TriCams – a Thrifty Rock Climber’s Secret Weapon!

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Unlike many rock climbers, I purchased a set of C.A.M.P. Tricams for my beginner trad rack. While I had never played with them before, I had gleaned from research they were something special. And in the six years since they showed up on my rack, I’ve never doubted my choice.

But TriCams are something of an enigma in the rock climbing world. Some climbers swear by them, while others claim they are obsolete.

Today, I’m here to advocate on behalf of my beloved tricams.  

How Does a TriCam Work?

TriCams were invented by Greg Lowe, a seminal mountain climber (coincidentally also the inventor of the internal frame backpack and sliding ball nuts, actually). They were developed back in the 1970s. 

A TriCam is a weird, curved, triangular-shaped wedge of forged aircraft-grade aluminum with a little fulcrum point at one end and two contact points (called “stingers”) at the other. They are vaguely triangular in shape, and that’s for a very special reason.

A TriCam (as you may have guessed) has a natural camming action. Unlike a nut or stopper, which is purely passive, a tricam can be set in such a way that a load causes the metal wedge to rotate and press against the walls of the crack, much like a conventional spring-loaded cam.

For more information on how TriCams work, I find the page at VDiff Climbing to be very helpful!

How Do You Place a TriCam?

A TriCam can be placed in two basic orientations: Active and passive.

Active Mode

In the active configuration, the piece acts as a cam. Here’s a picture of one of my TriCam placements:

Passive Mode

In the passive configuration, the piece is just a fancy chock/nut/stopper. Here’s an oldie-but-a-goodie, a copy of the instructions issued for TriCams way back in 1982, courtesy of CascadeClimbers. It shows how a TriCam can be used in the passive mode:

Bonus: Wedge Mode

TriCam EVOs can be turned sideways and used as a conventional wedge stopper. Here’s an illustration courtesy of the TriCam user manual from C.A.M.P.:

Please note that conventional TriCams have different strength ratings for different orientations, and they are usually weaker when used as passive protection! EVOs are the only models that offer the same strength regardless of orientation.

There is a learning curve to using TriCams. Take some test falls on top rope to learn what holds and what doesn’t.

You’d be surprised what forces a TriCam can withstand. Even the Pink TriCam (size 0.5) is rated for 7-9 kN, which is far more force than any regular lead fall! Oftentimes, the rock will blow before the piece gives out.

A TriCam generally does NOT exert as much outward force as an SLCD. 

Tips for Effectively Placing TriCams

TriCams are best set in shallow placements. They are slung with a stiffened, sewn sling of nylon or Dyneema webbing. The slings are just barely stiff enough to place the piece – don’t expect that you can cantilever a TriCam on the sling like an extended tape measure.

TriCams can also be finicky to clean. They are best cleaned with a nut tool. Some placements require two hands to loosen. Don’t just poke the cam body! Push on the fulcrum point, and that will usually loosen the gear enough to slide out. In some cases, it helps to hook the fulcrum point with the nut tool and gently pull on the sling at the same time to wiggle the piece out.

A TriCam should be “set” like a nut. Give the piece a good yank to set it in place to prevent it from walking or falling. 

You can set a TriCam with the sling exiting from the bottom or the top of the piece. One often gives a better “bite” than the other, so play around! I usually set them with the sling exiting from the bottom, but that’s because it’s easier to see what’s going on. Setting them with the sling exiting from the top causes less sling abrasion.

Here’s what C.A.M.P. has to say about this:

Sometimes if you’re climbing directly above the placement, fulcrum down will offer the greatest security. At other times (when traversing or angling away from the placement) it’s best to have the fulcrum up. But there are no hard and fast rules for this.

TriCams can be extended with a sport draw or alpine draw. Theoretically, you could just use a single carabiner in the gear loop (because they aren’t as prone to walking as cams), but this normally causes excessive rope drag.

TriCams should be racked with individual wire gate biners. As usual, use matching carabiners for quick identification. I rack mine on a gear sling, but you can also rack them on a harness gear loop. If you’re only carrying one or two, you can rack them along with your nuts.

