For a couple of decades all spring-loaded camming devices were simply called 'friends'. But the competition got better and better and slowly Wild Country's original lost its market dominance and we began calling camming devices 'cams'.
How do Cams Work?
The camming angle is the angle between the cam surface and a perfectly parallel crack. The smaller the angle, the more the squarely the force is directed to the rock so the better the holding power. On the other hand, a lower camming angle means a tighter spiral and a smaller expansion range. When Ray Jardine first invented Friends he worked out that the optimum angle was 13.75°. Some of the cams now available differ very slightly from that but most are there or thereabouts.
Single or double stem?
Double-stemmed, or ladder-style, units tend to be lighter for a given size but are a little more likely to be bent out of shape by a fall onto a diagonal placement, which puts some people off. Personally, I've found they could just be bent back on the rare occasions it has happened to me. Another advantage is that the trigger wires tend to be protected to some extent by the stem so they are less likely to become frayed and bent.
Single or double axle?
Double axles let you use a larger cam in a smaller unit by offsetting the two opposing cams. It gives more expansion range in proportion to the overall size but what you gain in range you lose in weight since that larger cam will also weigh more. One way you get more units, so more potential placements overall. The other way you carry fewer units, but each one is fractionally more versatile.
Diagram showing how the camming angle works. Image: Wild Country
In Spring 2011 Wild Country released its new Helium Friends, the first really major redesign of the original. Last Spring, DMM released the Dragons – the first direct competitor to Black Diamond's double-axed Camalots. We look at how the new models stack up against the established competition. To give a better idea of how the weight and range of the units compare, I have quoted the number of units that would give an equivalent range to the old Wild Country Friends, sizes 1-4, with the total weight.
DMM 4CUs - RRP from £37.50
DMM use the same 13.75° camming angle as the original Friends. In fact DMM make the 4CU with the same cams as they used to make Technical Friends for Wild Country but use a lighter-weight double stem, which also allows a doubled, expandable dyneema sling. DMM's superb build quality and keen pricing meant that 4CUs were just about the best-selling cams in the UK over the last few years. How are they to use? They do what it says on the tin. Not exciting exactly but then as much as I might get excited by cams in the shop, when I'm climbing I want them to quietly go about their business without fuss. They do exactly that and are solid and dependable. I could wish that the triggers were a little longer on the smaller sizes to give more reach into deep placements but that is a relatively minor complaint. I also found the double stem can be awkward in a tiny minority of constricted placements but it was very rare and wouldn't stop me choosing 4CUs. I checked all the cams in this review for use with gloves and mitts for winter climbing and the 4CU was slightly harder to use with my gloves on but, oddly, the only one I could reliably use wearing mitts. To cover a range from 19-100mm you would have 7 units weighing a total of 983g
Pros: Extendable sling; price
Cons: May be harder to use wearing gloves; double stem not for everyone
Wild Country Helium Friend - RRP from £52
Wild Country has kept the classic format of the 13.75° camming angle and single stem and axle but has re-worked everything else, including the sizing. Why has Wild Country done away with sizes that most climbers were very familiar with? Well, the size range of the original Friends evolved from just a few sizes and as new sizes were added between existing ones the result was that the gaps between sizes were a little uneven. The re-sizing gives a logical, even spread with a fairly consistent overlap between sizes. Heliums are much lighter than previous Friends but claims of extra range are perhaps a little over-stated. I got the Heliums quite late on for this review and had less time to test them than I did the other cams so I might find more to fault if I use them much more but...I was surprised by how impressed I was. Superficially they don't look all that clever but Wild Country has got a couple of subtle aspects of the design spot on. The springs are good and strong, at least on the prototypes I tested. That might mean they feel less smooth in the shop but it also makes them a little less prone to walking and also very slightly reduces the chance of the unit slipping at the point of loading (as the rope comes tight in a fall the load isn't constant - there is usually a bit of 'flutter' which can lead to cams slipping and a strong spring helps minimise this). Wild Country has also increased the trigger length in the smallest sizes so you get more reach and so the second can get to the trigger easily for removal. The Heliums felt reassuringly stable in use, they went in placements first time and stayed put. Overall, they are a very good unit and there isn't much to fault. To cover a range from 19-100mm you would have 7 units weighing a total of 949g
Pros: Stiffer springs than other models; long trigger; lightweight
Cons: Not much
Black Diamond Camalot - RRP from £55
Camalots have steadily increased their following in the UK since they were redesigned a few years ago. Not a lot of people know this but, internally, a Camalot is a twin-stemmed device. The two sides of the stem are pinched together in the plastic sleeve and swaged into the head to give the handling of a single stem but the weight saving of a double stem. Camalots gain extra range from the double axle, and also by slightly increasing the camming angle of some sizes. In theory this will very slightly reduce holding power but, as Black Diamond point out, these are well tested units that certainly don't make a habit of coming out. Camalots are as lovely to use as they are beautifully built. I consistently got the right size first time, even though I am more used to other units, which is probably the extra range at work. There is precious little to fault and yet, somehow, I often found myself reaching for other units first. The springs felt a little less stiff than many others and the head of the unit just didn't sit quite as rock-steady as I clipped. The difference in holding power is probably negligible to non-existent but it did mean that the single axle units inspired me with a tiny bit more confidence. To cover a range from 19-100mm (actually 19.6-114.7mm) requires 6 units with a total weight of 984g.
