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The Best Climbing Belay Devices of 2020

The GriGri on top compared to the GriGri+ on the bottom. As you can see  the cam shape and design is very similar with these two devices  and when the + is in lead mode  they feel very much the same while feeding out slack.
Friday February 21, 2020
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We've been testing the best climbing belay devices for 10 years and counting (over 26 different models). For 2020, we bought 17 of the most current to test side-by-side. Using a variety of testers and belay techniques we used each for months across a multitude of rock and ice climbs. We fed out miles of slack, rappelled off big walls, lowered countless climbers, and whipped a few times, while testing with a variety of rope diameters, through all sorts of weather conditions. Whether you're a grizzled veteran replacing worn-out gear or looking to find your first device, this comprehensive review is your one-stop-shop for the best recommendations.


Top 17 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 17
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Best Overall for Experienced Climbers


Petzl GriGri


Editors' Choice Award

$82.46
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

76
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 9
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 7
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 7
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 5
  • Auto Block - 10% 9
Weight: 6.3 ounces | Type: Active assisted braking
Handles rope smoothly
Assisted braking
Good for ropes as small as 8.5mm
A bit heavy
Feeding slack quickly requires locking out the assisted brake
Can only handle one strand of rope

In 2019, Petzl updated the most popular assisted braking device in the world for a third time, releasing the newest version, now simply known (once again) as the GriGri. For those who are confused, this device updates the GriGri 2, which is no longer being produced or sold, but is not at all the same as the original GriGri, which it shares the same name with. Although it looks very similar to its predecessor, this new GriGri has seen a number of minor tweaks, often incorporating aspects that were found to be successful with the release of the GriGri+ in 2017. The cam spring is a bit tighter, making it easier to pay out slack ATC-style, and the area on the back of the cam where you might hold your thumb to pay out slack is now lower profile as well, reducing the risk of holding this open when a leader falls. The lower arm now has a bit more play, making it slightly harder to simply open full. Best of all, this device now accommodates ropes down to 8.5mm, which is currently the skinniest single rope on the market. These tweaks are minor, but positive changes that only make this device function better, although longtime GriGri 2 users will hardly notice the difference.

While the GriGri is far and away the most popular active assisted braking device on the market, it still comes with the notable downside that one must lock open the braking cam to quickly feed slack to a leader, a design that has inspired countless competitors searching for better methods. With this model, it is easier than ever to "push" rope through the device, in the same way slack is fed with a tube style device, although the cam must still be overridden to feed out an armload or two in a hurry. Which brings up another downside of the GriGri — proper and safe belay techniques can be challenging to learn and perfect. Most climbers who have been at it a couple years or longer have long since crossed this hurdle, and for them, we still recommend the GriGri as the best belay device on the market. For those who are new to climbing or inexperienced with a GriGri, or who simply like having even more safety features, we recommend the GriGri+ instead.

Read review: Petzl GriGri

Best Overall for New Climbers or Those Who Want Extra Safety Features


Petzl GriGri+


Editors' Choice Award

$146.99
(8% off)
at Amazon
See It

78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 9
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 8
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 7
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 4
  • Auto Block - 10% 9
Weight: 7.1 ounces | Type: Active assisted braking
Anti-panic handle prevents dropping while lowering
Customize the amount of cam spring tension with lead and top-rope modes
Handles ropes from 8.5mm — 11 mm
Stainless steel wear plate insert for added durability
Expensive
Switching modes is difficult and an easy step to forget
Unit locks up easily on lowers if not used slowly

First released in 2017, the GriGri+ has a number of safety features not found on the standard GriGri, hopefully reducing the risk of belayer error accidents. This device works in the exact same way as the GriGri, but also includes a couple of clever over-rides for the most common errors amongst GriGri users. The first is that the handle has an anti-panic feature. When lowering a climber, the belayer uses a lever-arm handle to release the grip the cam in the device has on the rope. It is possible to open this handle way too far, without a hand on the brake rope, and suddenly drop the climber to the ground. With the GriGri+, the handle automatically disengages beyond a certain point, releasing the tension on the cam, and stopping the lower. The sweet spot for a smooth, not too slow lower can be hard to find at first, but it is now much harder to drop a climber while lowering with a properly loaded GriGri+. The second feature is a toggle switch between lead and top-rope modes which adjusts the spring tension on the cam inside the device. In top-rope mode, the cam grips far more tightly, while in lead mode it allows for an easier time paying out slack.

