Small Cams Review by Bill Coe
So you’re in the market for some new small cams? Oh boy, are you in luck. More and more companies are churning out high end products that fit that classification. You’ll not only have lots to chose from, but what is out there is all very very good and getting better all the time, making your choice better yet difficult. For myself, I started in to this with a few incorrect assumptions. 1st) I thought that TCU’s, the units that have 3 lobes, would fit better into little pockets. With rare exceptions, they really don’t. 2nd) I thought that Wild Country Zeros sucked. They don’t and in fact for freeclimbing the reverse is somewhat true. If you want to save yourself the trouble reading the treatise below, what I determined for myself is that if I only could afford to buy a single set, just 1 set, as I like the 4 cam units generally better than Three Cam Units or TCU’s, I’d get a full set of Colorado Custom Hardwares (CCH) Hybrid Offset Aliens. I don’t think they stand out head and shoulders over the other cams, but they do present some advantages which is enough to tip the balance in their favor for me. The single stem, which gains better access than double wire or U shaped wires in tighter placements, the flexibility of that single stem, in combination with the softness of the cam lobes, gives them the edge in fitting in strange placements over the rest of the pack. This may not even manifest itself on the first 5 or 6 placements which you stack them head to head against the competition with, but invariably, to me anyway, it will become obvious. Unfortunately and surprisingly, even if you can find some this cam is not necessarily the best personal choice for you: read on.
It’s been said that if you’re not climbing high end routes, why buy high end gear? In fact, a full rack of small wired nuts to cover the range of these lil cams would cost a fraction of the scratch. I can assure you from long years of experience that today’s rock stars may actually need these less than us, the old and out of shape, who perhaps get out only on the weekends (if we are lucky and can get out on something). See, when we, the old, infirm, and out of shape fail, we’re often on less than overhanging routes and the ensuing scraping and bouncing of a fall on a less than vertical wall is a bad thing. The rockstar on a steep overhanging wall isn’t going to smack rock like us. Furthermore, there’s no style points deducted for spending money to make up for our physical inadequacies, in fact, you’ll likely have more buddies as you gather more gear:-) Truthfully, owning any of these cams is much like sleeping with any Miss America pageant contestant. It doesn’t matter if she loses the contest because as long as you have one, or better yet, several: you’re still a winner no matter what. They’re all that good. Like the Miss America analogy, choosing cams, much like choosing a spouse, is an intimately personal thing. And again, similar to any contestant you hit on, no matter which one of these cams you pick below, having any of them is the right choice. Except for the Splitter cams, which may be more like sleeping with your unattractive cousin. I’m mean, sure, maybe we’ve all done it, but when sober, how many of us would walk past a hot and willing Miss America contestant to go there? Like all personal choices, the choice which will make you happy may not, of course, make the next person happy and vice versa. Certainly if you asked 100 climbers their preference, you would undoubtedly have a list wherein each one of these would be a #1 for someone, while someone else’s #1 choice would be last pick for another. That’s right, there most likely would be people who would chose the Splitters as their first choice.
Cam design is a deeply complex engineered issue that each company has tried to resolve to their own satisfaction. As a buyer, giving a thought to your needs before buying any product is paramount to receiving full happiness from it. Furthermore, as different rock has different characteristics – where you climb and looking around your climbing area and seeing what folks are using there might be a solid first step towards garnering full personal knowledge after you’ve read these words.
Some decisions you will need to consider:
- Do you mostly climb free or aid?
- Offset lobes or regular?
- 3 cams or 4?
- Extendable sling or not?
- Stout long life nylon or skinny lightweight Dynema sling?
- Single Stem or double stem?
As material science evolves, the cam components and assemblies become better. Modern sling materials are getting smaller and lighter as well. However, this is one of those good and bad stories much like the concentration camp one. In that story, when after years of wearing the same underwear the camp POWs were called together by the Kamp Kommandant who loudly stated: “I have some good news und some bad news. Vhich do you vant to hear first?
The happy POWs all shouted, “The good news! The good news!”
“You’re all going to get a change of underwear.” said the Kommandant.
The prisoners loudly cheered at this blessed news……Then the Kommandant continued, “Und now for ze bad news!
You change vith him, und you change vith him, und so forth…”.
The good news on modern sling material is that they are heading towards lighter, smaller and stronger. The bad news is that this comes with a severe trade off in longevity. Joseph Healy has done some early tests of the full length skinny Dynema slings he had posted on Cascadeclimbers.com. He reported significant strength decreases in a few short years. Black Diamond has conducted similar tests on slings and ropes. The easy way for anyone to gage this decrease in strength is that the smaller diameter the slings are, the larger and faster this decrease in strength is. What this means to you, my lazy brothers, is that although you once could take a piece of 1″ tubular and sling a #3 Friend tied with a tied off Water knot and just forget about ever replacing it or even considering changing it out 30 years later despite what the manufacturing recommendations were, that kind of thinking is heading towards extinction. The extremes in sling choices may be represented by Black Diamond and Wild Country. Although the materials are both equally strong when new, you will most likely be able to safely tow your car many years from now with the beefy nylon BD C3 (their literature says it’s good for 3 years although it will most likely not get changed out for 20 years by some of you slackers without to much issue) : but you might need to give serious thought about tieing your dog up (say anything larger than a schnauzer) with the skinny sling on the same aged and sized Wild Country Zero. Wild Country went for lightweight (and extendable), and do not plan on it lasting very long without reslinging it. If you are a low maintenance kind of person, and don’t want to be re-slinging cams every few years, give this some serious consideration. Some manufacturers, like Wild Country, are doubling them up making them extendable. Essentially you can drop a loop and thus double the length of the sling, in theory eliminating the need for extra quickdraws or sling material so as to help reduce the chance of the cam walking out of position. This is a great feature, however, it is not done by all cam mfg as it is not as strong as a single wrap sling. Of course, on a small cam, where something else will break first before the sling material when they are new, perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. Yet some climbers hate extendable slings which they consider an unnecessary complexity that they can already better handle with a quickdraw or sling to extend the placement.
Small cams can be divided into camps of single stems and double stem units. Generally the single stem has an advantage in that the width needed for tight and small placements like pin scars is less, resulting in better placement options and a less stiff action cam slightly less likely to walk.
Aliens by CCH (formerly available as regular and offsets)
The 2 sentence (short version) summation : “They work the best.” “Pass on these, choose something else.” The company has folded and they are not made anymore, although they are available in the used market. Perhaps no other climbing gear product aroused passions and disagreements as much as these little 4 cam wonders. Concerning the Miss America pageant comparison above, these would be the hottest pageant contestant who might win the pageant anyway due to her outrageously attractive physical beauty: despite also having a schizophrenic and psychotic personality. Sadly, the inventor of the Alien and owner of the company which produced them, Dave Waggoner, passed away in 2009. Before he passed on, his products had been having some shockingly major quality issues and multiple outright failures in the field. A quick google search of “Aliens falling apart under light load” will confirm and flesh out the many sordid and varied details of this. Yet many climbers, and myself, feel that hands down, Aliens in the smaller sizes to about 1″ range, and especially their offset cousins, work the best of any small cam. Period. The choice between regular and offset may be an area dependent preference. If you consider Yosemite Valley alone, the long straight-sided splitter cracks take the regular Aliens best and the pin scars of the aid routes take the Hybrids better. I have lots of Aliens, I love them all and still use them. This is a personal choice I made after having sent all of them back while Dave Waggoner, the owner of the company, was still alive (even some old beat up cams that had seen falls) to be re-tested, stamped “Tested” and returned to me. If you are looking for used Aliens, the TESTED stamp would be something you would really want to see on each one. Yet even then that wasn’t a guarantee of strength you would expect as there were reports of even a few TESTED ones failing at low loads. Due to this, many climbers smarter than I put them on E-bay, and moved on to obtain the reliability available with all the other manufacturers making the cams discussed below.
