Could a Knot Save your Life?

Why Learn Survival Knots?

Can something as simple as a knot save your life? In the right situation, the simple answer is yes. No one is so insulated from the exigencies of life to such a degree that they can say unequivocally that they will never be in a survival situation. When that time comes, being able to tie a secure knot may mean the difference between life and death. For example, if you have to traverse difficult terrain while carrying supplies, some knots will be useful while others will not only be useless, but may make matters worse. If you’re lost, the right knots for fishing and trapping game can keep you from starving. There’s a reason firefighters and Coast Guard rescue crews are experts in tying survival knots: In a life or death situation, a secure rope can save someone from a burning house or a furious storm. Fire, flood, and other emergency situations occur in the backcountry as well. Plus, knowing how to erect a reliable, sturdy shelter to protect yourself from the elements invariably involves tying some knots. (You do carry paracord and good tarp with you in all backcountry situations, right?)

There are many survival skills that take a lot of time to learn and master, many of these skills require purchase of equipment that most people don’t normally have on hand. And there are a lot of survival skills that some people simply choose to forego; skill with a firearm comes to mind. But learning the skill of tying the right knot for a given situation in the right way is something so basic, so simple, and so necessary that no one should be ignorant of at least a half dozen tried and true knots—their best use and how to tie them.

The more of these dependable survival knots you learn, the better off you’ll be when the poop hits the fan and you’re under extreme pressure to perform. Knowing how to tie several multiple-use knots is an invaluable skill not only in wilderness survival situations, but will be a useful skill around the house, while camping, or participating in many weekend outdoor activities such as putting up a volleyball net or securing a tarp over the bed of a pickup truck.

There are more knots to learn than Carter has little pills (as my father used to say). With so many to choose from, you might find it hard to decide which ones to learn first. Most outdoor experts, boaters, and sportsmen would agree that the knots listed below are probably the most useful in most situations you’ll encounter.

Whether you’re an avid camper, a wilderness explorer, or just someone who likes to get out of town for a pleasant hike from time to time, being able to tie the right knot and tie it well is a critical skill you need to have in your repertoire.

Here are the top half dozen survival knots everyone needs to know:

• Figure Eight Knot
• Bowline Knot
• Clove Hitch
• Sheet Bend
• Taut-Line Hitch
• Power Cinch

Rather than try to explain how to tie each knot and introduce graphics of the stages of the rope from start to finish, we’ll use the magic of the internet and link to Youtube videos. (If I had had Youtube when I was a Boy Scout I may have learned my knots better! Who knows? I could have made Eagle!)

Figure Eight Knot.

The figure eight knot is a type of stopper knot and is used extensively in rock climbing as a method of stopping ropes from running through and out of retaining devices. It may also be used to create hand-holds along a length of rope to ease climbing. The overhand knot may also be used for this purpose, but the figure eight is easier to untie after it’s been under pressure, saving the rope from having to be cut. Further, the figure eight does not injure the rope fiber as the overhand tends to do.

There are three main variations on a figure eight knot: the simple figure eight, figure eight follow-through and figure eight on a bight. Let’s take a look at the basic figure eight knot.

While the simple figure eight is used as a stop knot, a variation, the threaded figure eight, also called the figure-eight bend knot, is useful for joining two ropes of equal or different weight. The procedure for creating the first figure eight in the following video is slightly different from the method in the first, but the result is the same and the method may be more practical in some situations.

Any bending or knotting of a rope will necessarily weaken it, but the figure eight allows the rope to maintain up to 85 percent of its strength.

The figure eight follow-through is one of the most useful types of knots for climbing. One reason for this is that you can make a secure loop at the end of a rope with it — an advantage when someone needs to be hauled up safely.

The figure eight on a bight creates a strong loop at the end of the rope that can be clipped onto an anchor. You can also create stable loops in the middle of the rope to use as handholds or footholds. A feature of this video I like is the discussion on dressing the knot. I’ll leave the definition of this and why it’s important to the video.

Bowline Knot

Like the figure eight knot, the bowline is easy to tie. You can trust it not to slip and it can be easily untied after use, even after being subjected to a heavy load. The bowline is versatile and may be the most dependable of all the survival knots you’ll learn. The knot is used to form a fixed, reliable loop at the end of a rope and commonly used to attach a line to the head of a sail on a boat. A feature of this knot is that it becomes tighter as more pressure is applied to the loop. It’s important to note, however, that pressure should be applied to the loop in a direction away from the line from which it’s made. Pressure applied from another direction can result in the knot becoming untied.

This knot is famous for being able to be tied one-handed. Take a look at this video to see how. (Pay no attention to how the instructor pronounces the knot; it’s not a bow-line (as in bow-wow) it’s a bowlin (bow as in ‘bow’ tie, lin as in ‘lun’).

Clove Hitch

A hitch is a knot that connects a rope to an object; think of a hitching post. The clove hitch is another very simple but vitally important survival knot. While not as strong as the figure eight or bowline knot, it won’t loosen or slip under pressure and you can lengthen or shorten the rope without untying the knot.

A clove hitch is mainly used for anchoring. Since it can be adjusted without untying, you might find it useful for lowering heavy objects or moving them to a higher spot. While it maintains its grip under pressure, the opposite is also true; a line that may go slack from time to time, such as under windy conditions if tied to a small tree that may bend in the wind, can cause the knot to loosen and fail. By the same token, the clove hitch is not the knot to use if the attachment point can rotate. This will also cause the knot to loosen and fail.

Sheet Bend

A bend is a knot that ties two pieces of rope together. If you need a longer piece of rope than you have available, the sheet bend will allow you to safely tie shorter pieces of rope together. The sheet bend is normally used when the ropes to be joined are of different weights and made of different materials. The sheet bend isn’t one of the stronger knots, reducing the strength of the line to only half its unknotted strength. It’s also more efficient with heavily-textured rope, such as hemp. Smooth-surfaced lines can come untied, especially if the tension on the knot is not constant.

For joining two lines of the same weight and material together, the double fisherman’s knot is preferable to the sheet bend.

Taut-Line Hitch

When you want to have the advantage of adjustable tension for guy lines on a tent or tarp, the taut-line hitch is the go-to knot. Another advantage of this simple knot is that it’s so easy to untie when no longer needed. However, keep in mind that this knot is for light duty and needs to be monitored and adjusted often.

Power Cinch

Another little known and underrated knot is the Power Cinch. Another great way to add tension to a line without the possibility of it slipping loose like I’ve seen Taut-Line Hitches do, yet very easy to pull down in a hurry. This is what I use for any kind of trunk line while I’m camping or putting up a shelter. Tensioning knots are something you should know so I’ve included two of them in this list. I always see people over-tying objects in the back of a truck or in many situations where all they’re doing is trying to secure a load. Regular half hitches work fine, but that extra effort both in tying and removing all those knots simply isn’t necessary if you know the right knots to use in the first place.

A taut-line hitch is what you use when sheltering under a tarp. Stringing a rope between two trees and laying your tarp over it is the first step in creating a buffer between you and the elements. To make the tarp into a shelter, you need a firm, tight rope to hang it from.

The taut-line allows your loop to slide and grip, making it the ideal knot to use when staking a large tarp. But this knot won't work well for getting a rope tight and keeping it that way. It’s best for easy duty and needs to be adjusted often.

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