While significantly safer than a standard GriGri, the features found on the + can be annoying to work around if you are so used to using a GriGri that it has become an extension of your mind and body. In particular, it is easy to forget to switch from top-rope to lead, resulting in a frustrated leader as they get continually short-roped. The new features also don't eliminate the need to lock out the cam while feeding out slack to a leader, a potentially dangerous moment, especially close to the ground. And the biggest hurdle to usage of the GriGri+ is that it can be difficult to learn to use properly and safely, an argument many die-hard ATC users cite as the reason they avoid the GriGri to begin with. This model is also heavier and more expensive than the standard model. While there are some downsides, GriGris have become nearly ubiquitous at the crag or in the gym no matter where in the world you are, and offer tremendous advantages over standard belay devices. We believe that all types of climbers can benefit from knowing how to use a GriGri, and recommend the + especially for those new to the game.

Read review: Petzl GriGri+

Best Bang for the Buck


Black Diamond ATC Guide


Best Buy Award

$22.46
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

73
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 5
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 9
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 9
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 8
  • Auto Block - 10% 5
Weight: 2.8 ounces | Type: Auto-block tube
Simplest and easiest to learn belaying techniques
Ideal for belaying your second on multi-pitch climbs
Durable
Great value
Not as light as the Reverso
No braking assist

For climbers on a budget, and especially those that like to do it all, our recommendation is the Black Diamond ATC Guide. This device offers the same ideal characteristics as the simpler ATC XP for standard belays, while also providing auto-block capability for bringing up followers directly on an anchor. This tube-style device allows one to use the simplest, easiest to learn, and most commonly taught belay style for paying out slack while leading, negating the need to learn a new style based on the belay device. It also easily accommodates two strands of rope, making it ideal and versatile for rappelling, a huge bonus. While it isn't as inexpensive as the tube-style devices that don't have auto-block capabilities, we think that the extra couple of bucks for this ability greatly enhances the performance if you ever intend to do any multi-pitching at all.

The only real downside to the *TC Guide is that it doesn't include any form of braking assistance. Assisted braking devices reduce the likelihood of dropping a lead climber, and also make it much easier to lock off and hold someone for long periods of time. Some passive assist devices are barely any more expensive, making them a compelling option instead. The ATC Guide is also slightly heavier than its closest and most popular competition, the Petzl Reverso, but we think the extra durability is worth adding a couple tenths of an ounce. As an exceedingly versatile device at a low price, the ATC Guide is the easy choice for our Best Bang for the Buck Award.

Read review: Black Diamond ATC Guide

Best GriGri Alternative that Feeds Slack Easier


Trango Vergo


Top Pick Award

$74.96
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

73
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 8
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 7
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 8
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 5
  • Auto Block - 10% 7
Weight: 7.1 ounces | Type: Active Assisted braking
Pays out slack easily without needing to lock out safety catch
Ergonomic design is easy to hold brake strand and pay out rope at same time
Slightly more affordable than GriGri
Easy to clip to the harness backwards
Learning curve to proper usage
Sorta heavy for being small

As long as there have been GriGris, there have been imitation devices made by competing companies attempting to capture a bit of the market share, while also solving some of its inherent problems. While it has been a long time coming (due partially to a recall in 2017; the problem is fixed), the Trango Vergo is one of the most appealing active assisted braking devices we have tested. Its most endearing feature revolves around safety: it is not possible to lock out the catch cam mechanism, like it is on the GriGri. This feature alone greatly reduces the chances that a belayer could accidentally drop the climber while clipping, a problem even more dangerous when the climber is close to the ground. The cam that pinches the rope to provide the braking assist does not have a spring in it, but uses the angle by which the rope is running over it to determine whether there is enough friction to catch or stay open. Feed out slack to the side as recommended, a method that allows one to pay out longer loops of slack with one arm, and the cam stays open. Pull upwards, in the direction that a climber would, and the cam uses friction to automatically lock up. The ergonomic design of the Vergo also allows you to hold the brake end of the rope in the same hand as the device without bending it back, so there is less friction to overcome when pulling out slack. Once mastered, this method proves far easier, and safer, than lead belaying with a GriGri.

