Learning Knots For Survival

The right knot is easy to tie and untie and performs well in its intended use. However, learning what knots serve which purpose is the hardest part, and it takes a lot of practice to master all the knots that would prove useful in a survival scenario.

The scenario

The fall was hard. Only the resiliency of youth allowed the boy to move stiffly about the narrow ledge and call for help. Passersby heard the plea. Someone appeared with a rope. Full of hope and good intentions, they lowered the lifeline to the youth. The boy grabbed hold, and his rescuers, shouting encouragement, began to haul him up the rocky cliff.

Then it happened—a nightmare all present will never shake.

The boy who’s hands were just inches from the outstretched arms of his rescuers, slipped to his death.

A life that could have been saved was lost needlessly. Had someone in the crowd known their knots, the boy would be alive and well today. A simple bowline tied at the end of the rope before lowering it would have allowed the boy to slip the loop securely around his body for a safe haul to the top.

Rope is essential to many outdoor activities, and the fellow who is unfamiliar with its qualities and use may find himself with a serious handicap. Only a fool or greenhorn figures any old knot or any old rope will do.

The Encyclopedia of Knots lists 3,668 knots while the Ashley Book of Knots contains over 4,000. These texts include every conceivable rope form known to man. They are somewhat overwhelming in that you get the impression that tying knots is a very complex procedure requiring postgraduate study and 16 technical courses to understand and master them.

The right knot for your survival

Learning Knots

In reality, very few knots are needed and are simple to learn. An entire 100-foot, three-strand monkey bridge, for example, may be built using just one knot—the clove hitch. The key is not in knowing a little about a lot of knots, but a lot about a few knots.

Select the right knot for the task at hand and tie it correctly.

The right knot has three characteristics:

  1. It is easy to tie,
  2. It performs well in the job for which it is intended, and
  3. It’s easy to untie.

The wrong knot may come untied when a little strain is applied, or it may cinch down so tight that you cannot untie it.

You should know your basic knots well enough to tie blindfolded, behind your back, or with one hand. Conditions are often awkward when a knot is called for. One hand may be needed to steady yourself when the ground is too wet and slippery for a secure foothold or to hold a spar in place. Your life or that of another may very well depend on the speed in which you can tie a proper knot.

All knots and hitches are formed by just three methods of laying rope: bights, loops, and overhand knots. Once you get these down, you can tie any knot easily.

A bight is formed by turning the rope so that the end is parallel to the rest of the rope.

A loop is made by crossing the rope end under or over the rest of the rope.

An overhand knot is made by passing the end of the rope through the loop.

If you think of rope work as a combination of bights, loops, and overhand knots, the learning will be simplified.

Here are seven basic knots and hitches with some of their uses:

Square knot—One of the two basic knots used to join two ropes. Use the square knot when tying ropes of equal size together.

Sheet Bend—The second of the two basic joining knots. Use the sheet bend to tie two ropes of unequal size together.

Sheet Bend
Sheet Bend Knot

Double Half-hitch—Sometimes known as two half-hitches, it is used to tie a rope to a pole or ring.

Clove Hitch—One of the most widely used knots in primitive construction work, it is used to start and finish and to lash or secure a rope to a spar or pole.

Tautline Hitch—Used to anchor a guy line to a pole or another rope. Although this knot will not slip, you can readily loosen to tighten the rope by pushing the knot up or down the standing part.

Bowline—Pronounced boe-lin, this effective knot makes the best, permanent non-slipping loop in a rope. Fundament-ally, it’s a rescue knot used to tic around yourself or someone who needs a lifeline. In wilderness construction work, the knot is often used on a safety line or to haul some-one up, down, or across an obstacle.

Timber Hitch—Used for raising logs or hauling them across the ground.

Knot For First Aid

The square knot is universally recognized as the first aid knot. Almost all first aid applications of knots call for this basic knot. The square knot has the advantage of strength and efficiency for holding bandages or splints in place while being easily tied and untied. The knot works well on cloth and bandage material.

