How To Buy a Belay Device

There are three main cat­e­gories of belay devices: Tubu­lar, Auto-Lock­ing, and auto-block­ing.  In the past, belay plates, also known as stitch plates, were com­mon­ly used, and many vari­eties of plate-based devices that offered vari­able fric­tion exist­ed. At the moment these devices have all but left the mar­ket, leav­ing only the most suc­cess­ful designs.

Tubu­lar: This type of device has one or two holes for a bight of rope (the curved sec­tion of rope) to pass through. The bight of rope is then secured to a climb­ing har­ness via a lock­ing cara­bin­er. The com­bi­na­tion of the tubu­lar device, cara­bin­er, and belay­er’s brake hand pro­vide enough fric­tion to stop a fall. The brake hand must be applied to stop the fall, mean­ing tubu­lar belay devices do not lock on their own.

In a nut­shell: These devices are light­weight, easy to use, and can be used with a sin­gle rope or double/twin ropes, depend­ing on the mod­el. They can also be used for rap­pelling, and they fit most sizes of climb­ing ropes. Most mod­ern tubu­lar belay devices incor­po­rate a v‑shaped and ridged notch on the brake-hand side of the rope to increase fric­tion and the abil­i­ty to use small­er ropes. This is the most com­mon style of belay device used for sport and tra­di­tion­al climb­ing. Almost all of these devices are made with 7075 alu­minum, but a few com­pa­nies have released steel ver­sions, which are heav­ier and more durable.

Auto-block­ing: Many of today’s devices have an addi­tion­al attach­ment point that, through the use of an extra cara­bin­er, allows the device to be used in an auto-block­ing mode. Auto-block­ing is dif­fer­ent from auto-lock­ing in that it only works for belay­ing from the top, as in a mul­ti-pitch sce­nario. Orig­i­nal­ly pop­u­lar with guides, these devices have become a main­stay for mul­ti­p­itch tra­di­tion­al climbers. The first iter­a­tions of these devices made low­er­ing a stuck climber quite dif­fi­cult, but the new­er ver­sions have solved this problem.

In a nut­shell A tubu­lar belay device with an auto-block fea­ture is arguably the best all-around and most ver­sa­tile belay device style, and every major man­u­fac­tur­er makes one. These devices can weigh as much as twelve ounces when made from many mov­ing parts, although some are lighter than three ounces with a min­i­mal­ist construction.

Auto-Lock­ing (Self-Brak­ing): These belay devices have cam­ming mech­a­nisms that lock down on rope under sud­den forces, like a climber’s fall. Some of these devices use a spring and are fair­ly com­plex with mov­ing parts, while oth­ers are made out a fixed piece of met­al, using the cara­bin­er as the cam­ming mech­a­nism.  A bight of rope is placed into the device and then the device is secured to the belay­er or anchor via a lock­ing cara­bin­er. These devices can be very help­ful in arrest­ing a climber’s fall and add anoth­er degree of safe­ty since the device will catch a fall with no help from the belay­er. How­ev­er, an auto-lock­ing device is not a sub­sti­tute for good belay tech­nique, as low­er­ing a climber improp­er­ly is the most com­mon mis­take made with these devices.

In a nut­shell: Auto-lock­ing devices are most com­mon­ly used for sport and gym climb­ing, how­ev­er, they can also be use­ful for aid-climb­ing dur­ing long and bor­ing belays and rope ascen­sion. If they are used in a tra­di­tion­al climb­ing sce­nario, care must be tak­en to ensure that any gear placed is bomber, as these devices offer a pure­ly sta­t­ic belay. Since there is only one hole for a bight of rope, they are not usable for stan­dard rap­pels, and are not rec­om­mend­ed for use with wet or icy ropes.