So if you’ve decided find some used Aliens to buy anyway despite my warning, then read on for the rest of the story. A quick caveat should be that although I know many who regularly carry these, I don’t know a single soul who carry’s the larger sizes at all. That floppy stem, which is an asset in the smaller size range, quickly seems to become a liability as the weight and size of the head increases. What works on the small ones so well? The soft T6061 aluminum sticks in placements real well (yet wears faster as well). The springs are internal and can’t be damaged by sharp rock, and there is a fabric sheath that protects or perhaps helps the single stem cable slip around on sharp rocks and that cable is the also right amount of floppiness. Not too much, not too little. When they’re not falling apart with little more than body weight, they work superbly. If you choose to get some TESTED used ones – a great starter rack would be the Green, Yellow and Red sizes. At the next larger size, the orange size which sports a range of 1″ -1.6″, has many more capable options available. For instance, a regular green .75 Black Diamond Camelot, too large for this review of “small cams”, both weighs less and has more range than the Orange Alien – and the vaunted Black Diamond 6 Sigma build quality is a refreshing difference as well. For that reason, in the wild at the cliffs, the larger Aliens above the Orange seem to be about as rare as Wild Condors.
BD C3s (TCU)
These are the smallest head width cams out there. In my opinion, with the Wired Bliss, one of the best TCU’s as well. They’ll fit into a short little open slot that one could barely call a crack. Yet the stems are also stiffer than the other cams in this review. For many climbers, they don’t like the stiffness and the dual stems and walk away from the cam. Yet in talks with BD, they emphasis that this was an intentional design choice based on a real world benefit in some placements that other cams do not offer. They say that in vertical bottoming cracks, that is, where the cam is sticking straight out of a vertical crack- and not in line of a fall, the effectiveness of the camming action is increased as you strengthen the stem. In non-engineering talk, you can imagine this effect if you consider 2 extremely different potential stem materials. One would be a steel rod, the other a rope that droops straight down. In the vertical bottoming placement, the steel rod will torque the cam and cause it to rotate: ensuring that the camming action works, while the sting will droop straight down and cause what is essentially a sideways pull down the crack, perhaps causing the cam to hopefully stick like a chock into a constriction, but the camming action is not utilized. The stiffer the stems, the more rotational torque you will get. Although you may say “Well, I don’t place my cams like that duhh”. Sure, it’s rare when you have to, but they do move and rotate on occasion, often becoming stuck in that very position. Furthermore, if that is the only placement available, then you’d take it and be damn happy to have it even with the cam sticking straight out as you move above it. The more one gets off the more traveled routes the more you see that kind of placement. BD has not given up surface area to get the short width either, look carefully and you’ll note that the cams themselves cover the stems. The faults are the mirror of their strength: ie, that they are perhaps the stiffest cam out there, and that vertical bottoming placement would most likely make a mess of a cam if you did fall on it. The other common complaint is that they are tough to squeeze the trigger to retract the cams. This is more true on the larger sizes I find. However, the stiffness of the spring also helps hold the cam in place, so it another classic good news/bad news design trade off. The cams aren’t for me, yet my climbing buddy tried these out and immediately wanted a set. Go figure.
