Totem Cams have come up with a truly innovative design that holds much potential to provide excellent holding power in tricky placements while at the same time maintaining a large expansion range and light weight.
How do they do this? Well, there is no “stem” on a Totem cam, and the axle is not what bears the load. While the cams rotate around an axle, load bearing cables wrap up and around a pin on the back of each lobe, and extend down past a trigger to a loop below. There are at least four unique aspects of this design.
1. It is possible to isolate and load only two lobes of a Totem Cam. While Totem recommends this for aid climbing and body weight placements, it is not recommended for holding falls. This halves the strength of the cam and adds instability to the placement. To see a picture of this configuration click HERE and instructions of how to maximize holding power with two lobes, click HERE.
2. Due to the unique design and the direct loading on each lobe, there is equalization of each loaded lobe.
3. The camming angle of the lobes relative to the axle is different than its effective camming angle, since they rotate around an axle but are loaded on a pin on the back of the lobe. Due to a larger camming angle, these cams have the potential to hold in downward flares of up to 40 degrees. For Totem’s technical explanation of this, click HERE.
4. Due to this unique design, Totem Cams have the largest expansion range of any single axle symmetrical cam on the market, comparable to Black Diamond’s C4 double axle design.
The cams come in a set of 5. From smallest to largest, they are blue, yellow, purple, green, and red. They are roughly the same size as the blue and yellow Metolius, and the purple, green, and red C4s, which works perfectly for me since those are the cams I’ve climbed on for years.
I work in a quality control laboratory and brought them in for a few quick measurements. I threw them on the calibrated scale, and measured them with calibrated calipers. Here are the results:
Note: I measured the “High Range” with the cams fully open so this is not the functional range.
As you can see, the results were pretty close to what is claimed on Totem’s website, with the exception of the blue (smallest) cam which was a full millimeter larger, when fully cammed, than claimed. Just to confirm, I measured this three times and had 0.01mm difference between the three measurements. Other than that discrepancy, the cams generally had slightly more range than claimed, and the weights were within about a gram of what was claimed.
Someone asked me to measure the head width, which I did, because these cams probably have the narrowest heads on the market. If you’re curious about how other cams compare, then just grab a ruler and measure whichever brand you’ve got handy.
So far, I have taken them out for a few days on the rock at Mt. Woodson, Tahquitz, Suicide, and the Needles, all granite areas. I replaced one set of blue and yellow Metolius, and purple, green and red C4s on my double rack with the Totem Cams and used them head to head with the other cams. They’ve taken falls by my friends and I, and held every time. I’ve hung on them using only two lobes, but overall I haven’t gotten around to really pushing their limits for two reasons: I don’t want to break one early in the review process, and I haven’t had time yet!
So, what are benefits of Totem Cams over other cams on the market? They have an innovative elegant design that increases holding power in flares, and increases camming range for a single axle design. They have a similar expansion range to Black Diamond C4s but are slightly lighter. I believe the smaller sizes have more expansion range than most competing small cams, like for example Metolius TCUs. The color scheme matches at least some of the popular brands on the market. The thumb loop is large, easy to use, and would work well with gloves. The sling material, while bulky, is quite good for French free climbing (yes, I got completely shut down on a climb in the Needles). The narrow cam head width has helped in some placements, and is definitely beneficial. Also, without a proper stem these cams are obscenely flexible without compromising on usability at all.
I know this is subjective, but these cams just feel damn solid when they’re set. We’ve fallen on them repeatedly and they’ve held every time. So far, in my opinion, Totem Cams represent a true improvement in cam design and functionality. I’m impressed.
While the upsides to the cams are many, there are downsides as well. As of yet, there are only 5 cams to a set. This is a limited range, and so a typical rack would require more brands of cams. Intentionally or not, they have done a good job of sizing the cams with some other popular brands, so this problem may be minimized depending on what brand of cams you climb on. The Totem Cams are currently expensive. They retail for $80 a piece, and if you purchase less than a full set the shipping fee is nearly $30. Edit 4/25/12: The price has been consistently dropping and is now $69.95 a piece. They offer 10% off of 5 cams (a full set) and free shipping. This means that the price is now competitive and roughly equal with C4s! Epic! If I weren’t in school full time I’d now own a 2nd set…
The design, while light, is relatively bulky. It is not nearly as low profile as many other cams on the market when hanging on a gear loop. There are a total of 12 wires descending from the head of the cam. 8 are from the 4 load bearing loops, and there is a trigger wire for each lobe as well. This part of the cam can interfere with rare placements, and I did find a great placement for a cam with a constriction under it that I had to switch to a TCU instead of a Totem Cam because the wires did not fit through the constriction as the placement required. Bulk compared to my typical racked cams:
When the trigger is pulled and the cam lobes fully retracted, the bottom of the cam lobes actually wraps all the way under and contacts the load bearing wires. My first thought was that there is no additional “play” for the lobes if the cam becomes overcammed. I assumed that this would make cleaning the cams more difficult, if not impossible, in such situations. While this still raises red flags for me, my partners and I have plugged these things desperately, overcammed them, and climbed on. Each time whoever was following was able to retrieve the overcammed units out in under a minute, just like any other cam.
