The ultimate camming-device review
It's a good year to be buying cams, with several hot designs hitting the market, including some at rock-bottom prices.
Buying cams is the most difficult choice you'll make with climbing gear. Over 20 different models swamp the market today, and between them there are endless varieties: two-, three-, and four-cam units; single-stem and U-stem cables; prices ranging from $29 to $113; and so on until you're dizzy with too many details. And that's before you even start considering each cam's actual performance highlights and downfalls.
To make sense of the morass, we collected piles of cams and plugged them in Utah's soft sandstone cracks, the flaky granite of Colorado's Black Canyon, and the odd flares of Eldorado Canyon. We also spent hours at the work bench, measuring head widths, comparing axle-stem connections, bending and re-bending stems to check durability, and scrutinizing each unit's price against its competitors. Along the way we identified our favorite units (some we liked best only in certain sizes), and discovered some real bargains. Whether you're looking to buy your first rack or just add another jewel to the collection, you might be surprised by our testers' findings.
What makes a good cam? When spread out on my living-room floor, many of the cams in this review look surprising similar. And to their credit, I felt safe using all of them when they were in a secure placement. So why not just go out and snap up the cheapest rigs you can find? Because the designs vary: Some are more secure in flares; some fit piton scars when nothing else will work; and others excel in shallow horizontal cracks.
In terms of easy placement and removal, the best designs have finger-friendly trigger bars that allow independent cam manipulation; extendable slings that give the option of two runner lengths; and reasonably long and flexible (but not noodley) stems that can reach deep into a crack or wiggle into tight corners.
In terms of security in small pods and pockets, a camming unit must actually fit in the tiny placement -- here a narrow head rules. Conversely, hand-sized cams and larger benefit from a wide head, which spreads the load over a larger area and helps prevent the unit from walking. Milled cam stops are a good safety feature no matter what the size of the cam, keeping the cams and springs from being over-expanded during removal or when walking into a wide pod.
Weight is another factor to consider, but because perfectly equivalent sizes do not exist between manufacturers for an exact comparison, we have mentioned only those brands that are particularly heavy or light for their size.
Finally, cams are available in two different cable designs: a single, center stem or a U stem. On a single-stem unit the cable sits between the two cam sets, and has the advantage of spreading the two inner cams' load over a wider area (but does not necessarily provide more surface contact area) -- good for flaky or crumbly rock. Manipulating the trigger is like squeezing a syringe, and allows for independent cam manipulation on either side of the stem. A single-stem cam has a couple of disadvantages in the tiniest sizes: The design does not allow for a narrow, three-cam unit and some brands (but not all) have a relatively thick stem compared to the small cams, so it can be difficult to fit the stem into irregular cracks.
U-stem cams have a horseshoe-shaped stem that connects on each end of the axle. Their triggers are broad and can be pulled with one, two, or three fingers, and the trigger wires are well protected between the two stems. This design allows for narrow, three-cam units that excel in small pin scars; also, in larger sizes, closely spaced cams may fit narrow pods and irregular cracks better than single-stem units. However, these models are more likely to walk because of the relatively narrow head width, and the U design produces significant leverage when placed in shallow vertical cracks where the stem protrudes horizontally, rather than in the direction of pull.
The test results
Black Diamond Micro Camalots and Camalots 13 sizes from .34 to 7 inches $53-$113
Summary: Camalots are strong, versatile, and always reliable. Part of their high performance comes from the patented double-axle design, which lends extra strength, acts as cam stops, and gives these units the widest camming range on the market. However, the double axle makes each unit roughly 20 percent heavier than most other brands.
A large, textured thumb catch and trigger bar give slip-free placement and allow for independent cam manipulation. The large sizes have wide heads for exceptional stability in offwidths. The two smallest Micro Camalots, .1 and .2, lack double axles because of their small sizes, but have cam stops. The relative stiffness of the burly cables in these two sizes can make the .1 and .2 tricky to place in irregular slots or pods. The only other drawback is the price, which tops the charts.
Pros: Great trigger; long stem; double axle gives the best camming range in review; outstanding offwidth sizes; anodized heads; cam stops.
Cons: Heavy; expensive; smallest sizes tricky to place in irregular cracks.
