Belaying is one of the most important climbing skills you will learn and your belay device is the indispensable tool that makes it all happen. Sure you could use an old-style hip belay with the rope wrapped around your waist and clipped through a carabiner on your harness, but after you hold your first leader fall and burn your palms as the rope slips through your hands, you’ll step up and find a good belay device to hang your rope on.
Belay Devices Work by Friction
Belay devices, sometimes called BDs, come in a surprising number of shapes and sizes. They also double as rappel devices, which allow you to rappel or descend down a rope. Belay devices are designed to allow a belayer to control a loaded or weighted rope by creating friction and drag when the rope is threaded through the device. When you look at what belay device to buy, the number of designs is almost bewildering. As a beginner, it’s best to stick with the tried-and-proven designs since these are usually the most versatile and the easiest to use.
4 Types of Belay/Rappel Devices
There are four basic belay/rappel devices:
- belay plate
- belay tube
- self-locking device
- figure eight
The belay plate, evolving from an early Austrian device (Sticht plate) that was simply a flat aluminum plate with a slot in it, is easy to use for belaying but can be a pain when rappelling. To use a belay plate, a bight or loop of rope is pushed through the slot and clipped into a carabiner on your harness. This arrangement creates a lot of friction when both sides of the rope are pulled in opposition. If you pick up a plate, make sure it has two slots to allow the use of two ropes for rappelling. These devices are suitable for all types of climbing.
The belay tube is the most popular and common belay/rappel device used today. They’re generally light, compact, and easy to use. They also accommodate either one or two ropes of varying diameters. The tube operates like the plate, except the length of tube allows the belayer to easily and smoothly control the friction of the rope as it passes through the device. Tube devices, with twin holes, are also superior to plates for rappelling since they allow precise control of your descent speed. Lightweight climbers often find it difficult to rappel with tube devices, having to feed the rope through it until their body weight is able to do the job. These devices are suitable for all types of climbing. Some of the best designed belay tubes are the popular ATC (Air Traffic Controller) devices made by Black Diamond Equipment.
Self-Braking Belay Devices
Self-braking belay devices, like the Petzl GriGri, are excellent choices for single pitch routes and for sport climbing. These expensive devices have a rotating cam inside that locks down on the rope as it passes through. They work automatically by locking the rope when the cam is engaged by a sharp tug as the rope is weighted by a fall. One of the benefits is that climbers can be held in place on the rope with little effort. All that said, these devices are not foolproof. They are complicated mechanisms that require use and familiarity to be used safely. If you load the rope backwards, brake with the wrong hand, or use a thin rope then accidents can happen. Best to pay attention, read all instructions, and practice using the device in a safe environment like an indoor gym. These devices have limited use when rappelling since they can only accommodate a single rope. They’re also difficult to use on wet or icy ropes. These devices are best suited for sport climbing.
Figure-8 Rappel Device
The figure eight device has long been the standard unit used for rappelling. The device is shaped like a figure eight with a large hole and a small hole. To rappel, a bight or loop of rope is passed through the big hole, passed around the small hold, and snugged between the holes. A locking carabiner clipped through the small hole attaches the device to your harness. To belay with a figure eight, a bight of rope is threaded through the small hole and clipped through a carabiner on your harness. While somewhat popular, this method of belaying offers less precise control of the rope and less friction. The devices are also bulkier, do not have a keeper cord, and tend to kink and twist the rope during use. These devices are best used for rappelling, caving, and search and rescue work rather than belaying.
Use a Locking Carabiner
Besides buying a belay device, also purchase a beefy locking carabiner to attached the device to your harness and to avoid the risk of the carabiner opening under load.