A belay device is one of the most important pieces of climbing equipment. All levels of climbers need one, from the novice to the expert. The trick is properly educating yourself on its usage and selecting the right one for your specific needs.
What is a belay device?
A belay device is the piece of equipment that allows belayers to “catch” the climber when they fall or just need to rest for a minute. Belay devices are used when top-roping, sport climbing, trad climbing, rope soloing, and ice climbing—the only time you don’t need a belay device is when you’re bouldering. This piece of hardware is also necessary for rappelling.
There are three main types of belay devices in use today: tube, auto-blocking and assisted braking. As with anything, each style has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Read on for help figuring out which kind will be best for you!
Tube-style belay devices are usually the first mechanisms that novice climbers use, and the chances are good that they'll stick with them. They are lightweight and relatively simple to use, letting the belayer control how much friction the rope gets as it passes through the device.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to tubes is that they tend to be the least expensive devices. Most tube-style belay devices have two slots, which allows for double-rope rappels and climbing on twin or double ropes on multi-pitch routes. Some models also feature ridges on one side for additional friction, which is particularly useful if the person you’re belaying is larger than you. The “disadvantage” to tubes is that they require total manual braking.
Auto-blocking belay devices are still technically tubes, but with extra benefits. These models feature an additional hole 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 will catch the climber automatically, with little manual braking required. (Don’t be fooled into a false sense of security, though—keeping your brake hand on the rope at all times is still necessary!)
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.)
The most popular assisted braking device is the Petzl GriGri (pictured), which utilizes an internal pivoting camming mechanism to grab the rope when the climber falls. Other brake-assisting belay devices rely on the design of the device to catch the rope in the event of a fall. (As with auto-block devices, do not assume that you can take your brake hand off the rope—classic belay technique still applies, and keeping your brake hand on the rope is still required to maintain climber safety.)
Belay devices in the assisted braking family are best for top-roping and sport climbing, but are not a great option for trad climbing. The GriGri in particular is also very popular when it comes to rope soloing. Besides being the heaviest and most expensive of all the belay device options, assisted braking devices are also a little less versatile, as they can only accommodate one rope at a time.
Rope Size Matters
One of the most important parts of buying a belay device is to make sure it's compatible with your other climbing equipment, specifically your climbing rope. Check the device’s user manual to be sure that it will accommodate the diameter of your rope.
Carabiners for Belaying
While just about any locking, load-bearing carabiner will suffice for belaying, there are many that are designed for that particular purpose. “Belay biners” are pear-shaped (also called HMS) to allow for Munter hitch belays (which is especially handy to know in case you ever accidentally drop your belay device from somewhere in the middle of a multi-pitch route).
These days, some belay-specific carabiners even have a little “tail” coming off of the gate to keep the smaller end of the biner on your belay loop to prevent cross-loading.
Know Your Device
The most important part of buying a belay device is to know how to properly use it. Read the literature that it comes with, and make sure you know what you’re doing before taking your climber partner’s life in your hands.
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