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REVIEW : Choosing a Cam for Rock climbing

REVIEW : Choosing a Cam for Rock climbing


The original cam was invented by Ray Jardine, an American aeronautical engineer turned full time climber. They were first referred to as his ‘Friends’ to retain the secrecy. After teaming up with Bristish climber and entrepreneur, Mark Valance, Wild Country was formed and the first cam was available for sale, the WC solid stem Friend.  

Now, cams or SLCD’s (Spring-loaded camming device) come in a huge range of sizes and different designs with an equal number of opinions and reasons for each. Gear is a constant balance and compromise, so we thought it’d be helpful to have something to make decisions a little easier and well informed. We hope this is helpful for the person buying their first rack to the seasoned trad climber looking to replace their original solid stems.


So which cam should you choose?


Well, it's largely dependent on your preference and what you're doing! 

The size and setting are the first bridge to cross. Rock types and nature of the placements can vary between styles and difficulty. For example, if you are climbing a continuous finger size granite crack line, you will need lots of finger size units. However, if you are on a more varied route or starting a rack, you will need an assortment of sizes to cover all possibilities. 

After this, you can start on the fun stuff. Deciding features of a cam can be functional, for example a thumb loop is useful for aid climbing but is also largely preference and budget based. Cams are an expensive piece of gear, and making your money go further can be important. Some models are available in Multi-packs which is a good way of saving a bit of cash. 

Here is a quick look at the main points of the cams in the article. 



If you are buying your first rack, it is common to buy a few of the most useful sizes and bulk out later on. It is of course area and style dependent. As it is one of the most popular models, I will give examples in the DMM Dragon. The most essential sizes would include sizes; 1 (Purple), 2 (Green), 3 (Red) and 4 (Gold). Or if you're super tight and can only get one, 3 (Red).

These are some charts that will make comparing sizes across models easier. 

After that, ask yourself where and what you're climbing and get sizes depending on that! For example, if you are noticing a lot of small placements you are missing out on, invest in some smaller sizes!

Light is Right BD C4 Ultralight


+Very lightweight    -Expensive


As gear gets lighter and lighter, cams have become an area of serious weight saving possibilities. Some would argue this comes at a cost of durability. Although this may be true in some cases, we believe Black diamond have come up with a unit that is both durable and incredibly light!

Introducing, the Black Diamond Ultra light C4. Essentially a trimmed down, super light version of their long loved C4. The unit follows the same colours and functional ranges, just 25% lighter. This has been achieved by machining out excess material in the lobes and replacing the steel cable stem and nylon sling with lighter Dyneema counterparts (below).

After questioning over the durability of the lighter parts, BD have said the plastic stem cover and loop is UV resistant. Also, dyneema is incredibly strong, weight for weight, 10 times the strength of steel.


Fig.1 Dyneema counterparts


Durability BD C4 


+Durable   -No extendable sling


Whether you’re a guide hammering your gear day in day out or a weekend warrior, having something you know will keep performing year after year is very reassuring.

The BD C4 is very popular and arguably the most durable cam on the market. It is available in a massive size range from finger crack to offwidth.   

The lobes are made from a hard and durable alloy and set at a 14.5 camming angle giving them fantastic functional range for each unit. The slings are made from nylon, which again are durable and also easy to handle with gloves during the winter.

From spring/summer of 2019, they will feature similar lobes to the ultralight version, making this already great cam 10% lighter and even better! Along with this, the larger sizes will have stiffened stems and catches to hold the lobes open whilst on the harness, minimising space. Brilliant for the american community who may be carrying several in this size for one climb.

With a thump loop for easy handling and attachment whilst aid climbing, this is a great all round cam. The only real downside being, they don't have extendable slings! 


Extendable slings DMM Dragon 2 

Sets: 00-1, 2-4, 0-5 (£162, £166.50, £315)

 £59.40- £100   

+ Extendable Slings   - No thumb loop


Although sometimes bashed by climbers from across the pond, the DMM Dragon 2 is a firm favourite that many UK climbers hold close to their hearts. The first model was extremely popular, making it the go to for most. Despite this, they have managed to improve on it again!

At first sight, the new textured lobes look like only a cosmetic change. However, it does make a drastic difference to the friction against slick surfaces from the first time they’re taken out, no roughing up needed. Furthermore, with the introduction of the new 7 and 8 sizes, they now cover the same offwidth sizes as the C4's but are considerably lighter. With extendable slings and brilliant camming power, they are perfect for winding lines on smooth UK limestone. The only criticism is no thumb loop!



Best all round Wild Country Friend

 Sets: 0.4-0.75, 1-3, 0.4-3 (£175, £157.50, £306)

£58.50- £76.50   

+Lightweight + Thumb loop and extendable sling combo


An exciting reinvention of the original cam. The WC Friend has taken several forms, including the early solid stem and single axle versions.

