The Ultimate Guide to Belaying
Updated: Sep 20
Have you been climbing a couple of times, and now you are looking to take it to the next level?
If so, you can’t do it without the proper belaying technique. Belaying is an integral part of top-rope climbing inside and outside the gym. Read on to get started.
What is Belaying?
If you’re new to climbing, belaying may be a new thing for you, and that’s okay!
While there are several techniques that “belaying” refers to, in general, belaying is the act of exerting tension on a climbing rope to counterbalance the climber when they fall. The person holding the belay rope, or the belayer, pulls the rope through a belay device as the climber goes up. This way, climbers don’t fall very far when they fall.
The belay device is designed to create enough tension in the line so the belayer can easily hold the climber. The belayer is always ready to pull in slack (or “take”) to hold the climber tight. The belayer is also responsible for safely lowering the climber back to the ground.
While it’s not a difficult job, it is important. Before you can belay in any gym, you must pass that specific gym’s belay test, and for good reason!
Fun fact: The term comes from a nautical technique that involves securing the rope to a spar or post. In fact, it’s also an exclamation yelled by sailors to mean “stop!”
Before we go any further, there is something super important you need to know: before belaying anyone in real life, go take a class at your local gym!
These classes are usually introductory and relatively cheap. Heck, you can even bring a friend! But this is the type of technique that you want to learn from an experienced instructor. The purpose of this article is to give you some good base knowledge and to reference after you take a class.
Gear Up to Belay
Harness: Before you get ready for the climb, you have the right gear. If you are top-rope climbing, you first need a harness. While you can always rent a harness at the gym, having your own harness is way more comfortable (and makes you look like a pro). There are a lot of choices for harnesses but don’t worry, we’ve got your back.
Shoes: Same goes for shoes.
Carabiner: You’ll need at least one locking carabiner for your belay device. It’s always a good idea to have a couple of these handy in case you need to anchor in as well.
Belay Device: Lastly, you are going to need a belay device. There are tons of belay devices on the market, and they are all good! The two most conventional and widely used belay devices are the ATC and the GriGri.
Black Diamond makes the traditional ATC, but most climbing companies have their own version for around $25. An ATC is a non-auto-locking belay device. This means that if you let go of the break line, the rope will not catch, and the climber will fall. But ATCs are also probably the cheapest, most widely used option for belaying.
GriGris, on the other hand, are what are called semi-auto locking belay devices. This means that if you let go of the break line, the device will catch and hold. But GriGris and other similar devices can cost upwards of $100 each.
We suggest beginning with an ATC as it is an awesome learning tool (and an essential part of a climber’s tool kit) and graduating up to a GriGri when you are ready to invest in climbing as a long-term hobby.
Setting Up to Belay
Let’s go over the steps to set up your belay system.
Load your belay device: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to set up your device. This will vary widely from device to device. With an ATC, you commonly take a fold in the rope, also known as a “bight,” and feed it through the opening at the top. Then you will clip your locking carabiner through both the bight in the rope and the rubber base of the ATC and connect it to your harness.
Anchor in! (optional): If you have to belay a climber who is heavier than you, it’s sometimes recommended to anchor yourself. In the gym, often times you will find anchors in the ground at the different belay stations or sandbags that you can move around.
Lock your carabiners: Always be sure to screw lock the gates of any carabiners you use to belay or anchor yourself.
Perform a Safety Check
Always perform a final safety check to ensure you and your climber’s gear are properly secure.
Knots: In a Basic Skills Class, you will learn how to tie a traced figure 8 knot with a safety knot. These are the knots that the climber ties into the other end of the rope. Be sure that you check they have tied it properly!
Belay Device: Check your belay device to ensure that it is loaded properly with the break strand going to the ground and the climber strand going up to the top of the wall. Also, are your carabiners locked?
Command Check: The final check before climbing should be the communication between the climber and the belayer. Both should run through the terms to ensure everyone knows what they mean. Traditionally, climbers use “On Belay?” “Belay On.” “Climbing?” “Climb On!” But feel free to have fun with it! “Dude on rock?” “Rock on, dude!”
The Belayer’s Role
Essentially, the belayer has to manage the rope for the climber and apply the necessary friction using the belay device to prevent a ground fall. Once again, new climbers should take a class to learn the proper belay technique from an experienced instructor. Remember, this is a one-time thing! Once you learn, you are ready to come into the gym and start climbing.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of belaying read about crucial Communication and Climbing Commands.