Read next: Rope Making and Usage In The Wilderness

Fishing Knots

More good fish have been lost because of bad knots than any other cause. Knots that will give you the greatest strength with the smallest bulk while remaining relatively simple to tie are the most desired. Again, practice at home can save a lot of fumbling in the field.

When tying a fishing knot that calls for twisting line around itself, be sure to make at least five turns in the knot. Snug down your knots slowly and evenly, then pull tight. Never try to break a line with your hands. It’s much safer to cut it. Inexpensive fingernail clippers are perfect for the job. Here are four popular fishing knots:

Improved Clinch Knot—This is the basic knot for tying on lures, hooks, flies, or swivels. It is very effective on the monofilament line.

Palomar Knot—Properly tied, this knot is said to maintain almost 100 percent line strength. Like the clinch knot, it may be used to tie on lures, hooks, etc.

Blood Knot—The best knot for tying line to line when the diameters of the two are equal. It makes a strong, small joint that slips easily through most rod guides.

Surgeon’s Knot—Where the diameters of two lines are unequal such as tying a leader to a line end, the surgeon’s knot serves the purpose well.

Nautical Knots

Nautical Knots

Many of the basic knots, i.e., square knot, bowline, clove hitch, sheet bend, double half hitch, are also basic to activities centered around watercraft. However, two other knots supplementing boating needs are listed below:

Fisherman’s Bend—Also called the anchor’s bend, is a handy knot for making fast to a buoy, spar, or the ring of an anchor.

Cleat Fastener—Many accidents have occurred by the incorrect use of this type of fastener. Unless tied properly, the half hitch cannot be released to free the rope quickly. The correct method for making fast to a cleat calls for making the half hitch, which completes the fastening with the free part of the rope. The rope can then be freed without taking up slack in the standing part.

Sheepshank—When you need to shorten a rope or bypass a weak spot with-out cutting it, you can use the sheepshank. Simply fold the rope to the desired length, into three parts and place a half hitch around each of the doubled sections.

Note: sheepshank knots will not hold unless there is constant pressure on both ends of the rope.

Some of my favorite knots

  1. Improved Clinch Knot

Improved Clinch Knot
Improved Clinch Knot

Slip end of the line through the eye of the lure, and double back. Loop around standing part of line five or six times. Thrust end back up between the eye and the coils then back thru the big loop. Pull up tight and trim the end of the line.

  1. Palomar Knot

Palomar Knot
Palomar Knot

Pass line through the eye of the hook and then return end through the eye, leaving a 3 to 4-inch loop. Hold the line and hook with thumb and forefinger of one hand at the eye. Use the other hand to grasp loop, bring loop back over the double line, and tie an overhand knot. Do not tighten the knot at this point. Hold the overhand knot with one hand. Grasp loop with the other hand and pull the loop over hook Pull on line to draw knot to the top of the eye. Pull either running line or short end to tighten the knot. Cut off short end about 1/8 inch from the knot.

  1. Blood Knot

Blood Knot
Blood Knot

Overlap the ends of the two lines for several inches. Hold at the middle of the overlap and twist one end around the other line five or more turns. Run end back and through strands, as shown. Still holding the lines, turn the other end wound line the same number of turns in the opposite direction of the first end. Tighten by pulling up slowly on both lines. Clip off ends short, or tie the knot with one end long for use as a leader for two hook fishing.

  1. Surgeon’s Join Knot

Surgeon's Join Knot
Surgeon’s Join Knot

Overlap ends of lines for several inches. Tie a simple overhand knot treating both strands as one. Pass the two strands through the loop again. Pull up tight. Trim ends. (For greater strength, tie a “Double Surgeon’s Knot” by passing the strands thru the loop four times).

  1. Square Knot

Square Knot
Square Knot

This is ideal for wilderness first aid, and its application can help you reach back to civilization.


Again, like any wilderness skill, the tying of knots takes practice. Don’t wait until you need them to begin learning. Start now, and the skill will be a part of you forever.

Suggested resources for survivalists:

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1 thought on “Learning Knots For Survival”

  1. Thanks. I have been knotting rope for some years. It is a good way to pass an evening and get the practice at tiring knots one needs. Your presentation here was excellent.


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