These are beautifully and skillfully made, like all DMM products. I’ll confess that as a gear whore, I love all DMM products. All of it. Still, although they would clearly win the beauty part of the contest with these sexy machined cross bars, ohhhh ohhhh ohhhh, they still come in distant last place or close to Splitters for me. That’s right, 3rd of 3 in the TCU business. A big noticeable weakness seen immediately of an otherwise solid build is marred by being unable to use your thumb on the upper crossbar like in the Metolius TCU. This is due to lack of space on the cross piece, thus you must palm the top of the U shaped stem to retract the cams, for those who already dislike double cable stem units, you’ll hate this. If you are unsure if you hate the 2 cable units, then you should really check this out first in your hand before you buy a set online someplace. Of equal or greater significance is that the size of the wire connection to the cam heads on the sides is larger than the Metolius as well, (in the C3’s this is basically a non existent issue with it’s great, innovative, out of the way, internal connection) thus eliminating a few potential marginal placements in the smaller sizes that the Metolius and certainly the C3s would shine in. The other (minor) issue, if you need another one, is that while the Metolius and BD cams can almost be found in the corner 7-11, these have some seriously limited distribution. It may not seem like a factor till you get one stuck or your buddy drops one, and would like to replace that ONE size to round out the set. There doesn’t appear to be any significant design factor that they would shine in except one: they are the only TCU made with the lighter doubled extendable sling. If that floats yer boat, and it is a feature favored by many, and you want to pay more than the Metolius cams cost to have a few less placements available to you, have at it. I am adding this last sentance as someone I climb with who has a set of these said I was too harsh on this product. Truthfully, the part in the introduction where I discuss how little difference between the best and the worst cams are should be reexamined here. It’s much like your buddy commenting on a flaw on the thigh of a beauty queen. Although I say here that the DMM 3 cams finish in last place, it is but only by a nose: they are still a very well made and high quality product.
Metolius Mastercams (available as regular and offset cms)
The 4 cam Mastercam units along with the Wild Country Zeros are as close to an Alien as any cam currently made. Close, but not quite. Basically in the smaller sizes they suffer in comparison to Aliens, yet in the larger sizes they clearly are an improvement.
Like all Metolius products they are a very high quality build, however, they made some design changes on the Alien design which were not considered improvements to many people. Of particular note: they utilized harder aluminum for the cam material and stiffer cable for the stem. This causes the placed cam not not “bite” into the rock quite like an alien and the head not to be able to twist and rotate into what is possibly the best possible placement available on occasion. The stiffer cables in the smaller size are not liked as much either. Yet in the larger sizes of the Mastercam, that stiffer cable works great and if the cable was any less stout, I believe you’d be hearing a different chorus of complaints. Metolius uses a Kevlar cord for the retraction of the cams instead of swaged wire. There were some early failures where the Kevlar material “wires” broke, meaning that the owner couldn’t retract the cam lobes thus ensuring the cam was stuck in the crack unless it could be finagled out with nut tools. Metolius quickly fixed this issue and they also took care of any customers affected and it isn’t an issue except in a few folks minds. Metolius has pioneered the use of rangefinder dots, traffic light color coded dots (Green for go, yellow for caution, and Red for seriously think about it/emergency use and don’t fall unless you have a parachute strapped to your ass) on the cam lobes which visually clue you in that are in the suggested range of cam retraction or not. One of the big issues not widely published is that in some certain rare placements, where the cam can bend back up on itself, the trigger can inadvertently cause the cams to release. Placed properly so the stem is in line to maintain the direction of fall and properly slung, this will never happen.
Metolius TCU’s (available as regular and as offset TCU’s)
Steve Byrne invented the Tri-Cam Unit, or TCU, in the 1980s. The cams were made in the garage and passed along under the table until Metolius started mfg. them in volume. Metolius TCUs quickly became THE only small cam available anywhere. They fit where no other cam or nut would work and lots of hard first ascents and long hard falls were caught by them in all parts of the world. They are still widely used to this day by many superb climbers and they are still available to buy new. For those into light weight, they weight less than the equivalent size Mastercam. The Black Diamond C3’s are a better designed 3 cam unit, and that’s really not saying anything negative about these finely crafted and solid Metolius 3 cam units which are often still purchased by folks as their go to TCU: primarily because they have a long solid reputation, are burly as hell, and also cost less than the Black Diamond C3’s. Perhaps the best buy small cams for the financially challenged of us is a used set of Metolius or Wired Bliss (the company Steve Byrne later founded) TCU’s. The Metolius cams were so ubiquitous back in the day that good condition used sets often become available for sale as folks get their IRS checks or inheritances and want to try something newer or “better”. The older slings were the longer life nylon, and if you have any doubt on the sling material of a used one just pay a few bucks to Fish, Yates, or Wired Bliss and have them reslung. Currently they are produced with solidly sized 13mm 36% Dyneema/64% nylon sling material.