Of course, like all assisted belay devices, a new technique must be learned and mastered in order to be an effective belayer, especially for leading. Compared to the other active assisted braking devices, though, we found this technique to be relatively quick and intuitive to perform and didn't require much thinking after only a couple of pitches. The Vergo also doesn't have the same anti-panic handle as the GriGri+ or Camp Matik, so it's possible to open it up full bore while lowering and drop a climber very fast. The Vergo is only good to go with ropes 8.9mm and thicker, so beware if you commonly use an ultra-thin cord. Lastly, while Trango makes it clear in all its instructional documentation and training videos, it is easy to accidentally clip the Vergo into the harness the wrong way, which diminishes the amount of friction a leader puts on the catch cam. We found the correct way a bit confusing since it seems to be upside down, if you are used to a GriGri's orientation, and puts a half twist into the belay loop when used correctly. Despite the minor downsides, the Vergo is far and away our favorite active assisted braking device that isn't a GriGri. We highly recommend checking it out if you don't like the way the GriGri feeds slack, or are curious about the other options out there.

Read Review: Trango Vergo

Top Pick for Multi-Pitch Climbing


Edelrid Giga Jul


73
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 8
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 8
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 7
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 7
  • Auto Block - 10% 4
Weight: 4.3 ounces | Type: Passive Assisted braking with Auto-block
Active assist, manual, and auto-block modes all in one device
Less inherent friction and easier to use than Mega Jul
Stainless steel inserts for greater durability
Slightly heavier than other auto-block devices
Active assist lead belaying more tiring than standard tube style
More expensive than ATC Guide or Reverso

2019 saw the long awaited release of the Edelrid Giga Jul, an updated version of the Mega Jul. The engineers at Edelrid worked hard to solve many of the problems with the older device, and the result has quickly become our favorite belay device for multi-pitch climbing. Most multi-pitch devices do not have braking assist, but so many climbers love the braking assist found on their GriGris that they will carry two devices up a multi-pitch climb, rather than do without the added assistance. The Giga Jul awesomely negates that need, by incorporating passive assist braking with standard tube-style functionality (what they call "manual" mode), combined with auto-block, for the most versatile belay device we have seen. A simple toggle switch allows you to reverse the device in order to switch modes. We found ourselves most often belaying the leader in assisted breaking mode, although if the pitch is really easy and the climber is moving super fast, you can also just use manual. For rappelling we prefer the smoothness of manual mode with a prussic backup, but like how brake assist rappelling is also possible. Of course, we pretty much always belay up the second in auto-block mode.

As with most great things, there are a few downsides. Belaying the leader with braking assist requires learning the technique, which we found to be pretty easy, but also takes slightly more effort than belaying in manual mode. Lowering a climber in brake assist mode can be a bit jerky, so we mostly prefer this device for multi-pitching, and use something else for our daily cragging. It's also slightly heavier and more expensive than a BD ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso, but this trade-of is minimal considering you also get braking assist. For easy multi-pitching, many climbers may not need braking assist. However, for climbing anywhere close to your limit, where falls are a real possibility, then having brake assist is a serious advantage, and the nifty Giga Jul gives you that versatility added on to the standard multi-pitch device features.

Read review: Edelrid Giga Jul

Top Pick for Emergency Backup


Wild Country Revo


Top Pick Award

$108.71
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

70
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Catch and Bite - 30% 7
  • Lowering and Rappelling - 30% 8
  • Feeding Slack - 20% 10
  • Weight and Bulk - 10% 4
  • Auto Block - 10% 1
Weight: 10.1 ounces | Type: Tube Style with Emergency Backup
Same belay technique as with tube style devices
Emergency backup locks device if rope slips too fast
Cannot be loaded backwards
The smoothest slack payout of any device
Heavy and bulky
Very expensive compared to ATC
Only compatible with single ropes

The primary downside of all ATC or tube style belay devices is that a firm grip is required on the brake strand of the rope at all times. If the belayer is hit by a rock, slammed into the wall, or the rope somehow slips out of their grip, a falling climber will hit the deck in about one second. Enter the new Wild Country Revo, which solves this issue adding an automatic locking mechanism that stops the rope if it moves through the device faster than 4m/s. It does so by using an out of balance fly wheel on the inside that combines with centrifugal forces to trigger the locking mechanism above certain speeds. The brilliance is that the device functions exactly like a simple tube, and the belayer uses the same simple belay technique they were taught when they learned. The Revo does not in any way assist with braking, but simply provides an emergency backup, the first device that we are aware of that works in this manner. Because of this great design, its advantages include the smoothest paying out of slack of any device we have ever tried. It is also designed in a way that it cannot be loaded backwards, so no need to continually check for little hand and climber icons.

