You know how speaking even just a bit of the local language can really save the day at times? Well, there’s another skill that’s even more useful when you really need it. It’s called learning to tie a few simple knots. C’est le truth.
Haven’t you ever been bouncing along in a bus in, say, Peru, wondering if your bag is still lashed to the roof? How nice would it be to secure a tarp over your tent at a rainy music festival? From stringing up a hammock to pulling a dear friend out of, say, a pit of quicksand, knowing the right knot can give you peace of mind and keep you going.
You don’t need to be a Boy Scout or salt-ravaged sailor to master these knots, either. In fact, once you know these, you’ll wonder how you ever got on without them. You’re welcome.
Knots vs. Hitches
Why are some of these called “knots” and others “hitches”? Technicalities, really, but there is a difference. A knot doesn’t need anything other than itself to hold its shape while a hitch only holds its shape if it’s tied around or onto something. Without a stick or ring or even another rope to latch onto, a hitch falls apart.
When you tie a knot you’re generally working with two pieces of rope, be they from the same rope or from different ropes. The tag end or working end is the short, loose end of a rope that is often the “active” piece that you’re twisting, pulling, running through, whatever, to form your knot or hitch. The other end is called the standing end. That is generally the longer, more static part of a rope that’s being wrapped, twisted, or otherwise being acted upon by the working end. In some knots, like the fisherman’s knot, you can have multiple working and standing ends.
Not all bends in a rope are the same, either. A bight is like a horseshoe where the rope does not cross over itself. A loop is a closed circle where the pieces do cross over each other. When making loops, be sure to do them exactly as shown. Does the working end go over or under the standing end? A knot works because of the details.
After you’ve tied your knot, you need to dress it. Simply put, fiddle with your knot until the pieces line up properly and everything is nice and snug. Dressing a knot often improves its strength. And for the final step, consider tying a safety knot (aka a stopper knot) on the tag end. These are often simple overhand knots that help keep the tag end from pulling back through the knot.
The bowline is perhaps the world's most useful knot, and makes a fixed loop at the end of a rope that can be undone easily. That loop won’t cinch or collapse under weight, which makes it great for tying a rope to, say, the bow of a boat (how it gets its name) or when lashing your bag to a roof rack. It’s also the knot of choice in a rescue situations, where you need to lift or lower a person without a harness.
Tip: People sometimes remember the steps to this knot this way: “The rabbit comes up out of the hole, goes behind the tree and back down into the hole.” The trick is making sure you’ve made the hole correctly.
The clove hitch can latch onto almost anything – a stick, a rock, a grocery bag, whatever – making it one of the easiest and most versatile “knots” out there. You can even tighten and loosen it without having to undo it. That’s critical in sports such as rock climbing but these days I mostly use a clove hitch for quickly tying up my whitewater raft to shore or to get a cord strung over high branches for hanging food away from critters and bears while camping in the backcountry. The uses for the clove hitch are endless.
For this one, you don’t need to worry about tag ends and standing ends. You can tie it anywhere along the rope.
If you’ve done it correctly, you should have two loops with an X below them. You can adjust the length of the rope by moving the hitch either way.
This is very similar to a clove hitch but functions more as a “friction knot” that allows you to tighten or loosen a rope in a controlled manner. You can use it to lower heavy objects—including yourself. Old-school climbers used this knot to rappel down cliffs. You can also use it to pull the slack out of a rope to keep it taut. These days, I mostly use a Munter on horizontal forces like when I need to hang a hammock or a tarp or even a clothesline, all of which need a tight line strung between two fixed points.
This is a very easy hitch to tie around a tree, allowing you to tighten the rope to whatever tension you need. Obviously you can’t stick an entire tree through the loop so you must form the hitch around the tree. To do that, wrap the rope around a tree to make a loop around it with the tag end passing over the standing end. Pull the rope as tight as you need. Without losing that tension, bring the tag end under the taut standing end and wrap it back around the tree in the opposite direction all the way around the tree until the tag runs back along the standing end. Tie two or three stopper knots along the standing end to maintain the tension.
The trucker’s hitch creates a mechanical leverage – a 3-to-1 Z-drag system, if you must – that lets you really crank down hard on a rope to make it very taut. This is my knot of choice when guying out a tent fly in preparation for an approaching storm or especially for lashing objects like a backpack or a canoe to a roof rack when you don’t have straps.
However, the trucker’s is not a great knot for creating tight lines that will then bear a lot of weight, like for hammocks, because it creates too much friction and force and can wear out your rope. You can’t use a trucker’s hitch alone, either, obviously, because the rope needs to be already anchored at one end. Bowlines work great for creating that first anchor point.
Anytime you need to tie a shorter rope to a longer rope to make it longer still, this is a great knot to use. Both of the ropes need to be similar in diameter and if your “short” rope is still really long – say 10ft / 3 m or more – you’ll want to use a fisherman’s knot instead. Most fisherfolk I know actually use the double surgeon knot more readily than a fisherman’s knot for tying on a few extra feet of fishing line because the double surgeon’s is much easier to do with very thin line or cord.
Like the double surgeon’s knot, a fisherman’s knot can also tie two ropes of a similar diameter together but unlike a double surgeon’s, a fisherman’s can be used to tie opposite ends of the same rope together to make a circle. The fisherman’s is the better knot to use when joining two long ropes where you don’t want to be pulling through endless yards of working ends like the surgeon’s requires. I used this knot to make simple necklaces from which I could dangle seashells or other charms I found cool a billion years ago. Once a fisherman’s knot is heavily loaded or gets wet and dries it will be next to impossible to undo.
A prusik is another type of friction knot typically used to grasp other ropes and it works best when the prusik rope is smaller diameter in diameter than the rope it is grasping. A prusik slides freely when unloaded but seizes up under weight to grasp whatever the prusik has been wrapped around. It’s a critical knot in almost any rescue situation but it’s also an ingenious way to hang up camp lights and to reposition or tension tarps. It is especially cool because you can use it in combination with any number of other knots and hitches to create compound systems for complex tasks. You need to know the fisherman’s knot to make a prusik. A carabiner comes in handy, too.
If you're lost in the woods or wilderness, learning these expert skills could keep you alive until rescue comes.
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