After a couple of years of development and rework, Beal has finally released their new assisted-braking device to the public. While this isn’t anything completely new in terms of technology (variations of Petzl’s GriGri have been around since 1991), it seeks to tackle a few of the pain points inherent in other belay devices.
Beal Birdie vs Petzl GriGri- which is better?
The Beal Birdie is superior to the Petzl GriGri because of its all-steel construction and lower price point. The two devices are remarkably similar, though each has distinct differences. The Birdie is a little bit heavier- but should last a lot longer because of the all-steel construction.
With that being said, here is why I think Beal’s assisted braking device will hold up and find a solid audience in the climbing community. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed while using it over the past month, and why I will continue to use it.
Note: As of 2021, there was a recall on Beal Birdie devices that were manufactured in 2019. If you purchased a device that is stamped with a manufacturing date in 2019, contact your place of purchase for a replacement at no cost.
Beal Birdie Product Review
I bought the Birdie because I happened to be in the market for a new assisted-braking device right when it was released. There were virtually no reviews online, but I’ve like a bunch of the other Beal equipment that I have and use. With the lower price point, I thought it would be worth the risk, and it definitely was!
For testing, my wife and I tried it out in 3 different climbing environments over the course of a week. First, we did some easy sport climbing, both lead and top roping at our local crag.
A few days later we brought it along on a 9-pitch climb to test out the multi-pitch guide functionality and see if the added weight made a difference (spoiler: it didnt).
Lastly, we used it for top-roping in the gym to see how we liked it for day-to-day climbing.
The Birdie is a budget-friendly low-cost assisted-braking belay device that does not sacrifice on quality.
The Beal Birdie excels at top-roping, and I really have no complaints about it. It was quick to load and unload, easy to understand and use, and is very durable and compact. I like the smaller feel than other assisted-braking devices.
The Birdie doesn’t quite overcome the unintentional camming that happens when trying to quickly feed slack to a lead climber, but I thought it did better than other devices like the GriGri. I was able to feed enough slack through without using my thumb to block the cam, but that is always an option if necessary.
I didn’t love using it in “Guide-mode” on the multi-pitch climb because I was worried about the rope or rock blocking the camming function. I used it on a couple of pitches, and then switched to my Guide ATC instead (actually I use the Grivel Master Pro so i can add friction to rappels).
I assume there are safe ways to rig the Birdie for multi-pitch climbing, but I will need to look into it more and see if there’s anything provided by the manufacturer. As far as added weight, it really didn’t make a difference at all- more on that below.
You can check the current price on Amazon here: Beal Birdie ($75 MSRP)
Here’s an in-depth analysis of the advantages and disadvantages to the Beal Birdie belay device:
The Birdie is made out of 100% metal, with a combination of stainless steel and aluminum. Beal didn’t skimp at all when it came to materials, making some parts out of plastic or nylon.
Just like a steel carabiner will last significantly longer than an aluminum one, the steel belay device should pretty much last as long as I do (barring some long falls for either of us!). Holding it my hands, it really just feels solid and compact.
With a GriGri, the belayer often ends up lowering climbers with the rope wrapped over the side of the device, on the aluminum side plate. Petzl has planned for that, making the upper edge rounded to ease rope wear. The only problem is that the sides are made of aluminum instead of steel- and will wear relatively quickly. I really like the durability of the Birdie.
The other issue that lefties have with the GriGri is that the rope runs over the soft handle, which wears through it quickly. With the Birdie this isn’t an issue, as the handle is metal as well. It’s a good option for left-handed climbers.
At just $75 USD, 3/4 the cost of a regular Grigri, the Birdie was really priced well. In fact, this price point makes it the cheapest of all of the similar devices that I’m aware of (Lifeguard, Vergo, Revo, etc.).
Beal expressed that price is one of the main competitive advantages that they have in the assisted-braking device market, and they plan to continue that way. It seems, after a month of using it, that the durability and quality are fantastic, and the price point just reflects a smaller profit margin in an attempt to capitalize on economies of scale.
The biggest downside to using assisted braking devices is usually quickly feeding slack to a leader, which is certainly one of the most dangerous aspects of lead climbing. Many GriGri users switch to an ATC-style device for lead belaying so they can control the slack easier.
