A Knot for All Occasions
by Wes Kisting
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 yearssome practical, some decorative, some fairly exoticbut 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:
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:
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.
To tie the Rolling Hitch:
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.
To tie the Utility Loop:
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.
To tie the Ashley Bend:
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.
To tie the Spiral Stopper Knot:
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.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting