Sadly, there is no one belay device that is perfect for every situation. The type of climbing, the rope type and thickness, the location of the climb as well as level of expertise of the belayer are all factors that can greatly influence the recommendation of one device over another. Before choosing a belay device it is helpful to understand the handful of types that are out there and to know a bit about what they are designed to do. Often it can be just as important to find out what a particular device is not designed to do. This post aims to cover the main types and make some loose guidelines on how they are used by climbers today.

But first, a little history.

What is Belaying and Some Belay Device History

The concept of belaying is fairly simple: a climber ties a rope to themselves as protection from falling and a person on the opposite side of the line, the belayer, gives and takes out slack as they move up and down through a climb. In the far-flung history of technical climbing this belayer would wrap the excess rope around themselves using the friction against their body to control rope feed– this is known as a hip or body belay. For many decades this is the method that climbers would use to protect one another from falling while ascending mountains.

A demonstration of an old fashioned hip belay
Hip and body belay demonstration. Image Courtesy Scottish Mountaineering Heritage Collection

One problem using body parts in a belay is that it can involve a fair amount of danger to the belayer including but not limited to massive rope burns and holes in clothing if the climber fell; one of the reasons for the old mantra, “The leader must not fall.” As climbing got more technical and difficulty grades pushed harder, climbers needed a better means for safely arresting a fall. Along with the advent of the modern harness and the kernmantle rope, the belay device was born.

The earliest manufactured belay devices were simple metal plates with slots or holes in them, made to feed a bight of rope clipped to a carabiner which used friction to slow the feed rate of the rope and allowed for more control over the movement of the rope under weight.

The basic designs and ideas have not changed much since the original Sticht plate of the 1960’s (see image), though some alterations in shape as well as attachment points for hanging from a harness are common.

A Sticht Plate belay device
The Sticht Plate was the first manufactured belay device in the 1960s. Image Courtesy Scottish Mountaineering Heritage Collection.

Belay Devices Today

Though products still exist that are nearly identical to the earliest simple belay devices, modern climbing kit offers a broader array of gear. Today’s belay devices are purpose-built to not only deal with slack ropes and falling climbers, but also specific needs like assistance in rappelling, hauling weight, going lighter in the alpine, and even automatically backing up a belay in the case of accident or emergency. Finding which device is the right one for your climbing needs can be fairly nuanced. Let’s start by going over the different styles of belay devices and the styles of climbing they serve best.

Plate and Figure 8 belay devices

An older style that we don't recommend for the vast majority of climbers.

The term ‘belay plate’ is still used as a catch-all for any belay device (mostly by British climbers), but they actually are a very specific type of belay device. Because of their two slots and holes for hanging from an anchor, plates are often used by those who climb with twin ropes (which is more common in Great Britain than North America). Guides and folks who like to go fast and light in the alpine also tend to enjoy them for their multifunctional nature of belaying from above, below, and also as a rappel and haul device.

Plate

CAMP_Ovo

Plate style devices are by far the lightest way to go, but they do require more training and practice to benefit from their more complicated advantages.

Figure 8

CAMP_Standard_Figure_8 1

Figure 8’s often get lumped in with plates because of their simplicity. In the right hands, Figure 8’s and particularly Modified Figure 8’s (with extra arms/wings) can provide extra friction and a decent belay.

Belay plates are mostly best utilized in Search And Rescue (SAR) situations as well as in the hands of trained mountain guides, as they require a bit of knowledge to make use of every feature they are capable of.

On the other side of the plate world is the Figure 8, which is mostly used by canyoneers, military, and rappelling enthusiasts, and not many rock climbers.

Although the vast majority of climbers shun these older styles of belay devices there are a few folks who swear by them like pro climber Steph Davis. Steph wrote a love letter to her Kong GiGi and summarized the benefits as, “There are no moving parts, nothing to maintain, nothing to break, no mysteries going on. It’s simple, cheap, light, minimalistic and perfect at what it does.” That said, it’s a “perfect” option partly because she’s already accustomed to its nuances and quirks and has decades of belaying experience.

Without a fair amount of experience, belay plates and 8’s can be finicky and prone to twisting, bunching and jamming the rope while feeding, especially on heavy weighted rappels so they are not recommended for beginners.

Warning: Many modern gyms don’t allow plates to be used for belaying since they do not have any built-in back-up help for the belayer in case of emergency or misuse; we’ll cover this more in a bit.

Plate & Figure 8 Summary

Pros

  • Lightweight, simple, no moving parts
  • Ambidextrous – there is no left or right-handedness
  • Great for rappelling

Cons

  • Requires belay experience to use (not for beginners)
  • Prone to twisting rope
  • Aren’t usually allowed in indoor settings

Tube belay devices (non-guide mode)

Popular in the 90's - 2010's, they don't have as many features as the devices most used today. They're still one of the cheapest options available.