Pros: Largest camming range
Cons: Weight; slightly weaker springs than other models
DMM Dragon - RRP from £50
After all the hype since their launch, Dragons probably need no introduction. The clever stem arrangement in Camalots is patented so DMM use a conventional single stem but save weight with hot-forged cams and have an extendable sling courtesy of a very clever thumb termination. Dragons sat very nicely in the hand and the thumb termination felt very secure – no fumbling around here. I found the double sling could sometimes be a little fiddly but I did end up using it a lot, even on grit, and I think it would really earn its keep once I got more used to it. If there is a downside it is that, like Camalots, they seem to have slightly weaker springs. If I had only had one type of unit on my rack I may not have noticed it but placing different brands in quick succession made me realise that slight difference. All in all though, Dragons have raised the bar from where Black Diamond set it and these are excellent units. To cover a range from 19-100mm (actually 20-114mm) means carrying 6 units weighing of 941g.
Pros: Extra range; extendable sling
Cons: Slightly weaker springs than other models; reach could be longer.
Metolius Master Cam - RRP £55
The Master Cams were unashamedly designed to compete with the now defunct CCH Alien, with a very narrow head and super-flexible single stem. A narrower head can often go where a wider one can't and the larger Master Cams will even fit a perfectly round shot hole which most other units simply can't (Masters' Edge anyone?). The extra flexibility in the stem helps make sure the cam is loaded correctly in shallow placements. Metolius has made a conscious choice to sacrifice range for holding power and use a 13.25° camming angle on all its cams. Incidentally, of all the brands of camming device I have used (Metolius, Black Diamond, Wild Country, Clog, Vector, HB, DMM, Wired Bliss, Rock Empire, CCH, Trango) Metolius is one of only two that I have never seen slip out. I have used them less than some others so it's not a statistically significant observation but does give pause for thought. Like Aliens, Master Cams are best known for their small units and tend to be labelled as specialist pieces of gear, so Metolius was keen for me to try the larger sizes of Master Cam to show that they can stand up as a workhorse in ordinary sizes. The first impression on handling Masters was that they had unusually strong springs, with an audible snap. In use I found they seated extremely well with the combination of strong springs and flexibility keeping the head rock steady. I pretty quickly found myself reaching for the Master Cams in preference to whatever else I was carrying simply because they went in so reassuringly. I never found the reduced camming range to be a problem but it does mean you need to carry more cams. To cover the 19-100mm range means making up the largest sizes with another cam: using Dragons you would end up with 7 cams (4 Masters and 3 Dragons) weighing 1130g
Pros: Strong springs; extra holding power; super flexible; narrow heads
Cons: Reduced range
So which are the best camming devices? The DMM Dragons and Wild Country Heliums did seem just a shade better than their older counterparts, being slightly lighter with smarter features, but the differences are not huge. It is easy to get bogged down looking at the ranges or weights but in reality, the safest and best camming unit is the one that lets you easily select the right size and place it perfectly first time. That comes down purely to ergonomics. If using a particular model of camming device feels awkward it isn't the right one for you, however perfect its vital statistics might have sounded. For me, the Metolius Master Cams were absolutely perfect so I would have them as the smaller part of my cam rack without question. As for the larger half, I've been swinging between Wild Country Heliums and DMM Dragons for the whole time I've been writing this review. I'll let you know if I ever decide......