Rock climbing equipment: Belay Devices

Which belay device should I buy?

Article by Mark Watson

At the climbing wall or crag, and in a climbing partnership on a multi pitch route, the belayer is the person responsible for care and control of the rope while the climber ascends – taking in or feeding out as they climb and locking the rope should the climber fall. 

The belayer uses a belay device attached to their harness belay loop that applies friction to the rope or pinches it to control it during a fall, either in a lead fall scenario, while someone is seconding, or top roping.

Belay devices need to allow fast flow of the rope for taking in or feeding out rope while the climber is active, but also provide a firm lock off when the climber falls, or needs to be held in one place – for example while resting or between moves while working a route.

Rock climbing at Froggatt Edge, Mark Watson

Overview of belay device types

Belay devices fall into three main categories: tube-style, auto-block and assisted braking devices (passive and active). Each has quite different features, making them suitable for specific climbing situations. Active climbers will often own two out of the three styles. 

You can use tube-style and auto-block belay devices for abseiling on single or double ropes, as well as some passive assisted braking devices, but active assisted braking devices and can only be used on single ropes.  

Whichever type of belay device you buy, you’ll need a basic locking carabiner to clip the device to the belay loop on your harness.

Mad Rock Wingman


Sometimes referred to generically as ATCs, after Black Diamond’s ATC (Air Traffic Controller), tube style belay devices are the cheapest and simplest to use, and the style that has been around the longest.

Typically they consist of a block of aluminium with two holes for the rope to pass through (around a pear shaped locking gate carabiner), and a retaining cable. They usually feature a groove with teeth to help the rope bite in the device. 

Tube-style devices are standard for all round single pitch rock climbing, including lead climbing and are used for abseiling too. Usually they will fit ropes from 8–11mm.

The Mad Rock Wingman is a good example, and has the addition of a clever spring that prevents the device locking inadvertently as the rope is being fed out by the belayer. 

Mad Rock Aviator


Auto-block (sometimes called ‘guide’) belay devices are similar to tube-style devices, but have an additional carabiner hole or two that’s used for belaying directly off an anchor, when a climber is seconding – either on a single or multi pitch climb. 

The big advantage of auto-block devices is just that: they auto lock on the seconder when they load the rope or when the belayer needs a hand free. This makes them very useful for multi pitch climbing, because the belayer can also take photos, eat, drink or manage the rope pile.

They are also very good in parties of three, when two climbers second simultaneously, because the belayer can choose to manage just one rope at a time. That said, the belayer should never take their braking hand right off the rope.

If you’re starting climbing and expect to move on to trad climbing or multi pitching, this is the best type of device to buy. 

Tube- and auto-block devices are best for belaying leaders on trad climbs because they do not induce as much impact force as assisted braking devices on the rope and protection when the leader falls.

The Madrock Aviator is an economical option.    

Petzl Grigri

Assisted braking devices

Popular for sport climbing, an assisted braking device (ABD), such as the Mad Rock Lifeguard locks automatically by pinching the rope when a fall comes on to the rope, although they still require the same caution and attention as a regular belay device. If you plan to do a lot of top roping or move on to sport climbing, these devices are well worthwhile as they are safer and use less energy to operate. They fall into two categories:

Edelrid Jul 2

Passive assisted braking devices

Less popular than active devices, but cheaper, lighter and simpler, passive devices provide their braking power by pinching the rope between the device and a locking gate carabiner. Unlike active assisted devices they have no moving parts. 

See the Edelrid Mega Jul and Jul 2.

Mad Rock Lifeguard

Active assisted braking devices

This is the style of device you probably most commonly see in use at climbing walls and at sport climbing crags. They’re particularly popular because they lock automatically in a typical fall, by operating mechanically to brake the rope – a bit like a car seat belt. The belayer does not have to use as much energy to hold a fall or keep the rope locked off. There is usually a lever or trigger to allow a gradual, controlled release of rope once the rope has been locked in a fall. 

When a climber is ‘working’ a route, it’s much easier and quicker for the belayer to take in and lock off the rope, which means the leader does not slip back down the climb. The belayer can also feed out very precise amounts of slack if the climber just wants to be lowered a couple of inches. This style of device is also good for abseiling single ropes, for route development and bolting for example, because of their auto-locking nature.

The Mad Rock Lifeguard is the cheapest, smallest and lightest ABD. The Petzl Grigri is a very popular example, but more expensive.