The principle downside to this device is that it can only be used with a single rope, much like most active assist devices such as the GriGri, somewhat limiting its appropriateness for multi-pitching. We would not use it to belay a second off the anchor from above. Compared to most devices, it is heavy and on the larger side, but not prohibitively so. It also comes with a price tag that you would expect from a complicated piece of engineering. Negatives aside, the emergency backup performed perfectly in all of our testing, and every climber who tested it was amazed at its ease and simplicity to learn. We expect to see this device become significantly more popular in the near future, especially for gym climbing and single-pitch cragging.

Read review: Wild Country Revo


Lead belays and top rope laps on a sunny winter afternoon at Smith Rock. The Revo is a perfect device for any single pitch climbing  and was a surprise favorite of all who used it due to its simplicity and super smooth handling.
Lead belays and top rope laps on a sunny winter afternoon at Smith Rock. The Revo is a perfect device for any single pitch climbing, and was a surprise favorite of all who used it due to its simplicity and super smooth handling.

Why You Should Trust Us


This review is led by Andy Wellman, a Senior Reviewer at OutdoorGearLab since 2014. Andy has been climbing since 1996, when he learned at Paradise Rock Gym in Denver, back when Denver only had two gyms! In the intervening 24 years he has climbed pretty much full time, partaking in alpine and rock adventures from Alaska to Peru, the Alps to Asia, and all over North America. He is a guidebook publisher and author, and has also worked as an alpine climbing guide. In order to be closer to the cliffs, he has lived in such climbing meccas as Boulder, Rifle, Chattanooga, Ouray, and now Terrebonne, Oregon, next to Smith Rock (his office). Andy cannot fathom how many belay devices he has owned or used over the years, but estimates that he has managed to lose more GriGris than most people will ever own. Joining him on our expert panel for this review is Cam Ring, longtime climbing gear reviewer and former Yosemite Search and Rescue Member, and Jack Cramer, alpine climber and commercial fisherman. Overseeing the entire project, and also starting this continuously updated review back in 2009, is owner and editor in chief of OutdoorGearLab, Chris McNamara, long known as an expert aid climber and El Cap climbing guru.

Using a GriGri to lead belay on the classic arete climb Latest Rage at Smith Rock. The GriGri is the most popular belay device you can buy  but requires learning the proper techniques to belay safely and effectively.
With the device held properly with the right hand  the method of feeding slack is to pull it through the device off to the side  rather than straight up toward the climber  which will lock the cam inside the device.
Hangdog belaying beneath the climb Latest Rage in the Dihedrals at Smith Rock. The lock off power of a GriGri  ensuring you dont have to grip the rope tight the whole time someone is hanging  is the number one reason why you would want to own a device like this one.

We work hard to stay up to date on all of the latest climbing gear releases. After making a final selection of updates to this review, Andy spent over 10 hours researching the products themselves, as well as watching YouTube videos to help learn how to safely use each device, all of which require vastly different techniques! He also spoke with many climbers at the crag about their belay devices, especially the more esoteric choices, to understand what issues or advantages they have encountered that he hadn't heard of. He then belayed at least 30 pitches over the course of two months with each new model, both leading and top-roping, as well as lowering. He trained his partners to use the new devices, and then had them belay him, to gauge their reactions and opinions about using such devices. He even fixed a rappel off the top of a cliff and spent all day rappelling laps with each different device so he could accurately compare their performance, and understand their nuances, head-to-head.

Related: How We Tested Belay Devices

Analysis and Test Results


Gone are the days of hip belays and the adage "the leader must not fall." Along with dynamic ropes, the reliability of modern devices has transformed climbing from a borderline suicidal endeavor to a boring choice for a kid's birthday party. If you climb enough, though, you'll eventually wonder which device offers the best friction in the lightest, most affordable, and easiest to use package.

Related: Buying Advice for Belay Devices

Our review focused the testing based upon five separate grading metrics: catch/bite, lowering/rappelling, feeding slack, weight and bulk, and auto-block. We recommend carefully identifying your own needs, including the most frequent intended usage, and then homing in on the devices that perform best according to your needs. In all instances devices are graded compared to the competition, so a low scoring device may not be bad, just not as good as the others featured here.

Belaying with the ClickUp+ on a peaceful afternoon in the sun at Smith Rock.
Belaying with the ClickUp+ on a peaceful afternoon in the sun at Smith Rock.

