Small Camming Devices For Rock Climbing

Climbers protect rock climbs in several ways; the most common methods either use bolts that are drilled permanently into the rock and left there for other climbers to use or the routes can be protected with a variety of climbing hardware (“protection”) that is placed in the rock by the lead climber and then removed by other members of the team when they follow the climb.

This protection primarily consists of metal alloy chocks that are wedged into constrictions in cracks or spring loaded camming devices that have the advantage that they will often work in parallel sided and slightly flared cracks, pockets and breaks.

Camming devices revolutionized climbing when the original “Friends” were introduced in 1978 as they allowed climbers to attempt routes that were previously too bold and serious. Cams have developed a lot over the past 32 years and there are now two main categories; small, micro cams that cover an expansion range of between 10mm and 30mm and mainstream cams that cover the range from 25mm to 170mm.

On larger cams core criteria are camming range, weight and cam angle amongst others, but small cams ideally need different performance characteristics. Small cam placements are often shallow and do not allow the cam stem to be pointed in the direction of a potential fall thus the stem needs to be very flexible in all directions to avoid it being twisted out of the placement when placed under load.

In addition placements are often narrow so a minimal head width is also desirable.

These two key factors tend to favour two different designs. The most popular design features a single stem design with a narrow head width. This type of unit has 4 cam lobes with 2 lobes either side of the stem and should offer maximum flexibility at the expense of slightly increased head width.

The second design uses just three cam lobes mounted in a U-shaped stem. This design is commonly referred to as a TCU (Three Cam Unit) and can offer very narrow head widths at the risk of having a less flexible stem when placed in vertical cracks.

Small Cams

1. CCH Aliens

Aliens are by a fairly large margin the best performing micro cam unit on the market.

They do this by combining stems that are very flexible in all axes, narrow head widths, soft alloy cams with a large camming angle and a very innovative trigger design that works beautifully and is also very durable. All are very desirable, if not mandatory, features for any micro cam.

Aliens first advantage comes from using a soft aluminium alloy and a high sixteen degree camming angle on their cam lobes; most other cams use harder 7075-T6 with a 13.75 degree angle so have a smaller camming range.

The cam lobes also have internal springs and this gives them a very narrow head width.

The trigger/stem stabilization mechanism is where most units make compromises, but Aliens utilise a fantastic solution that features a braided steel trigger sleeve that floats on the stem wire. This is durable, protects the trigger wires and does not restrict flexibility.

The units are colour coded for easy identification and have a trigger loop for easy use and for clipping in high when aid climbing.

The only rider to this recommendation is that there was a period of inconsistent quality control on their production that resulted in a couple of units breaking below their stated strengths. This seems to be sorted now and hopefully Aliens will fully regain their status as best small cam.

The blue, green and yellow Aliens should be core items on any trad climbers rack of equipment.

2. Metolius Master Cam

A good alternative to the Alien from cam specialists Metolius.

The Nickel based Master Alloy use a single stem with four cams that is very flexible and has a narrow head width. The stem design is not quite as good as the Alien as the trigger guides restrict flexibility slightly in horizontal placements, but this is very slight.

The camming range on these units is also slightly less than the Aliens as they use a smaller camming angle, however the lobes should be more durable as they are manufactured from a harder 7075-T6 alloy.

The units are colour coded for easy identification and have a trigger loop for easy use and for clipping in high when aid climbing.

Another slight gripe is that Metolius have used a carbon steel rather than stainless steel head termination and this is prone to seize up quite quickly in salty conditions i.e. when climbing on sea cliffs.

One core advantage that the Mastercams have over Aliens is that there have been tested to both the CE and UIAA standards. The units are also manufactured to a high quality.

3. Wild Country Zero Cams

Wild Country Zeros created quite a stir when they were introduced but never really took off. There were a few reasons for this – the original units had stems that were too short, the trigger wires do not run as smoothly as the competition and they were priced on the high side.

The stems were extended a few years ago and once that change was made they became a really good unit. Their performance is very similar to that of the Metolius Master Cams – cam lobe material and cam angle are similar.

The trigger mechanism is a bit clunky with long trigger wires that run through guides; this causes them to grate, but the overall action is effective.

The Zeros are a touch weaker than the Master Cams, but have an doubled dyneema sling which allows the climber to extend placements whilst saving on quickdraws and weight.

The smallest Zero is the smallest cam currently on the market.

4. Black Diamond C3

Camalot C4 cams are very good and currently the most popular mainstream cam, but by comparison their smaller counterparts the three cam C3’s are relatively disappointing.

The units look gorgeous and perform well, but overall not as well as the 3 units above.

Their key advantage is their very narrow head width, but because they use a hooped stem design covered with a hefty lump of plastic their flexibility is compromised in vertical placements.