Tube

Black Diamond ATC

Black Diamonds original ATC design that debuted in 1991 is available today.

Tubular belay devices are sometimes generically referred to as ATC’s, owing to Black Diamond’s eponymous Air Traffic Control device that became the de facto standard belay device in the early 90s. These are becoming less and less common and in fact, in the last decade, we haven’t recommended a standard tube to any climber we’ve chatted with.

Tubers are based on the idea of the belay plate but with a deeper ‘tube’ made of thinner material for the rope to pass through. Tube devices allow for more control of the rope (vs a plate/figure 8) in almost all feeding situations because their shape creates more points of friction for the rope to contact as it feeds through them.

Later tube model designs have also included v-shaped grooves and various asymmetrical shapes at the rope radius area to give even more options for adding friction by changing how you load the rope into the device.

Much like plates, most tube devices often have 2 slots allowing them to be used to belay with twin and half ropes as well as for rappelling/abseiling two lines. A lessoning number of manufacturers offer single-slot tubes designed specifically for belaying single pitch routes.

Here’s an example of *almost* the same device, the difference being the amount of rope slots:

The Beal Air Force 2 is made to handle 1 rope.

The Beal Air Force 2 is made to handle 2 ropes.

Warning: Many modern gyms no longer allow these tube devices to be used for belaying since they do not have any built-in back-up help for the belayer in case of emergency or misuse.

Guide Mode Tube belay devices

Very popular today with outdoor multi-pitch climbers.

Guide Mode Tube

Petzl_Reverso_4

The tube belay device has continued to evolve over the years to include models designed to be used belaying from above the climber. This is an extremely useful feature for guiding or on multi-pitch climbs where the leader has to ‘bring up’ their belayer.

You can tell this is a Guide Mode Tube because of the two extra holes on the outside of the slots. This is the only physical difference from a standard tube.

Another key feature to Guide Mode is that it allows one leader to belay two followers at once. Also, like a standard tube, the two slots allow for rappelling the route.

Similar to a belay plate, guide style belay devices like the Petzl Reverso (seen above) are designed for belaying directly from the anchor while belaying from above, guiding, or multi-pitch climbing.

A petzl Reverso being used in guide mode
The person in this photo is belaying from above. Note that the belay device is hanging from the anchor instead of a belay loop. 

Because of the way the rope feeds through the device when belaying from the anchor, a guide mode device can be used as an auto-block. When used correctly, if the climber fell, the rope would automatically catch the falling climber.

Tube Belay Device Summary

Pros

  • Most can be used for single or double rope belaying and rappelling
  • Ambidextrous – there is no left or right-handedness
  • Cheaper than brake assist devices
  • Small, lightweight and packable; all things that matter big time in the alpine
  • Simple, no moving parts, just a hunk of metal

Additional Guide Mode perks:

  • Used to belay from the top of a pitch from an anchor (aka, belay from above)
  • One leader can belay two followers
  • When belaying from the anchor, can be used in auto-block mode.

Cons

  • Many gyms do not allow them unless they have a brake-assist feature (see next section)
  • No back-up help in case of misuse

Assisted braking belay devices

Assisted braking is becoming the new standard and many gyms even require their use.

Assisted braking is when the belay device helps to slow the rope through the device or hold the rope, taking some strain off the belayer.

The idea is quite simple in its complexity: when the rope moves through the device too quickly, the device reacts in a way that reduces or stops the movement of the rope.

In the early 90’s Petzl revolutionized the way we think about belaying with the introduction of the GriGri. Though it took a while to catch on, the novel idea of adding mechanical assistance into belay technique has certainly changed how climbers handle rope.

The past decade or so has seen a huge boom in assisted braking from nearly every producer of belay devices, opening up possibilities with all kinds of ideas and creating more options for form factor, weight, portability and handling.

Climbing gyms have also embraced the assisted braking device for its added layer of safety as the ability to lock up and stop the rope decreases the chance of injury if the belayer is incapacitated or not following correct belay technique.

The nice feature of any assisted braking device is that while the rope is weighted, the belayer’s hand can relax from actively pulling down or ‘braking’ because the device is ‘holding’ the rope. (Do NOT ever remove your brake hand from the rope!) This feature is by far the most beneficial during long climbs or a particularly long session projecting a route, as the belayer doesn’t need to have a constant tight grip on the brake strand every time the climber weights the rope. (No manufacturer has ever suggested it is ok to take off your brake hand from the rope, there is a reason for it: it is not safe!)

To better understand their functionality, brake-assisted devices can basically be broken into two camps: Tube Style (which are Passive) and Mechanical (which are Active).