Follow the Manufacturer's Instructions Carefully
Belay devices are important pieces of climbing safety equipment but can be confusing to master. This is one piece of gear where learning exactly how to use it properly is crucial. Improper use of a belay device may result in death or serious injury. It is very important that you read and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. We encourage you to visit the manufacturer's website and make sure you have their latest documentation for your particular device, as manufacturer's recommendations sometimes change over time as new safety guidelines are developed. Climbing is dangerous. Climb at your own risk.

Value


A new belay device can cost anywhere from the price of a case of beer up to the price of a new rope! The low end of the price range is populated by tube-style devices, whereas the more expensive models are the active assisted braking devices. The simple tube-style devices can get the job done for a fraction of the cost, so why would anyone want to spend so much more on one? Most assisted devices provide an extra level of safety should the belayer let go of the rope for various reasons (gets slammed into the wall, is knocked unconscious, or simple operator error). But often climbers require one of each - an assisted device for belaying and a "tuber" for rappels. If you're looking for the best value out there, we've picked out a few that we consider exceptional. To begin, the Black Diamond ATC XP can't be beat on price and is a solid and reliable option, although we recommend the Black Diamond ATC Guide as our Best Bang for the Buck because it is far more versatile with auto-block function at only a tiny increase in cost. Although they are expensive, high scorers like the GriGri are a great value due to their incredible performance.


Catch/Bite


This category measures and rates how easy it is to catch a fall with a belay device. Of course, every belay device here will catch a fall by arresting the rope provided they are used with proper technique, but due to their unique designs, the assisted braking devices tend to do this with more reliability, and far less effort, than a standard tube-style device. For instance, to catch a fall with a tube style device, the belayer must lock the rope off by down by their hip, while also gripping tightly to the rope to keep it from slipping. With an assisted braking device, whether passive or active, the slightest amount of gripping pressure on the brake rope will provide the tension and friction required to lock up the device, holding the climber in place. Which brings up another important consideration in this category: how easy it is to hold a climber locked off. Obviously, the assisted braking devices are supreme once again, and the ability to easily hold a climber for an unlimited amount of time with little to no effort is the number one argument for using one of these devices while climbing.

The final consideration for this metric is the range of rope diameters that a belay device is capable of gripping. Ropes on the narrow side can slip through some belay devices due to there not being enough friction if the design doesn't take narrow ropes into consideration. As the quality of rope manufacturing has increased, climbers are far more frequently using thinner ropes, with 8.9mm-9.2mm being much more common, and 9.5mm now being considered a reasonably fat "workhorse," where it was considered thin a mere 10 years ago. The thinnest single ropes on the market today are only 8.5mm (!), so having a belay device that can handle these thin ropes certainly adds value. On the upper end of the scale, ropes over 9.8mm, especially ones that are worn a bit so they are fuzzy, create extra friction that can make it hard to easily force them through a belay device quickly. As more and more climbers transition to thinner ropes, this is becoming slightly less of an issue, but once again, added versatility in regard to rope sizes only increases the value of a belay device.


The active-assisted belay devices that employ a spring-loaded cam to pinch the rope when it is under tension provide the easiest and most reliable catch. Due to their cam, they even allow a small amount of rope (a couple inches at most) to slip through the device as they lock, which increases the dynamic aspect of a catch, reducing the forces on the climber, rope, and gear slightly. The devices that reliably catch like this are the Camp Matik, as well as the GriGri and GriGri+, and they received the highest scores. Both of the GriGris are also now capable of handling ropes down to 8.5mm.

The cam on the GriGri+ engages quickly and completely  rotating up to pinch the rope. It has one of our favorite catches  and it engages fully even with lighter climbers.
The cam on the GriGri+ engages quickly and completely, rotating up to pinch the rope. It has one of our favorite catches, and it engages fully even with lighter climbers.

Second best when it comes to this category are most of the "passive" assisted braking devices, like the Edelrid Giga Jul, Mammut Smart 2.0, and Black Diamond ATC Pilot. In "active" models, braking is created by a pinching mechanism inside the device itself; "passive" models rely on a pinch between the carabiner and the device to hold the rope. Passive models are thus dependent on this carabiner, and its shape and size can have a significant impact on performance (up to 35% differences in our tests). Always use these devices with the manufacturer recommended carabiner whenever possible (usually an HMS type), and expect that any deviance (along with changes in rope diameter) will affect its performance.

The "passive" Mammut Smart 2.0 - this device creates a pinch on the rope by rotating when the climber falls. The brake end must always be in control and lower than the climber end for the mechanism to engage.
The "passive" Mammut Smart 2.0 - this device creates a pinch on the rope by rotating when the climber falls. The brake end must always be in control and lower than the climber end for the mechanism to engage.

