The carabiner is an integral and versatile tool that can comfortably fit the personal arsenal of any EDC fanatic. Whether you’re using one to keep your keys all in one place, to connect your water bottle or thermos flask to your belt and hiking rucksack, or even to hook together and support heavier items at home or on the move, there are a hundred practical uses that the humble carabiner can serve.
But the carabiner is more than just an adaptable keyring. It was a tool of necessity borne out of man’s drive to cheat death, and its adoption gave adventurers the security needed to perform extreme feats in the great outdoors. Since then, the carabiner’s design and utility refined over many years of technological innovation to become modern man’s must-have device.
The word “carabiner” derives from the word carabinier, a French cavalryman of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s. Carabiniers were so called because they would carry a short-barrelled muzzle-loaded rifle known as a carbine. These soldiers were preferred for their adaptability and manoeuvrability in combat compared to their long-rifled counterparts.
Due to the carbine’s short muzzle and relatively quick and easy reloading regime, carabiniers often rode horseback or on foot, and they could fire and reload their weapon while on the move. The carabiniers were able to carry their weapon easily thanks to a shoulder strap attached by a set of metal hooks or clips. This allowed the soldiers to easily detach or fasten their carbine in the heat of battle.
These simple hooks became the earliest inspiration for the modern carabiner. In fact, the most accurate definition of the word “carabiner” derives from the German word karabinerhaken meaning “carabinier’s hook”, a word no doubt given significance by the flexibility and pragmatism embodied by these French soldiers. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that these rudimentary hooks were given a ground-breaking new context.
Before the invention of the carabiner, there weren’t many options for mountaineers to create or follow climbing routes safely. Old-school climbers either had to tie their lead rope and protection rope together – which was time-consuming and limiting – or else temporarily detach themselves from their protection rope and take great risks with their lead rope in order to advance onwards and upwards. Either way, these techniques held many climbers back due to the lack of safety.
In 1910, the German mountaineer Otto “Rambo” Herzog, famed for his persistence and pioneering spirit in the early days of modern rock climbing (his nickname “Rambo” stems from the German word Ramponieren meaning “to bash” or “to batter” in relation to difficult problems), is credited for inventing the first carabiner. He was inspired to create his prototype upon seeing the belts worn by Munich firemen, which featured metal loops designed to attach and detach apparatus to scale buildings and put out fires.
Although far from perfect, Rambo’s carabiner helped advance the possibilities for death-defying mountaineering feats, which opened the floodgates for its revision and sophistication as the sport became more fashionable.
The carabiner underwent several phases of innovation. In the 1930s, the climbers that weren’t able to get their hands on Herzog’s model ended up creating their own with the resources they had.
In the 1950s, the French mountaineer Pierre Allain create one of the first aluminum carabiners, and pioneered the familiar D-shaped variant designed to minimise rope snagging. Inspired by Allain’s success, climber Yvon Chouinard (now the founder of environmental clothing company Patagonia) hand-forged his own carabiners based on Allain’s model, selling pitons and other equipment from the back of his car.
But Chouinard’s rogue entrepreneurialism paid off, as his early company, Chouinard Equipment, created a carabiner model in 1968 with smoother corners, a lighter frame and a larger load-bearing capacity that set the trend for all future carabiner innovation, and whose model still would have met today’s safety standards.
More recently, the introduction of specialised metal carabiners, as well as variants using lighter materials, spring-loaded gates made with wire, and an array of locking mechanisms, ensured a more robust, efficient and safety-conscious clip.
Although the carabiner is primarily used by hikers, climbers and outdoors enthusiasts, it’s not uncommon to see carabiners used functionally for any number of everyday situations.
What’s common through the past and present is that the device was celebrated and fit naturally into the lives of men. Although its origins are rooted in political warfare and personal adventure, the carabiner today stands for a symbol of functional design and simplicity.
Whether men wear them on their belts or hang them from their backpacks, there is always a sense of pride in the carabiner’s visibility and utility. The carabiner has transcended a tool of niche activity to become an accessible and reliable part of everyday life.