5 Knots You Need in the Woods
On week long back country canoe trips, day hunts from a tree stand, or actual sketchy situations, knowing how to work with rope to secure loads and tie off gear is key for any outdoors person. My grandfather spent years sailing by himself on a 22-foot sailboat and that guy knew his way around rope. He emphasized the importance of ensuring your rope was neat and tidy, knots were secure, and you know where the end of your rope was so you could work with it when needed. Whether you are pulling a bear hang up to keep your food safe overnight, tying a canoe to a car, hanging a tarp in a downpour, or just doing general tasks around the house or camp, it’s important to understand the purposes of different knots and which are most useful for the situation.
As a quick note on terminology, when tying knots, you can think of having one piece of rope in each hand. The working, tail, or running end refers to the piece of the rope that you use to tie the knot. The other side of the rope, that might be tied to the load, is the standing end. A turn is a loop made by crossing the rope over itself. A bight refers to a loop of rope, rather than the end of the rope. Bights are often used to create quick-release or slip knots where you only need to pull the end of the rope for the knot to untie (when you tie your shoelaces, you basically create two bights that you tighten down).
There are hundreds of knots out there suited to particular activities and you can spent hours learning them all. For most of us, knowing a few different kinds of knots and which situations they can be adapted to is a good place to start. Most knots have a number of variations depending on the type of rope you’re using, the load you need to secure, and some advanced situations such as creating a knot in the middle of a rope rather than having access to one of the loose ends. For each of the knots below, I’ll go through the base form and you can look up its variants for more specialized situations.
Here are five knots you should know that will get you by most situations.
1. Two Half Hitches
This list is not in any really particular order, but I’m starting with the one that is probably the most simple and will find use in the widest variety of situations. The two half hitch can be tied in a matter of seconds and is easy to untie. It makes for a great temporary knot that tightens on itself.
A hitch is basically a knot used to tie a rope to an object. I’ll get into a couple other kinds of knots below but if you’re tying the end of a rope to a tree to secure a bear hang, tying a boat to a dock, or pulling your gun or bow up into your tree stand, you’re using a hitch of some kind to tie the end of the rope.
A single half hitch is one of the most basic types of knots. It is also referred to as an overhand knot. Wrap the end of a rope around an object, cross that working end on itself, and pass it through the loop created (think about the first thing you do when tying your shoes). The problem with a half hitch is that as tension is applied to the load, the end of the loop can slip through itself. Therefore, the two half hitch knot is literally tying two half hitches. Tie the first half hitch, then cross the end of the rope on itself again and pass it through.
The key part of the two half hitch that will actually cause it to tighten on itself as tension is applied is to ensure that you follow the same directional pattern for both half hitches. For example, as in the image above, if you cross the working end on top and come around from the bottom the first time, be sure you cross on top and come around from the bottom the second time.
The bowline is probably the most common way to create a loop in a rope. The advantage of a bowline is that as tension is applied to the rope, the knot tightens on itself without weakening the actual rope, slipping, or binding.
The bowline is fast to tie and easy to untie if you haven’t applied significant load to the rope. To tie it, make a turn in the rope (ensuring that the working end passes on top), pass the working end up through the loop made by the turn, go around behind the standing end, then back down through the turn (so the working end is not laying beside itself in the loop of the turn).
There are plenty of situations where you might want to start with a secure loop in the rope that doesn’t slip. Even in cases where I want a closing or slip loop, I’ll start with a bowline and then pass the rope through the loop to create a noose structure.
The bowline is a must-know for anyone working with rope in the woods. It is highly adaptable and there are numerous variations. If you do not have access to the ends of a rope, you can tie a bowline in the middle of a rope, called a bowline on a bight.
3. Sheet Bend
A bend is a type of knot used to tie the ends of two ropes together. An important point here is that ropes are not all created equal – they have different constructions, thicknesses, stretch factors, water absorption, and other qualities. By the same token, not all bends will work in every situation.
The sheet bend is a pretty versatile knot for general situations. One of its most useful qualities is that it can be used to join two ropes of unequal thicknesses and also works well with two equal ropes. It is also usually fairly easy to untie. I have used this knot hundreds of times in all kinds of situations where I just need more rope but it doesn’t matter what kind I’m using.
