Ever since I was kicked out of the Boy Scouts, I’ve wondered about all the nifty knots that I haven’t learned. Sometimes I’d even read big books o’ knots and practice lots of them. In the end, I didn’t retain anything and I spent years basically not knowing how to tie any knots at all.
I thought, “Hey, I’m a nerd. I can learn anything,” and just assumed that the skill would come. It didn’t, and it’s clear that I’m not going to be a knot expert. I don’t know bazillions of knots, can’t tell you the history of knots or how they were tested under every conceivable condition. I even read a little mathematical knot theory and found out I have just enough background to follow it, but hardly the necessary motivation or free time.
So, how about setting a more reasonable goal for myself?
- Learn a small number of knots and practice each one enough to be acceptably proficient before adding more.
- Accept that I won’t be the expert, but leverage my access to expert resources to help me determine what I need and what knots best serve that goal.
That’s what’s in this Note to Self: A short list of knots that are strongly motivated by a recommendation from an expert at doing whatever it is I want to do, clearly explained by an authority, and my personal interpretation of why I need the knot, when and how I actually use it. They’re presented in order of how immediately I needed them and how frequently they actually got used, mostly in backpacking and packrafting scenarios.
If you’re reading this post for advice, here it is: pick one, at most two new knots, and walk through how to tie them. Then GO AWAY. Don’t look at other knots, just practice the one or two you’re learning. Dress them nicely and compare that with how the knot looks with overruns. Tie them reversed, upside down, and rotated. Flip them and tie them left handed. Close your eyes and repeat. When you make a mistake, don’t immediately untie. Stop and figure out WHY it was wrong, and how the wrong knot looks different from the right one. Can you not only tie the knot in any direction under stress, but also accurately see if a knot tied by someone else is correct? Do you trust your safety and that of others to the knot?
(Pronounced “boh-lin”) If you want to make a loop in the end of a rope to attach to a loop or ring, this is everyone in the world’s go-to knot. Start here. If you’re going to learn to tie knots for almost any purpose, this will be included.
A knot that does the same job as a line-tensioning device is great for tent guylines. This is a surprisingly complicated topic! The standard “tautline hitch” taught most frequently has some definite performance problems, especially with modern lines made from slippery plastics. The “Midshipman’s Hitch” described at animatedknots.com and also diagrammed well on Wikipedia is what I currently use for this purpose.
The Midshipman’s Hitch has worked for me maintaining line tension on 3mm diameter polypropylene sheathed guylines in stormy conditions where 2- and 3-turn tautline hitches have not. For me, that has met the criteria of “good enough” where the knot holds tension better than a typical stake in rocky ground and the small amount of lost tension can be attributed to the tent fabric wetting and stretching overnight.
Does that make knots a better choice than mechanical line tensioning devices? I don’t know. They are awfully cheap, small and easy to use. A knot has the advantage of being flexible, having as many of them as you have cordage, and being one less thing to break or lose in the wilderness. Regardless, I’d want to know this knot.
You can find lots of vociferous debate on this topic! Other things you might see suggested are Blake’s hitch, Prusik or maybe a variety of Trucker’s Hitches. I’m not expert enough to weigh in there, but I do sleep comfortably knowing that if I get blown off the mountain, my choice of guyline tensioning method probably wasn’t where I screwed up. (The two tents I’ve seen really blow away were both due to bad anchors.)
This is a great first knot to know for creating a secure loop in the middle of the line. You can load the loop and ends in any combination of directions and not be making a mistake. Like the bowline, this is a great knot to start creatively using ropes however seems useful. It is a knot of choice for a variety of specialized uses, including isolating a damaged portion of the rope in the loop and a required knot for climbing, mountaineering or boating.
Here’s how to tie a butterfly loop through a ring, which is useful for packraft rigging. Two ways of dressing the knot are shown.
By this, I mean the general practice of using a bight instead of the end to finish a knot so it is easy to remove by pulling the end. When there’s a group standing in the rain waiting for you to set up or take down tarp lines, it’s good to have a knot that’s quick to tie and untie. A slipped half hitch is fine for a temporary, non-critical use.
Figure-8 Knots: Figure 8, Figure-8 Follow Through, Double Figure-8
If you’re going to hang yourself from the end of a rope intentionally and not die, chances are you can tie figure-8 knots correctly. Really, no one will hand you the end of a rope if you can’t tie these. Plus, these three knots are closely related enough to learn together. So, if you like moving heavy things with ropes and also not dying, these are mandatory knots!
Though tied very differently, this knot is structurally just a double Figure-8 with one end not passing through the final loop. The effect is to create a loop intended to take a lot of weight in one direction, but capsizes and fails if the load is in any other direction. I’d use this knot for very specific circumstances where this exact knot is preferred, like a z-drag to tension a line in a swiftwater rescue scenario. Because it does work on only one direction, I’d use a butterfly loop if I don’t know for sure that this is the knot to use.
This is a very basic mechanical-advantage system using only rope to tension a lie or secure a load. The practical mechanical advantage really isn’t huge and if you are hauling with enough force to really need mechanical advantage, then the rope-on-rope friction might create additional risks, such binding or melting (glazing) the outer surface of the rope. However, the additional friction can be helpful if other tensioning methods are tending to slip or hard to tighten. It’s adjustable if finished with a tautline hitch, but if it’s something important and lines slipping has already become a problem, I think I’d spend an extra moment and tie it in place with something that won’t move.
What makes this knot great to practice is the fact that it’s just a combination of a couple of the knots I already know from above. It’s practically free! You can mix and match what knot you use to make the loop and what knot you use to finish it. It uses the same configuration to achieve mechanical advantage as a Z-drag.
Bowline on a Bight
Climbing a Line: Prusik and Double Fisherman’s
Knots I learned for swiftwater rescue, but haven’t really used: Munter Hitch, Clove Hitch, Water Knot
Anchors: girth anchor, two-bight anchor, no-knot anchor, 3-loop pull-2 anchor, equalizing anchors
Know the different between a square knot and a granny knot, at least so you can tie your shoes!
If I ever need to pull on something really hard, like a pinned raft, I should know the girth, two-bight, no-knot and wrap-three, pull-two anchor hitches. If you have taken a swiftwater rescue class, you already know these. If you haven’t and might need to create anchors for such a scenario, the internet won’t help you enough. Take a swiftwater rescue class.
I’m not any kind of accomplished climber, so my life rarely depends on my ability to tie a good stopper knot. However, some experts seem to feel strongly that this knot is a better than a figure-8 as a stopper knot. Okay, that’s good enough for me. If I ever end up doing an emergency rappel or belay, that sounds like a good time to be confident that I tied a good stopper knot. It doesn’t cost me much effort to master a few extra skills, even if the intended situation isn’t one I expect to see frequently.
What’s Next For Me?
Should I learn more knots? Maybe. I might want a better mooring hitch for tying a larger boat to a dock. A Round Turn & Hitches? Anchor Hitch? I’m decidedly not superb at speed-coiling a throw rope for a secondary throw. Practicing some different coiling techniques might be good cross training? There are lots of ways to use a Munter with other knots to belay or rappel safely, if an appropriate mechanical device is not present. I should practice those in a safe environment. Maybe more practice tying bowlines.
Having acquired a basic array of knots recommended by experts in my areas of interest, I’m probably best off practicing those, getting out as much as possible, and paying attention to situations where they might be useful!
Here’s a nice graphic on how to figure-8 hand wrap a tent or tarp guyline.
The EStar Stopper is recommended for Dyneema. Since I’m carrying more spectra cord these days, maybe I should learn that one!