Across the spectrum of belay devices, there are many design features that help belayers catch falling climbers and stay safe. Brake assist, or “assisted braking” is one of those features. Brake assisted devices are designed to take the load off the brake hand of the belayer, sometimes at the cost of smooth belaying (there is a learning curve).

Within the past 10 years nearly every manufacturer has debuted at least one belay device with assisted braking. Time has shown that climbers not only like having this feature, but most prefer it.

So why is brake assist so popular? Is this something that everyone should have? Let’s get into how it functions across different devices and look at the pros and cons of this feature.

Adding Safety with Assisted Braking

Brake assist was basically created to add a “belay backup” in case of emergency or misuse while belaying, with the added bonus of being able to hold the weight of the climber once activated, though every device handles this functionality differently. The basic concept is that in the event the rope moves too quickly through the device, for example in the event that the belayer loses control, the speed and friction on the device cause it to move in a way that stops the rope from feeding.

What this looks like in practical terms is that a falling rock, a trip over a backpack, or a look from that cutie across the gym doesn’t necessarily result in catastrophic loss of control over the slack in the system. While it is difficult to quantify ‘safety’ and anecdotal ‘near-misses’ to say that assisted braking is safer than traditional devices, the highly regarded German Alpine Club (DAV) has conducted climbing gym studies that found belaying with a brake assist device showed less incidences and lowered the number of belaying errors during use.

The Two Flavors of Assisted Braking

There are two versions of this grabbing ‘Brake Assist’ action which we categorize as Mechanical (because it utilizes moving parts) and Tube (because it exists on devices that operate otherwise as a tube style belay device.) The former has a moving cam that physically pinches the rope to stop its movement, while the latter reorients on the rope under tension and effectively makes rope movement impossible.

The GriGri pinching a rope
A Petzl GriGri feeding rope (left) and with the assisted braking cam activated (right). Note the device has the cover plate open to show operation and should not be operated in this manner.
The Black Diamond ATC Pilot in action
Black Diamond ATC Pilot in belay mode (left) and in brake assist mode (right). Note the interaction of the rope, carabiner, and belay device.

It is important to note that every manufacturer states that this functionality is for backup only, and to remember that the assisted function can easily be disabled, so always keep your hand on the brake rope. Though the belayer should always be paying attention, it goes without saying that there can be unforeseen circumstances that may interfere while belaying and this backup does offer a bit of peace of mind.

Indoor Climbing Requirements

In recent years many gyms the world over have begun requiring these devices specifically because they add safety to belaying. It is also very common that any instruction you find at a gym in the US will only use assisted braking devices. In some cases, this decision is based on the above mentioned study by the DAV and has even shown reductions in incidents in some gyms even though the number of new climbers is still on the rise. This may also explain the increase in quick adoption to assisted devices, as most new climbers today begin their skills in the gym.

Assisted Braking Benefits in Practice

Brake assist pays off massively when toprope belaying, especially if you’re belaying a new climber who may take more time and need more breaks on the wall. Actively holding your partner’s weight for over 30 minutes as they take breaks and shake out on a route can take a lot of energy and forearm stamina that you will want to have when it’s your turn to climb. With a brake assist device taking the majority of the climbers weight, you save strength and energy and your climber can stay focused on the climb for as long as they need.

Similarly, assisted braking helps hold the weight when belaying for someone projecting a route where falling and hanging over and over can take its toll. The days of getting forearm and wrist fatigue from spending hours continually catching and holding your buddy off the ground are now in the past.

WMR-AssistedBraking-2 1
Holding a climber without brake assist. Note how the brake hand is keeping the rope taught and the belayer has to actively apply tension to hold the climber's weight.
WMR-AssistedBraking-1 2
Holding a climber with brake assist. Note how the brake hand is relaxed but still holding the brake rope. The belay device is holding all of the climber's weight.

While every device has the ability to catch a fall, none excel at holding that weight better than a mechanical brake assisted belay device because they have handles that allow more careful and controlled lowering. The belayer can simply pull back on the handle to lower the climber when they want to retry a move or section.

The Argument Against Brake Assist

The most common complaint of assisted braking belay devices come from climbers who have learned to belay using a non-braking device like a tuber or a plate. There can be a learning curve to belaying with any belay device and this is also true of brake assisted devices. Some belayers will find a brake assist device can lock up at an undesired time, resulting in a poor belay. It can take some time to learn to belay smoothly with a brake assist device and some climbers just don’t like getting used to a new style.

There is also an argument that with proper training, a standard tube or plate can belay just as safe, and that the issues that created assisted braking all stem from a lack of training. Though training is a valuable part of belaying safely with any device, incidents outside the belayers control may still happen that no amount of readiness or training can prevent. While tubes and plates definitely have their own benefits in weight and price, it is quite easy to make the opposite argument: With proper training, assisted devices can do what plates and tubes can, with the added benefits listed in this article.

Our Take

Regardless of where you fall on the the spectrum from ‘new to climbing’ to ‘seasoned alpinist’, we believe that devices with assisted braking are worth adding to most racks because of the safety measure alone. The exact model to buy depends on a handful of factors (price, weight, climbing style, etc.) that we cover more in depth in our comprehensive breakdown of belay device types.

If you want to add brake assist to your setup, or if you just want to see all of the options that are available out there, you can go to to see all the devices with or without brake assist and compare them all side by side.

Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff currently lives in the Midwest and spends most of his free time answering questions nobody asked. When not plugging gear on moderate warmups and calling it a day, he can be found whining about whipping on bolts in the gym or at the local pub waxing poetic about climbing saving humanity and the planet.

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