Most climbers own 1-3 belay devices, and use different devices depending on the type of climbing, rope thickness, and location of the climb. For example, one device might be used for indoor gym climbing and outdoor sport cragging. Another device might be used for multi-pitch sport and trad climbing and anytime a rappel is necessary. A third device might be picked up years later as an upgrade to a newer or lighter version, or a device you tried of your friends and liked more, or it’s used for hauling gear (like on a big wall or while setting a route).

There are 5 main styles of devices, and we’re here to explain why they’re different and where each style of device really shines (plus any downfalls).

Although we’re going to start talking about more classic tube style devices, that are still readily available and usually the cheapest option at a shop, this is more to set the background for some other styles. Today most climbers will start out with a brake assist belay device, described further below.

Tube belay devices (non-guide mode, non-brake assist)

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


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.

This classic tube style has gone from THE STANDARD throughout the 90’s / early 2010’s to uncommon by the 2020’s. 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 original belay plate (shown at the bottom of this post) 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) 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 along with “teeth” or ridges, at the rope radius area to give even more options for adding friction.

Most tube devices have 2 slots allowing them to be used to belay with twin and half ropes as well as for rappelling/abseiling two lines. A very small number of manufacturers offer single-slot tubes designed specifically for belaying single pitch routes.

Here’s an example of two very similar devices, with the main 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 the above style of tube devices to be used for belaying since they do not have brake assist functionality.

Guide Mode Tube belay devices

Very popular today with outdoor multi-pitch climbers (sport or trad).

Guide Mode Tube


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.

Guide style belay devices like the Petzl Reverso (seen above and below) 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


  • 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 (matters if there is a long approach)
  • 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


  • Many gyms do not allow them unless they have a brake-assist feature (see next section)
  • No brake assist with the classic tube shape

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. Now, often times when climbers say “GriGri” they either are talking about a GriGri specifically or they are referring to any/all models of mechanical brake assist belay devices.

Read about the differences between the GriGri and GriGri+ in this post.

The past decade has seen a huge boom in assisted braking from nearly every major climbing brand. 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 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.

To better understand brake assist functionality, know there are two styles: Tube (which are Passive) and Mechanical (which are Active).

Passive Brake Assist – Tube Style

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 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 (not designed for standard rappelling). While lead belaying, the assisted braking function can also happen at unexpected times – such as the device assuming there is a fall, when you were just trying to pay out rope quickly for a clipping leader. It can help to spend time on the ground practicing feeding the rope to find where it catches, 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 and lighter than mechanical brake assist belay devices
  • Simple, no moving parts for the brake assist (just a rotation)
  • Some can be used to belay from above
  • 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
  • Many 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. Their handle also makes it clear how to release the rope to lower a climber (or hauled items).

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 significantly higher priced than all other belay devices. 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, it is easy to accidentally trigger the brake assist functionality and cause the device to lock up at inconvenient times. Practice on the ground, or in other safe situations will always be helpful.

Brake Assist - Mechanical Summary


  • Good for: leading, toproping, lowering, hauling
  • Assisted braking adds comfort to long belays and sketchy belay stances
  • Most models have lowering handles which makes them ideal for belaying a projecting climber


  • Extra care and practice should be taken before using to lead belay (it’s easy to accidentally short-rope your leader)
  • Mechanical parts require more diligence and cleaning
  • Most expensive style of device
  • Most are made for right-handed belaying (where the handle is situated)
  • Cannot easily rappel (with only one rope slot)

Which Belay Device Should I Buy?

This all depends on where you’ll use it, how you’d like it to function, and your budget. Here are some examples that make a difference:

  • Does your gym require a certain style of belay device? (usually this is now one of the biggest deciding factors)
  • If you belay for a climber who projects routes (climbing slowly or hanging a lot) a brake assist device will be more ideal
  • If you’ll be multi-pitch climbing outdoors often you’ll definitely want a guide mode style tube belay device that you can easily rappel with

As most climbing gyms have tightened their practice of only accepting brake assist belay devices, it is getting harder and harder to only own one device if you’d like to climb indoors and out, single and multi-pitch climbs.

Often a climber may find themselves with two devices. One brake assist for indoors and outdoor single pitch climbing. And one tube style with guide mode device for outdoor multi-pitch climbing.

AND… there is actually an older style of belay device that is still available that’s worth knowing about. We saved it for last as it’s usually only owned by older climbers (who aren’t looking to buy another), or only bought by guides, alpinists, or other multi-pitch climbers looking to save the most weight and who have substantial belaying experience already.

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 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.

Figure 8’s on the other hand are 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.” It’s “perfect” for Steph because she’s 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 most climbers.

Warning: Most US gyms don’t allow plates or 8’s to be used for belaying.

Plate & Figure 8 Summary


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


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

A Quick Historical Note From Before the Belay Device

In the far-flung history of technical climbing the 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.

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.

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

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.

Want to See All The Belay Devices (over 125)?

At WeighMyRack, we list every single belay device and give you filters for type (like tube or brake assist), guide mode, and other features. You can also filter by on sale belay devices with discounts >20%.

Other Interesting Belay Device Articles

Belay Device Reviews & Overviews

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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