Depending on the style and location of your climbing, you’ll have different expectations from your belay device. For example, certain styles of belay devices will be more commonly used in a gym versus more commonly used on a multi-pitch climb. In this post, we’ll explore the different styles of climbing and the devices that are commonly paired with these styles, and why.

If you want to expand your knowledge on devices themselves, we have a post covering all types of devices that would be a great additional reference for this post you can find here.

Belaying at the Gym

When it comes to belaying an indoor climber there’s a handful of scenarios we have found common across the indoor industry, as well as a couple common regulations or policies that may be in place depending on the gym.

Belaying in a climbing gym

Most US commercial gyms have some sort of regulation or restriction on the type of belay device you can use. Some gyms only allow belying with a belay device that has assisted braking. Other gyms don’t require you to own your own belay device and will already have a belay device, like the Petzl GriGri, rigged on each top rope setup.

This also means it’s a great idea to check with gym staff to clarify the policy before you buy your own device. Some gyms will have a specific list of brands and models of belay devices that can be used, or they will have a list that determines which features are necessary, like assisted braking.

Now let’s dive in further.

Top Rope Climbing

The most common roped experience climbers will have in a gym is known as top rope climbing or top roping. There are pre-hung ropes that hang from the top of the routes which climbers use to safely belay and lower from. Most gyms have basic instruction to teach and test climbers how to do this safely using their preferred belay device.

Indoor Toprope Belaying
Most gyms and indoor climbing spaces have pre-rigged ropes for belaying climbers via toprope.

If a gym allows top roping using your own device, you’ll be able to choose from most devices out there (again, as long as they are allowed in that facility) but it is becoming less and less common to see gyms allow non-assisted devices indoors. These policies aren’t the only driving factor, as modern designs offer better feel and ease of handling, so it’s actually a great idea to look into something with assisted braking for top rope belaying, especially as a new climber who plans to climb indoors a lot.

Assisted braking devices help hold climber’s weight while resting or after a fall, saving your strength and stamina for when it is your turn to climb. They also provide a bit of ‘safety backup’ in the event that a belayer accidentally lets go of the brake strand (never do this with ANY device!) We cover all device types (assisted or not) in depth in this post if you want to dive deeper into the nuanced differences, but it is a good idea to expect to stay on the assisted side of things indoors if you’re buying your own device.

PreRiggedGriGriBelay 1
A lot of gyms now provide pre-rigged assisted breaking belay devices on their topropes for increased safety and accessibility.

It has become increasingly common for gyms to also provide pre-rigged belay devices for toproping, so a climber can simply walk up and tie into one end and a belayer can clip into the device and be ready to go. These devices are pretty much always mechanically assisted braking belay devices like the Petzl GriGri and this is usually why so many climbers (especially in the US) learn to belay with them.

Bottom line when it comes to toprope climbing indoors

  • Most gyms require you use an assisted braking device and may have a limited list of allowed devices.
  • Most gyms offer classes on how to belay that teach to their preferred device.
  • You may not even need to own your own to climb indoors, as some gyms provide them pre-rigged on their ropes.

These are some popular, highly-reviewed mechanical belay devices with brake assist:

Lead Climbing

Separate from top roping, lead climbing involves tying in and clipping the rope periodically as you go up, sometimes pulling up slack and falling large distances. Because of the need to both feed and take in slack as the climber moves, belaying a lead climber requires a greater familiarity and comfort with a belay device and usually a lot more experience belaying.

In the US, you’ll usually need to pass a comprehensive Lead Test involving both belaying and climbing before you’re allowed to lead climb, due to the higher skillset necessary to mitigate risk.

GymTuberBelay 2

Because most climbers start with top rope and then move to lead indoors, it is also very common to use the same device bought or provided for top roping.

If the gym has pre-rigged belay devices for top-roping, that doesn’t always mean they provide a belay device for lead climbing. In this case, many climbers purchase whatever device they learned to top rope with, sticking to what is already comfortable. And, as we’ve mentioned before, this is usually a belay device with assisted braking and usually something mechanical.

That said, while they’re quite popular, mechanical devices aren’t the only option for lead belaying indoors. Many brands make tube style belay devices that offer brake assist if your gym requires it. These brake assisted tubers are popular in gyms because they are usually smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the similarly performing mechanical brake assist belay devices. Both tube style and mechanical brake assist belay devices can be used for top-roping and lead climbing (as long as your gym doesn’t have specific rules stating otherwise).

Here are some popular examples of tube-style brake assist belay devices:

Fortunately, there isn’t a wrong or right way to go when choosing a tube versus mechanical belay device. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to try out all the devices, unless you make friends with climbers who own some devices you can try. Very few gyms have different loaner belay devices to try – though you should certainly ask and encourage this practice!

As you try out different devices, note things like how it feels to

  • pay out slack
  • take in slack
  • hold in your hand / operate
  • lower (heavier and lighter climbers)

Lead climbing is more delicate and nuanced than top roping and you may find that you develop surprisingly strong opinions (that may be different than your climbing partner) on how one belay device lowers vs another, for example.

That said, no reason to overthink it. If you don’t notice a difference, great! You now have more options to choose from, and may perhaps weigh what is on sale more heavily.

The big takeaway with lead belaying indoors is getting to know exactly what is allowed by the facility you’re going to.

  • If you start your lead climbing journey indoors, you usually can’t go wrong following the recommendations of your gym, as you can take their classes and instruction and learn the devices they are comfortable with.
  • If you travel to multiple gyms (locally or across the country), pick a device with assisted braking device because they’re more often allowed everywhere.
  • Many gyms offer loaners or rentals and can provide instruction based on the models they use in their belay classes.

Outdoor single pitch climbing

The type of device that works best for climbing outdoors depends on the style of climbing you do. The majority of outdoor climbing areas are single pitch climbing, where the climbs are short enough to do in a single rope length (similar to the indoor gym climbing).

MechanicalSportBelay 3
Belaying outdoors on a single pitch sport climb is usually not much different than in a gym

Single Pitch – Sport

Belaying single pitch sport climbing outdoors isn’t significantly different from belaying in the gym. To climb outdoors you’ll bring your own quickdraws and one person will need to lead the climb and/or set up a top rope. Most of the time you’re going to toprope or lead climb in much the same way you do indoors, so the belay devices that work best usually come down to the same preferences listed above with one major caveat: cleaning / rappelling.

Depending on where you climb, different crags are outfitted with different anchor hardware, ethics, and etiquette. If you’re lucky, your local area has anchor hardware where you can lower from the fixed gear (similarly to a gym), but this is definitely not the case everywhere.

Because lowering on gear creates wear on the anchor, and in some cases odd rope drag or rockfall potential, some areas prefer that climbers rappel to clean a route. Rappelling requires your belay device to be able to handle 2 strands of rope and unfortunately, most devices recommended for indoor climbing cannot do this.

Below, you can see a climber who is set up to rappel the route, with a belay device that holds two strands of rope.

Rappelling while cleaning
Rappelling to clean an anchor is common practice in areas where gear isn't monitored and replaced regularly by local climbing organizations. To rappel while cleaning a route your belay device will need 2 slots.

Many climbers choose to add a simple inexpensive tube style belay device to their kit to be able to rappel when climbing outside.

Below you’ll see 3 examples of belay devices that are ready to rappel because they can hold two strands of rope. The best news is, these are some of the cheaper styles of belay device on the market.

Important Note: Most belay devices that have 2 slots don’t have assisted braking, so they may not be able to be used in some gyms.

If you do choose to purchase a single device to do it all, belaying and rappelling both indoors and out, there are limited options available with assisted braking and 2 slots. (That link is always updated to show all the options.)

Single Pitch – Trad

One additional thing to keep in mind is the difference between sport and trad routes. Traditional (or trad) climbing involves placing gear like cams and stoppers in cracks and fissures rather than clipping pre-existing bolts. These routes are considerably less likely to have a bolted anchor to lower from, so it is good practice to expect to rap from trees or large boulders and to bring a belay device that can rappel (with 2 rope slots).

It is becoming more and more common that anchors are getting added to higher trafficked single pitch trad routes, and it is possible the route has top access to walk off, so always consult a guidebook or an app like Mountain Project to know what you need before you head to the crag.

Single pitch sport and trad climbing

  • You can use any device you’re comfortable with; there are currently no outdoor areas with legally binding regulations
  • You can keep using the same device that you use indoors unless
    • The local ethic requires you to rappel a sport route to clean it or
    • A trad route doesn’t have a bolted anchor and requires you to use trees or slung boulders to rappel
  • Most outdoor climbers get a second belay device specifically for rappelling and often still use their brake assist belay device for belaying.