This is a relatively preliminary review. I’ve had the cams for over a month now, and I haven’t had nearly the time I would like to fully evaluate them. However, may people are VERY curious about these and so I thought I’d release my findings so far. There are multiple things that I intend to investigate going forward. The four things that I’d like to continue to look at are as follows:
1. I would like to know how these things work for aid climbing. While I have aided in the past, I just don’t really aid climb these days. I thought I lined up someone to take the Totem Cams up a wall in Yosemite, but that has apparently fallen through. However, serendipitously, a representative from Totem will actually be in Yosemite allowing climbers to demo them and take them up climbs. A link to sign up for the demo is HERE. While these cams have impressed me so far, I believe this is an area where the cams may truly shine. I look forward to hearing what aid climbers think of these things in the near future! Edit 4/25/12: David Allfrey did a great review of the cams used for aid climbing.
2. I would like to see how robust the cams are. The blue Totem Cam has held our largest fall to date, and it put a decent bite in the lobe. Perhaps they are softer metal? Someone more knowledgeable about metallurgy may be able to clarify. Like Aliens, this could increase holding power but decrease life expectancy. It could also have just been bad luck since the cam was set behind a crystal. It didn’t affect functionality, but my 00 TCU looked less dented after Roberto took a 25’ fall on it on the same climb. I won’t really have an opinion about robustness until I’ve spend more than a month and a half with the things and there’s not much of a point in putting a lot of stock in a single data point. (Edit: I learned that the aluminum in the lobes is 7075-T6, one of the harder alloys. ) Edit: 4/25/12: The cams have been used and abused for a year and a half, whipped on, seen action in desert grit, and more. They have absolutely no damage outside of some anodization scratched off, the action is still perfect, and the wires are in literally perfect shape. I appears that fears about the robustness of the cams and the wires were unfounded in my experience.
3. As mentioned above, I’m concerned about cleaning the Totem Cams. I’m less concerned with cleaning them since we’ve been able to retrieve overcammed units every time so far with little problem, but I feel that I need data points to have a final opinion. Edit 4/25/12: I haven’t had real trouble cleaning one of these yet, and since I like them better C4s now (saying A LOT!) they go with me on essentially every trad climb I start up. I have no fears about getting these little guys out when I set them in a crack pumped.
4. Lastly, I’d like to really test these things out in some poor placements: flares, two lobes, etc. I’d like to set them with two lobes and take some small falls on them. I know it’s not recommended, but the curiosity is killing me. I need to be patient, however, since if I break one I can’t review it anymore so I’ll save that for last. Edit 4/25/12: From what I can tell, these thing excel in the stranger placements with the narrower head, the different camming mechanism, and equalization of the lobes. Roberto and I now use these at the go to piece when we want to maximize a feeling of security or a placement is weird. We have yet to have one pull.
I’m very happy to have Totem Cams on my rack. While the smaller two are heavier than the Metolius TCUs they have more expansion range and the weight difference isn’t huge. I really like having a single set of these on my rack. Due to their bulkiness on the harness, and the larger weight in the smaller sizes I wouldn’t want to carry more than a single set. Due to their different design, I can fit them in some places better than a Metolius TCU or BD C4, and vice versa. Having a different brand of cams on my harness is opening up more quality placement options.
In conclusion, you’d be very happy to have a set of these on your harness. If you are buying a new rack, a double set of these would be amazing. If you’re an aid climber who likes “toys” I would DEFINITELY pick up a set. Edit 4/25/12: Having climbed on these cams for almost a year and a half I believe that these cams, having roughly the same weight, expansion range, and cost C4s, are actually superior due to their ability to excel in more difficult placements, and I highly recommend them. In my opinion Totem Cams are the best cam the market has to offer.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, here’s a short video of the cams that I put together:
If you have any questions, please let me know by posting to the comments below. I’ll also try to monitor the various forums that I link this in.
Note: These cams were provided free of charge under the agreement that a review would be written and posted on the internet. Before they were sent, I specifically informed Totem Cams that despite receiving them for free I would not favor the cams in any way in my review. This is my honest opinion of them with no strings attached.
Edit on January 18, 2011: Totem Cams are experiencing a RECALL. Apparently, their annodization has an effect on their ability to hold on limestone due to its lack of friction. They recommend sanding off the annodization to fix the problem, or mailing them back. Personally, I’m not mailing mine back since I don’t climb on limestone and with normal use I’ve already worn the annodization off on much of the lobes. Nothing like a little DIY action! Read the recall and decide for yourself, though. Mine have been holding falls like champs though and I haven’t had one blow yet!