Price vs. performance value: A
C.A.M.P. Flex Cams
9 sizes from .67 to 5.12 inches, $40-$53
Summary: Flex Cams are rugged units with anodized heads, long stems, and single-length slings. In theory the stem length would facilitate deep placements, but short trigger cables limit your reach in deep placements. The spring tension is the stiffest of all the models tested and keeps most of the Flex Cams from walking too much. The large sizes #8 and #9, however, suffer from narrow heads and are quite unstable. Interestingly, only the two smallest sizes, #1 and #2, have cam stops.
C.A.M.P. also manufactures Spider Cams, U-stem versions of the Flex Cams with a doubled sling that retail for about $3 less per unit.
Pros: Nice stem length; good thumb catch.
Cons: Short trigger wires; largest sizes very unstable; only the two smallest sizes have cam stops.
Price vs. performance value: C+
Colorado Custom Hardware Aliens 8 sizes from .33 to 2.35 inches, $53-$57
Summary: Aliens are small-crack specialists. With impressively narrow heads, they handily plug into pin scars, pockets, and flares. Their versatility has given them a cult following among Yosemite aid climbers and free climbers alike. The extremely flexible stem can wiggle through small slots, and the generous stem and runner length help to keep the unit from walking.
Despite their strong performance in certain areas, Aliens do have a few drawbacks: In the smallest sizes, the relatively soft aluminum used on the cam lobes deformed slightly after only a few bodyweight placements. Also, the units lack a free-floating axle-stem connection; when placed in horizontal cracks, if the stem is levered upward or downward by rope drag, it can cause the cam lobes to walk. Last, Aliens lack cam stops.
Aliens are also available in three other permutations: Hybrids, Stiffies, and SL Aliens. Hybrids are "offset" cams built with different-sized cam lobes on either side of the stem, and fit flared pin scars quite well. Stiffies use a stiffer cable that makes the unit easier to plug into deep placements. And the SLs are .75 inches longer in the stem and feature the stiffer cable.
Pros: Super flexible stem allows them to fit into strange slots, flares, and reduces walking; great for aid and thin-crack free climbing; light.
Cons: Springs are easily clogged by dirt; stem is not independent from head; no cam stops; larger sizes have narrow heads and can be unstable.
Price vs. performance value: A-
DMM 3CUs and 4CUs * 6 3CU sizes from .51 to 1.61 inches, $39 * 11 4CU sizes from .51 to 3.94 inches, $45
Summary: The most noticeable thing about the DMM 3CUs and 4CUs are their bright colors, which makes picking the correct size from a crowded rack a breeze. Each unit's cam lobes, trigger bar, and thumb bar are anodized to match, and, yes, the doubled sling blends right in too. The trigger bar allows for a bit of independent cam manipulation -- rare on a U-stem unit. Another unique feature are the cam lobes (with integrated cam stops), which are wide when fully retracted and taper to a more standard width near the end of their range. When the cam is placed tightly, there is more cam surface against the rock for greater grip -- great for parallel cracks, but if the crack is flared or irregular the cams will sit awkwardly. Another drawback is the trigger bar's tendency to slide up the trigger wires toward the head. The extra step of pulling the trigger back into position is easy, but a burden on pumpy routes.
Pros: Extendable sling; trigger bar allows for some independent cam action; great color coding; cam stops; light.
Cons: Poor performance in flared or awkward placements; trigger bar slides down.
Price vs. performance value: B
Hugh Banner Quadcams 10 sizes from .41 to 4.90 inches, $56-$82
Summary: Huge Banner Quadcams are unique in the cam world because of their ring trigger. The design takes some time to get used to, but one advantage is that the unit is almost impossible to drop. A long stem length provides great reach, and all sizes have cam stops.
One drawback to the ring trigger is a lack of independent cam manipulation. Also, in flared or offset cracks the outer cams don't fully expand to contact the rock, seriously compromising the placement.
Hugh Banner also manufactures three-cam Micromates in the smaller sizes, and a wide range of center-stem Flexi-Fix models.
Pros: Long stems; cam stops.
Cons: No independent cam manipulation; in flared cracks the outer cams don't always contact the rock.
