What should you consider when buying a belay device?
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.
Will you 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 the thickness of ropes you are most likely to use and the belay devices that will 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 is hard work!
Skinny vs. Fat Belay Devices
Skinny belay devices are very light weight and will only take skinny ropes. Mountaineering (where you are most likely to be using thin ropes and a skinny belay device) is the most likely environment that you will unexpectedly come across the need for a thicker rope.
Encountering fixed ropes, or 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.
There is no universal system for measuring how much force a belay device will hold when locked off, therefore it is hard to compare all the different types of belay device on the market. However general tests conducted on various types of belay devices show their holding power is similar.
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
Wild Country introduced the 'wedge' shaped belay device with the VC belay device. The thick end of the wedge in theory could be used for maximum friction when required and the thin end for minimum friction when required. Subsequent models of the VC (Pro) have ditched the wedge shape.
The groove and teeth method adopted has become 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 disadvantage is that they do not take smaller rope diameters. 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 use an auto locking function for belaying your second. This is a very useful option for climbing in the mountains. It means you can belay two people seconding at the same time. Whilst belaying, you can take your hands off the rope as well as sort out the rack, eating and drinking. At a push it can be used to ascend ropes. They weigh marginally more than standard belay devices but their practical advantages make them a good trade off.
Handling 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 to weigh as little as possible. However function and ease of use should be the priority over weight when considering buying a device. The best device is the most practical, the one you are most familiar with and handles the best.
Other things to consider when buying a belay device
I often have to belay someone bigger than me, what can I do to make this easier/get more holding power?
You need to reduce the upwards pull when belaying (i.e tie yourself to the ground).
There a a few ways to do this. Edelrid have come up with a device which you can attach to the rope if you are climbing bolted routes. The Ohm is an assisted braking resistor, not a belay device, but it's great at keeping feather-weight belayers on the ground.
Climbing walls often have floor tie in points or sand bags as anchors. This will need to be improvised when outdoors. It's also good to wear a helmet to protect your head when being pulled off the ground. 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 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 having 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?
It is advisable to familiarise yourself with the belay device you are not used to. This may seem common sense but many people will buy a new belay device and then take it straight to the crag without having practised or thought about the best way to use it.
The classic example is the Petzl GriGri. It is recommended you practise the use of a GriGri in a safe environment beforehand. Watch 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.
Auto Locking Belay Devices
Where do auto locking belay devices fit into all of this?
Better known as assisted locking belay devices are uncommon in the UK. On the continent however the use of the assisted locking belay device is almost universal. This is because they are very useful, safe and practical for sport 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 these devices but they are mainly due to pilot error and complacency. When used correctly (there is a knack to using them) they offer added security and practicality for sports climbing. If you are going to be hanging from bolts whilst working a route then an auto locking belay device means you wont have to hold your partners weight when they rest.
Attaching the belay device
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, so thank god it was shortened. Though they are not as strong as 'D' shaped biners the larger end 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 don't want it to. Though pear-shaped 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