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Learning the RopesGetting Hitched

A Knotty Problem — Solved!

By Tamia Nelson

January 24, 2012

Knots are tools, among the most important in any waterman's (ditty) bag of tricks, even if that waterman happens to be a woman. And I've written about them many times before, most recently in November of last year, when I described six of my "favorites." I put "favorites" in quotes because the word is really a bit misleading. While I seldom feel the need to have more than a half‑dozen knots at my fingertips, so to speak, my list evolves with the procession of the seasons, not to mention changes in boats. I'm not alone. A sometime sailor's knotty toolkit will differ from a full‑time paddler's, for example. But despite all the words I've spilled on the subject, I may have scanted one vital aspect: how and when to use the knots I've described. I've certainly mentioned their uses from time to time in earlier articles, but perhaps I've never given the topic the attention it deserves. As reader Bill Forshey was good enough to point out:

I was trying to improve my use of knots in my canoeing and came across your article. ["Knots to Know! Basic Ropecraft for Paddlers" – Editor] I have, over time, learned to create the knots you describe, but I have to admit that with the exception of the trucker's hitch to secure my boat to my vehicle, I don't really know how to apply them.

And that's the whole point of the exercise, isn't it? Being able to tie a bowline with one hand makes a nifty party trick — and it can be a vital skill in a hard chance — but it's more important to know what to use a bowline for. So that's what this article is all about. I'll look at some of the ways I use knots, both afloat and ashore.

Ready? Then let's …

Cast Off!

One of the first things I do when outfitting a canoe (or a kayak) is to fix painters to the bow and stern, using a "stopped" figure‑eight loop or bowline, tied through a grab loop or molded eye. (A stopped knot is simply one in which the free end is secured around the standing part with an overhand knot.) And what determines whether I use a bowline or a figure‑eight? Two things: the length of the painter (forming a figure‑eight loop around a grab loop or eye is an awkward business with a long line) and the type of service the painter is likely to see. I use bowlines to attach long painters to boats headed for rough water, figure‑eights on craft (like my little pack canoe) that are destined for less taxing duty. Then, once the painters have been tied off, I coil them and stow them under the grab loops (canoe) or lead them to a deck cleat (kayak). This keeps the painters ready to hand, but lessens the likelihood they'll float free in a capsize, threatening any swimmer with entanglement. Back when I first paddled whitewater, it was the fashion in certain quarters to trail the stern painter behind you. Having once encountered a paddler struggling to free himself from the coils of his own line while swimming a rapids, however, I was forever cured of this bad habit.

And what of the grab loop itself? It's formed from tubular webbing, closed with a water knot and then threaded through an eye in the deck of the canoe.

Now here's a sketch of the stern of our Old Town Tripper, outfitted for a Big Trip in rough water:

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Lines other than the painter are shown in red. A small float bag is lashed into the empty space beneath the stern deck with a length of 18‑inch braided cord led through a D‑ring in the bilge and tied off at the ends with paired half hitches. (The half hitch is best thought of as a "temporary" knot. Check it often.) A slipped clove hitch (aka "slippery hitch" — in which the bitter end is doubled back on itself, allowing the knot to be loosened with a swift tug) ties the bailer's lanyard to the thwart. We also use clove hitches to anchor the ¼‑inch braided Goldline that holds our packs in place, and slipped clove hitches secure the spare paddles to thwarts — though a slipped reef knot will serve as well, and be a little quicker to undo, to boot.

My ammo‑can camera box gets special attention. A bowline secures the lanyard to the can's carry handle, while the other end of the lanyard boasts a figure‑eight loop. A carabiner then clips the lanyard to a webbing loop around a thwart, and a similar arrangement serves to secure my getaway pack when I'm paddling in sheltered waters.


So much for this quick look at knots afloat. Now it's time to …

Venture Ashore

Mooring a canoe is usually a simple matter of tying off the painters to convenient trees. I use a bowline. Others use a clove hitch. Either one works, but if you'll be leaving your craft for more than a few minutes at the mercy of a buffeting wind or a tugging current, I'd stick with the bowline.

Now, having moored my boat (or hauled it ashore) and clambered onto dry land, one of the first things I do is string up a tarp, running guylines to trees, poles, or aluminum‑wire pegs. Each line is tied off to a grommet on the tarp with two half hitches. I then secure the other end to a tree, pole, or peg, using either a tautline hitch or a trucker's hitch. Which of these do I prefer? That depends. Kernmantel (braided‑sheath) line, like the ubiquitous 550 paracord, is pretty slippery stuff, and the tautline hitch depends on friction to keep its grip, so in most cases I use the trucker's hitch. The tautline hitch has one signal advantage, however: You don't have to untie it to adjust the tension. That said, both hitches make tightening or slackening a guyline easy. Still, even with the help of a readily adjustable hitch, erecting a tarp or poncho shelter can be a fussy business. I've described the process in some detail in "Sheltering Your Assets," where I employed a medley of half hitches, trucker's hitches, and toggles to do the job. Improvisation is the key here.

