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 too 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 their 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: GriGri+, 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.
Current models: Fish, 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 we 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.
Belay errors can quickly lead to serious accidents. This is one of the reasons why tubes in indoor use are very much at the centre of the discussion about safety in climbing (DAV 2015: How do accidents happen in climbing gyms? (only available in German)). As a result, some gyms have gone over to banning this belay device altogether in favour of other (semi-automatic) devices.
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. Plus, the change to the tuber can be difficult and the belay method is unfortunately very bad for the climbing rope.
Smart, Jul 2, Fish (Auto-block tube)
Nowadays, this is 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.
Other belay devices: the Jul 2 from Edelrid and the Fish from Austri Alpin are two devices that are very similar to the Smart in their functioning and handling. When operated correctly, they also brake the rope independently of the belayer’s hand strength. In addition, the Jul and the Smart are also available in an Alpine version. This means that the Smart Alpin and the Megajul can also be used for alpine climbing. Belaying from the belay station is no problem with these devices, as is abseiling on a double rope.
GriGri2, GriGri+ and Matik (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” GriGri1. 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, since the GriGri automatically encloses the rope. If operated incorrectly, this mechanism can be blocked by the belayer, so that the braking effect is completely lost. For this reason, it is important to practise handing out the rope (throttle method) and taking in the rope (tunnelling) several times until you can do it safely. Once you have mastered all the moves, the GriGri is a very pleasant and reliable device, especially when your climbing partner likes to project.
The GriGri+ is a further development of the GriGri2. It has a lead function and has also been equipped with a release lever with panic lock.
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, it can become unsafe.
Similar belay devices: the Matik from Camp is similar to the GriGri family in terms of operation. Here, too, the rope is blocked almost by itself when operated correctly. However, releasing the rope can be a little fiddly and should therefore be practised sufficiently.
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 favourite 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. Here, too, the position of the braking hand is crucial. It takes at least a 45° angle between the released rope and the brake rope to achieve a reliable braking effect. This is of course better than with conventional tubers, but also worse than with Smart, Fisch and the like.
Of course these are not the only belay devices on the market, but the most popular ones that cover the range of required functions.
Edelrid Ohm (braking resistor)
The issue of weight differences in climbing is now also being actively addressed. The Edelrid Ohm is a device that increases the friction on the belay rope and thus reduces the energy that occurs during a fall. The Ohm is attached to the first hook of a route instead of a normal quickdraw. In the event of a fall, tension is applied to the rope, which pulls the Ohm upwards and thus increases friction on the rope. The forces are partially diverted into the hook and less energy reaches the belayer. If you are interested in the exact functioning of the Ohm as well as the advantages and disadvantages of this device, you can find all the important information here.
Advantages: some of the fall energy is diverted to the first hook, so less energy reaches the belayer. People of different weights can climb together.
Disadvantage: weighing 481 g, the Ohm is quite heavy. In addition, the rope must already be inserted into the device on the ground. When lowering your partner, it is important to dismantle the device again.
Attention: The Ohm from Edelrid is not a stand-alone belay device. It is merely a braking resistor. For this reason, even when using the Ohm, it must always be secured with a suitable belay device.
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 can actually be dangerous.
And another thing, which, unfortunately, has to be said again and again: learning to belay correctly is important in order to practice the sport safely. You also need to learn 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, join a course and let a professional show you how to belay. Do not go the route of: “I have seen a YouTube video, it will be fine”.
What device for what purpose?
Due to the specific advantages and disadvantages of each device, there is no universal recommendation. Above all, the preferred type of climbing (only indoor, only sport climbing…) will influence your choice, but there are also some other criteria that we mentioned above.
It will also depend on the rope diameter and the type of rope. With thick single ropes, the handling can be unpleasant, especially with auto-locking belay devices, because it is difficult to get the rope through the device. With thinner ropes as well as half and twin ropes, it is essential to ensure that the rope diameter is approved for the chosen belay device. If it is too thin, the blocking mechanism may not start!
In the climbing hall, belaying is almost always done “over the body” and the necessary dynamics are generated over the body. Current research says that dynamic belaying is considered unnecessarily risky. For this reason, there is no reason not to use auto-locking belay devices in the hall. The auto-locking devices offer more safety, especially “for novice climbers, for lighter belayers, for belayers with little experience in holding falls and for situations where distraction and inattention are likely.“
The choice between autotubers and auto-lockers for indoor climbing should be made on the basis of the criteria mentioned here in the article, such as climbing ability, climbing habits, etc.
The same applies here as for the climbing hall – or almost. The differences are that the routes outside are usually somewhat longer (up to approx. 30 m compared to approx. 15 m in the hall), and that there is the possibility of falling rocks. The latter in turn results in the (very small) danger that the belayer gets hit by a rock. In this case, the climber would only be secured with an auto-locking device that blocks automatically. This is just an example of the factors that can play a role in choosing the “right” equipment.
Belaying on crags and mountain (alpine climbing and mountaineering)
Mountaineering and alpine tours are almost always multi-pitch routes. This means that after the first pitch, the belayer is no longer on the ground but at a small belay station or even a hanging belay station. It must always be considered on a case-by-case basis whether to belay dynamically and if so, how. Not only the safety of the leader must be considered, but also the possible low load capacity of the belay chain (relief through dynamic belaying).
Oftentimes, a belay station does not allow safe dynamic belaying. Either there is not enough space to move, or there is a ledge or roof above the belayer that creates a risk of impact. In this case, a dynamic belay device is required, which is only possible with manual devices, HMS and – to a very limited extent – with some autotubers. The technique of dynamic belaying should be mastered before you start your first multi-pitch tour.
In alpine terrain and on routes that are difficult to belay, climbing is often done with double or twin ropes. Abseiling is also almost always done with a double rope or with two ropes connected as a double rope. The fact that the vast majority of tubers are suitable for this is shown by the fact that they can take two rope strands and also allow the strands to be operated separately. The latter becomes necessary when climbing in a three-rope team and the two belayers are secured separately.
The locking devices, on the other hand, (except for the “Sirius”, which has been withdrawn from the market) only have a socket for one rope strand, which disqualifies them for “alpine use” just as much as their high dead weight and the impossibility of dynamic belaying.
Nevertheless, when handling tubers in multi-pitch tours and alpine climbing, it is not enough to apply the knowledge from the climbing hall and outdoor crags. Particularly when belaying, the different rope routing has to be handled differently. Only some tubers, such as the aforementioned ATC-Guide, offer the special “plate function” to make the belay safe on alpine climbs. The rope can only be pulled through in one direction when using the plate function.
For alpine climbing with single ropes or thin twin ropes, the good old Munter Hitch belay device still has its place. As a backup, you should have a HMS, as it requires the least amount of material, is versatile, needs relatively little hand strength and still works with thin ropes.
What lies ahead?
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. This recommendation is likely to lead to us seeing more auto-locking devices and auto-block tubes in the future.