How to Choose a Belay Device
A Climber’s Guide to 3 Types of Belay Devices
If you’ve ever partnered up with a climber who’s bigger than you, you know the difference that the right belay device makes. If your bigger partner leads the climb, a big fall means you both might be going for a ride. The minute your partner’s foot slips, you have a split second to not only control how far they fall, but how you’ll fly up (physics!). You brace your body to slam into the rock, and look down so that any debris raining down on you from the fall lands on your helmet. In this situation, using an assisted braking device can make the difference between a serious injury and a high-five back on the ground.
Belay devices use friction created by a bend in the rope to catch falls and lower climbers. However, three main types of devices exist: tubular belay devices, assisted braking belay devices, and the figure 8. They vary in price, ease of use, safety features, and level of assistance with braking.
When deciding which belay device to use, ask yourself the following questions:
- What types of climbing do you prefer (e.g., sport, trad, multi-pitch, etc.)?
- Where and in what conditions do you usually climb?
- Who will you belay?
- If you already own a rope, will the belay device fit the diameter rope you use?
- Will you need to use the device to rappel, or to belay up a second climber?
- Are you looking for a device you can use for any climb, or would you rather specialize?
Now that you’ve thought over those variables, here’s a guide to the different types of belay devices and how to pick the best one for you.
Tubular Belay Devices
The most common type of belay device used in climbing today is a tubular belay device, aka ATC, which stands for “air traffic controller.” An ATC is actually one specific model created by Black Diamond, but it has become the mainstream term for tubular, just like a bandage is known as a Band-Aid and tissues are often called Kleenex.
Tubulars have no moving parts. They work with a locking carabiner and either one or two ropes. These belay devices can be used for all types of climbing: sport, trad, gym, multi-pitch, and ice. The two slot versions also work for traditional rappelling.
How They Work:
Insert a bight—a bend in the rope—through one slot, clip a locking carabiner through the loop and attach it to the belay loop on your harness. Friction created by the rope’s contact with the belay device helps stop the rope when a climber falls. Some tubulars have ridges that create extra friction. Hold the free end of the rope down with your brake hand to apply friction and hold the weight of the climber.
- Easy to use
- Accommodates a wide range of rope diameters
- Works with all types of climbing
- Provides belayer less assistance in supporting the weight/impact of a climber
- Belayer can become fatigued, which makes tubulars a bad choice for projecting and route-setting
Some tubular belay devices can also work as assisted braking devices in guide mode. This means they have another attachment point for belaying from an anchor, which comes in handy when belaying from the top of a route while multi-pitch climbing. In guide mode, you can attach the belay device directly to the anchor instead of your harness.
Assisted Braking Belay Devices
Also known as auto-blocking, auto-locking, self-braking, or self-locking devices, assisted braking belay devices lock down on the rope to help a belayer catch and hold a fallen climber. There are two types: passive and active, which refer to whether or not the device has moving parts (not to how much effort the belayer has to put in).
Passive Assisted Braking Belay Devices
These auto belay devices resemble tubulars, but they pinch the rope between the device and the carabiner to stop the rope. Keep in mind, you still have to be an attentive belayer while using a passive device. Passive does not mean hands-free or inactive. Confusing, right? “Passive” actually refers to the fact that this type of assisted braking belay device has no moving parts.
- Helpful when the climber outweighs the belayer
- Lighter than active assisted braking belay devices
- Models with two slots work for traditional rappelling
- Steeper learning curve than tubulars
- Rope tends to lock up, especially when your climber weighs more than you
Active Assisted Braking Belay Devices
These belay devices contain moving parts. They work in the gym, and outside for sport, trad, and multi-pitch climbing. However, they are mostly used for single-pitch sport climbing.
How They Work:
Instead of pinching the rope between the belay device and the carabiner, active assisted braking devices use an internal camming mechanism to pinch the rope, locking down on the rope when a climber falls.
- Safest, most technologically advanced belay devices on the market
- Camming mechanism makes it easier to lower a climber in a controlled manner
- Firmly grips rope while your climber weights the rope
- Most expensive
- Cannot be used for a traditional rappel, as they only accommodate one rope
- Camming device not good for icy/wet conditions
- Works with a narrower range of rope diameters
- Takes more practice to efficiently let out rope to a lead climber
Figure 8 Belay Devices
Typically used for rappelling and in search and rescue efforts, a figure 8 device also works for belaying. Made of metal, it has a top hole and a larger bottom hole, and contains no moving parts.
How It Works:
First, make a bight on the rope and send it through the large hole. Loop the bight around the outside of the small hole until it rests on the neck of the figure 8. Clip a locking carabiner through the small hole and onto the belay loop on your harness. Hold the free end of the rope down with your brake hand to apply friction and hold the weight of the climber.
- Least expensive
- Rope moves through quickly and smoothly while rappelling
- Accommodates a wide range of rope diameters
- Not recommended for beginner belayers
- Rope moves through quickly while belaying
- Requires more force and attention from belayer than other belay devices
- Puts a twist in the rope
When it comes to choosing a belay device, what works best for you may differ from what works best for your climbing partner in the same situation. Try different types—rent from your gym or borrow from other climbers—before you buy your own. And if you climb a lot of different types of routes with a bunch of different partners, you may need more than one belay device to safely, comfortably, and efficiently get the job done.
No matter which you choose, seek out proper training so you feel comfortable using your belay device. Practice until it becomes second nature. Keep in mind that regardless of the level of assisted braking a device offers, you should never let go of the rope with your brake hand while belaying. Check out the manufacturer’s instructions for each device you use. Watch videos online and observe other belayers using them in action. Visit your local gym if you want to learn to use your device via one-on-one instruction or in a class environment.
And as with all climbing gear, store your belay device away from sunlight and try not to leave it in your car for extended periods, especially during the summer. Unlike soft gear, there’s no industry standard for replacing belay devices. Inspect your device each time you head out to climb, consider how frequently you use it, and retire it based on its condition.
Motherhood keeps Sarah Boles grounded, but the wilderness keeps her sane. She holds degrees in news editorial-photojournalism and Spanish from TCU and served as the sports editor for a weekly newspaper before continuing her education in order to teach and coach middle schoolers. Sarah rediscovered her passions for the outdoors and storytelling after becoming a mom, leading her to the role of editorial manager for the nonprofit, Adventure Mamas Initiative.