It used to be so easy. There was the figure eight and the Munter hitch and that was the only choice for the belayer.
With time however, manufacturers, climbing associations and climbers have learned something new and more secure belay devices have been developed. They have not only become more secure, but the number of models and systems has increased significantly, which does not make the choice any easier.
In this short overview, we show you which belay device is ideal for you and what the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems are.
According to a study by the DAV (German Alpine Association), in 2012, 58.3% of climbers used a Tuber, 8% the Munter hitch and only 1.3% were still using a figure eight and auto-locking gear was on the rise.
But what exactly are the difference between the devices and which one is right for you?
What does the belay device do?
During a fall or when being lowered, our weight pulls on the safety rope. As we would not be able to hold this traction with bare hands, we need a device that supports us. The extent of this support – the braking force – depends on the geometry of the belay device and on many other factors; the thickness of the rope, texture of the sheath (new or old, waterproofed or not, etc.). The higher the braking force of the belay device, the less manual force the belayer needs.
Dynamic Belay Devices
Dynamic belay devices are so called, because they enable dynamic belaying without the involvement of the body. It is especially important to belay lead climbers dynamically, so they are not stopped to abruptly in case of a fall. Climbing ropes absorb a lot of the energy from a fall, however it is (generally) advisable to secure dynamically in order to prevent injuries from a fall. Of course, the terrain and the height of the climber don’t always permit a dynamic belay.
If the climber is heavier than the belayer, it is not a problem as the belayer will simply be pulled up. This automatically results in a softer fall. If the climber is however of equal weight or lighter than the belayer, he must actively work to ensure that the climbing partner is slowed down gently. This is done firstly with the body, by taking a step forward. With a dynamic belay device, the belayer has the ability to feed a little rope through the belay device, before “closing the door”. This does not mean that the rope passes through the brake hand!!!
Dynamic belay devices: Munter hitch, tube, figure eight
Auto-locking belay devices
Dynamic belaying is not possible with auto-locking belay devices, as auto-locking devices have a blocking support. Under load, the rope is completely blocked and dynamic rope output is no longer possible. In this case the belayer must work a lot more with his body to ensure the climber falls softly.
The advantage of auto-locking devices, is that they compensate for human errors (i.e. inattention). The biggest advantage is that you barely need any strength to hold the safety rope. This is not only pleasant if the climber is heavier than you, but also if the climbing partner likes to project longer on routes.
Unfortunately, not all auto-locking devices are ideal for the alpine region. But more on that later.
Current models: GriGri2, Matik, Eddy
According to the DAV, auto-block tubes fall under the category of auto-locking devices. However, when using an auto-block tube, the position of the brake hand has an effect on the braking. As such they do not count as (pure) auto-locking devices. If the brake hand is in the right position, the rope will be completely blocked. The auto-block tube differs from the tube, in that the tube still needs manual strength, even at maximum braking effect.
Up-to-date models: Smart, Mega Jul, Jul2, Ergo Belay, Click Up
A detailed article on the differences between auto-locking devices and auto-block tubes and DAV recommendations, can be found here.
The individual models
These days there really are a lot of belay devices, but the 5 most common devices are used by almost all climbers, so will focus on them. Curtain up, here they come.
The Tuber (dynamic)
According to a survey by the DAV for the year 2012, which was done in climbing gyms, the tuber is used by 58.3%. The tuber is not necessarily the mother of all belay devices, but sometimes it seems like it. The so-called “Sticht plate” was invented by the Frenchman, Fritz Sticht, in 1967 and marketed by Salewa in 1969.
Colloquially the tube is also known as ATC Guide, even though this is a model from Black Diamond (similar to the Tempo-handkerchief). Meanwhile, there are countless variations of tubers: For one or two rope lines, with eyelets for alpine climbing, with wedge guide for a rope etc.
Advantages: The rope’s output and input is very quick and easy, as is the entire handling. It is a very gentle belay device, both for climber and the rope, enables dynamic belay and can be used for alpine belaying and abseiling. In other words a Swiss Army Knife amongst belay devices.
Disadvantages: The belayer needs a lot of manual strength and the tuber does not easily forgive inattention. Failure in the belay can quickly lead to major accidents.
HMS (Munter hitch) (dynamic)
HMS is actually the abbreviation for Munter hitch belay, meaning you belay with the Munter hitch and a carabiner. This should be the basic knowledge of climbers, but it does not get taught everywhere anymore. You should however know how to make this knot, before you take to the rocks.