Passive models don't generate the same braking force as active devices. The German Alpine Club conducted tests measuring the braking force without a hand on the rope for several models and found the Smart (older model) and Mega Jul could only handle 0.6 kN and 0.5 kN, respectively. Active assisted locking devices like the GriGri and Camp Matik each withstood more than 2.0 kN. While the hype might lead you to believe that they are "locking" devices, they cannot be expected to catch even small falls without a brake hand on the rope. To say it another way, if your belayer gets knocked unconscious by rockfall, these passive assisted braking devices might not catch your fall. Passive models do offer substantial lock-off though and save your brake hand from cramping up on long top rope belays.

Top rope belaying with the Black Diamond ATC Pilot. The passive assisted braking devices require a solid brake hand on the rope at all times (as do all devices really).
Top rope belaying with the Black Diamond ATC Pilot. The passive assisted braking devices require a solid brake hand on the rope at all times (as do all devices really).

The standard tube-style devices, like the Black Diamond ATC models and the Petzl Verso and Reverso are what scored the lowest compared to the rest of the field. These devices require substantial strength on the brake hand when catching a fall and continued lock-off when top rope belaying or belay your second.

Lowering/Rappelling


Catching a falling climber is only half the duty of a belay device; getting that climber safely back to the ground is the other. That's where lowering and rappelling come in. Seven of the devices we tested began with an automatic advantage in this category — the ability to rappel two strands. Those models are the ATC XP, ATC Guide, Verso, Reverso, Smart Alpine, and Giga and Mega Juls. Rather than include that difference in our numerical scoring, we chose to separate it as a simple 'yes or no' double strand question in our comparison matrix. Shoppers should recognize that the none of the active assisted locking devices can rappel a doubled rope, nor can the passive ClickUp+, Black Diamond ATC Pilot, or Mammut Smart 2.0. Consider these models only for single-pitch routes or multi-pitches in combination with a two-strand device.


The difference in lowering/rappelling scores comes down to the smoothness of the action and the range it is good for. We saw the most consistently good performance from the tube devices, including the Wild Country Revo. Although the assisted braking models all provide the ability to lock the device and rest hands-free, they often exhibit narrow ranges and jerkiness when lowering.

The Petzl Reverso was one of our favorite devices to rappel with  though in blind tests we found it a hair jerkier than the Black Diamond ATC Guide.
The Petzl Reverso was one of our favorite devices to rappel with, though in blind tests we found it a hair jerkier than the Black Diamond ATC Guide.

The standout performance from assisted braking devices came from the GriGri. The lower on that unit is smooth and jerk free, largely due to the absence of an anti-panic mechanism. The GriGri+, Camp Matik and Edelrid Eddy all have anti-panic levers that operate in a similar manner. If you pull back too far on the lever, the unit locks up. While this is to prevent someone from accidentally dropping themselves or their partner, it creates a narrow window between lowering and locking up. The Matik and Eddy locked up on us more than the GriGri+, but all require a deft hand that does improve with practice. These devices are unquestionably safer for lowering partners, but can also be perceived as more annoying to use.

Lowering a climber safely and smoothly to the ground with the anti-panic handle of the GriGri+. If you pull back too far or too quickly the device will stop lowering. It takes some practice to dial in the sweet spot for the devices with anti-panic handles.
Lowering a climber safely and smoothly to the ground with the anti-panic handle of the GriGri+. If you pull back too far or too quickly the device will stop lowering. It takes some practice to dial in the sweet spot for the devices with anti-panic handles.

The passive assisted devices have some of the poorest lowering action. We often find them jerky when compared to tube devices. However, because you need to push and pull on them quite a bit to lower your partner, they are quite safe to use and lock up as soon as you let go.

No matter which device you choose, it's important to tie a knot in the ends of the rope. Rappelling and lowering accidents are two of the most common types and are often easily preventable.

Feeding Slack


Feeding slack is a category we include to measure each device's usefulness for belaying a lead climber. A lead climbing belay requires more attentiveness and rope management skill than a top-rope belay. The ability to take and give slack quickly and precisely is important to ensure a good belay — especially when close to the ground. The most important thing to consider when assessing for this metric is how easily and safely can I feed slack without the device locking up? Devices that lock up on a hair trigger are very difficult to master, and are the cause of many frustrated lead climbers as they are continuously short-roped by their belayer. A secondary consideration, since we are all guilty of making mistakes, is how easy is the device to release once locked up so that I can quickly begin feeding slack again? When a climber is yanking for rope, desperate to make a clip before falling, and the device locks up, being able to quickly release it can make a difference between success or an extra long fall.

