By Tamia Nelson
April 13, 2010
Climbers have been using carabiners for a long time, but in recent decades paddlers have discovered them, as well. No surprise there. Carabiners are great for making connections, both on the water and off. They hold things together, in other words, and they help you lift, lower, and haul. They're handy time‑savers, too. With a carabiner, you can attach a line to a boat — or a lanyard to your pack — with just a quick click. If there's already a loop in the line, there's no need to fuss with knots or hitches. And you can release the line as quickly as you attached it. Carabiners can also be used, alone or with pulleys, to rig improvised tackles like the Z‑drag, and these "force multipliers" are essential tools in salvage and rescue operations. Carabiners even make lashing boats for storage or transport easier.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Let's begin at the beginning. Just what are carabiners, anyway? Easy. They're snap hooks. (The word comes from the German Karabinerhaken, or "carbine‑hook," the snap‑swivel that secures a sling to a carbine. You'll also see it spelled "karabiner," frequently abbreviated "krab.") Be careful, though: Not all snap hooks are carabiners. Don't confuse novelty carabiners and light‑duty snap hooks with the real thing. You've seen these little guys on key fobs, on water bottles, and in dozens — maybe hundreds — of other applications. They're fine, in their place, but when you really need to make heavy‑duty connections, baby 'biners will let you down. Hard. That's no fun, is it? So for serious work, when lives or vital gear are at stake, you need the real deal. Big jobs call for the big boys, hardware that can shoulder the load and take the strain without letting go.
Carabiners fit the bill. And every paddler should carry a few, just in case. That's a given. But are you sure you know what to do with them, now that you have them? Or how to care for them? No? Then keep reading. First, though, a few words on what this article isn't: It isn't a primer on river rescue, nor is it a substitute for hands‑on instruction. If you're lucky, you'll find at least one good book on rescue and salvage techniques in your local library. (I can recommend the Whitewater Rescue Manual by Charles Walbridge and Wayne A. Sundmacher.) Read it. Then put in a little time under the watchful eye of someone who's had a few years' experience pulling boats and boaters out of troubled waters.
OK. I've offloaded my cargo of Good Advice. It's time we got down to the business of the day:
My model for this shot was a standard oval 'biner. Like most modern climbing 'biners, it's made from aluminum, with steel hinge pins. (Steel 'biners are also available, and they're frequently found in the kit bags of SAR team members and tree surgeons.) The gate is anodized and the nose has a pronounced bulge. This combination of visual and tactile clues reduces the fumble factor, making it easy to deploy the 'biner quickly — even when you can't see it. Now here's the same 'biner with the gate open:
The hinge is spring‑loaded. Once you let go of the gate, it immediately snaps shut…
And the "traveling" pin comes to rest against the latch‑hook milled into the 'biner's nose. The small gap you see is intentional — it allows the carabiner to deform slightly, making it possible to open the gate even under moderate load.
Oval carabiners like the one in the photos above are all‑rounders, and they're not necessarily the best choice for a particular job. This fact helps explain the proliferation of designs. Here's a small selection from my gear rack (the lower panel is annotated to identify the various types):
Don't let this varied array flummox you. There are only three representative types of "real" carabiners among the six 'biners in this picture: two standard ovals, a third oval with a wire gate, and two asymmetric locking Ds. The sixth and smallest item is a "mini‑'biner." It's a toy, not a tool — something to clip your water bottle to a thwart, in other words. Now here's a closer look at a real 'biner, the wire‑gate oval:
Notwithstanding first impressions, the wire gate isn't a weak link. In fact, the wire‑gate 'biner in the photo is both stronger and lighter than conventional ovals. It's also less prone to "gatelash," a disconcerting — and sometimes disastrous — tendency of standard gates to pop open when a carabiner comes under a sudden strain. Still, wire gates can be forced open by a twisting line or an errant nubbin of rock, as can the gates of standard 'biners. That's why it's always best to take precautions.
Locking carabiners are one solution to this problem. As the name suggests, the gates on these 'biners can be locked in place by screwing down a threaded collar. And they'll stay that way till you back the collar off again. Here's what a locking D looks like close up:
The first photo shows the collar backed off. The gate can now be opened. In the second shot, however, you see the collar screwed down, locking the gate closed. By the way, my photo model here is a Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate. Why "Mini"? Good question. It's the largest 'biner in my rack. Make no mistake, though: despite the "Mini," this is not a toy. It's the real thing. You can bet your life on it, and many climbers do just that.
Now here's an illustration of the value of locking 'biners. In the photos below, I put both a standard oval carabiner and a locking D under a light load while the gates bore against a projecting nubbin of rock:
The standard oval opens up. The locking D doesn't. And the moral of the story? It's best to use locking 'biners in rescue or salvage operations. But what if you don't have any? What then? Just double up your standard 'biners, making sure to oppose the gates:
It's a clumsy thing to rig, and it may take you an extra minute or two to set up, but that's a lot better than watching your boat (or your partner) get swept away when a carabiner gate springs open unexpectedly. And you get a bonus. Two 'biners are twice as strong as one. The small chance that a 'biner will fail under load is now halved.
