Auto Belays: How Do They Work?

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If you’ve ever been to a climbing gym and wanted to do a top rope climb but didn’t have a belay partner, an auto belay might be the right device for you. Many climbers tend to be slightly freaked out by auto belays, but we’re here to put your mind at ease. Auto belays are a great way to get in lots of laps on a climb without forcing your friend or climbing partner to belay you over and over, or just a great way to work on top rope routes if you’re climbing alone.

In this article, we’ll walk you through what an auto belay is and if it’s safe. One of the pros of the auto belay is that it’s super easy to use, and we’ll explain how to use them to you as well. Hopefully, this article will shed some light on what happens inside the device that makes auto belays safe for you to use.

What are Auto Belays and How Do They Work? What are Auto Belays and How Do They Work?

 

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Auto belays are belays that don’t need another person on the other end. You, the climber, simply clips into the end of the webbing that comes to the ground using a locking carabiner, and as you climb up, the device at the top uses either friction, hydraulics, or magnets to keep you safe if you fall or when you’re ready to come down. If you fall on an auto belay or are just ready to come down, all you have to do is to sit back into your harness, and the device will lower you to the ground.

 

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Here’s a video of an auto belay in use, if that makes more sense to you than a written explanation.

 

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As we mentioned, there are a few main types of auto belays, using friction, hydraulics, or magnets, but all are great at keeping you safe. Each type uses the mechanisms inside the device to provide you, the climber, with a slow, safe, and stable ride back down to the ground. All device types are totally safe as long as you use them correctly.

What are the Types of Auto Belays?

What are the Types of Auto Belays?

Overall, there are three main types of auto belays that have been used throughout time; the hydraulic auto belay, the friction auto belay, and the newest, the magnetic auto belay. The hydraulic auto belay was the first of its kind, but was expensive and bulky, taking up lots of space behind the climbing wall. Next came the friction auto belay, which was much easier to install and took up much less room, but still required lots of maintenance to keep it running smoothly. The most recent advance has been the magnetic auto belays, which are easy to install, take up minimal room, are cost-effective, and require minimal maintenance.

 

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This series of photos does a great job of breaking down the general history of belaying and how new advances in auto belays fit into this timeline. As of now, the magnetic auto belay has been the largest advance in this field of belaying, as it allows gyms to install an auto belay system for minimal cost, and it doesn’t totally take over any of the gyms. The modularity of the newer auto belay systems has added to their growth in popularity.

Hydraulics are the oldest style of auto belays but have also quickly gone out of fashion as they tend to take up lots of space, be hard to install, and hard to maintain. This gave rise to the friction auto belays, which are common and easy to install but do take a good amount of maintenance. The newest advances in auto belay technology comes with the magnet auto belays, like those made by TruBlue. The main benefit of a magnetic braking auto belay is that it doesn’t take as much maintenance as a friction braking auto belay to keep it running for a long time.

 

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Here’s a view inside the mechanism of the Perfect Decent Auto Belay. The Perfect Descent Auto Belay uses a retraction spring to pull the webbing into the main housing for the device. This uses the friction of the retraction spring and the loaded pull of the spring to maintain a stable pressure on the webbing as you climb up, and the device pulls it in. The braking device in a friction-based auto belay is similar to that of a drum brake in a car.

Unfortunately, the main downside of these friction style auto belays is that the heat from the friction will degrade the mechanism after a certain number of uses. Additionally, foreign substances, like dirt or water, can clog up the mechanism and lead to auto belay failure, but with proper maintenance, this shouldn’t be a problem.

 

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This auto belay is known as a magnetic braking auto belay. They are the newest advance in auto belays and combine the mechanisms that are present inside a tape measure with the magnetic forces that help trains and roller coasters break. The immense power in strong magnets is used to maintain a smooth and slow descent. It also minimizes auto belay failures that can be caused by build-ups of dirt.

Generally, the maintenance on a magnetic auto belay system is just replacing the line of webbing every so often, depending on the climate and frequency of use, and sending the modular device in to the company once a year for a deep cleaning. This means that there’s less work for climbing wall employees to deal with, and the device is able to keep running smoothly, even after many uses. This is due to the lack of moving parts within the main housing of the magnetic auto belays.