TriCams are great for building anchors. TriCams require some finesse to place appropriately. There’s not always much difference between “bombproof” and “bodyweight only.” So don’t EVER place a TriCam blind! If you’re lead climbing a route with poor placement stances, consider building your anchor out of tricams and saving the SLCDs for the redpoint. 

What Sizes Are TriCams?

C.A.M.P. sells TriCams in six sizes:  0.125, 0.25, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0. But those numbers hardly mean anything, so let’s talk colors: White, Black, Pink, Red, Brown, and Blue.

The pink and red TriCams are probably the most versatile. There’s a saying in the Gunks: “When in doubt, sink the pink!” And it is uncanny how often a Pink or Red TriCam will fit where nothing else will.

In my experience, the White TriCam is an aid-only piece. And it’s incredibly sensitive to place – and also difficult to place because the sling is so small and limp! I’ve taken several aid climbing falls on a white TriCam (then again, my placements were also Hail Mary’s).

Black is a useful size if you’re aid climbing or climbing hard trad, but it’s also somewhat sensitive to placement.

Brown and Blue are where the line becomes blurred. I like ‘em, and I use ‘em, but many people just switch to SLCDs. And the largest EVO comes only in Brown, not Blue.

Anything larger than Blue (N2.5 – N7) is known as a “cowbell” size. In most of these larger sizes, the metal hardware isn’t solid; it’s made of riveted plates. I don’t own these sizes, and I don’t know anyone who does. At these sizes, an SLCD is almost always a better choice (except in ice). 

Here’s a chart from C.A.M.P. showing TriCam sizes and range. What you really care about are the EVO sizes, because those are the most popular.

Where Do TriCams Shine?

TriCams seem to show up on the trad racks of climbers in the Eastern U.S and Canada, particularly in the Shawagunks, Red River Gorge, Southern Ontario, and parts of North Carolina.

And that’s because TriCams have a reputation of working where almost nothing else will. Many forums are full of “glad-I-had-a-tricam” pictures. They’re known as a “clutch” piece of gear, not  always a regular workhorse piece.

Horizontal Cracks

The classic placement for a tricam is a shallow horizontal crack. Because of their sewn slings, tricams can be placed in any orientation, including horizontally. Unlike cams, they don’t easily walk; once set, they usually stay put.

Because TriCams are so narrow, they can be used to build multi-point anchors in short sections of crack. This is a big benefit over cams, which can be 2-4x as wide.

Also, because TriCams are so compact, they can be placed in shallow cracks where only micro cams would otherwise fit. Check out this forum thread for some great pictures!

Solution Pockets

A solution pocket is a deep, round hole that forms naturally in limestone rock. They are common across the United States, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

A solution pocket is a difficult rock feature to protect! Most cams are too wide, and there’s no constriction to hold a nut. TriCams can fit into the smallest solution pocket, even ones that are slightly flared. 

Expanding Flakes

TriCams will rotate when loaded, which can wedge them into an expanding flake. But unlike an SLCD, they can be easily dislodged after a fall, and unlike a nut, they won’t just slip out when the flake expands.

Chossy or Icy Cracks

Because of their sharp ends, TriCams do well in choosy or wet cracks that could spit out a cam lobe. They also bite well into hard ice.

Bonus: Flared Cracks

I have also found that TriCams will sometimes fit well in a slightly flared crack because of their three points of contact. Security can be tenuous, though. It’s best to find a little wrinkle or divot for the fulcrum point.

What’s Up With the Pink TriCam?

The Pink TriCam has achieved legendary Cult Status for its ability to fit where nothing else will. Here’s an Internet classic written by Charles “Pinky” Danforth:

Ode to a Pink Tricam

Oh Pink's the one I love to place
when I'm alone way up in space
on some exposed and airy face.
They sink where other gear won't go.
When all you've got is manky pro,
This tricam saves your butt from woe.

But it's often hard to get them out;
They make your second moan and shout
And wave his nut tool 'round about

But that's why you're the one on lead
Your problems are a different breed
As long as someone does the deed...

"Oh quit your whimpering," you rumble,
"And get it out or there'll be trouble"
"Get to work now, on the double!"

Although it sometimes takes a while,
They do come out with vim and guile,
(or chiseling and curses vile.)

