controller. The ATC-XP is the same concept but with added grooves for more friction.
When to use: Tubular belay devices are most appropriate for use in gym climbing, sport climbing, or multi-pitch trad climbing
Advantages of tubular belay devices:
- Versatile – can be used in about any situation with both single and double ropes – skinny ropes can be tougher to get good friction with.
- Simple – no moving parts so it’s lightweight, durable, and easy to learn
- They don’t twist your rope
- generally cheaper than other types
Disadvantages of tubular belay devices:
- Doesn’t function as an assisted braking device
My first belay device was the BD ATC. I still have one of these and use it regularly. It’s a great belay device for beginners because it’s simple but forces you to learn to belay properly.
Auto-blocking Belay Device
Auto-blocking belay devices are still technically tubes, but with extra features and benefits. These have additional holes that can be used to clip the device directly to an anchor on multi-pitch routes. When the device is attached to the anchor (rather than to the belayer’s harness) it can catch the climber automatically, with little manual braking required. (You still can’t take your brake hand off the rope though!)
Auto-blocking devices are most beneficial to climbing guides, though anyone needing to belay two climbers separately on multi-pitch routes will find that this is the best type of device. The disadvantages are that they’re generally a few grams heavier than their non-auto-blocking counterparts, and it’s possible that the rope will get “locked” into the device if a climber falls. (A separate hole in the device can be used to “unlock” the rope, just be sure to read the instructions that come with the device so you know what you’re doing.)
When to use: Auto-blocking belay devices can be used any place a tubular belay device is used, but are most frequently found in multi-pitch or guided climbing scenarios.
Advantages of auto-blocking belay devices:
- Versatile – can be used in about any situation with both single and double ropes and with two climbers.
- Simple – no moving parts so it’s lightweight and durable
- They don’t twist your rope
- Can be used to belay from the anchor with the added benefit of automatically blocking.
Disadvantages of tubular belay devices:
- A bit heavier and more expensive than a standard tubular device if not needed for guide mode.
Assisted-Braking Belay Devices
An assisted-braking device has a mechanism that clamps or squeezes the rope when it is under tension. The assist feature requires minimal use of hand strength, but these types of belay devices still require always keeping a hand on the brake line — they aren’t hands-free!
Assisted-braking belay devices (or self-locking, self-braking, auto-locking, or ABDs) are designed to clamp tight on the rope with a simple camming mechanism if the rope is pulled through the device with enough force. When the device clamps down, the climber’s progress is stopped, preventing him or her from falling. They typically have a mechanism to release the rope once it’s been cinched tight.
Because of the extra features, these devices are typically heavier and cost a bit more. You also can’t usually run two ropes through these devices.
New designs and models are being released all the time so spend some time researching your options and needs before buying.
Another note on ABDs – often beginners think that getting one of these will make them safer while belaying. This may be true, but the risk is that you develop poor technique and rely on the belay device to stay locked when needed. You’ll develop bad habits which could lead to disasters if you ever need to belay without the assisted braking.
I always recommend beginners learn with a tubular belay device before they use one of these guys – no matter how cool they are to use.
When to use: Assisted braking delay devices are most appropriate for use in gym climbing, sport climbing, or multi-pitch trad climbing – just like tubular devices
Advantages of assisted-braking devices:
- Help the belayer to stop the climber’s fall
- Feed rope smoothly
- Assisted-braking devices with camming mechanisms make it easy to lower the climber in a controlled manner
Disadvantages of assisted-braking devices:
- Not compatible with all diameters of rope. Check your specs before you buy
- Often heavier than other devices
- Some only permit rappelling on a single strand
- Can lock under large loads limiting them in certain situations
- Some tend to twist your rope
- They don’t work as well with wet or icy ropes
- Can lead to forming poor belaying technique
Which belay device should I use?
The available belay devices all range from inexpensive (around $15) to pricey ($150 and up) and offer different things in terms of ease of use, assistance with braking, and additional safety features.
Choosing the appropriate belay device for you depends on your experience, climbing preference, and objectives.
**No matter which belay device you choose, you should never let go of the rope with your brake hand while belaying. It is important to learn and practice this technique until it’s completely natural and habitual, no matter what type of climbing belay equipment you use.**
Many climbers have multiple belay devices to use in different situations or for different types of climbing. Evaluate the kind of climbing you primarily do. Do you like to project on hard sport routes? An active-assisted belay device like the Grigri might be ideal. Do you primarily climb long, multi-pitch routes? You’ll want a device you can use to bring up your second. Some people prefer to only use a standard tube device in all situations simply because that’s what they’re used to. It really comes down to personal preference.
For someone just beginning rock climbing, my first recommendation for a belay device would be the simple ATC tube device. It will get you just about anywhere you need to go and will teach you how to belay. After that, I’d pick up a Grigri or other assisted-braking device. It will help you minimize risk in case of a mishap and will add to your gear options.
Rope Size Matters
Remember to consider rope diameter when selecting your belay devices. Ensure whatever you buy is compatible with your other climbing equipment. Check the device’s user manual (usually available online) to be sure that it will accommodate the diameter of your rope.
Finally – Read the manual
Climbing gear instruction manuals are usually short and filled with graphics showing improper and proper uses of the device. Study these for any gear you buy and if you’re not sure what the pictures are showing, reach out for help from someone who knows how to use the equipment. Don’t assume you know how to use it properly.
To learn more about rock climbing come check out all our related content and recent posts.
What other belay devices have you used and loved? Share below for other readers to benefit from.