Although it’s not necessarily recommended by Petzl, climbers have developed a technique where we use the braking hand to block the cam mechanism and feed rope quickly with the upper hand. This works, but defeats the purpose of the assisted-braking feature in the event of a fall while clipping.
The Beal Birdie doesn’t completely overcome this flaw, but I found that feeding slack worked better than with other devices I have used. It didn’t lock up immediately like it does with others, and except when you jerk the rope it fed slack nicely.
Additionally, you can easily use the thumb technique to arrest the cam as with other devices. Personally, I will probably continue to use an ATC when belaying leaders on difficult routes.
Contrary to the more-expensive GriGri, which has some slight rope-twist problems, the Birdie feeds the rope along the axis of the device to avoid twisting. I did find that the rope generally wanted to slip off to the right side (just like it does on a GriGri) for a right-handed belayer.
While this still functions just as well, it could introduce a bit more rope twist. Make sure you lower climbers with the rope going over the correct part of the device.
As is common for belay devices, small symbols printed on the side of the Birdie direct where the rope goes and which side the climber should be on. ‘Loading’ it was very simple, and would be difficult to do incorrectly.
I like that it is very easy to see where the camming happens, so I don’t have to trust some sort of internal mechanism. The device is a lot smaller than a GriGri, and feels sleek and compact.
Whenever I’ve used GriGri devices to lower, I kind of have a hard time hitting the optimal lowering point. The actual release-point of the cam is somewhat hard to find. Lowering with the Birdie however, it was very easy to see exactly when the cam would release and the lowering would begin. You control the lowering speed with the right hand out in front of the device, or holding it over the side, similar to an ATC.
Most assisted-braking devices these days work for any regular size of rope, and the Birdie is no different. With a range of 8.5 to 11mm, it will work for pretty much all ropes you’ll use for climbing.
It does start to get tight around the 10.5-11mm range, but I only noticed extra friction at the uppermost thickness. Other devices like the Trango Vergo and Mad Rock Lifeguard are incompatible with the smallest or largest rope diameters.
For more information, see my article: What is the Best Diameter Rope for Climbing?
The main disadvantage that I’ve seen so far surrounding the Birdie is the weight, though I sort of roll my eyes. It reminds me of when I was a young teenager getting ready to do a backpacking trip with the Scouts, and my dad took our toothbrushes out into the shop and sawed off the handles to ‘save weight.’ Sure, it works and probably saved us a couple of grams of weight, but is it really worth the hassle?
The Beal Birdie comes in at 210 grams, whereas a Petzl GriGri is down at 175 (the GriGri+ is 200 grams). To put that in perspective, the difference of 35 grams is equivalent to the weight of a light bulb, a box of raisins, or a cd (remember those?). If that really matters to you, then go with an ATC (64 grams total)! For me, that’s completely negligible and the trade-off for added durability and peace of mind is worth it.
See Also: How Much Do Rock Climbers Weigh?
The Beal Birdie only became available mid-2019. The attractive price point will help to market the device, but I really don’t think we’ll see many of these for a while. For a new device to overcome the popularity and name-recognition of the GriGri, it would probably take a disruption, not just an improvement to the original.
If you use the Birdie, people will probably have never heard of it, and may not feel comfortable using it. In fact, we took it to another local gym that requires its patrons to use GriGri’s, and they wouldn’t let us use the Birdie until it had been tested by the manager.
On the bright side, you kind of get the counter-culture feel of being an early-adopter and in not going with the most popular option. That’s up to you.
Fortunately, the functionality and belay style are almost identical to other mainstream belay devices, so if you spend a minute or two explaining how it works, anyone who you trust to belay you can use the device safely.
The other downside to using the Birdie, as well as all other assisted-braking devices and many other devices, is that you can only operate it on a single rope. For most climbing applications, it’s not a big deal. But it’s definitely not something I would recommend for canyoneering or rappelling in general.
See also: How to Use a Rappel Device
Why use an Assisted-Braking Belay Device? Assisted-braking devices provide added peace-of-mind, as a sudden jerk on the rope from a falling climber engages the cam and stops the rope, whether or not the belayer is paying attention. This is an excellent feature to combat accidents and inattentive belayers, but should not be relied on 100%.
What other gear does Beal make? Based out of France, Beal makes a wide variety of gear. Personally, I have used their ropes (see our rope-buying guide here) and I use their messenger-style shoulder bag (see our recommended gear page here).