So far, we've talked mostly about size and gate type. Conclusion? Size matters. So‑called "mini‑'biners" are toys. (NB To reiterate what I've said before: Black Diamond's Mini Pearabiner Screwgate is no toy. It's the genuine article.) The type of gate matters, too. Locking 'biners are better for salvage and rescue work. But that's not the end of the story. You've probably noticed that my 'biners come in different shapes, as well as different sizes…
What About Shape?
I have both ovals and asymmetric Ds on my rack, and there's a third commonly encountered shape: the symmetrical D. Why would you choose one shape over another? That depends on both your needs and your tastes. Oval 'biners are pleasing to the eye. This isn't very important, of course. But they're also comparatively cheap, and that may sway you — especially if you're building a rack of twenty or more. But think twice. Ovals are also weaker than Ds, and their comparatively small baskets don't cope well with bulky webbing hitches.
On the other hand, asymmetric Ds combine high strength with a wide basket. The largest of these ("pear" carabiners, like the Black Diamond Pearabiner) are the 'biners of choice for climbers who plan on using Munter‑hitch belays. (See photo at right, but notice that the carabiner gate is not locked. It should be.) The big gates and deep baskets on some asymmetric Ds also make it possible to clip these 'biners around large‑diameter objects — even paddle shafts!
None of my photos shows a symmetrical (or standard) D, though the wire‑gate 'biner that Black Diamond has labeled as an oval looks a lot like a 'D to me. In any case, symmetrical Ds occupy a middle ground of sorts. They're stronger than oval carabiners — when the load comes along the major axis, that is — but they frequently have even smaller baskets. And (apart from Black Diamond's Oval Wiregate, perhaps) they're becoming increasingly hard to find.
Putting aside my quibbles about what is and isn't labeled a 'D, we can all agree that a carabiner's shape influences its ultimate strength, and this is important, because…
A 'Biner Can Never Be Too Strong
That said, any 'biner that's strong enough to go on a climber's rack should stand a paddler in good stead. (Pros and SAR teams will want special, built‑for‑purpose gear, of course.) All modern carabiners bear a rating stamp, indicating the minimum yield strength along the major axis (both with and without the gate closed), as well as the cross‑load capacity — the yield strength when a load comes along the minor axis, between the hinge and the spine. These are given in kilonewtons (1 kN equals about 100 kilograms of load, or some 225 lbs). By the way: Carabiners are designed for loads along the major axis. Avoid deliberate cross‑loading!
Here's the rating stamp on a Black Diamond Quicksilver Screwgate:
The first number (25 kN) gives the minimum yield strength along the major axis with the gate closed; the second (9 kN), the yield strength when the gate is open; and the third, the cross‑load capacity (7 kN). By comparison, a Black Diamond oval 'biner is rated 18 kN, 7 kN, and 7 kN, respectively. Anything less rugged is probably best used to hold a water bottle.
Of course, even the best gear requires a minimum of care, and while 'biners are pretty simple gadgets, they're no exception to this rule. After all…
An Ounce of Prevention…
Moreover, your preventative maintenance program should start as soon as you bring new 'biners back from the shop or open the box that UPS dropped on your doorstep. Check your purchases for hairline cracks, rough spots, and sharp edges — and make sure the gates open easily and close securely. Then repeat this check before every outing. It only takes a minute or two. So make it part of your prefloat and postfloat routine. Small burrs are one thing. They can be smoothed down with medium‑ or fine‑grit sandpaper. (Never use a file!) But any carabiner that's been dropped more than a few feet onto rock or subjected to the strain of a rescue should be marked and retired as soon as possible. Microcracks that are invisible to the naked eye can make a 'biner an accident waiting to happen. Don't take chances.
It pays to keep you 'biners clean, too. Wash off grit before it damages the hinge or abrades a line, and be sure to rinse carabiners thoroughly after each exposure to salt water. Lubricate the pins and screw collars with silicon grease or light oil as needed (I use a tiny drop of Shimano Slippery Spitt on each pin), and then store in a dry, airy place between trips, far from any acids, caustics, or solvents. All this is a bit of a nuisance, I admit, but it's worth it. You want your 'biners to be ready for duty when you need them most. The middle of a raging river is no place to discover a jammed hinge.
Canoeists and kayakers are often told to carry carabiners, and that's good advice. These sturdy snap hooks are essential tools for much salvage and rescue work. But not every paddler knows how to employ them most effectively — or how to care for them between trips. So take the time to learn about these versatile links. And then get a little hands‑on instruction from someone who already knows the ropes. Once you've done that, you'll never need to worry about making connections again, on the water or off. That's a good feeling, isn't it?
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