Outdoor multi-pitch and alpine climbing

Multi-pitch climbs are any climbs that are split up into multiple sections, or pitches, because 1 rope length isn’t enough to get up (and down) them.

In this case, as the lead climber gets to the top of a pitch, they must belay their follower(s) from above, using a belay feature commonly known as guide mode.

We wrote a post all about guide mode here if you want to dive deeper into how it works, but the big takeaway when it comes to belaying, is that the device needs to be made to hang from the anchor to perform this function. You’ll see this below, where the red cord is the anchor, and the belay device is attached to the anchor.

GuideModeBelay 4
A tube belay device with a guide loop can hang from the anchor and belay the climber below as they climb toward the belayer. (note this setup requires an additional locking carabiner)

A tube style device with a guide loop is a common solution to belaying from above and has the advantage of auto-blocking the rope as you pull slack, essentially capturing progress and functioning like assisted braking when in guide mode.

It should be noted that these devices can also be used to belay directly off the harness like a typical tuber and also tend to have 2 rope slots, making them able to belay up to 2 followers at the same time as well as rappel 1 or 2 ropes. Tubes with guide mode are also quite lightweight and fairly inexpensive, making them a great addition to your overall outdoor climbing kit.

Note: Most mechanically assisted braking devices can be used in guide mode by simply loading and clipping them into the anchor the way you would into your belay loop. The advantage here is a smooth belay with the ability to lower easily using the lever. The disadvantage is that you are only able to belay a single rope and will not be able to rappel on two strands if the route has no walk off option or if you need to retreat mid route.

For multi-pitch climbing

  • You’ll need a device with guide mode to belay directly from the anchor
  • Tubers with guide mode are the standard as they allow you to rappel 2 lines as you descend the route
  • For routes with a walk-off option where there is no need for rappelling, a mechanical brake assist device can do the job


When it comes to climbing in remote alpine locations the name of the game is usually weight and multifunction capability. Rather than carrying separate devices for belaying above or below, or a separate device for rappelling, a single device to do them all makes a lot of sense. Alpine routes can wander greatly left to right, so the ability to belay using 2 half ropes can help reduce rope drag. For this, most climbers will simply use a guide tuber, but for some alpinists a slimmed down and simplified belay plate can be preferred – though they’re often more finicky to use, and less popular overall.

Similar to guide tubes, belay plates have holes for belaying from anchors and 2 slots for belaying and rappelling on 1 or 2 lines. Though they provide some weight and space savings, their thin profile makes them a lot more finicky to use especially with thicker ropes, so they aren’t as popular.

Ice climbing and ski mountaineering

Additional considerations to keep in mind when you’re belaying in wet and icy environments is the freezeability of the device. Belay devices with moving parts can get frozen and stop working in the cold, so mechanical devices are usually out. Instead, it is a good idea to opt for thin, open options that allow the buildup of ice and muck to easily clear away as the rope moves through them. These environments also involve sharp objects like crampons and ice tools and axes, so two slots allows the use of half or twin ropes, enabling some redundancy in case your rope gets nicked.

All the devices below are smaller, lighter versions of larger versions sold. They handle small ropes with more control as the rope slots are narrower.

In the case of high angle snow ascents where occasionally lowering into cornices or protecting across crevasses to access ski routes is necessary, ski mountaineers often carry short sections of very thin ropes. There are only a handful of devices on the market for these tiny diameter lines (usually 8mm or below) so it is important to make sure the device you use is made to accommodate the size of the line.

Which belay device is best?

The best device depends entirely on where you want to belay (indoors only, mountaineering only, single pitch vs multi-pitch, etc) and who you’re climbing with (do they like to top rope only, project lead climbs, etc). So find the tool best for the job.

For example, if you’re belaying exclusively indoors at a gym, buying a belay device made for the skinny ropes of ski mountaineering will be impossible to use with fat gym ropes.

Above we’ve shown some popular devices for each type of climbing. If possible, try out a friends belay device, or ask the gym if they have options for you to try out. See if you can notice differences in lowering, or how it holds somebody when they need a rest on a climb – to find what you personally feel is the best.

Indoor only climbers will easily be able to only own one belay device.

Most indoor/outdoor climbers will end up owning at least two belay devices. One device for indoors, and one device for outdoors when rappelling is necessary (accepts 2 strands), or for multi-pitch climbing (accepts 2 strands, and has guide mode functionality).

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