How to Choose the Best Belay or Rappel Device

How To Choose the Best Belay or Rappel Device

When you first start climbing, it’s easy to get sucked into buying all the other stuff first. Sticky climbing shoes! A harness! Shiny new carabiners! And while you need all those things, you won’t get much further than the climbing gym floor without a solid belay device.

A belay device is the chunk of metal you feed the rope through. It creates bends in the rope and/or grips the line via a set of metal “teeth,” to create friction, which allows you to catch a climber when he or she falls. Rappel devices do the same thing, gripping the rope so you can descend it in a slow, controlled manner. Because most belay devices also work for rappelling, we’ll occasionally use the term “belay device” to refer to both.

There are several belay device types available, each with their own pros and cons. Choosing the best one for your needs starts with understanding how they work.

Here’s what this guide will cover:

  1.  Belay Device Types
    1. Assisted Braking Belay Devices
    2. Tube-Style Belay Devices
    3. Semi-automatic tube-style devices
  2. The Best Belay Device for Beginners
  3. How to Choose a Belay or Rappel Device

Belay Device Types

The most common belay devicesBeB fall into one of two categories: Assisted-braking devices, which arrest climbing falls by “grabbing” the rope like a locking seatbelt, and tube-style devices, which use friction alone to catch a fall. There’s also a third belay device type that’s somewhere in between. These are sometimes called “passive assisted braking devices” or “semi-automatic tube-style devices,” and are somewhat less common.

Tube-Style Belay Devices

How they work: Tube-style devices like the Black Diamond ATC or Petzl Reverso are very similar to the original belay device which was simply a metal plate with two holes in it. To belay with a tube-style, or tubular device, simply pinch a small section of rope, feed the bend of it through one of the holes, and clip a locking carabiner through the loop that appears on the other side. (To rappel, repeat this for both sides of the rope, and clip your carabiner through both loops.) The bend creates friction, which allows you to hold the rope in place.

Pros and cons: Tube-style devices perform well on wet and icy ropes and accommodate a wide variety of rope diameters (check manufacturer recommendations before buying). They’re also lightweight, inexpensive, and very simple, which makes them easy to inspect for safety and easy to learn how to use. However, the simplicity means there’s no safety backup for belayers—if your belayer lets go of the rope for some reason, the device won’t engage in the event of a fall.

Rappelling Considerations: Tube-style devices are generally regarded as the safest for rappelling since they have two openings (rappelling on two strands of a rope is usually safer than rappelling on a single strand). Whenever you rappel with a tube-style device, use a friction-hitch as backup.

Guide mode: Some tube-style devices have extra metal loops on either end of the tube, which enables you to clip a carabiner into them to turn them into an “auto-blocking device,” which functions similarly to an assisted-braking device. This is called putting the device in “guide mode,” a useful but slightly more advanced technique for multi-pitch climbing.

Active Assisted-Braking Devices

How they work: While an attentive and experienced belayer can mitigate the danger of nearly all roped climbing falls, no one is perfect. Active assisted-braking belay devices, like the Petzl GriGri or Trango Vergo, were invented with that in mind. They contain a rotating cam, which reacts to sudden motion by snapping into place and digging into the rope to arrest falls. To feed rope to a lead-climber, you simply depress a lever with your thumb to disengage the cam.

Pros and cons: Because that safety backup reduces the risk of ground falls, assisted-braking devices have become very popular in recent years. Some gyms even require them. However, using them is a little more complex than a tube-style device, so there’s a bit of a learning curve to get the motion down. They also tend to be heavier and more expensive than tube-style devices, and generally accommodate a narrower range of rope diameters (check the manufacturer’s recommendations before buying). And they don’t grip well on wet or icy ropes.

Rappelling Considerations: The other downside to active assisted-braking devices is that they are less versatile than tube-style devices, which can easily be used for rappelling and multi-pitch climbing. Because assisted-braking devices have only one hole through which to feed the rope, you can’t use them to rappel, which should generally involve both strands of the rope. Many climbers carry both an assisted-braking device and a tube-style device with them so they have the best tool for every situation.

Passive Assisted-Braking Devices   

How they work: Sometimes called “semi-automatic tubers” across the pond where they’re more popular, these devices marry the simplicity of the tubular device with a touch of added risk management. The shape of these passive assisted-braking devices allows them to rotate into the rope in the event of a fall, giving the line a sudden squeeze for extra security. There are also hybrid belay devices, like the Edelrid Mega Jul or Mammut Smart.

Pros and cons: Passive assisted-braking devices tend to be lighter-weight and less expensive than assisted-braking devices. Another argument for these devices is that they don’t encourage belayers to let their guard down, like active assisted-braking devices can. That means they’re a great option for learning good belay habits without giving up a safety backup altogether.

Rappelling considerations: Only some passive assisted-braking devices can be used for standard double-strand rappels. Most have only one opening, which means they’re only useful for riskier single-strand rappels.

The Best Belay Device for Beginners

It’s hard to say definitively that one device is better than another. After all, the safest belay device is the one in the hands of a confident and experienced belayer. However, many guides and instructors recommend new belayers learn on an active assisted-braking device. The mechanical safety backup adds an extra layer of security while you’re perfecting your technique. Active assisted-braking devices also tend to be preferred for top-rope climbing, gym climbing, and sport climbing.

However, if you have already learned how to belay with a tube-style device and plan to spend most of your time multi-pitch climbing or rappelling, a tube-style device or passive assisted braking device may be a good first choice.   

How to Choose a Belay or Rappel Device

Ultimately, the best belay device for you will depend on your climbing goals, your budget, and how thick of a rope you have. Here are some key factors to help you choose.

You’re just starting out.
Tube-style devices are easiest to learn.

You’re on a budget. 
Tube-style devices are the most affordable.  

You want a safety backup.
Active- and passive-assisted braking devices are for you. 

You’ll be sport and gym climbing. 
Active-assisted braking devices are the top choice. 

You’ll climb in wet or icy conditions.
Tube-style is the way to go.

You want the most versatile device for a variety of rope diameters. 
Tube-style fits most ropes. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.