Cams: Breaking The Rules

For some Trad climbers, placing cams can be more nuanced and less obvious than a sinker large nut in a perfect constricting crack.

Common myths and absolute rules of using a cam can also lead to misunderstandings. Remember, there are few absolute rules to placing gear, think of them more as best practice guidelines as opposed to hard and fast rules.

Below I have listed some of the misconceptions about cams I’ve heard and occasions when its appropriate to break the rules.

You can’t place cams in The Burren

Limestone is considered a soft rock. Not the kind of soft that you can take ground falls and be happy, but soft in that its top layers or microns are softer than that of granite or quartzite.

If I have the choice between a nut and a cam, I’ll probably use a nut every time. But if I have the choice between a cam or no gear at all, I’m clearly going to try a cam.

When looking to place cams in limestone, we should allow for the softer nature of the rock and treat our cams a little more like passive pro than active pro.

We should look for the constrictions and rugosities that exist on limestone cracks and we should attempt to place our cams into the crack where its wide, sliding the lobes behind the knuckles or constrictions.

How to place cams in the Burren
A nicely constructed cam

Find those constrictions

When done right, this makes the placement not only reliant on the active camming of the lobes. but also the passive piece of metal is just too big to squeeze out of the crack. I find I even adopt this technique on all rock types now, optimising placements.

On routes like Nutrocker, where the crux crack is very uniform and highly polished, I think we have to work harder on limestone to find an optimal placement than if the rock was granite.

A technique I use on limestone is to imagine a thin layer of ice covering the walls of the crack. That forces me to seek out the above-mentioned constrictions rather than just rely on the cam working as it normally would.

Failing that I just seek out the deepest possible placement without inserting the trigger. This at least allows the lobes more opportunity to hold.

Theres plenty of good nut placements on Nutrocker anyway, so it’s not like we have to rely on a cam, but most people know the climb and it serves well to visualise the rock surface.

You cant place Cams in horizontal cracks

This came up recently on an RCI training course I was running. One of the trainees had been admonished by a climbing partner for placing a cam in a horizontal crack.

In fairness, this was a thing when the stems of cams were rigid metal and there was a potential for the stem to crack off the edge of the crack under load.

Just Bomber Gear Cam
Pic courtesy of @justbombergear

This is way less of an issue these days as manufacturers have gone to great lengths to engineer flexible stems from spun wires.

Wider Lobes always on the bottom

When using cams we should always aim to use the wider outside lobes on the widest area of the rock. Think about lobes as legs. If we adopt a wide legged stance it’s hard to push us off balance, but if we stand with a narrow stance, it’s much easier to be unbalanced.

Especially on horizontal cracks of a uniform nature we ideally want the wider outside lobes to be on the bottom side of the crack. This is the most desirable outcome, as it leads to less walking, more stability and spreads the load better.

Wide lobes down in crack


Exceptions to the rule

However, we dont always get presented with a perfect uniform crack and there are always exceptions to the rules. The opening or “mouth” of a horizontal crack can be flared and funky for example.


placing cams wide lobes up


In the photo above, the cam just won’t slide anymore inside the crack when the wider lobes are on the bottom (A). Whereas using the same cam with the wide lobes pointing upwards it slides much further inside the crack (B) and ultimately looks to be the better placement.

In an instance where the top edge of the horizontal crack may extend wider than the bottom edge of the crack, it can happen that an “upside down” cam placement is the best option to achieve surface area contact for the cam lobes.

How the lobes are making contact can sometimes rank higher than which way the wide lobes are orientated.

You cant use a cam in a bottom rope anchor

While cams can walk or their placement be altered by a moving rope, they are acceptable to use as an anchor, if an alternative isn’t available.

Yes, if you’re setting up a bottom rope anchor, the anchors will be out of sight when in use, so ideally its highly preferable to use a sling, nut or hex, but we dont always get preferable choices and have to use whats there.

Maybe by equalizing two side by side cam placements with a sling, into a singular anchor point, we can lessen the potential for walking or movement, obviously used as a part of a bigger anchor set up.

For example, trying to set up a bottom rope on the popular Cronin’s Crack without cams will have you exploring.

All 4 Lobes must be touching the rock.

4 points of contact are the best. 3 points of contact can be fine, but you want it to be the two wide outside lobes camming and possibly sacrifice one of the inside lobes

I once placed a small cam on a route called Sunken Business in The Gap. Only 3 lobes were in contact, with one of the outside lobes hanging in free air, but it was all that I could find to place at the time and the only piece between me and the ground.

I continued to climb and actually reached a positive hold, but couldn’t take my mind off what looked like a funky cam placement, I freaked out a bit, started to downclimb, slipped, fell and thanks to great belaying and 3 lobes I stopped about 1 inch off the ground.

It was a weird way to learn a lesson but a lesson learnt all the same.

I dont recommend testing your gear this way if possible though.

I hope the above info is useful. If you would like to discuss any aspect further, please get in touch and we can chat.

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