Feeding slack in assisted braking mode requires learning a new technique. The thumb is slotted into the loop as shown here  and this hand also holds the brake rope. By pushing up and out with the thumb  the device has enough room to allow slack to pass through  which is fed to the climber by being yanked out the top. Using a  I-beam carabiner like the one shown here added significant friction to the system  making it much harder to pull out the needed slack quickly. We only recommend using a round stock carabiner with this device.
Feeding slack in assisted braking mode requires learning a new technique. The thumb is slotted into the loop as shown here, and this hand also holds the brake rope. By pushing up and out with the thumb, the device has enough room to allow slack to pass through, which is fed to the climber by being yanked out the top. Using a, I-beam carabiner like the one shown here added significant friction to the system, making it much harder to pull out the needed slack quickly. We only recommend using a round stock carabiner with this device.

Tube devices require the simplest motion to take or feed slack and receive the best scores in this category because of it. They are also the easiest to learn how to use, and are most climber's introduction into belaying. While it is not technically a tube, the Wild Country Revo functions just like one, and is far and away the highest scorer when it comes to smoothly paying out slack. This is due to the wheel that the rope runs over, which greatly minimizes friction. It doesn't include any breaking assist that might accidentally lock, but does have an emergency lock up feature that we were never able to trigger while simply feeding out slack.


When it comes to the passive and active-assisted braking devices, results were more mixed. For the passive devices we like the Edelrid Giga Jul and the Mammut Smart 2.0 the best. These units use similar movements to tubes but require upward pressure on a handle or loop to disable the device's locking mechanism when feeding out slack quickly. The Smart 2.0 needs only a little upwards pressure to prevent it from locking, whereas the Black Diamond ATC Pilot requires substantial and continuous pressure. The Climbing Technology ClickUp+ requires using a tube-style method of feeding out slack, but is very quick to lock up, and somewhat difficult to unlock quickly compared to others.

In order to pay out slack on the Mammut Smart 2.0  you need to push up on the lever with your brake hand's thumb while pulling slack through with your guide hand. The brake hand is still wrapped around the rope and in control of it at all times.
In order to pay out slack on the Mammut Smart 2.0, you need to push up on the lever with your brake hand's thumb while pulling slack through with your guide hand. The brake hand is still wrapped around the rope and in control of it at all times.

The active assisted braking devices have some of the more complex methods for giving slack quickly, and each features a different method. The Trango Vergo has the most ergonomic and smooth feeding design of any of these devices, and does not require overriding the camming system to feed out slack, a nice safety feature. The Petzl GriGri and + feed slack well with little friction, but often require a technique that can reduce the safety of the device, especially if the climber is close to the ground. The Edelrid Eddy and Mad Rock Lifeguard have more friction which makes it challenging to pay rope out quickly. The Camp Matik uses a unique "pistol" grip design which does take some getting used to if you've belayed differently for years.

Even if you think you are belaying correctly, chances are pretty good you may be doing something wrong! A climbing gym study in Germany showed that a quarter of all GriGri users pay out slack improperly, momentarily taking their brake hand off the rope (we've said it before, but it bears repeating, never take your braking hand off the rope!). When it comes to tube-style devices, each user committed at least one error when using them, either keeping their brake hand too close to the tube or not keeping the brake end down low enough. Therefore, no matter which device you choose, find out how to use it correctly. And that's especially true for the more complicated techniques required on active assisted braking models.

The Pistol-Grip Position: to feed slack with the Camp Matik you use your index finger and thumb to squeeze this black trigger on the bottom. Be sure to read the Camp Matik manual carefully to learn how to properly belay with it.
The Pistol-Grip Position: to feed slack with the Camp Matik you use your index finger and thumb to squeeze this black trigger on the bottom. Be sure to read the Camp Matik manual carefully to learn how to properly belay with it.

Weight/Bulk


Like all climbing gear these days, belay devices are getting lighter and smaller. Weights range from 2.0 to 13.0 ounces. Whether the weight is a critical component for you depends on a few things: whether or not you are climbing with your device on your harness, and whether or not you appreciate the "training" weight in your backpack.


