Karabiners: Unlocked

In the wake of last week’s article on belay devices, the obvious choice for this week’s article is the humble karabiner. The karabiner is the single most used piece of climbing gear there is, with a huge number of variations, models and innovations separating each ‘biner from the next.

A Super-Concise history of the Karabiner

It’s not easy knowing when or where the first piece of hardware that we’d recognise as a karabiner was invented, but it’s fairly widely agreed that a German climber whose nickname was Rambo was the first person to develop one just for climbing use in around 1910. In this time, the only protection climbers really used were pitons, and until Rambo came along they would tie their rope to these with a sling. It makes me nervous just thinking about it. After Rambo set the ball rolling, what happened to karabiner development gets a bit fuzzy until the late 1940s when companies like Simond claim to have created the first lightweight ‘tubular’ karabiner. After this time the number of companies around the world that were making karabiners grew rapidly, and today there are countless manufacturers around the world who are all pushing each other to come up with new innovations in weight saving, safety or simplicity.

 A tale of two halves…

Well, it’s a tale of two gate mechanisms really but that doesn’t have a ring to it. The thing that primarily separates ones karabiner from another is how the spring loaded hinge, known as the gate, works. Specifically, whether the gate locks shut or not.

 Locking karabiners

Lockers come in an array of different styles. The most common are screwgates, which have a metal sleeve that screws over the gate and body of the ‘biner to stop it opening.

Most other types lock automatically, with a spring loaded sleeve that needs to be pushed, pulled, twisted or a combination of all three to open the gate which will then spring back into place when released, locking the gate.

In recent years, climbing gear manufacturers have come up with all sorts of crazy ways to keep the gate of a karabiner locked, including magnets, sliding mechanisms, two gates which open in different directions, spring loaded pinch mechanisms, a tiny button which needs pushing…. The list could go on for a while.

Along with all the different locking mechanisms, karabiners come in hundreds of different shapes which all usually fit into a couple of main categories; HMS, D-shaped, and oval.

HMS (which stands for halbmastwurfsicherung, covered in a previous article here) karabiners are the best for belaying with. They’re big and pear shaped, which helps stop them spinning around when you’d rather they didn’t and they’re usually made from large round bar which means your rope will run smoothly around them and through your belay device.

A DMM HMS Karabiner

D-shaped ‘biners tend to be much smaller and lighter than their HMS alternatives, as they don’t need a big smooth surface area for a rope to run over. Instead, they’re designed to strike a balance between lightweight and easy to use, perfect for tying ropes into when building belays outside.

A D-Shaped Karabiner

Oval karabiners, especially locking ones, are slightly more unusual to find on a British climber’s harness. They’re designed to be used with pulleys to ensure that the weight distribution and direction of pull is equal, but they’re handy any time you want to make sure things are kept in line.

An oval karabiner

Non Locking Karabiners

Non locking karabiners are a much simpler matter, and it’s usually much easier to work out which one is best for your needs. Want something bombproof that will stand up to the kind of abuse that lots of sport climbing brings? Get something sturdy with a solid gate. Want something superlight for all day mountain adventures? Get a wiregate karabiner that’s as light as possible while still feeling good in your hand.

For sport climbing, where the karabiner will usually be at the end of a quickdraw getting smacked against bolt hangers all day, karabiners with a solid gate will almost always stand the test of time better than wiregates.

The construction is usually burlier, as emphasis is put on longevity over weight saving at the design stage. If you’re looking for karabiners for using as quickdraws, it’s best to get a straight gate for one end and a bent gate for the other.

Straight gates are better for the ‘bolt-end’ of your quickdraw, whereas a bent gate makes clipping a rope smoother and easier.

Solid Gate Karabiners

Wiregate karabiners tend to be much lighter and often have a higher tensile strength, but aren’t usually as durable as their solid gate counterparts. If you’re only using them to clip trad gear, though, this won’t be much of an issue.

Wiregate Karabiners

Apart from ovals (popular for racking gear and aid climbing where even weight distribution helps reduce the risk of marginal gear ripping), the shape of non locking karabiners is mostly down to preference as most are essentially D-shaped.

So there we have it…

A concise look at the wonderful world of karabiners. Hopefully you’ll now have enough understanding to work out what you need to look out for when you need a ‘biner to do a specific job.


As usual, if you have any questions you need answering just get in touch using the comments box below or via Facebook!