Care-a-biner

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Carabiner use is commonplace in parks around the world, and the consequences of a failure can be tremendous. In addition, carabiners are handled by guests, a user base that has no specialized knowledge of the product, thus enriching the need for staff vigilance. Yet despite these concerns—or perhaps because of them—carabiners can be a safe, reliable, and versatile tool, as technology pushes them to better places.

The carabiner is a simple device at the outset—essentially a metal loop with a gate. But it literally holds people’s lives. Additionally, there are a multitude of designs and styles. For instance, Petzl’s product line includes eight different types of locking mechanisms for carabiners, and six different types of basic shapes. Therefore, the proper selection, usage, cleaning, storage, inspection—and more—are of paramount importance.

Here we round up advice and information from operators, suppliers, and manufacturers to see where carabiners are today, how to best use them, and how to maximize their lifespan.

The Progression of Safety

Mitigating, and ideally eliminating, the possibility for human error when using carabiners is at the top of the priority list in the adventure park industry. This entails many elements, but a significant step is keeping any chance of adjustment, and therefore failure, out of the hands of guests and staff.

“The trend is removing any additional step that a person has to take, which has an inherent chance of error,” says Patrick Ferebee, the director of e-commerce and product strategy for Aerial Adventure Tech, a supplier of commercial climbing and aerial adventure equipment. “Why not get a product that eliminates or minimizes the risk factor? This is where we push people to go.”

One example Ferebee notes is operators moving away from carabiners with screw gates and into auto-locking systems. In another, he sees rising use of features that help ensure a carabiner stays oriented correctly, such as captive eye carabiners or positioners and configuration aids. He has also seen an increase in the use of carabiners that require a special tool to open, such as the Petzl Am’D PIN-LOCK carabiner, which can only be opened and closed by park staff.

Other products can aid in the carabiner doing its job better and more safely. The Petzl String, a rubber device, is one example. It keeps the rope positioned properly when attached to the carabiner and can also protect against abrasion.

Ben Haase, the managing director of Ropes Park Equipment, notes that there are no standards for all aspects of carabiner usage, due in large part to the vast differences in the types of parks and the way carabiners are used in them. “Some may have around 20 to 30 elements, while others have hundreds,” he says. “Certain parks lend themselves to different products.”

Haase agrees that removing the element of human error is paramount. He sees many parks moving toward multi-action carabiners, where multiple actions are required to open the gate, thus adding an extra measure of safety.

Michael Smith, the president of Adventuresmith Inc., a company that designs and implements adventure challenge programs, notes that the high number of different carabiner brands, styles, and designs can create confusion due to the many different locking systems, even if they are all designed to be as simple as possible to use. He says this diversity of systems is a concern, and he is always seeking better ways to connect people.

Smith sees advantages to systems where carabiners aren’t used at all, such as a quick-link or rapid link system. He knows that adventure park guests have a natural tendency to fidget with the products they use, including carabiners, which reinforces the importance of simplifying and streamlining human interaction with the gear.

Keep ’Em Clean

Carabiners are rugged pieces of equipment, relatively speaking. Still, proper cleaning and maintenance can lead to a long life for the product, especially the gate and hinge. Following a defined set of guidelines can help save money, in addition to meeting safety needs.

Ferebee emphasizes the need for vigilance when it comes to cleaning carabiners. Some operators are more focused on cleaning harnesses and other textiles, where the need for care is more obvious. But carabiners need the same degree of attention, he notes. “In a silty environment like the desert, or a coastal environment with sea salt, it’s important to rinse them to preserve the metals,” he says.

Smith agrees. As the operator of two parks in the distinctly different climates of Tennessee and Vermont, he sees different environmental effects based on where the equipment lives. The strong humidity in Tennessee leads to a “high amortization cycle,” he says, and increases the need for having a good storage system. That highlights the need for care and maintenance.