A magnetic auto belay system uses what is called Eddy currents to help brake and maintain a slow speed as the climber lowers. These Eddy currents are created by the movement of the non-magnetic plates past the stationary magnets at your weight, the climber’s weight pulls the webbing out through the device. This also allows climbers of a variety of sizes to lower at a similar speed, providing a great user experience for all climbers.

Why Use an Auto Belay Device?

Why Use an Auto Belay Device?

An auto belay device for a climbing wall offers a variety of pros, especially for someone who doesn’t have a regular climbing partner to belay them. Being able to use an auto belay allows you to climb so many routes that you normally wouldn’t be able to climb on your own.

Another major benefit of using an auto belay is that it allows you to project the same climb over and over without making someone belay you the whole time. On the same hand, though, the major challenge with using an auto belay is that if you fall, you are going all the way back down to the ground. There is no holding partway up the wall or lowering part way so you can project one section of a wall. It really is all or nothing with an auto belay.

This can also be a pro, though. Say, for example, that you are planning a big climbing trip and want to be able to get in a lot of easy laps to help you work on your endurance. An auto belay is a great tool to use for this since it allows you to easily do laps on one climb or even a few climbs, and it doesn’t let you stop and hang.

All in all, auto belays can be super useful, but they have their drawbacks as well. Many climbing gyms will put in a few auto belays, but leave a good number of routes with regular, human-powered belay setups. This gives all the climbers a good variety of options to choose from when they are picking their climbs.

How to Use Auto Belay?

How to Use Auto Belay?

 

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Auto belays are super simple to use. We’ll explain how to use an auto belay works here, but most gyms will want to give you a short lesson on their specific auto belays and are also more than willing to answer any questions that might arise when using the auto belay. Auto belays are a great resource for climbers, but make sure you take care to use them properly, or you may end up accidentally causing a lot of extra work for the gym workers.

 

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This video shows someone clipping into an auto belay and climbing. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that after they walk up to the dark blue triangle, they remove something, the leash, and clip it onto their harness before they pull down on the main webbing and unclip it from the blue triangle. This means that even if they were to let go of the main webbing, the leash would keep the auto belay from retracting up to the ceiling before they have a chance to clip the locking carabiner onto their harness.

Once they are clipped into the auto belay, they let the blue triangle fall to the ground. You’ll notice that the other side of the blue triangle is red, and it reads, “Look up! Climber Above”. This notice is there to prevent people from trying to climb the climb while you’re already on it and to prevent people from standing under you while you are climbing and lowering.

 

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While not all auto belays are blue at the base, they all function in a very similar way. For example, these yellow ones follow the same design as the one in the video.

 

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Some auto belays can even be outdoors, such as this one in Germany, but they are always on man-made or artificial climbing walls. This auto belay doesn’t have the triangle and leash, but the main mechanism at the top still works the same.

 

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When you reach the top of an auto belayed climb, all you have to do is let go of the wall to come down, and the device will do the rest. In this video, you can see a climber’s perspective on what it looks like to reach the top of a climb, get into a good position, and then just let go. The device lowers them smoothly to the ground.

 

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Here’s another video of someone using an auto belay. They’re so simple to use!

Are Auto Belay Device Safe?

Are Auto Belay Device Safe?

A correctly installed, well-maintained, and correctly used auto belay is safe. The odds of a device like this failure due to random chance are super low. As long as the gym that installed and maintained the device is doing a good job, most issues with auto belays come from human error.

Make sure that you’re using the device correctly and are listening to the instructions provided by the workers at the climbing gym, and you should be all good. Although it might seem scary to just let go, most auto belays are rated to weights over 300 pounds, so there’s no need to worry. Companies spend lots of time and money, creating the safest devices they can, so stick with the professionals and don’t go making any DIY auto belays.

Wrapping Things Up: Auto Belays: How Do They Work?

 

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Auto belays can even be used for high ropes courses, such as this one being used for a stairway element here.

Overall, auto belays are a great resource for climbing gyms. They allow climbers to have more options when it comes to climbing and takes out a lot of the risk associated with human belay errors that climbing gyms typically have to deal with. Since auto belays are so easy to use and the newer magnetic auto belays take minimal maintenance, they are becoming more and more popular across the globe.

Did you enjoy this article? You might also be interested in our other climbing tips here.

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