Once you've attended to the vital matter of shelter from the elements, it's time to tackle some more mundane chores. Take laundry, for instance. You can rig a serviceable clothesline with a length of rope and two well‑chosen trees, using clove hitches to make fast the ends. Your new clothesline is also a good place to dry the dishes after your evening meal. Just load them into a net bag, tie off the neck with a reef knot, and hang the bag from the line. Is it getting dark already? No problem. Simply form a loop of cord with a fisherman's knot and wrap it around a limb or line, prusik style. Then clip your battery lantern to the loop with a mini‑biner. Bright idea, eh?

Let There Be Light!

And what if the light reveals a frayed place in one of your guylines? You could tie a sheepshank in the line as a quick fix. This works only when the line is under tension, however, and it also shortens the line's effective length. When that no longer leaves you with enough to do the job, you can piece together a suitable length by joining two shorter lines with fisherman's knots (if the lines are the same diameter) or sheet bends (if the lines have different diameters).

Soon it will be time for bed. Are you worried about midnight visitors with big teeth and large appetites? If so, you'll probably want to hang your food pack. Actually, in many popular areas this is no longer enough. A "bear‑resistant food storage container" (aka "bear can") is needed. And in a growing number of parks these costly pedigreed plastic pots are mandatory. But if you're lucky enough to be camping well off the beaten track, and if the law allows, hanging your food pack can still be a viable option. Although there are just about as many methods as there are paddlers, I favor a variant of the Tyrolean traverse. You'll need a long line, however: at least 75 feet. Paracord works, after a fashion, but ¼‑inch kernmantel line is easier on both hands and bark. Pick two trees about 20 feet apart, with sturdy branches around 15 feet high. Throw your line over the first branch. (This is harder than it sounds, but practice makes perfect, and a rescue throw bag makes things even easier, though you should only use a bag that's been retired from active service.) Now make one end of the line fast to the tree trunk with a clove hitch (or a couple of round turns and two half hitches) before throwing the other end over a suitable branch on the second tree and then tying it off temporarily — but not until you've let the belly of the line sag to the ground between the two trees. Next, form a simple overhand loop in the sagging line about halfway between the midpoint and the first tree, clip your food pack to this loop with a 'biner, undo the temporary tie on the second tree, and haul away on the bitter end till the food bag is as high as it's going to go. Then, after checking that the bag is roughly equidistant from both trees, make the end of the hauling line fast with a clove hitch or a round turn and half hitches. That's it. You're done.

And it's only taken you half an hour. Maybe this is reason enough to buy a pricey bear can. But at least you're sure to sleep well after all that hauling and heaving.


A new day dawns. If it's your last day in the backcountry, you'll soon be loading your boat for …

The Trip Back Home

But this is one subject we've already covered at some length. Just browse through the columns in our archives under the collective heading "Overland," where you'll also find articles on racking and storing your boats at home. The executive summary? When you load your boat on your car, the bowline and the trucker's hitch are your best friends. Don't get too enthusiastic when you haul down on a trucker's hitch, though — unless you want to add new curves to your car's roofline, that is. The trucker's hitch is a block and tackle in disguise, quite capable of transforming a 99‑pound weakling into Arnold Schwarzenegger, even if the transformation probably won't be complete enough to get any of us an audition for the next Terminator movie.


OK. What's left? We've carried our knots with us out on the water, brought them back to camp, and taken them on the road. But what about …

Knots at Home?

Well, let's see now… Slipped reef knots keep my shoes on my feet. Figure‑eight loops secure lanyards to all manner of items that I use every day, from matchsafes to key‑rings. Fisherman's knots join the ends of the neck straps on my compass and GPS when I go for a walk in the nearby woods. (Though how much longer my GPS will be worth carrying remains an open question.) The bandanna that keeps the sun off my neck is cinched with a reef knot. Figure‑eight knots fasten ties to my zipper pulls. And I hang my camera around my neck with a strap I made myself from lengths of tubular webbing, tied with water and overhand knots.

The bottom line? There's (almost) no problem that knots can't help to solve, afloat or ashore, in the backcountry or back at home. And, no, that's knot … er … not an exaggeration.


Home Comforts


Working watermen have been schooled in knot‑tying for centuries, and knot lore has played a key part in outdoor recreation since the days of Baden‑Powell, if not before. But while it's important to have a well‑chosen inventory of knots in your ditty bag of skills, they won't do you any good if you don't know how to use them. As Bill Forshey recently reminded me. It's a knotty problem, no doubt about it. Fortunately, the solution is as near as your computer.



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