When attaching two ropes of unequal thicknesses using the sheet bend, it’s important that the thicker rope forms the simple loop and the thinner is the one that passes through and secures on itself, essentially using a modified half hitch. In addition, be sure that the tag ends of both ropes are on the same side for a more secure knot (as shown below).
The weakness of the sheet bend is that the thinner rope can cut into the thicker rope and under heavy load situations, can actually eat through the thicker end. For instance, I would not use a sheet bend to tie a fly leader to the end of fly line because the leader can actually tear through the thicker, softer fly line.
4. Farrimond Hitch
The Farrimond hitch is where this list starts to get a little more technical and specialized. As with the two half hitches above, the Farrimond hitch is used to secure one end of a rope to an object. The Farrimond hitch is a friction hitch best suited to situations where you need to adjust the length of the rope and maintain tension without untying the knot.
The most common uses for the Farrimond hitch are on tent guy lines or tarp ridge lines where you want to be able to adjust the tension of the lines. For example, if you are hanging a tarp and securing the grommets to a tree in camp, you can go around the tree, tie a Farrimond hitch, and then simply slide the knot down the rope until it is tight enough.
I like to tie the Farrimond hitch using a bight so that it can be quickly pulled and untied in one motion. You can also add wraps with the loop if you need to create more friction, depending on the type of rope you are using. Remember that a Farrimond hitch is only well suited to making lighter loads taut, such as tarps. I would never use it to secure a heavy load (such as tying a canoe to a vehicle).
5. Trucker’s Hitch
The trucker’s hitch sometimes has a reputation for being a complicated knot to tie. However, there are variations that make it quick and easy to tie and it is the most useful knot for securing loads. The big advantage with the trucker’s hitch is that it creates a type of pulley to provide up to a 3:1 mechanical advantage, allowing you to create far more tension than if you were just pulling a line straight down.
To tie the trucker’s hitch, you basically create a bight in the middle of the rope and tie a figure eight knot with the bight. Then you pass the working end of the rope around whatever you are securing your load to and back up through the loop you created. If this starts to get confusing, the simplest variation of the trucker’s hitch is create a simple turn in the standing end and pass a bight through the loop to create a slip knot. The key part here is to ensure the bight is created from the working end of the rope and not the standing end. In other words, think of the turn as separating the rope into the standing and working ends. Pull the bight through from the working end. The advantage with this variation is that it is quicker to tie and can be untied simply by pulling on the working end.
There are different ways to tie off the trucker’s hitch. You can use two half hitches or a sheet bend. If you use two half hitches (as shown in the video above), I recommend you tie all strands of the rope together with the hitches. If you use a sheet bend, I recommend you only use the loop created by the trucker’s hitch (in other words, don’t pass the working end around all the strands of rope).
As an added tip, I will often combine multiple trucker’s hitches to increase the mechanical advantage even more. When tying a canoe to a vehicle, I will make two trucker’s hitches, pass the end of the rope through the first loop, through the second, and then through the first again. By going through one loop twice, you allow the rope to bind on itself and hold its own weight.
These five knots should give anyone a great place to start to learn about effective knots for a variety of general situations in the woods. Every knot I covered here has additional variations that make them more specialized and secure. Once you have the base forms down, you can branch out and learn some of the other forms. There are some great resources all over the internet to learn different knots, the most common probably being Animated Knots. Berkley has some great online resources for fishing knots.
Remember that this list focused on general use knots to cover the widest variety of common applications possible. While some of these knots are used in specialized situations, more technical activities such as fishing of climbing have their own entire set of knots. However, while they may use a different kind of hitch specialized to slide up and down an anchored rope, climbers still use hitches. Anglers are also well accustomed to different types of hitches used to tie hooks to the end of line or a variety of bends used to attach the different components of fly line together.
I also didn’t even get into different types of rope in this post and the reasons that certain knots are more or less effective depending on the type of rope you’re using. Again, as a list of general use knots, all the knots in this list are great for use with paracord or the kind of double braid nylon rope common at outdoors stores, the two kinds I use most of the time.
Knowing some great knots will make tasks and camp chores far easier and more enjoyable. It will also give you a great way to impress friends and potential mates. Next time you see someone fussing around with ratchet straps, hooks, and way too many tie-downs, walk over, tie two half hitches, run the end down, whip up a trucker’s hitch, tighten the load, and secure it with a sheet bend. Then grab the rope, give it a shake and say, “that’s not going anywhere.”