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Never Tie a Knot Again?Six of the Best

Not on Your Life!
And Here Are Six of the Best

By Tamia Nelson

November 1, 2011

I suppose that tying shoelaces will soon be numbered among the lost arts, like determining latitude by noon sight and driving while looking at the road. Once upon a time, learning to tie your own shoes was a watershed event in children's lives, almost on a par with learning to walk. But no longer. Now Velcro rules. Soon, only a tiny minority of quirky enthusiasts — the sort of people the Brits call "anoraks" — will bother to learn how to join two cords together with a slip‑knot bow. Of course, that day hasn't arrived. Yet.

It's getting closer, though. As I realized not long ago when a new tarp came with a package of fishhook‑like plastic gadgets bearing the impressive name "Nite Ize Figure 9" — the latest in a long line of clever devices intended to do away with the need to tie a tautline hitch. Unlike many of their predecessors, however, these Nite Ize work. So another relic of ancient woodcraft bites the dust. Before long, only gorillas will bother to master even the most rudimentary knots. (Yes, our muscular cousins apparently do tie knots, though they have an unfortunate predilection for grannies.)

Anyway, here's what Nite Ize Figure 9s look like:

And They Glow in the Dark!

As you can see, they're not without a certain Bauhaus elegance. But I wasn't about to be swayed by subtle aesthetic considerations. Instead, I consigned the Nite Ize to a dark corner of the storage bin reserved for interesting‑but‑useless items, the same bin that formerly held the jar of Marmite I somehow talked myself into buying. As it happened, I later relented and gave the Marmite a second chance. The Nite Ize, however, looked certain to remain in the bin forever, ignored and ultimately forgotten. Then, about a month ago, I saw them advertised in a flier from a dealer in military surplus and survival gear. The copywriters had pulled out all the stops, too. "Never tie a knot again," proclaimed the ad. And just to make sure you'd got the point, they reiterated, "Eliminates the hassle of tying, adjusting and untying knots." The Mad Men were determined to leave nothing to the reader's imagination.

I was suitably impressed. Not with the product, you understand. While it was obvious that the Nite Ize were a workable substitute for the tautline hitch, they certainly didn't eliminate the need for campers to know other knots. In fact, the picture that accompanied the fulsome ad copy made this clear, since it showed a tent guyline secured to a pull‑out with — you guessed it — a couple of half hitches. (It's not the best knot for the job, perhaps, but the half hitch is definitely a knot.) No, what did impress me was the copywriter's choice of words. Was "tying, adjusting and untying knots" really a "hassle"? I'd never found that to be the case.

Still, it hasn't escaped my attention that quite a lot of folks find paddling a canoe to be a hassle, too. (This isn't true of anyone reading this, I know, but…) So maybe I'm just behind the times. Then again, the explanation for my intransigence may lie elsewhere. I know I enjoy the feeling of independence that comes from mastering a simple physical skill, especially when that skill has practical applications. Like paddling a canoe, for instance. Or tying a knot. And I don't think I'm alone in this, a hopeful notion that was confirmed recently when a regular reader suggested I write a column about …

My Favorite Knots

Not surprisingly, I figured it was good idea. Of course, this isn't the first time I've written about knots, but I'd never before couched the subject in quite these terms. What, exactly, were my favorites? And why? At the outset, I wasn't sure. But a little reflection yielded up a short list of six. These are the knots I use every day, on and off the water. They keep my boot laces snugly secured. They shape my poncho shelter and tension my tarp and tent fly. They suspend my food bag, keep my gear from floating away in a capsize, and stop my boat from going airborne on the highway. And not one is a hassle to tie, tighten, or untie.

Best of all, each knot has a story to tell. I learned about them from the truckers who frequented my parents' greasy spoon, from the stockmen in the auction barn where I worked as a teenager, and from fellow climbers on pitches from Maine to Washington state. And while the climber in me appreciates the ingenuity that's gone into the design of an ever‑increasing catalog of ascenders, descenders, and belay brakes — some which have clearly inspired the little Nite Ize tensioners — the only pieces of ironmongery I now use regularly are carabiners. Together with a handful of favorite knots, they always get the job done.

