The Best Small Cams

I don't write much about gear. Overall there is a huge amount of good or great outdoor gear for whatever you want to do, be it fly fishing or ice climbing or rock cragging. Even the low-end stuff of today is probably better than the high-end stuff from 15 years ago. But one type of gear that DEFINITELY makes a difference is cams.

About 80% of climbers (and about 100% of climbers whose opinions should be trusted) prefer BD Camalots for cams thin-hand size and up. (#.75-#4) But in the smaller sizes, where placements get trickery, more finnicky, harder to inspect, easier to blow, and generally weaker, there isn't very much consensus. I learned to climb on a mix of cams, and still prefer a mix, but my favorite model is the Totem Basic Cam.

The Totem Basic is essentially a CCH Alien without all those pesky flaws (made in a garage by drunk Wyoming rednecks, tendency to explode under bodyweight...). The Spanish gurus at Totem took everything good about the Alien design (flexible, durable, works on 2-lobes for bodyweight, somehow alway seems bomber) and made them better by swapping in:

  1. An actual UIAA/CE certified manufacturing process where they don't forget to weld or braze the pieces together, and there is testing.
  2. The trigger wires are different and better than the old CCH version
  3. The Trigger is shaped and colored to match the cam, as are the lobes
  4. And the new BLUE ALIEN (AKA Blue Basic Cam) is much narrower than the old CCH, which was actually wider (even though it only worked in thinner cracks) than the old next size up, the green.
    Old CCH alien (right) was really wide, yet only fit into thin cracks. That was fixed with putting spring inside the lobes, and making the end-caps slimmer.
Another Spanish company, FIXE, also is making similar models. They actually bought the rights to legally call their cams Aliens. But despite making good bolts and hardware, their FIXE Aliens are atrocious, with lots of pretty obvious problems.
This (FIXE model)is NOT the alien you're looking for...

I've bought a full set of the Totem Basics online from Rock&Snow, a shop in New York which shipped free across the USA and charged no sales tax. They often have 20% off sales. Backcountry.com stocks totem basics and has these sales often as well.

Totem Basic and BD C3. BD is narrower, Totem is more flexible. They contrast nicely.

I think the perfect small-cam rack is a set of BD C3 cams from purple to Yellow (they are stiff, really narrow, and a good contrast to the Totems), a set of Totem Basics from Blue to Red, a a couple of the offset Totem Basics (blue/green, green/yellow).

Totem Basics (green is shown) are slightly narrower, and more flexible/durable than the BD X4 cams.

This (Fixe model) is NOT the Alien you're looking for. These breakage happened one day1 with mine and many others.



    1. Blake,

      I've met some climbers who prefer metolius power cams to .75-4 BD camalots, at least in high-altitude situations, because you usually don't use all that many cams, and the metolius ones weigh less. This may change with the new ultralight camalots.

      1. Climbing at high elevation means the brain has insufficient oxygen to determine that in medium and larger sizes, camalots are the best.

        (You actually make a good point. I could see the lightest cams being the best choice on EASY "cardio climbs".) Though in situations were weight becomes even more of a concern rather than needing to get good rock pro quickly, the gear's "ease of use"/speed of placement/range simply aren't as important and you might consider hexes. :-)

    2. Hi Blake,

      First, got your book in the mail last week. Incredible work. Very, very well done! Congrats on such a huge accomplishment!

      Ok, cams. Good warnings against the new Fixe Aliens. It looks like you're referring to the Fixe "Alien Lite Evolution" (clumsy name, eh). Fixe also makes the Fixe "Original Alien", which is a lot like the old CCH Aliens, but tested and rated. I have a couple of these and like them. Any thoughts on how these "Fixe Originals" compare to the Totem Basics? The new Mastercams are sure to shake things up a bit too...

      1. Totem Basics > Fixe First Generation Aliens > Metolius Mastercams > Fixe "updated" Alien Evo Lite.

        That's my opinion, based on the reasons above, and a couple other reasons: The Basics are narrower (especially the blue) and have a slimmer collar/trigger piece than the Fixe generation1 Aliens. Metolius Mastercams (at least in the small sizes) stop working and lose all spring tension if the tiny little "cam stops" snap off. I've had this happen to me twice, and I seldom use these cams. Both times was on a purple. Also, the Kevlar trigger strings don't last as long as metal cables. The "updated" Fixe aliens have had a whole string of major issues.