A Knot for All Occasions

Most people never think about learning how to tie a proper knot until the time comes when their tent is caught in a storm, a piece of gear breaks, a kayak needs to be secured, or a short rope needs to be made longer. In cases like these, a little knowledge about knots can do wonders to help you hold things together until the end of the trip. Even better, good knots can do wonders for your credibility with your paddling partners. While their knots resemble bird's nests that take hours to tie and untie, yours will be quick, neat, and secure. You may even become a minor celebrity around camp, where envious fellow campers will beg you to share your knowledge of knots.

Certainly, there is no shortage of books about knots, but most of these books cover far more information than anyone except a tall-ship captain could ever need. Let's face it: Few of us are actually going to devote ourselves to mastering a hundred different types of knots, plus memorize the particular benefits and weaknesses of each type. Even if we did, we would quickly find ourselves forgetting them or confusing them by the time we are actually called upon to use them.

Fortunately, mastering knots is not an all or nothing deal. You don't have to devote years of study to the mysteries of cordage in order to be a competent knot user. In fact, most of the knot-likely situations that arise on an expedition can be dealt with competently and quickly by using only a handful of knots. Could you just "invent" your own knots as these situations arise? Perhaps. But tying something securely can be harder than you think, and people who make up knots as they go can quickly find themselves at the end of their rope when the knot keeps slipping or, worse, jams so tightly it won't untie at all, even when you want it to.

Think of it this way: A good knot is like a good tool. Once you learn how to tie it correctly and begin finding creative ways to apply it or combine it with other knots, your binding-and-lashing skills will expand exponentially. I've learned how to tie many amazing knots over the years—some practical, some decorative, some fairly exotic—but there are six that I have never forgotten, and that I always put to good use. If I had to limit myself to only six knots, these are the six I would pick. With the help of a good rope and a creative mind, there are few knotty situations these knots can't handle.


The bowline has been called the "king" of knots. Basically, it makes a non-slipping loop (in contrast to the well-known "slip knot," which tightens under a load). There are many different ways to tie it, but all methods yield a secure, extremely versatile loop that won't slip or tighten when subjected to tension. It can be used to make a convenient "handle" at the end of a rope for easier pulling or hanging, tied at regular intervals to create a series of rope "steps," or used to hang heavy items without fear of the loop tightening or jamming under the load. It can also be tied near the middle of a rope to attach a second or third line for stabilizing a load in multiple directions.


To tie the Bowline Knot:

  1. Put a twist in the rope to make a small loop.
  2. Pass the end up through the loop, around the rope, and back down through the loop again.
  3. Pull the end tight to close the knot. If tied correctly, the resulting loop should not slip or constrict.


For its intended use, the constrictor knot can't be beat. It's the ideal knot to use in situations when a lot of tension needs to be applied to lash, clamp, or join two or more things together. It can be used to clamp pieces together for gluing, to reinforce repairs that need to stand up to further stress, to lash shorter sticks or shafts together into a longer pole, or to replace a hose-clamp around tubing. If the situation calls for some kind of quick, easy, secure way to apply tension, the constrictor knot is probably the knot to use.


To tie the Constrictor Knot:

  1. Make a large loop.
  2. Pull one side of the loop over to divide it into two loops.
  3. Fold the loops together over the rope.
  4. Slide the folded loops over whatever you wish to constrict.
  5. Pull the ends in opposite directions to constrict the knot. If tied correctly, it should remain tightly constricted.
  6. For active (moving or stressed) loads, constrict the knot as tightly as possible, then tie off the ends to prevent the knot from working loose.

Rolling Hitch

The Rolling Hitch is the simplest, slickest, and quickest way I've discovered for tying a line securely, with adjustable tension. That's right, I said adjustable tension! You can tie it loose, then draw it up tightly as needed, making it perfect for tying off the guy lines of your shelter. Better yet, it can be tied or untied under tension and it never jams. This nifty little hitch should come in handy in virtually any tension-dependent tie-down situation.

Rolling Hitch

To tie the Rolling Hitch:

  1. Make a main loop around any secure object you want to hitch to (a tree, a post, etc.), making sure to leave at least twelve inches of slack in the end.
  2. Wrap the end through the inside of the main loop one-and-a-half times.
  3. Pass the end over and around the rope outside the main loop to make a smaller loop.
  4. Pull the end back through the smaller loop and tug it tight.
  5. Slide the hitch up the rope to increase tension, or down the rope to release tension. If tied correctly, the hitch should hold securely wherever you place it.