For maintaining the gate and hinge and to restore spring action, Petzl recommends lubricating the hinge with a light oil. Ferebee stresses making sure the gate is clean before lubricating it, as dirt diminishes the benefits of lubrication. After lubrication, clean off the oil residue with a cloth to avoid getting oil on harnesses or slings. Petzl’s cleaning guidelines advise against using WD-40 (so does Ferebee), as that product can dry out the hinge and the spring and accelerate aging. Using a high-pressure water sprayer is not recommended, either, as it will dry out the gate hinge.

What lubricants are best, then? Most manufacturers recommend lightweight lubricants such as mineral oil, wax- and Teflon-based products, says Ferebee. Graphite is commonly used, but some manufacturers are recommending against it, he adds.

The Material Effect

Which is the better material for a carabiner: steel or aluminum? Steel is reputed to be stronger, and aluminum lighter. The choice depends on how the carabiner will be used, course design, weather factors, and more.

Ferebee frequently recommends aluminum. Aluminum carabiners are more resistant to rust and oxidization, and when they are outside in the elements for long periods of time—as is common in many adventure parks—aluminum carabiners hold up better. While steel is the stronger option, every carabiner has to pass strength standards that certify them for particular uses.

Ferebee also notes that if the metal carabiner is in contact with other metal, such as when being attached to a cable, it’s essential to make sure those materials are compatible with each other to prevent or minimize wear.

It’s widely believed that if carabiners are dropped from height, they should be replaced due to the risk of microfractures. While any gear that has been dropped should undergo an inspection and potentially be replaced, recent research suggests that mandatory replacement may not be necessary.

In 2015, the Outdoor Safety Institute (OSI) cited a study that supports this notion. In the study, a team of engineers dropped carabiners from 21, 40, and 109 feet onto concrete, filmed the impact on high-speed video, and tested the ultimate strength of the dropped carabiners. They found that while “microfractures are indeed a real thing… there was no difference in breaking strength between brand new carabiners and ones that had been dropped, even from [109] feet.”

OSI’s report went on to clarify, “While this should not be treated as a license to recklessly abuse your gear, it seems like you shouldn’t worry about dropping a carabiner from your waist.”

Smart Buying, Smart Gear

Given the sheer number of carabiners in adventure parks and their safety implications, Smith recommends that operators “find a supplier that will be around for a long time” to ensure quality products and a lasting relationship.

Consistency with suppliers also helps to streamline your carabiner inventory. The tighter the inventory, the fewer complications you will encounter. Smith points out: “The more consistent you are with buying, the easier it is to recognize abnormalities.”

At his parks, Smith has converted almost entirely to steel, auto-locking carabiners, and relies on two primary models. That makes replacement much easier if the springs wear down or replacement is needed, he says.

It is also crucial to document the specifications for the products in your park, in case they need to be replaced. Smith advises to always maintain a book that lists the park builder’s and manufacturers’ specifications as a reference.

Ferebee agrees that it’s important to ensure your supply of carabiners is well documented. He recommends operators keep a full list of approved products and approved vendors on hand. “Parks should also have alternates for those products, should they be needed,” he says. And, “A course will want a trusted supplier that will communicate things like recalls.”

Such communication can be important. Smith, who also does third-party inspections, notes that he has carried out inspections in which the operator was unaware of a recall in effect for a product the park was using. Proactive communication between supplier and operator would have negated this issue.

As with other aspects of adventure parks, carabiners continue to evolve. The industry will continue to implement tweaks and changes, as many stakeholders collaborate in search of the optimal system. So, while carabiners are simple in concept, it pays to keep abreast of the latest developments.

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About Author

Dave Zook grew up surrounded by adventure on the coast of California just north of San Francisco. He started gathering stories before he had a clue how to convert them into magazine articles while playing in the surf and on the trails of Marin County. Eventually that led to journalism school in Oregon where he shaped that interest into a craft, graduating in 2005. He has been pursuing that craft from Oregon to New Zealand and beyond. He is now based in the mountains of Lake Tahoe. He continues to write about his never-ending hunt for adventure.

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