Carabiners are to climbing as pawns are to chess — they’re not the glamorous pieces making all the flashy moves, but they’re critically important and you need them to do their job.
Different carabiners serve different purposes, and depending on what you’re climbing (and how), you’ll need ‘biners for a variety of different applications.
Critical Points: The Secret to Knowing When to Use Locking Carabiners
A mountain guide once formulated his philosophy to me like this: “If a carabiner is the only point keeping the team on the mountain, it has to be a locker.”
This tends to be the golden rule of locking carabiners. Any point that cannot fail ought to be secured with a locking mechanism.
I can already hear the cries of the internet pedants: “But you don’t make your first quickdraw on a sport climb a locker, and bananas are actually berries, and you should never end a sentence with a preposition, and…”
Yes, it’s true, sometimes we use a regular ‘biner on a point that can’t fail. These circumstances are generally still different from what we mean by “critical points.”
It may be true that the first quickdraw is all that’s keeping you from decking, or that blowing a certain nut would mean a dangerous fall. Some climbers will insist on using lockers at these times, and I don’t blame them.
But these scenarios are temporary (and hopefully) contained. Meanwhile, there are some points and connections that we constantly and consistently rely on to keep the team safe and secure. For these points, locking carabiners are always the way to go.
7 Critical Points Where You Should Use a Locking Carabiner
1. Belay Carabiners
This is the most obvious instance, and the one that almost all climbers are familiar with. Whenever you’re attaching your belay device, a locking carabiner (preferably HMS or pear-shaped) is mandatory.
2. Belaying from Above
When you’re belaying a second up to you, you’ll need to attach your belay device to your anchor. Do this with another locking carabiner. It doesn’t have to be an HMS, though.
3. Attaching Yourself to an Anchor
There are many times when you might want to attach yourself to a fixed or temporary anchor. On multipitch climbs, we can clove hitch in to an anchor to secure ourselves. At the top of a sport climb, we might need to anchor ourselves to bolts in order to thread the rope.
In each case, use locking carabiners. If you’re clove hitching, it’s nice — although not strictly necessary — to have a carabiner with an HMS shape or a large basket. If you’re attaching yourself to bolts via a climbing sling or similar system, a smaller, more maneuverable ‘biner will be better.
4. Toprope Anchors
If you’re toproping through an anchor, it’s especially important to use locking carabiners. In many cases, you’ll be nearby to see if a carabiner is in danger of opening. Not so with a toprope. The standard system for topropes is to use two locking carabiners, opposite and opposed. It’s helpful to use lockers with plenty of surface area and good durability.
5. Bail ‘Biners
If you haven’t had to bail from a route yet, you almost certainly will at some point. Maybe you can’t figure out the next moves. Maybe it starts pouring rain. When you have to bail, you’ll usually need to leave behind at least one (and probably more) carabiners to lower off of.
It’s often advisable to use a locker here. Many climbers carry a couple quicklinks for exactly this purpose. Bail ‘biners are disposable, so use an old one, a cheap one, or one that you don’t mind losing.
6. Critical Carries
I really dislike the idea of dropping things off climbs, especially when those things are important. With items that I really don’t want to risk accidentally coming unclipped — like my shoes, or my pack — I’ll sometimes secure them with a locking carabiner.
The extra step required to undo the carabiners provides a little peace of mind, and it means that I won’t accidentally grab the wrong carabiner when I’m moving things around.
This is probably overkill, but it’s handy every once in a while. Small, lightweight lockers are fine for times like these.
7. Advanced Systems
If you’re an aid climber, rope-soloing, or setting up larger systems, you’ll often need locking carabiners for other applications. The same rule will generally apply — use a locking carabiner at any point that must always be fail-proof.
A Brief Note on Anchors
Some climbers believe that any point involved in an anchor (a carabiner between a piece of gear and a cordelette, for example) ought to be secured with a locker. Most climbers agree that because these are not critical points, regular carabiners are acceptable.
As with most anchor questions, your decision most likely comes down to your personal philosophy on risk management. It’s easy enough to bring a couple extra lockers, but there’s no doubt that using non-lockers is usually more efficient. I personally don’t use locking carabiners in most of these cases, but to each their own.
For more info on climbing anchors, check out our introductory guide.
When to Use Non-Locking Carabiners
Use non-locking carabiners for pretty much any other application. Carrying gear, using quickdraws, building alpine draws, and attaching to protection are all circumstances in which a non-locking carabiner is best.
When you don’t need a locking mechanism, lockers tend to get in the way — they’re harder to clip, clunkier, and heavier. Use lockers when you have to and non-lockers when you don’t. As you climb, you’ll become intimately familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Substitutes for Locking Carabiners
If you find yourself without a locker when you need one, it’s easy enough to add security. Two non-locking carabiners placed opposite and opposed are very secure, and many climbers toprope off of two quickdraws positioned this way.
If you only want to use one carabiner, you can rig your own “lock” using a little tape. This is a good way to secure a ‘bail biner if you want to leave something cheap behind.