,The selling features that the marketing folks at Totem say out perform other cams are holding at a larger angle in a bombay flare- I think they even mentioned 40 degrees (which would be pretty damn rad). They also say that they hold with only a single set of cams, 2 of the 4. I had thought, from the marketing hype, that these would kick everything else’s butt in those marginal aid placements. They don’t. Certainly not against an offset Alien. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not trash. They are a high quality unit and well built. Not as good as a Camalot, I feel, and at $80 a unit, they are the most expensive cam in this report. More cost doesn’t translate into more benefits. For aid, they don’t perform as well as an offset Alien of the same size. So when I heard Bryan Schmidt, a high end free climber, say that he doesn’t want them on his rack due to having to fiddle with the trigger to try and make it work mid crux, it makes me wonder who is going to be buying these things? One plus for the Totems vs an Alien….better range. That’s about it. They have the narrower head as well, dead nutz the same width as an Alien. Yet they do not fit a pin scar like a single stem Alien or Mastercam, more comparable to a TCU, as there are cables on both sides. I suspect that if 100 people were to look at a Camalot, Wired Bliss or Metolius Mastercam unit vs the Totem: 99 percent would pick something other than a Totem. Certainly if they had to pay for it. The different slinging method means that they need a lot more real estate on your rack to start with. They will be much easier to destroy when aiding as well. (A quick look at this as an aiding piece will confirm that this is a piece you NEVER want to loan to the 250 lb Ivan for aiding LOL!) Summation: they are more labor intensive to grab and plug free climbing, take up more room on your rack yet they do not stick, stay, or grab better than an offset Alien, and cost the most of any cam currently listed here by a wide margin.
Wired Bliss TCU’s
Wired Bliss came back as a viable company April 2010. Perhaps no other company had such vocal supporters of their products as these guys did. The old customers had passionately loved their old Wired Bliss units. No one other than Wired Bliss is using the softer rock gripping T6061 aluminum like the Aliens use to use. Currently they are producing TCUS and 4 cams units. Unlike the Aliens, these have been flawless in the field. If you are looking for a set of TCUS, these should be high on the list to look at.
Malcom Daly of Trango, not known for false words: says this about Splitters: “Awesome in super-shallow pods and pinscars where nothing else but tied off pins work. An S4 will pass CE strength tests when hanging on just 2 cams. Just plug in one end. Aid only though, eh? Full strength when completely tipped out. Not that I recommend it but if one walks or inverts for any reason, they’re still bomber. Narrow heads. Can’t beat ’em for weird tight placements. While they don’t have the range of regular cams they come in handy enough that I usually have a few on my rack.” Splitters were the result of the collaboration of some engineering students who climbed. They wanted to develop something better for hard shallow aid placements and small pin scars. Like many interesting new ideas, Trango picked up the project and is making and marketing them. My take, like sleeping with your ugly cousin. Sorry. I got a set of these as part of a gear package quite some time ago. Despite being “used” when I got them, they still looked new. The extendable sling is a great idea, but I have found them to be the least valuable additions to my rack of any of the small cams. I will confess that I was an early adopter of what was called a “Buddy”, which pioneered the idea of 2 opposable cams (as opposed to 4) thinking it would be a good idea. It wasn’t, as those of use who tried them found out. They soon went out of business. Splitters, their bastard linage where their are 4 cams that match up, work significantly better than Buddies, but still do not seem to work as well as the other cams here in my opinion. For me, the times I see the idealized placement and advantages that Malcolm lines up above are few and far between. 2 cams in a pod? Uhhh, OK. I’d rather have an offset Alien in that placement. To me, these often had more difficulty seating well in an identical placement which one of the other small cam beauties would slip right into. Would I haul mine up some hard aid on El Cap though especially as I already own a set? Hell yeah. Would I be surprised if someone out there loved these more than any other cam….probably not. People are strange.
