Choosing Your Belay Device

Find out what factors to consider when choosing your very best belay buddy...

Being a good belayer is about more than watching your climber and holding the dead end – an alert, dynamic and smooth belay can mean the difference between a send and a very irritable partner – and belay devices play a key role in your belaying experience­. Here we break down the factors to look at when you’re choosing a belay device to help you figure out what will best suit your particular adventures (If you’d like to go one step further in giving the perfect catch, you can grab yourself a belay-specific carabiner with advice from this blog)…

There is such a huge variety of belay devices on the market, each with its own set of features designed for a specific purpose. That means there a few things to bear in mind when you start shopping: 

  1. What are your needs? What rope will you be using, what type of climbing will you be doing and does the weight of the device matter?
  2. Do you need any additional safety or convenience benefits? Does the device have guide mode, an assisted-braking function or any other niche features?
  3. Will it enhance confidence and comfort for the climber and belayer? Will is be easy to give and take slack? Will you and your climber feel safer with an assisted-braking function?
Belaying with a Black Diamond ATC

Belay Device Types: Old School to New School

Body belay:
The old old school method. Wrap the rope around your waist and hold on tight – perfect for easy scrambles, terrible for safety.

Munter Hitch: 
An old school belay technique using a Munter hitch knot – great for when you’ve dropped your belay device on a multi-pitch.

Figure of Eight: 
Great for long abseils and old people belaying each other on 12s.

Tube-style devices: 
Cheap and versatile, but your climb will fall (and likely deck) if you let go of the dead end – the most well-known is the Black Diamond ATC.

Assisted-braking devices: 
These are devices which are designed to ‘catch’ the rope in the event of a fall – they shouldn’t be thought of as automatic devices, they just assist in holding a fall while you perform your usual safe belaying. There are two type of assisted-braking devices: passive and active. Passive devices like the Mammut Smart or Edelrid Mega Jul use the shape of the device and the carabiner to pinch the rope; active devices like the Petzl GriGri or Beal Birdie use a moving cam to pinch the rope within the device.

If you choose to use an assisted-braking device, make sure that your chosen device works with your rope – if a rope is too thin the braking mechanism might not work, too thick and it won’t feed or take easily.

Loading a Petzl GriGri.

Climbing Disciplines: What to Keep in Mind

Sport climbing 

You’ll need a device that feeds smoothly and quickly, can take up slack fast and locks off well for big and unexpected falls. A belay device that helps to hold the rope, like the Petzl GriGri, is great for sessions when your climber will need to rest for a while on the rope – it’s much easier to let the device do the work instead of actively holding the climber like you’d have to with an tube-style device. 

This is especially recommended if your climbing partner is significantly heavier than you – rather be on the safe side! If you’re worried about getting pulled up to the first draw during a fall, take a look at the Edelrid Ohm, which helps to bite the rope and keep you on the ground.

An Edelrid Ohm, loaded to the climber’s rope and ready to be clipped.

Trad climbing 

You’ll want a versatile device that has multiple functions for easily belaying a leader, a second and abseiling. A device with guide mode like the DMM Pivot makes belaying the second much more comfortable and a device that has assisted braking like the Edelrid Mega Jul gives the leader confidence, especially on long routes when the belayer is tired or multi-tasking. 

The Edelrid Giga Jul gives the best of both worlds with its genius mode-switching mechanism that allows you to switch between an assisted-braking device (for belaying) and a regular tube-style device for belaying a second or abseiling –AND it has guide mode.

Multi-pitch sport climbing – Similar to trad, you’ll want a device that can do multiple tasks. Some people use a single rope device like the GriGri for easy belaying and carry a backup device for abseiling and emergency situations. Weight may be a factor to consider if you intend to use your device for many long multi-pitches where you’ll be carrying ample gear – devices like the Black Diamond Pilot, Mammut Smart and Edelrid Micro Jul are much lighter than GriGri, while also offering assisted-braking. 

Edelrid Giga Jul being loaded in guide mode.

Free solo and bouldering 

No belay device needed – but it could be useful to carry one with a bit of rope to abseil down your solo routes or big boulders, plus it can help your camera man or brotographer get that gnarly shot for the ‘gram.

Using the DMM Pivot in guide mode

After figuring out what device might work best for you, try testing it out before actually making a purchase – your local climbing gym and/or gear store might have some demo models that you can try out on the walls before you commit. And always remember that it doesn’t matter what belay device you use if your technique and safety precautions aren’t in place every time you or your partner leave the ground. So, do your research, learn how to use your specific device correctly, and have fun!

Wishing you safe, smooth belaying and happy climbing.