Knots to Learn for More Fun and Safety in the Mountains
Practice now and they'll come in handy on future adventures
There’s an old saying: “If you don’t know a knot, tie a lot.”
It’s funny advice, really. Outdoor sports enthusiasts should know lots of knots, but we should know how to tie them correctly every time. As Clifford W. Ashley, author of the famous 1944 Ashley Book of Knots, wrote, “A knot is never nearly right; it is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong.”
As a climbing coach, I am often surprised by how few knots some of my fellow outdoorspeople actually know how to tie. I’ve watched other climbers struggle to remember how to tie bowlines to make anchors on trees. I’ve seen tents blow away on Mount Rainier because they weren’t lashed down properly and hammocks collapse with people in them because they were attached to trees with knots that weren’t load bearing.
Since most of us are stuck at home looking for ways to pass the time, this is the perfect opportunity to get caught up on your knot knowledge.
Common uses: Building climbing anchors around trees, fastening a mooring line to a dock, and hanging bear bags and tarps for camping
If there’s one knot to know, it’s the bowline. This is a quick and efficient way to tie cord around an object. The biggest advantage of the bowline is that it’s easy to untie after it’s loaded. If you had bear bags for a group of ten hanging off an overhand knot all night, it’s going to be hard to undo. (The weight from the bags would cinch the knot tight.)
To tie it:
Make a loop with the working end of the rope (the part that’s being tied) on top. Wrap the rope around an anchor, bring the working end up through the loop, wrap down and around the standing end of the rope (the end of the rope that’s not being used to tie the knot), then back down through the loop. Since it’s so easy to undo, it’s important to have a long enough tail left over—at least 12 inches—so it doesn’t come untied on its own.
Common uses: Attaching to a rope for mountaineering or glacier hiking, fixing ropes and hauling, and making handles on handlines for hiking over technical terrain
This is one of the most popular knots for connecting to the middle of a rope, because it can be safely loaded in any direction. Mountaineers will often clip into an alpine butterfly in the middle of their line with two locking carabiners when crossing a glacier on a rope team. It’s also good for heavy loads, because it’s easy to untie, so big-wall climbers like to use it for fixed ropes and haul lines. If you need to set up a handline to help hikers up a short section of fourth-class rock, a few alpine butterflies tied throughout the rope make nice handles to grab.
To tie it:
Wrap a rope around your hand twice. Keep the first loop on your fingertips to separate it from the second loop. Pull the first loop toward you and down, then thread it back up through both loops on the palm of your hand. Slide the knot off your hand, and cinch the ends tight.
Common uses: Making slings out of tubular webbing for climbing anchors, repairing broken straps, and tying webbing of similar sizes together
The water knot is often used to make slings for climbing anchors by tying a piece of tubular webbing into a loop. It could also be used to fix the webbing on a broken backpack strap. And it’s a great solution if your shoelace breaks on the trail—all you have to do is tie the broken ends back together. Need to tie two short ropes into a single long one? The water knot will do it. It’s simple to tie, and it holds well.
To tie it:
The water knot is essentially a retraced overhand knot. Tie a loose overhand in one end of webbing. Thread the other end in the reverse direction. Make sure it’s dressed neatly, without any twists in the webbing, and cinch it tight. For critical applications, like climbing anchors, make sure you leave long tails—at least six inches—on either side of the knot so it can’t come undone easily.
Common uses: Fashioning ascending ropes, rescuing stuck climbers, and backing up belay devices
The Prusik is the most popular and versatile friction hitch. It’s tied with a Prusik loop—made out of a smaller-diameter cord tied into a loop with a double fisherman’s knot—wrapped around a larger-diameter rope. Unweighted, the Prusik can be pushed along a rope. Weighted, the Prusik cinches down on the rope it’s tied around and anchors it in place. It’s sometimes used in mountaineering to ascend ropes in crevasse rescues. It’s also commonly used in rock climbing as a backup for belay devices while rappelling or lowering another climber. The Prusik has a number of uses around a campsite: I’ve used them to make adjustable-height hanging tables that can be raised and lowered inside a big tent. They also help to adjust the tension of guylines, an ideal fix when you need to keep your tent lashed down securely in blustery weather.
To tie it:
Wrap the loop around your main rope three times. Keep each pass around the rope inside the first wrap. Make sure the double fisherman’s knot used to close the Prusik loop stays out of the way: for the first pass, use the end of the rope that’s opposite the double fisherman’s knot. These wraps will form a barrel shape around the rope. Finish by pulling the rope back through itself. The Prusik hitch must be dressed well, so take a moment to get all the loops in order, and make it look nice.
Common uses: Anchoring ropes for ascending and rappelling, fixing handlines for hiking technical terrain, securing bear bags, and tying down tents
This hitch is superstrong compared to other knots, because it’s not really a knot at all. Usually, knots reduce the strength of a rope. But the tensionless hitch uses friction around a tree or post to hold a load, with a knot as a backup. This theoretically maintains the rope’s full strength and makes it very easy to untie after it’s been loaded. The biggest disadvantage of this hitch is that it requires a lot of rope.
To tie it:
Wrap a rope around a tree at least three times. Smaller-diameter ropes or smaller-diameter trees will require more wraps. Make sure there is sufficient slack in the working end of the rope, then tie an overhand on a bight (a curved section of the rope) or a figure eight on a bight, and clip it to the standing end of the rope with a carabiner. If you don’t have a carabiner, you can also secure the working end of the rope by tying a bowline around the standing end. There should be some slack in the working end of the rope—that’s why it’s called a tensionless hitch—so don’t worry about getting that tight. Let the friction around the tree do its job.