Wild Country Zeros
The smallest cams in the world are the smallest sized Zeros, made by Wild Country. Wild Country had also produced the first commercially available cams, called “Friends”, so Wild Country’s linage of making solid and innovative products stretches back a long way. One almost has to discuss Zeros as if they were 2 different products, the larger ones and the smaller tiny ones. I believe one could hate beyond belief (and fear) the smallest Zeros and yet still love the larger ones more than any other made (with a range of .67″ – 0.94″ even the largest zero is a small cam). Of the smallest sized Zeros, you cannot compare them to any other cam as there is nothing to compare them too. They are tinier and smaller than any cam made. Either like them or you don’t, no comparison is available as they are the only tiny cams in that range made by anyone. The one is listed at .22″ – 0.31″. You could compare the small sized ones to ballnutz, the sliding nuts for thin, straight sided, cracks. The 1 and 2 are so small as to be thought of as toys by real climbers unfamiliar with them who do not know that they are fondling a real working cam. On the positive side, with the moniker “tiny” comes the verb “light” as well, the #1 comes in at under an ounce. The suckage which comes with the size is that the range is also shockingly tiny. If you have an opportunity to closely examine any crack, even one that appears parallel at first glance: you’ll notice that when examined closely they are rarely straight up and down with smooth sides. They are jagged, rough and often shallow. Couple the jagged with the minimal range of these tiny cams and you have a greatly reduced opportunity for fully benefiting from their tiny size or getting that placement which you could have sworn they would stick in. They just often do NOT fit in the small cracks which you think they “should” or “could” fit into. They need to be placed extra carefully with skill and a sharp eye to get a good placement, yet once you get that placement, they are often good enough to actually place your trust in it. I’m generally not a believer in cam stops as a selling feature I need or want, yet cam stops for a cam this tiny can help turn a marginal cam placement into a solid (fully open cam) nut placement when it greases down your poor choice of placement in the fully opened position and wedges in the crack like a nut. Metolius claims that their smallest cams are for aid only, you regularly hear those occasional 30 foot free climbing fall stories onto the smallest Metolius. I suspect this kind of story will never be duplicated on the tiniest Wild Country cams. Aid only and they mean it. Anyone stupid enough to stuff one in a knifeblade sized crack and take a free climbing ride onto it will not get a Metolius like story of it actually holding is my bet. As noted, in the tiny size range, Trango/Lowe Ball nuts (and other slider style nuts) are often more effective and stronger.
The Zeros made the biggest impact on me in terms of changing my opinion of any of the cams I reviewed. To start, I had a preconception that these just totally sucked, just from standing inside of a store and squeezing one back and forth. On a rare occasion I’d hear someone say “I just love my Zeros”, but I’d quickly dismiss them as lunatics too poor to afford good cams, or as a climber who lived a sheltered life and were unaware of what other cams offered. They’re somewhat floppy and they make the damnedest gritty sound accompanied by a gritty feel as well because the trigger grinds across some spring-like coating of the cable stem, much like if you were playing a guitar while sitting on the strings so that there was no tone. One would think that being floppy is a good thing, but it’s a mixed blessing, like much of what can be said of the Zero, the positive often comes with some negative. For free climbing, with the larger versions of these (say #3 and up) you get real good holding power, light weight, and between the floppier cable and the fact that all WC cams have a doubled (extendable) sling, you will have less need for quick draws to extend your cams, and clipping that crux piece while you a hanging on with your failing fingers on a wandering route is a lot nicer experience. They outperform all other small cams on those real long Yosemite or Red Rocks free climbing pitches. Yet that great light sling also comes with a significantly shorter life as well, so plan on some extra scratch periodically every few years to replace the slings.