Utility Loop

I don't know the "real" name for this knot, but I call it the Utility Loop because it's a quick, simple way to accomplish two very useful goals: (1) to create a loop anywhere in the middle of a long rope, or (2) to remove excess slack from the middle of a rope by making it shorter. What makes the Utility Loop particularly handy is the fact that you can tie it anywhere along the rope without access to either end. If you snug it up tightly, it will rarely slip or release, but it rarely jams either.

Utility Loop

To tie the Utility Loop:

  1. Make a loop that is slightly larger than desired (the size of the finished loop or the amount of slack you need to remove).
  2. Wrap the loop down and around both parts of the rope and pass it back through, like tying a basic overhand knot.
  3. Pull the loop through to tighten the knot. The resulting loop should not slip, whether you pull on the loop or on the ends.

Ashley Bend

The Ashley Bend is the most secure method I know for joining two ropes (of the same diameter) end-to-end to make one longer rope. I use it when I need to make a guy line or tow rope longer, string a bear bag higher in the trees, or create an extra-long laundry line for drying out gear. Once secured, I've never seen this knot slip or release, yet it is always easy to untie, even after it has been subjected to high loads.

Ashley Bend

To tie the Ashley Bend:

  1. Put a small loop in the end of each rope and lay them out, overlapping, exactly as shown.
  2. Position the loop of the top rope over the loop of the bottom rope so that they create a third loop.
  3. Pull both ends back through the third loop you just created, and tug to tighten the knot.
  4. Try to pull the two ropes apart to test the security of the Ashley Bend. If tied correctly, it should not slip or release.

Spiral Stopper

It may seem surprising that I would include this knot, particularly since it is technically closer to being "decorative" than "functional" in most people's eyes. Even so, I've used this knot so often that I've come to consider it one of the six essential knots in my repertoire. It doesn't perform any significant function except to add bulk to the end of a rope, but where adding bulk is concerned, it's hard to beat the Spiral Stopper.

Why would you ever need to add bulk to the end of a rope? Well, there are many possible reasons, but the two most common are: (1) to keep the end of the rope from slipping through some hole, loop, or pulley through which it has been passed, and (2) to weight the end down to prevent it from whipping in the breeze or to make it easier to toss in a particular direction.

Spiral Stopper

To tie the Spiral Stopper Knot:

  1. Make a loop, making sure to leave plenty of slack in the end.
  2. Pinch the throat of the loop with your finger to prevent the loop from closing.
  3. Wrap the end of the rope around the loop in a spiral fashion, at least five times, taking care to keep each coil moderately tight. (Add additional wraps to make the resulting spiral stopper knot longer and heavier, if desired.)
  4. When you run out of slack, pass the end of the rope back through the original loop.
  5. Tug on the end to tighten the knot, and slide the coils together snugly toward the end of the rope.

Knot Basics and Beyond

The six knots discussed above should prove capable of handling just about any knot-likely situation you might encounter. Combined with the well-known "slip knot," you should be able to (1) tie a loop that slips or doesn't slip, (2) make rope longer or shorter, (3) add loops in the middle of a rope, (4) secure a line with adjustable tension, (5) clamp, lash, or constrict a variety of materials, and (6) add weight or bulk to the end of a rope for a variety of purposes. The possibilities for combining these knots and solving difficult rigging scenarios will be limited only by your imagination and the amount of rope you have on hand.

Knot Safety: A Disclaimer

Please do not use these knots for overhead-lifting, high-load-bearing, or human-load-bearing applications which could place you or others at risk of injury or death. Even when tied correctly, knots can substantially reduce the maximum tensile strength of a rope. When tied incorrectly, they can shift or let go without warning. In either case, it is imperative that you understand the limitations of the knots, the cordage, and your own knowledge. The knots I describe above should be considered strictly for "general purpose" applications: to repair, reinforce, or secure items around camp.

Learning the Ropes

If you're desperate to learn more about knots, cordage, splicing, blocks, and all things rigging related, few resources compare to The Complete Rigger's Apprentice by Brian Toss (published by International Marine). Although it lacks the brilliant color photography found in a number of books on knots, the hand-drawn diagrams are more than adequate, and the discussion of knots within the larger context of rigging and nautical history is second to none. If you really want to delve into the world of rigging, The Complete Rigger's Apprentice is the place to begin.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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