For the latest version, WC have stuck with the original 13.75 camming angle in a double-axle unit, maximising range. However, the axles are hollow, making it noticeably lighter than its competitors. WC have opted for extendable slings on a thumb loop, which really is the best of both worlds.

An excellent choice if you’re stuck between the thump loop and extendable slings!







Cams for smooth rock and small and marginal placements



Cams probably changed modern trad climbing more than any other device. The ability to better protect parallel cracks was revolutionary. As the larger cracks were climbed, climbers saw with smaller units, smaller placements would also be possible. New designs which further increase placement options have pushed hard trad and clean aid climbing. Most now following the trend of softer metal on the lobes and a narrower head width to fit in small pockets. Very flexible wire stems also means the rope will interfere less with the placement. 


Totem Cam


+ Excellent in marginal placements + High camming force, even in small sizes   -Expensive


By far the most unique cam on this article. The totem spent many years in development before its introduction in 2012. Being more expensive than most, it took some time to filter into the frugal UK market. However, most who have used them would say every penny is worth it. Due to the unique design, the totems have an extremely high camming force and each half of the lobes and are loaded independently. For this reason, even in the smallest black size, the totem cam seems to grip in most places that any other cam would struggle! Paired with a reasonably flexible stem, there is little that is better in marginal or flared placements.

With a good size range, going from finger to hand crack size, they are a fantastic option for anyone who is not on a budget and will be climbing on all rock types, especially smooth rock.



Fixe- Alien Revolution


+ Excellent in marginal narrow and placements +Flexible stem + Available with extendable sling - Not the most durable unit


When introduced, the original Alien cam was different to anything on the market.  It's narrow head width, soft lobes and high camming force made it perfect for all marginal placements.

Now, with a reintroduction from Fixe, the Alien Revolution is a top choice for micro sizes. They are now more durable, lighter and have a narrower head. The picture below shows how by springing the lobes from inside, 20% of the original head width was cut off!

The soft lobes and high camming force make it perfect for small placements on smooth rock giving the impression you’re placing something much bigger! It also has a super flexible single wire stem and is available with a fixed or extendable sling, perfect for winding lines and minimal gear interference.

The revolution also comes in an offset range, the Alien Revolution Hybrid, excellent for pin scars and irregular placements. However, not part of the average free climbing rack.


DMM Dragonfly


+ Available in very small sizes + Good for narrow and marginal placements + Thumb loop and extendable sling - Slightly heavier than Aliens


Due to be released in Spring 2019. The DMM Dragonfly will cover from around the size 1 purple dragon down to 7.5-11mm. Each unit is slightly smaller than the Dragon, so when paired up, they will cover each others upper and lower limits.  The cam is sprung from inside of the lobes, very similarly to the Aliens, making for a narrow head width. With similar soft lobes, a flexible wire stem, thumb loop and extendable sling, they are a very similar unit.

However, with DMM’s famous craftsmanship and attention to quality, particularly durability, we are confident they will offer something new. 




+Durable +Good range on each unit - More Expensive - Heavy


The X4 is BD’s flagship micro cam. Like the C4, it is a bombproof cam that will just keep on performing. It features a flexible sheath covering the wire cable, maximising durability whilst retaining flexibility. It also has a reduced head width (though slightly wider than some of the models mentioned above) compared to the larger cams and maintains an amazing range on each unit even in the smallest sizes. This is the work of a cleverly offset single axle that works like a double axle. All in all a fantastically engineered cam, but with a high price tag!

BD C3   


+ Narrow head - Rigid stem, more likely to walk


The only TCU in the article! The lobes are heavily sprung to maximise the security of the placement. As far as TCU’s go, this is one of the best models on the market. However, BD have reduced the size range to the two largest sizes. For the increased holding power and similar head width, a 4CU is the best way to go.





So, which cam should you choose? If you have read the article, I'm sure you realise it's up to a mixture of your requirements and preferences. The table above should make it even easier to make a final decision. When buying your first rack, it is most common to go for either the DMM Dragon, BD C4 or WC Friends. They are reasonably priced and offer a brilliant allround cam. When doubling up or getting smaller sizes, it is worth trying a unit more adept in marginal placements, such as the Totem, Alien or Dragonfly. This will compliment your rack nicely, by covering the upper and lower limits of each unit you currently have whilst opening up smaller or less favourable placements. When buying larger sizes, it is worth considering spending the extra money on lighter models such as the BD C4 Ultralight. Although greatest proportional weight saving lies in the smaller end, highest total weight is saved at the larger sizes.

There are lots of advantages to each choice. So hopefully this has made the laying the money down slightly easier for first time buyers and given anyone doubling up or buying new units a good platform for comparison. For a more detailed and excellent article on the history to the maintenance of cams, take a look at the ‘Wild Country Cam Book’, which is available as a free PDF over an internet search.

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