There are 101 things to tie up in the backcountry. Perhaps you’re setting up a ridgeline for your camping tarp, or need to hang a bear bag to avoid your favorite snacks being snaffled overnight. Whatever your reason for needing to tie a knot, you need the right knot for the job. Sure, there are a few “one-hit wonder” knots that do a number of jobs at once, but there’s a reason that sailors and mountaineers have developed hundreds of knots over the years.
Whether you need a knot that you can trust your life to, a knot that is easy to untie after hauling a load, or a knot to connect two lengths of rope together, here’s our guide to six essential knots for the outdoors.
The square knot — also known as a reef knot — is a simple way to attach two ropes of equal thickness together. Because of its simplicity, most people learn to tie a square knot before any other knot — when we learn to tie our shoes. OK, so we tie a bow, but the basis of the knot is the square not.
Unfortunately, the square knot can’t be trusted. It’s a secure knot when laid flat against a surface, but it is known for coming untied. This is most common when you’re using a modern, sheathed rope. Because of this, the square knot is used in situations where there are no major consequences to your knot coming untied. It might just be a bit irritating. You can use a square knot to tie up a bundle of firewood or to tie up a bandage.
The king of knots. The bowline is a firm favorite when it comes to creating a loop at the end of your rope, especially if you need to haul a heavy load. The reason for this is simple — no matter how much you load a bowline knot, you can always untie it. If you were a Boy Scout, you most likely learned how to tie a bowline knot with a lot of talk about a rabbit coming out from a hole and around a tree.
A bowline can also be tied one-handed, so you can hold your load with one hand and tie your knot with the other. The bowline knot has endless uses, from hanging a bear bag to anchoring your camping tent guide ropes to a tree.
The double-figure-eight knot is almost unanimously agreed to be the best knot for climbing. As you load the figure-eight knot, it tightens on itself and there is no risk of it coming untied — so long as you tie a stopper knot. The figure-eight knot can be tough to untie after it’s been heavily loaded, so is generally only preferred when you have to be 100% certain your knot isn’t going to come undone.
When you learn to tie a figure-eight knot, we recommend learning to tie it on the bite — a simple double — and a rethreaded figure eight, which allows you to tie the knot around an object. Figure-eight knots are mainly used by climbers but can be used to create loops at the end of your rope where a bowline won’t suffice.
The clove hitch is a simple bind that is easy to tie and can be adjusted quickly without being untied. It’s widely considered to be one of the most important knots and is often used as part of an anchoring system. You can tie a clove hitch around an object, or as a freestanding knot that you can clip through with a karabiner. We suggest you brush up on both methods when you learn to tie a clove hitch to give you the most versatility.
As it’s easily adjusted, the clove hitch is often used to lengthen and shorten anchor positions for belaying. A word of caution here — the clove hitch can slide, and its use is questionable around anything other than a round object, so always back up your clove hitch. This adjustability makes the clove hitch useful as part of a system for hanging a hammock, too.
When the square knot can’t be trusted, the double fisherman’s knot is a secure way of attaching two ends of rope together. If you’ve spent any time climbing then you’ll recognize the double fisherman’s knot as two stopper knots back-to-back. As with everything that seems oh-so-simple, this knot can be tied wrong, and the results can be catastrophic. We recommend plenty of practice after you learn to tie a double fisherman’s knot.
As well as being commonly used as a stopper knot for other knots — like the figure eight — the double fisherman’s knot is used to create a small loop for your jamming prusik or any situation where you need a secure, low-profile knot.
The prusik knot is a way of attaching a fixed loop to a taut line. By wrapping a smaller-diameter rope around a thicker line, you create a system that lets you move your loop when the prusik is not under tension, but that grips the rope tight when put under tension.
The prusik loop is popular among climbers as a backup “hand” when abseiling, or as a jamming knot for ascending a rope. The prusik is also a useful way to attach a camping tarp to a fixed ridgeline.
When is a knot not a knot?
Our bonus knot is, well, it blurs the line. If a knot is just a way of using friction to secure a rope, then why not just use that friction? If you wrap a rope around an object — a tree or pole — three times and pull the end tight, the friction alone tends to hold it securely.
We wouldn’t recommend entrusting your life to this “knot,” but it’s a great makeshift option if you need to quickly secure a rope, or if you are regularly raising and lowering an object like a bear bag, though obviously not overnight. This knot relies on friction and will work better with a thicker rope and rougher trees or poles to wrap it around.
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