Advantage: Easy to learn, needs little material as no additional belay device is needed.
Disadvantage: There are two versions, which often leads to confusion. Also, the change to the tuber can be difficult and the belay method is unfortunately very bad for the climbing rope.
Smart (Auto-block tube)
Nowadays one of the most popular belay devices, though the name is not entirely correct. The purchase costs are fairly cheap and even a child can operate it easily. Furthermore, the sequence of movements with the Smart is very similar to the Tuber, which makes a transition easy. Under certain conditions it indeed blocks and the brake power assistance is very high, but officially it is not an auto-locking device – but it is also not dynamic.
Advantage: Reduces rope wear, simple to use and fairly priced.
Disadvantages: You will initially have to get used to the output of the rope for lead climbing, but should learn it quickly.
GriGri2 (auto-locking device)
This auto-locking device can be met most frequently on the wall. You will also often see the previous version, “the old” GriGri. It is a little bit bigger and does not go so well with the modern thinner ropes. The handling of the GriGri2 is a bit more complicated, therefore it is often referred to as a device for advanced users. Per se it is very safe, however it can get very uncomfortable if you make the crucial mistake of enclosing the device with the whole hand at the rope output. If you avoid this, it is perfect, especially if the partner likes to project.
Advantages: Very secure, ideal for projecting, compensates for many human belaying mistakes.
Disadvantages: It is quite pricey and heavy, needs some practice and routine when new to the device, and if you use it wrong the safety is quickly gone.!!!
Click-up (Auto-block tube)
It gets its name from the sound it makes when it closes. The Click-up is a very reliable belay device and a favorite in the climbing gym. However, the Click-up does not work with all forms of carabiners and is only sold as a kit together with a matching carabiner. If you use an incompatible carabiner, the blocking mechanism can be overridden.
Advantages: Simple to use and less expensive than the GriGri2.
Disadvantages: Does not work with all carabiners, takes time to get used to, lowering is initially a bit difficult for people with small hands.
Of course these are not the only belay devices on the market, but the most popular ones that cover the range of required functions.
Please take note of the manufacturer’s specifications. In the manual for belay devices, you will find the manufacturer’s recommendation for how long the device can be used for. Nevertheless, you should regularly check your belay device for damage or signs of wear. If you should find any, you should think about replacing your device. You should also think about replacing it, if your belay device is dropped several meters onto a hard surface. In case of doubt, as with all security-related products, if you no longer feel safe, then replace it.
Are they all safe?
As long as you use them properly, they are all safe. In terms of materials they will definitely not let you down. But unfortunately the main cause of accidents, according to DAV safety research, is human error. Some belay devices have a higher tolerance for error than others. This is the reason why auto-block tubes and auto-locking devices are recommended for beginners. This makes a lot of sense, if you stay with sport climbing, especially in the climbing gym. But as previously said, they all are safe if used in the correct way.
Therefore always check up on your partner, be attentive and never let go of the safety rope. Although it may look pretty cool if you indicate to your climbing partner with both hands how to take the next step, whilst your foot is holding the safety rope on the floor, it is actually pretty stupid.
And another thing, which, unfortunately, has to be said again and again: Learning to belay correctly is the nuts and bolts, in order to practice the sport safely. It also has to be learned how to use a belay device properly and it is important that you can practice before going on that adventure. Especially the dynamic belaying of falls must always be practiced in safe conditions. Therefore always take part in a course and let a professional man or woman show you how to belay. Do not go the route of: “I have seen a YouTube video, it will be fine”.
What lies ahead?
In the last few months some new interesting devices came onto the market, such as the Matik from Camp or the Ergo from Salewa. Watch this space and you will find out whether they do well in practice. Tests so far have shown promising results.
And after many months of discussion and countless articles in the specialized press, the DAV recommends auto-locking devices for sport climbing in the climbing gym and in climbing gardens. More about this can be found here. This recommendation is likely to lead to us seeing more auto-locking devices and auto-block tubes in the future. This will be interesting to see.
As usual, you can always contact our experts from our customer service team if you have any questions. We are here for you Mon-Fri 10:00-16:00 by telephone +49 (0)7121/70 12 0 or by email. At other times you’ll find us in the mountains!