Are you a sports climber, indoor climber, trad climber, alpinist or beginner? Do you want a belay device that can be used for several of types of climbing? Knowing what type of climbing you want to use your belay device for will help you choose one that best suits your needs.
What should you consider when buying a belay device?
Are you going to be top roping down at your local wall (usually very thick ropes) or climbing in the Alps (usually using very thin ropes)? You should check what thickness of ropes you are most likely to be using and which belay devices can accommodate them. Using very skinny ropes with a large slotted belay device will reduce your holding power dramatically and trying to push very fat ropes through a skinny device will obviously not work at all.
Skinny Vs. Fat Belay Devices
Skinny belay devices are very light weight and can only take skinny ropes. You can not ever put a thick rope through them. The mountains (where you are most likely to be using thin ropes and a skinny belay device) are the most likely environment that you will unexpectedly come across the need to use a thicker rope. Fixed ropes, sharing a descent with another team are both easily conceivable scenarios. Using an Italian/Munter hitch will not make you popular if you are on someone else's ropes. For the minimal weight saving the convenience of being able to use a thick and skinny ropes with a Reverso 3 or a BD ATC guide seems like a price worth paying.
The measure of how much force the plate will hold when locked off. There is no universal system for measuring how much force a belay device will hold when locked off and there is therefore no way of comparing all the different types of belay device on the market. However general tests that have been conducted on various types of belay device show that they are all very similar in terms of holding power. The two exceptions to this rule are the Fig 8 abseiling device and the Italian or Munter hitch. The classic Fig 8 used for abseiling was shown to have a very low holding power when compared to most climbing belay devices. The Italian or Munter hitch was shown to have excellent holding power, better than that of most non auto locking devices.
Shape - Wedge/Groove/Teeth
The 'wedge' shaped belay device was first introduced by Wild Country with the VC belay device. The theory was that the thick end of the wedge could be used for maximum friction when required and the thin end for minimum friction when required. This never actually seemed to make that much of a difference and subsequent models of the VC (Pro) have ditched the wedge shape. The groove and teeth method they addopted is fast becoming the preferred way to design belay devices ( Petzl Reverso 3/Black Diamond ATC Guide). Standard belay devices without teeth like the DMM bug and the BD ATC still offer excellent handling with simple design. Without the teeth and groove system the only thing that limits them is the smaller range of rope diameters that they can take. However for many people this is not a serious limiting factor.
'Guide' auto locking belay devices
You don’t have to be a guide to have an auto locking function for belaying seconds on your belay device. This is a very useful option for climbing in the mountains. It means you can belay two people seconding at the same time. It means you can take your hands off the ropes when belaying a second and do things whilst belaying like sorting out the rack, eating and drinking. It can at a push also be used to ascend ropes. They do weigh marginally more than standard belay devices but their practical advantages make them a good trade off.
This is an important factor. Your belay device gets a great deal of use. Make sure you get one that you like, possibly that you have used before or similar to one you have used before. A belay device that does not function as you are used to or as you would like will become frustrating.
Weight of device
Obviously you want a belay device that weighs as little as possible. However function and ease of use should take priority over weight when you consider how much time you spend with your belay device in your hands. The one which is the most practical, that you are most familiar with and which handles the best is the way to go.
I often have to belay someone who is much bigger than me. What can I do to make this easier/get more holding power?
You need to find a way to reduce the upwards pull when belaying (i.e tie yourself to the ground). Climbing walls often have floor tie in points or sand bags for this. Outside you might have to improvise a way to achieve the the same effect. Outside it's also good to wear a helmet so that if you are pulled off the ground you don’t hit your head, let go of the rope and drop your partner. You can wear leather belay gloves so you can really grip the rope. Also using two HMS karabiners instead of one will increase the friction and the holding power of the device. These things will all increase your confidence.
What do I do if I drop my belay device on a multi pitch route?
Hopefully you will still have an HMS biner and will be able to use an Italian or a Munter hitch. You can abseil and belay with the Italian or Munter hitch but it is not kind to your ropes which will become kinked. The best time to learn how to use an Italian or Munter hitch is not half way up a 400m high route in the Alps after you have just dropped your belay device for the first time.
Am I prepared to practise and learn how to use a new belay device properly?/What am I used to?
If you buy a new belay device that you are not familiar with then familiarising yourself with the belay device is obligatory. This might sound like a given but many people will buy a new belay device and then take it straight to the crag without having practised or even thought about the best way to use it. The Gri Gri would be a classic example of this. Rigging up a way of practising how to use the Gri Gri in your own home is a good idea before attempting to use it outside. Watching the video's of how to use a Gri Gri on the Petzl website will stop you falling into bad habits. There are often quirks to the way that belay devices allow you to pay out or take in rope and how they feel when they are loaded. Familiarising yourself with a new belay device is essential.
Where do auto locking belay devices fit into all of this?
Auto locking belay devices are uncommon in the UK. Most climbers don't use them and tend to shy away from them because of this. On the continent however the use of the auto locking belay devices is almost universal. This is because they are very useful, safe and practical for sports climbing provided they are used correctly and attentively. It is worth noting at this point that there are no hands free belay devices! The auto locking mechanisms function most reliably when there are also hands on the rope. They are meant to offer an extra layer of security, not the opportunity to sleep whilst belaying! There have been many accidents involving auto locking belay devices but they are due mainly to pilot error and people becoming blasé about their use. When used correctly (there is a knack to how to using them) they offer added security and practicality for sports climbing. If you are going to be hanging from bolts, working a route then an auto locking belay device means you wont have to hold your partners weight whilst they rest, hanging from the route.
What type of screw gate should I use with my belay device?
HMS (Pear shaped) screwgate karabiners are what you use to belay with. HMS comes from the German term Halbmastwurfsicherung. Though they are not as strong as 'D' shaped biners the one end that is larger allows for easier use of a belay device and possibly even a knot or two. Be careful of the bottom (smaller) radius being too small to accommodate two half ropes and the wire on your belay plate. When the radius is too small the wire loop from your belay device can become pinched between the ropes causing the belay device to lock when you dont want it to. Though pear HMS biners are designed for belaying from the fat end, they will sometimes spin round and it is better to have one which does not do this.
Image © 2008 Steve Su on the North Face of the Eiger Photo - Jonny Copp
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