When walking around the climbing wall or crag you may notice climbers using a few different types of belay devices. Read on to know what types of belay devices actually exist and which is the best belay device for you and your needs.
What is a Belay Device?
Let’s start with the basics. A belay device is a tool used by a belayer to stop the fall of a climber using a friction brake along with the means to rappel the climber back to the ground with control. It makes climbing a safer activity for the climber by allowing the belayer to carry out their duties with minimal physical effort.
Belaying a climber is a matter of life and death. Only belay if you’ve mastered the technique and been signed off by someone more experienced.
Types of Belay Devices
The Munter Hitch
This is essentially what was used back in the day before the belay devices we know and rely on today were invented. It’s more of a knot applied to the rope around a locking carabiner (see picture). The munter hitch actually saved me from a disastrous incident on a multi-pitch route when I accidentally dropped my belay device on the way back down so take note! Not recommended for use anymore if you do have a belay device as it’s harder to control and really kinks your rope up.
Ideal for: when you’re desperate.
Figure Eight Belay Device
Probably the simplest of belay devices, these are nowadays mostly used for rappelling, caving and on search and rescue operations. Figure eight belay devices (not surprisingly) resemble the number eight with one large hole and one small hole.
When rappelling, a bend (also called a ‘bight’) of rope is fed through the larger hole and then looped around the outside of the small hole (see second picture) until it rests on the neck of the figure eight. The small hole is then clipped to the belay loop on your harness.
- Heat from friction dissipates quickly
- No restrictions on rope diameter
- Quick and efficient for rappelling
- Trickier to use when belaying
- Twists the rope which adds difficulty in management
Ideal for: Rappelling, caving and on search and rescue operations
Tubular Belay Devices (sometimes called ATCs)
These are the most commonly used of all the belay devices and definitely one to add to your arsenal if you haven’t already. They are incredibly versatile, suitable for every type of climbing from sport, traditional to indoor gym climbing and abseiling.
With tubular belay devices, the rope is folded into a loop then pushed through the device before the loop is clipped into a locking carabiner. The rope has friction applied to it via the belay device through the tight angles applied to the rope that allows slowing and stopping control.
There are two slots to every tubular belay device to accommodate two ropes for when it’s time to abseil/rappel back down after a climb.
- Easy to use
- Doesn’t twist the rope
- Can accommodate two rope strands for rappelling
- Can accommodate a wide range of rope diameters
- Light climbers may find it slow going when it comes to rappelling back down
Ideal for: All types of climbing
Assisted-Braking Belay Devices
Known by many names:
- Self-braking devices
- Self-locking devices
- Auto-locking devices
- Auto-blocking devices
Thought these terms are discouraged as it’s always recommended to keep the brake hand on the rope than ever going hands free.
There are also quite a few different types but what is common among all of them? These belay devices are designed to automatically force a brake on the rope when a sudden force is applied. So when a climber falls suddenly, these belay devices can act as an aid to help the belayer catch their fall.
Types of Assisted-Braking Belay Devices:
- Active – e.g. Petzl Grigri – these tend to work via an internal camming mechanism within the device itself. When the rope suddenly comes under tension like when a climber falls, the internal cam pivots and pinches the rope.
- Passive – e.g. Edelrid Mega Jul – these belay devices don’t have any moving parts like the active forms. Instead, they use a mechanism that pinches the rope between just the carabiner and the device itself to assist in braking the rope. As their simpler, these devices tend to be more lightweight and are often suitable to rappel on two strands of rope.
Active Assisted-Braking Belay Devices
The Petzl Grigri first came onto the climbing scene in 1991 with it’s boldly new and different take on the belay device. A lot chunkier and heavier, they also require a bit more learning time and take some getting used to. They also cost quite a bit more than your standard ATC. So why on earth do people use them then?
Well, the magic of the Petzl Grigri lies in the extra safety it can provide if used correctly. It provides a belayer locking assistance when a climber falls suddenly. Needless to say, you should still never let go of the dead rope even when using a Grigri! Some say, due to the automatic locking nature, that it provides reassurance to both the climber and the belayer when in use. It also means if something were to happen e.g. your belayer is knocked over and lets go of the dead rope, that the grigri can act as a backup.
- Slightly heavier (200g)
- Improvements made to anti-panic handle
- Improved control when lowering
- Can handle a greater range of rope diameters 8.9mm – 10.5mm
- Addition of new setting to allow a switch between two belay modes – lead and top-rope which makes giving slack easier
- Colours: violet, orange, grey
Do take extra care when using this device and pay close attention to the instructional diagrams that come with it. The frictional force of this belay device only goes one way, so if you have inserted the rope in the wrong direction, it won’t work at all. So always double check the rope has been loaded properly before using and make sure others know how to use it safely before they borrow it.
- Can be safer than other belay devices
- Provides reassurance
- Heavier and bulkier
- More expensive
- Can be harder to learn how to use
- Single rope use only so can’t be used for traditional rappelling which requires two rope strands
Ideal for: Sport climbing indoors and outdoors.
- Quite heavy (360g)
- Supports rope diameters 9mm – 11mm
- Has a handle with a panic pull feature that prevents the climber being lowered too fast if the lever is pulled back too hard
- Dimensions: 7 x 4 x 2 inches
- Light and compact (146g)
- Supports rope diameters 8.9mm – 11mm
- Uses the same hand position as tubular devices but brakes like a Petzl Grigri
- Easy to give slack out
- Dimensions: 2 x 1 x 2 inches
Passive Assisted Braking Belay Devices
Guide Plates (also called Plaquettes)
Guide Plates are essentially a more advanced type of tubular belay device and they are a passive form of assisted braking belay device. In a multi-pitch climb, they allow the lead belayer at the top of the climb to secure and belay the following climber.
Guide plates have a large attachment point on one end with a smaller point on another. Why? So the belayer can attach the belay device directly to the anchor point in assisted-braking mode, ready to safely belay the second climber up. If the second climber falls, the rope carrying the climber should be pulled down onto the brake strand thus locking the device. That is if set up correctly of course!
Ideal for: Multi-pitch climbing routes
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of the variety of belay devices out there on the market and have an idea of the ones you’d like to use. Why not test drive a few of your friend’s belay devices, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a belay device in use though do ensure you’ve read up on how to use each safely beforehand.