Passive Brake Assist – Tube Style

A good bridge into assisted braking for those most familiar with tube or plate style belay devices, passively assisted braking devices tend to be small, simple and lightweight. The operation while belaying will look and feel mostly like that of a tubular belay, with a small twist. When the climber falls or the belayer suddenly brakes and removes slack from the system, the shape of the device takes over and the entire device changes its orientation on the rope, forcing tension against the carabiner and effectively blocking the rope from moving; all without any additional moving parts.

Black Diamond ATC Pilot in action

The Black Diamond ATC Pilot cams upward and pinches the rope against the carabiner when the rope is weighted and the belayer brakes or pulls downward on the rope.

The downside is that most of these passive assist brake devices only work with one strand of rope and don’t function well for rappelling. While lead belaying, the assisted braking function can also happen at unexpected times until you are used to a particular device, so we recommend spending a good amount of time on the ground working on feeding before you head to the gym or the crag with them.

While these devices tend to be more inexpensive than their actively assisted cousins (covered below), there are also more complex versions of passive brake assist devices like the Edelrid Giga Jul which offers a guide mode, changeable modes for lead belaying and dual slots for the rope.

Brake Assist - Tube Summary

Pros of Passively Assisted devices:

  • Assisted braking adds comfort to long belays and piece of mind for beginners or sketchy belay stances
  • Cheaper, lighter than their Mechanically Assisted cousins
  • Simple, no moving parts, just a hunk of metal
  • Some can be used to belay from above (have a ‘guide mode’)
  • Ambidextrous – there is no left or right-handedness

Cons of Passively Assisted devices:

  • Can lock up unexpectedly when paying out slack until the belayer masters their use
  • May be difficult or impossible to rappel with due to their shape
  • Most are not well suited for multi-pitch or cannot be used for double rope belaying or rappelling

Mechanical Brake Assist – Moving Parts

Mechanically assisted devices rely on moving parts to change the orientation and friction that the belay device is applying to the rope during braking. Similar to the GriGri, devices like the Trango Vergo and the Madrock Lifeguard employ a moving piece of metal that ‘cams’ upward, pinching the rope whenever it is pulled through the device too quickly, such as when your climber falls.

These devices are often useful in a broader range of situations including lowering and hauling as their moving parts and handles allow for a much smoother nuanced control of the rope when it is under weight.

The added control from this mechanical ‘pinching’ of the rope makes these devices the de facto modern standard when it comes to single pitch cragging and projecting routes, where hanging and jugging on rope happens just as often as giving and taking slack. Their combination of braking, handling and rope control also make mechanical devices ideal for toproping. Many devices in this category can also be used to belay a single climber from above and the mechanical backup makes them a dream when lowering yourself or a heavy load.

Because of the moving parts and added complexity, mechanically assisted devices tend to be heavier and more pricey than their simple tube counterparts. They also require a bit more diligence and practice in understanding their proper care and use for lead climbing, where the belayer is required to both feed out and take up slack smoothly at a moment’s notice. Similar to the assisted tube, a “normal” belay method may actually trigger the cam and cause the device to lock up at inconvenient times. Of course lots of ground practice and proper instruction is always recommended for any device, and working with this added mechanism can be easily learned with practice.

Brake Assist - Mechanical Summary

Pros

  • Most multifunctional belay device out there. Good for: leading, toproping, lowering, hauling
  • Assisted braking adds comfort to long belays and piece of mind for beginners or sketchy belay stances
  • Most models have lowering handles which makes them ideal for projecting

Cons

  • Extra care and practice should be taken before using to lead belay
  • Mechanical parts require more diligence and cleaning
  • Most expensive style of device
  • Most are made for right-handed belaying
  • Cannot easily rappel (lowering is the more common method)

Which Belay Device Should I Buy?

If you are in the market for a new belay device, we have shown that there are plenty of devices and features out there to choose from. Narrowing them down to what will work best for you involves thinking critically about which features you need and use now, and then adding in a few that will expand the types of climbing you want to do in the future.

Adding a simplified plate to your ice climbing rig might be handy, or maybe you’d like to try aid climbing and need something more multifunctional to haul with. Remember that many climbers find they actually require multiple devices as they increase the types of climbing they do. For example: one for the gym and one for outdoors. Or maybe you prefer a lightweight style for multi-pitch climbing but love mechanical brake-assist when climbing single pitch or when your partner is projecting a climb.

Make a list of the top 3 things you want and need from your belay device, consult the content above, and head over to our belay device page to start using our filters to narrow down every belay device from every manufacturer out there. You can compare them side by side using our Compare button and really narrow down exactly what you’re looking for. We’re confident that armed with the above knowledge and a little clicking, you will be able to find the right device (or two) to take your climbing to the next level.

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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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