What knots make up my six‑pack of favorites? Here's the list:

  1. Reef Knot
  2. Bowline
  3. Trucker's Hitch
  4. Figure‑Eight Knot
  5. Fisherman's Knot
  6. Tautline Hitch

And here they are in lined up for inspection, set alongside the Nite Ize, enjoying a brief recreational furlough from their dark, secluded cell:

Tamia Ties Six On


Are you having a little trouble matching name to knot? OK. I'll add a few labels to help:


It's All Down in Black and White

I use other knots, of course, but these six are the workhorses in my ditty bag of tricks. Here's how they're used (follow the links for detailed tying instructions):

Reef Knot  Also known as the square knot, this nautical knot is the basis for the bow used in tying shoes. It's at its best when joining two identical lines (or two ends of a single line) temporarily, but it should not be used if the lines will come under great strain. Besides tying my shoes, I use it most often — usually "slipped" with a single bow, to facilitate quick release — when lashing packs into a boat, tying spare paddles to thwarts, and securing loads to my Freighter packframe.

Bowline  The aptly‑named "king of knots," this is the nautical knot par excellence, yielding a nonslip loop that's still easy to untie, even after being subjected to a heavy load. I use it when rigging hauling lines for bear bags, as well as for a variety of other camp chores, but it sees most frequent use in attaching painters and tracking lines to boats. I've also employed it when setting up rescue and salvage lines. And it's a favorite among climbers, too.

Trucker's Hitch  An industrial‑strength alternative to the venerable tautline hitch (see description below), this ropework block and tackle offers a twofold mechanical advantage — though much of that advantage is lost to friction. I use it to tie boats down when car‑topping, to tighten sagging clotheslines, and to quiet flapping tarps. Be warned, though: Notwithstanding the frictional losses, it's all too easy to overdo it when cranking down on a trucker's hitch. This can get mighty expensive. For example, you can crack a fiberglass hull, dent your car's roof, rip a deck off a canoe, or pull a grommet out of a tent fly. I've seen all of these things happen. So go easy.

Figure‑Eight Knot  Used to form a loop, the figure‑eight makes a good alternative to the bowline for many purposes. In fact, it holds better in slippery braided line than the king of knots, and I use it to fasten the painters to my Pack canoe for that very reason. Tied singly — that is, without forming a bight first — it makes a good "stopper" to prevent the bitter end of a line from slipping through a grommet. In a pinch, the figure‑eight can also be employed to join two lines of different diameters, though this isn't an application you'd want to bet your life on.

Fisherman's Knot  I use this to make a long line from two shorter ones. But a couple of caveats apply: First, the lines to be joined must be the same diameter. Second, if security is paramount — when you're piecing together a long tracking line, say, or forming prusik loops — a double fisherman's knot is better than the single knot shown in the photos above. (And a triple is better still, particularly in slippery synthetic rope.) A final warning: The fisherman's knot MUST be tied correctly, and even when tied properly it has no place in climbing or rescue lines.

Tautline Hitch  This is the classic hitch for tensioning guylines and similar around‑the‑camp chores. The trucker's hitch is my preference when I'm working with slick braided line, but there's no denying that the tautline hitch is convenient. For one thing, it allows you to adjust the tension on a guyline without untying anything. Try that with a trucker's hitch!


There you have it — my six favorite knots. And though your favorites may not be the same as mine, we can surely agree about one thing: No gizmo ever invented can take the place of a well‑tied knot. After all, no matter how ingenious the design of a patent widget, it can't help you if you don't have it in your pocket or pack when you need it. But once you learn how to tie a knot, it's yours forever. You'll never be without it. 'Nuff said? I think so.


Tying One On


A lot of clever people have come up with gadgets to replace the knots that were once part of every paddler's repertoire. Is this progress? Or is it just a marketing ploy? Well, you know my answer to that question now, don't you? Gadgets come and go, but knots endure. So the next time someone tells you that you'll never need to tie a knot again, don't hesitate to answer back, "Not on your life!"



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