Price vs. performance value: B-
Metolius TCUs and Power Cams * 6 TCU sizes from .35 to 1.35 inches, $49 * 12 Power Cam sizes from .35 to 4.2 inches, $54-$70
Summary: Metolius TCUs were some of the first ultra-small cams available to climbers in the mid-1980s and they continue to be a thin-crack staple. On average, Metolius uses a slightly smaller cam angle than other manufacturers, so during a fall the cam lobes push harder against the rock. The compromise with this design is a small loss of camming range. The cams are made with a highly durable aluminum, and the faces are quite wide for added grip.
A narrow head width on the micro sizes allows the TCUs and Power Cams to fit tiny pods and pin scars -- we loved the smallest sizes: #00, #0, and #1. All sizes feature cam stops. The drawback of the Metolius cams is a narrow head width in the largest sizes that compromises their stability.
Also available from Metolius are Fat Cams. These sport extra thick cam lobes for greater grip -- particularly useful in soft rock like the sandstone of Utah's Canyonlands.
Pros: Excellent micro and small sizes; textured trigger bars; cam stops.
Cons: No independent cam manipulation; large sizes can be unstable.
Price vs. performance value: Micro sizes A, other sizes A-
Rock Empire Micro Robots and Robot Flexibles * 3 Micro Robot Cam sizes from .47 to .97 inches, $30 * 5 Robot Flexible sizes from .8 to 3.5 inches, $30
Summary: Retailing for $30 for any size, Robot Cams are a bargain. Plus, these U-stem units have some high-end features: a smooth trigger that allows for a tad of independent cam manipulation, an extendable sling, and cam stops.
In the bigger sizes the heads are too narrow for much stability, though, and on most of the units the two middle cam lobes are very close together, acting almost like an oversized TCU -- not a problem on solid rock, but on soft or flaky rock it's better to spread the load over a wider area. Also, the stem connections to the axle are somewhat bulky, limiting the placement possibilities for the smallest sizes. Otherwise, the Robots are decent cams that would make a good starter rack or help fill in your arsenal before your next Indian Creek trip.
Pros: Great price; extendable sling; small sizes have narrow heads; cam stops.
Cons: Largest sizes prone to walking; inner cam lobes quite close together.
Price vs. performance value: B+
Splitter Gear 2Cams and 4Cams * 3 2Cam sizes from .74 to 1.53 inches, $52 * 3 4Cam sizes from .74 to 1.5 inches, $55
Summary: New to the market this year are Splitter Gear's innovative two- and four-cam units. The 2Cams feature a pair of wide, directly opposing lobes that give the piece the same contact surface area as a four-cam unit at about half the total head width. Plus they are ultra light, weighing as much as a comparably sized nut. 2Cams fit tiny pods and the narrowest of pockets, and are strong enough for both aid and free climbing. They can even be placed with only part of each cam contacting the rock in super shallow cracks. The cam lobes act as opposing cam stops and are controlled with a solid titanium trigger wire. When bent under load, however, the trigger wire and stem did not return to their straight position, and we frequently had to bend the cables back into place. Nonetheless, aid climbers will find these units opening new possibilities for shallow placements.
4Cams have a more traditional look, but like the 2Cams feature directly opposing cam lobes that allow for relatively wide cam faces on a surprisingly narrow head. We found these units worked fine in uniform splitters, but in irregular cracks the opposing cams did not conform to the shape of the crack as well as a traditional unit with staggered cams. Also, like the 2Cams, the trigger wire and cable don't return to their original shape after bending.
Splitter Gear will be introducing two smaller sizes soon, and has a six-lobed cam in the works.
Pros: Small head width and wide cam faces; 2Cam best shallow-crack piece in review; light; cam stops.
Cons: Stiff cable; 4Cam doesn't sit well in irregular cracks.
Price vs. performance value: 2Cam B+, 4Cam B-
Trango Flex Cams 8 sizes from .47 to 3.58 inches, $40
Summary: Flex Cams (different from the similarly named C.A.M.P. models) boast a long, flexible stem, narrow head width in the small sizes, a smooth-action trigger with independent cam manipulation, an extendable sling, and cam stops in all sizes. Whew! All this for $40 each. The only real drawback is a narrow head on the largest size, #8, that makes it unstable.
