The Beginners Guide to Belay Devices

Belay Devices Explained

For most people, a belay device is the first piece of climbing hardware they buy. It’s one of only a few bits of gear that everyone who gets tied in to go climbing will need, but this doesn’t mean they’re all simple and do the same job- quite the opposite. In this article we’re going to explain the main types of belay device and explain their pros, cons and quirks.

We’ll start as basic as possible…

The Body Belay

Ok, it’s not really a type of belay device, nor should it ever be used unless you know exactly what you’re doing, but since we’re starting with the basics it deserves a mention. A body belay is essentially where the belayer wraps the rope behind their back and uses the friction created by their body to help hold the rope if the climber falls. Body belaying was all the rage before modern belay devices were invented, but since the alternative was free soloing it was a relatively safe choice. Nowadays the body belay is reserved for things like easy scrambling and inspiring confidence in a climber who is moving on easy, yet scary, ground. Just to make it clear, body belaying is NOT suitable to use for technical climbing, however easy, and is definitely not ok to use climbing indoors.

The Halbmastwurfsicherung

Ok, I’ll admit it, I threw that in there to confuse you. You probably already know the word Halbmastwurfsicherung by its common initialism ‘HMS’, which is the most common type of karabiner for belaying with, but here I’m talking about the halbmastwurfsicherung knot- literally a ‘half clove hitch’- otherwise known as a Munter or Italian Hitch. This is a really useful knot for every climber to know, as it can really save your skin if you lose a belay device halfway up a multipitch route and you need to continue/retreat. Interestingly, belaying with a HMS is the only time the rope is locked off with the dead rope being held parallel to the live rope rather than in line with it.  It’s also a good knot for allowing groups to safely belay each other ‘bell-ringing’ style- a much cheaper alternative to using something like a GriGri. Again, it’s only a great knot if you know exactly what you’re doing with it, and I don’t think the belay police at your local wall would be too keen on seeing it used on their turf.

A HMS knot, or Italian Hitch

A HMS knot, or Italian Hitch, on a DMM Sentinel

The Figure Eight

Still super popular in Europe (but then, so is brightly coloured Lycra), figure eight style devices are the simplest pieces of belaying hardware. Belaying with a fig eight is pretty similar to using most modern belay devices, with the dead rope being locked off to the belayers side. The main difference is the amount of friction produced by the device, which is noticeably less than typical modern devices. Where figure eights come into their own is abseiling, where they allow for super smooth descending and their extra bulk means that heat is dissipated quickly, so you won’t melt through your ropes at the bottom of that 100m free hanging ab…

A DMM Figure Eight abseil device

A DMM Figure Eight belay/abseil device

The Sticht Plate

The first on our list to work the way we’d expect a typical modern belay device to work, where the rope is passed through a slot and around a karabiner, with friction being produced by the tight angles forced into the rope. Although the Sticht plate works in much the same way as a modern device, they do have a nasty habit of getting stuck and they’re not renowned for their smooth action. Try telling that to someone who’s been using one for 30 years though. Go on. I dare you.
A Salewa Sticht Plate

An old Salewa sticht plate. Some models features a spring to try and fix the sticking issue.

Tubers – the belay device we all know and love

Ok, possibly not all of us, but the majority of people who learn to belay do it with a ‘tuber’ style device. Tuber is a bit of an American term, but it applies to pretty much all basic belay devices, like the Black Diamond ATC (and ATC XP), DMM Bug, Wild Country VC, Petzl Verso and so on. These devices all vary slightly in their design, but all work on the same principle. The theory is the same as the old Sticht plate, but by extruding the body of the device you prevent the sticking issue and there’s space for variations like grooved slots for increased friction. Although maybe not the most versatile of belay devices, your standard tuber will see you well for most climbing activities, including abseiling. A lot of new climbers wonder why there’s two holes in almost every belay device- it’s for using two ropes at once. It might sound a bit mad, but half ropes (ropes designed to be used in pairs) are common in trad, alpine and even multipitch sport climbing. We’ll cover ropes in more depth in another article, so watch this space.

A selection of tuber style belay devices

A Petzl Verso, DMM Bug and a Black Diamond ATC XP, all popular tuber devices. 

Guide plates

Guide belay devices are essentially the same as tubers, but with a few mod-cons added on for good measure. Guide plates will usually feature a large attachment point at one end and a smaller one at the other- this is for attaching the device itself to the wall to perform a ‘direct’ belay, which can make it really easy and simple to bring up your second when out trad climbing. One of the most popular guide plates of all time is the Petzl Reverso, you can check out an in depth look at one of those here.

Three leading guide plates

The Black Diamond ATC Guide, Petzl Reverso and Wild Country Pro Guide Lite

Assisted Braking Devices – Passive

I’ve split ‘assisted braking’ devices into two groups because although there’s an ever expanding number of different devices which work in a heap of different ways, there seems to be two main types. I use the term ‘assisted braking’ because that’s exactly what they do- assist. No device on the market is designed to be used hands free and it’s just plain not safe to take a hand off the dead rope when you’re belaying, regardless of what device you’re using.

What I’m calling ‘passive’ devices are ones with no moving parts which work by pinching the rope against the karabiner. Devices like this usually take a bit of getting used to, as there’s often a couple of extra things to think about, particularly when belaying a lead climber. The Mammut Smart and Edelrid Mega Jul for example require you to hook your thumb under the device and tilt it slightly when paying out to avoid it locking up when you really don’t want it to. The big benefit of devices like these over ‘active’ belay devices is the simplicity and weight saving, but some of them also benefit from having all the features of a double rope guide plate too- something no one has cracked with an ‘active’ device yet.

Three assited braking belay devices

The Edelrid Mega Jul, Mammut Smart and Climbing Technology ClickUp

Assisted Braking devices – Active

The belay devices that fall into this category are ones with moving parts like the Petzl GriGri, which work by pinching the rope between two surfaces inside the device itself. Devices like the GriGri are great for belaying someone who’s working a sport route, as they tend to ‘grab’ the rope and assist the belayer a bit more than passive devices, which you’ll be really grateful for when your mate has taken the same whipper 15 times and sat on the rope for an hour! The downsides to devices like this are the increased weight, cost and the reduced versatility- they’re perfect for sport climbing but not great for trad or mountaineering.

The Petzl GriGri2

The Petzl GriGri 2

So there we have it. The concise A-Z of belay devices. Hopefully you’ll now have a bit more of an understanding and you’ll at least know what’s going on when you hear the old and bold talking about their Sticht plate and you won’t get embarrassed if a sport climber asks if you’ve touched their GriGri. Another factor to consider when choosing a belay device is the karabiner you’ll be using it with, as this can make a massive difference to how the device behaves. We’ll cover karabiners in our next article so stay tuned!

As ever, I need to point out that climbing is a dangerous activity, and the correct use of equipment is critical to your safety and the safety of others. This article is in no way a substitute for professional training, and you should always seek the advice of an experienced climbing instructor if you’re unsure how any piece of climbing equipment is designed to be used.