When it comes to something you'll likely carry on your harness, the Edelrid MegaJul, Petzl Verso and Reverso, and the Black Diamond ATC XP are the lightest options. The ATC Guide adds another ounce to your harness but not much more bulk, whereas the Mammut Smart Alpine is both a little bulkier and heavier still. Among the active assist braking devices, the Mad Rock Lifeguard is a nice alternative for those that like to multi-pitch climb with a GriGri. It's only a little bit lighter but a lot more compact. Some of the highest performing devices, such as the Revo and Giga Jul, were also a bit heavier than their closest competitors, forcing one to choose whether saving an extra ounce or two is worth compromised performance, or whether ideal functionality is worth a small penalty in weight.

As you can see  the Vergo is a bit smaller than either of the GriGris  but it weighs the same amount as the heavier GriGri+.
As you can see, the Vergo is a bit smaller than either of the GriGris, but it weighs the same amount as the heavier GriGri+.

Auto Block (Resistance Belaying a Second)


Belaying a second directly off the anchor is a convenient way to ensure a reliable catch and a comfortable belay during multi-pitch climbing (be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions carefully, as this type of belay configuration is more complex and mistakes can result in death). Most of the devices we have tested offer some way to do so, and we have noted this in the specs table in the chart at the top of this article. Unfortunately, though, belaying in this manner can create substantial friction with many of the device designs that can exhaust a belayer's shoulders and elbows, and in extreme usage, like for mountain guides, can lead to tendonitis.

Set up in auto-block mode hanging directly off the anchor requires using the additional carabiner hole at the top of the device  and loading the device the same as you would for manual mode. Be sure to read the instructions so you understand how to properly load the device. In this mode  it works much like the other tube-style auto-block devices  and while it is very effective at locking off the seconders rope  there is a fair amount of friction built into the system.
Set up in auto-block mode hanging directly off the anchor requires using the additional carabiner hole at the top of the device, and loading the device the same as you would for manual mode. Be sure to read the instructions so you understand how to properly load the device. In this mode, it works much like the other tube-style auto-block devices, and while it is very effective at locking off the seconders rope, there is a fair amount of friction built into the system.

Our grading for this metric took into consideration whether a device is capable of being used this way or not, and whether it is easy to set up or very confusing and difficult. Some of the devices to be set up in a way that is not at all intuitive. Secondly, we assess for versatility, scoring models that can accommodate two ropes a bit higher. Lastly, we took into consideration the amount of friction in the system, which affects the amount of energy it takes to belay in this manner, with the smoother devices being preferred.


To assess for friction, we took inspiration from Blake Herrington at Cascade Climbers to run a test on the resistance of each device in auto-block mode. The important thing to know is that the actual numerical value (in lbs.) is not very meaningful. Rather, focus on the relative performance of each device compared to the others. Lower scores are better and indicate less energy required for auto-block belays. The 1-10 scores we awarded for this category assume each device is capable of properly locking and only reflect the relative resistance. Both GriGri models scored top marks in this metric, while the Mammut Smart Alpine very disappointingly fell to the bottom.

This chart shows the results of our auto-block friction test. To get these results  we hung each device in auto-block mode off a hanging scale  and then pulled 30 feet of slack through the device  noting how many pounds of force it took on the scale in order to do so. Due to variances in carabiners and ropes  the actual numbers in this test will not be the same as when you use a device  but the relationship between the numbers should help indicate which devices have more inherent friction in auto-block mode  and which have the least. If a device is not listed in this table it's because you cannot use it in auto-block mode.
This chart shows the results of our auto-block friction test. To get these results, we hung each device in auto-block mode off a hanging scale, and then pulled 30 feet of slack through the device, noting how many pounds of force it took on the scale in order to do so. Due to variances in carabiners and ropes, the actual numbers in this test will not be the same as when you use a device, but the relationship between the numbers should help indicate which devices have more inherent friction in auto-block mode, and which have the least. If a device is not listed in this table it's because you cannot use it in auto-block mode.

Conclusion


Choosing the most appropriate belay device is not a simple task, and if you were to ask ten climbers which belay device they prefer, you surely would not end up with a consensus. Needs differ greatly depending on the type and style of climbing you like to do, with multi-pitch climbing requiring a different set of functions than projecting a sport route. At the end of the day, most climbers we know own more than one belay device, swapping out which they use depending on the climb or area they visit that day. Regardless of which device you choose, be sure you know how to use it properly, be sure your belayer knows how to use their device properly, and always double-check your rope and belay systems. Happy climbing!

The sun setting on central Oregon and our belay device review.
The sun setting on central Oregon and our belay device review.


Andy Wellman & Jack Cramer