Pink will do what all the rest.
Won't do when they're put to the test.
Oh pink tricams are just the best!

Are TriCams Obsolete?

TriCams have been around a long time, but you don’t hear about them too much.

So what gives? Should we retire TriCams to the dusty shelf along with solid-stem Friends and Chouinard Hexentrics? 

Not quite, I say.

You don’t see them used much in hard granite, gritstone, or red rock sandstone. And that’s because other pieces of gear (namely spring-loaded cams) are the easier choice.

I think another reason TriCams have fallen out of favor is because they don’t lend themselves well to hard trad climbs. They can be difficult to place quickly, and when you’re hanging on by a mono-digit pocket, every 0.1 second counts!

And if you’re willing to spend more money, there are specialty cams (like Aliens or offset TCUs) that can often fit where a TriCam could.

But since we’re talking about money …

Why TriCams Are A Cheapskate’s Best Friend

Let’s start with an important disclaimer: If you climb rock outside, you can never allow your lack of funds to interfere with your safety. If you don’t have the gear, experience or expertise to climb a route, leave it alone. Go somewhere else. 

So, no, a TriCam does NOT replace a rack of spring-loaded cams (SLCDs) … although they have been called “a poor man’s double rack.”

But cams have a much larger expansion range. They work better in parallel-sided cracks. They are generally faster to place and easier to clean. They are less finicky to place. If I can place a cam instead of a TriCam, I usually do.

But … there’s more to the story.

Because conventional cams simply cannot protect the shallow, narrow cracks and pockets that a TriCam can!

If you want to protect a solution pocket with anything besides a TriCam, you have two basic options:

  • Build a science project out of offset nuts and hope it holds (don’t do this!)
  • Bust out your specialty Totems, Aliens, Metolius TCUs and pray the pocket isn’t too flared.

And while I love specialty cams (I have a blue Totem that I’ll bury with me), $95 for a cam isn’t an insignificant investment for most people. Meanwhile, you can get a 4-piece set of C.A.M.P. TriCams EVOs for $99! 

Plus, TriCams are incredibly lightweight. You don’t just find a TriCam at the crag. You can also find them on the racks of alpine mountaineers and FA climbers who want versatile, lightweight protection that holds in wet or chossy rock.

So I’m not suggesting you should leave the SLCDs or stopper nuts at home. But I am suggesting that TriCams can fit rock features that otherwise only expensive micro cams can fit – and otherwise, they can always be used as regular nuts! 

And if you need to bail, much easier to leave behind one or two $15 TriCams than one or two $75 cams.

Where Do TriCams Not Belong?

  • Don’t use TriCams in purely parallel cracks. While they might hold, there’s a good chance they’ll slip out during a fall. 
  • Don’t use TriCams in rotten rock. Their pointy ends can cause flaky or crumbly rock to explode and break apart. 
  • Don’t set a TriCam in a deep crack. It’s way, way too easy to accidentally shove a TriCam deeper into a crack when retrieving it. 
  • TriCams are only partially multi-directional. They’re somewhere in between a cam and a nut. I’ve had TriCams resist both outward and lateral pulls during lead falls, but they have their limits! A TriCam set for a downward pull will blow if pulled directly out or up. 

Gear Buying Tips for TriCams

C.A.M.P. is the only big name in the game when it comes to TriCams. And their prices are reasonable, so just pay up and be done with it!

(There’s a Czech company called Koubla which makes a similar passive camming product called Abalak stopper nuts, but I haven’t tested or used those. They are strung with wire, not a sling.)

C.A.M.P. sells standard TriCams and TriCam EVOs. The EVOs are slightly redesigned for easier one-handed placement and three possible placement positions (one active, two passive). 

EVOs are only available in Black, Pink, Red and Brown, but these are the most popular sizes anyway!

You can buy TriCams with nylon or Dyneema slings. Nylon is better for shock absorption; Dyneema is stronger when wet. And Dyneema weighs less.

I think the 4-piece C.A.M.P. TriCam EVO set is a great purchase for a trad leader – especially if you climb in limestone.  

(And if you don’t like it, just call me, and I’ll take ‘em off your hands.)