Pros: Great handling at an affordable price; long stem; extendable sling; nice trigger; cam stops; light.
Cons: Largest size is unstable.
Price vs. performance value: A
Wild Country Technical Friends 14 sizes from .4 to 7.64 inches, $49-$99
Summary: Wild Country's Technical Friends glow with impeccable workmanship and offer unmatched durability. Recently updated, the new models feature anodized cam heads, triggers with long cables that come in handy during deep placements, cam stops, lighter weights, and lower prices. The smallest sizes have narrow heads for shallow placements, although the stems' bulk and stiffness hinders them a bit in irregular spots. On the other side of the spectrum, the two biggest Technical Friends rule -- both the #5 and #6 (which expands up to a whopping 7.64 inches) are light for their size and feature impressively wide heads that make them the most stable offwidth cams tested. Due to its massive size, the #6 can be unruly to handle while placing.
Wild Country also makes Forged Friends and Offset Friends. Forged Friends use a rigid aluminum stem that must be tied off in horizontal placements, but the units are incredibly durable and start at only $29 each. Offset Friends are flexible-stem units that feature different-sized cams on either side of the head, and are great for flared cracks and pin scars.
Pros: Light; cam stops; anodized heads; outstanding durability; offwidth sizes are the biggest and most stable tested.
Cons: Micro sizes not great in irregular cracks.
Price vs. performance value: A
Wild Country Zeros 6 sizes from .22 to .94 inches, $55
Summary: Hitting the market this spring, Zeros are the most innovative cams we've seen in years. Squeezing down to an unbelievable .22 inches, these tiny units resemble key-chain ornaments, but their toy looks belie serious aid- and free-climbing tools that can replace tied-off Lost Arrow pitons and circle heads in many scenarios.
The Zeros have redefined the term "flexible cam" with their patented stem/axle connection that eliminates the short length of rigid metal stem standard on all other cams. Particularly on small units, even a short rigid-stem connection can produce cam-popping leverage in shallow cracks, but the Zeros bring new holding power (and confidence) to these types of placements.
The smallest two sizes are designed for aid placements only, and we found them most useful in shallow horizontal cracks where we could view all four cam surfaces. (Because the cams and their expansion range on the tiny units was so small, we found it difficult to see all four cams in vertical cracks.) All six sizes feature cam stops and extendable Dyneema slings, and the #3 through #6 sizes proved to be exceptional free-climbing pieces covering the finger sizes.
Pros: Innovative stem/axle connection produces less leverage than any other cam tested; smallest cams available; cam stops on all sizes. Editors' Choice Award.
Cons: Trigger bars are small.
Price vs. performance value: A
Wired Bliss TCUs and Quads * 5 TCU sizes from .41 to 1.32 inches, $50 * 7 Quad sizes from .74 to 3.69 inches, $53-$62
Summary: Introduced in 1984, Wired Bliss cams began the TCU revolution. They still hold a respectable position near the top of the heap, featuring long stems that make plugging the cams into the back of flared corners a cinch, great spring action, and outstanding durability. Plus, the trigger cables are protected by rubber tubing. I carried a Wired Bliss TCU on my rack for six years until someone stole it, and it's probably still going strong. The only real drawback to Wired Bliss units are their lack of cam stops.
Pros: Long stems; ultra-smooth spring action; rubber sheaths protect trigger wires; light.
Cons: No cam stops.
Price vs. performance value: A-
Black Diamond:801-278-5533 www.blackdiamondequipment.com
C.A.M.P. USA:303-465-9429, www.camp.it
Colorado Custom Hardware:307-721-9385
Colorado Custom Hardware/Climb High:802-985-5056, www.climbhigh.com
Hugh Banner/Climb High:802-985-5056, www.climbhigh.com
Hugh Banner/Adventure 16:619-283-6314, www.adventure16.com
Rock Empire:604-898-2532, www.rockempire.com
Splitter Gear/Advanced Base Camp:888-90-CLIMB, www.splittergear.com, www.advancedbasecamp.com
Wild Country/Excalibur:801-942-8471, www.wildcountry.co.uk
Wired Bliss:800-75-BLISS, www.wiredbliss.com