Essential Knots and Bends

One thing I get asked about a LOT are knots and bends. It’s a skill, as you were, it’s an ART that once seemed to be fading into obscurity, practiced only by those rare breeds like First Responders/High Angle Rescue, Special Forces, Sailors, mountain climbers, cowboys and of course the proud Eagle Scout.

One-rope bridgeRecently, there’s been a surprising resurgence of interest in this skill-set, with the popularity of getting reconnected with nature grabbing a new foothold in modern American culture. Of course, anyone who’s spent any decent amount of time in the woods, or back-country, or on a ranch, will tell you that rope-work comes in very, very handy. From stringing a taught line for a pancho shelter, to field expedient emergency repelling down a steep embankment, to constructing a one-rope bridge to move people and gear across a river or ravine (probably one of my favorite exercises). Rope skills are essential to increasing your performance in the wilderness.

There are hundreds if not thousands of ways to tie knots and bends, and I’m not sure knowing all of them is necessary. If you can manage it, hey, that’s great, we’re all happy for you, your merit badge is in the mail. But in reality, you need maybe a dozen in your toolbox, maybe 6 of each, just to give you a solid base of skills to get the job done, and increase your odds of survival.

So lets get started. First let’s differentiate between a knot, and a bend.

Most people tend to interchange the terms, but I find there is one distinct difference: knots tend to cut the tensile strength of a section of rope by 20%-50%. There is a very simple reason for this, the higher the curvature of a section/piece of rope, the lower the tensile strength at the entrance and exit of the knot. Knots put greater stress on the rope fibers, distributing weight more unevenly throughout it, especially just outside the first curve, or “stem”.

Generally speaking, bends have more gradual curvature than knots, thus, a bend can hold more load than a knot. This is why bends tend to be used to join two pieces or sections of rope when climbing.

This is important stuff to know, as the mission should dictate the equipment and technique used, right? If I have 10mm rope with a 560kg working load, and I want to support a 230 lb man, including a 45 lb pack of gear across a 25 ft wide ravine 100 ft deep, I might want to know that the rope bridge I’m considering building is going to hold considering the two knots or bends I’m going to tie at each end, plus the safety knot on top of that. Food for thought.

So lets break this down into two categories, knots and bends.

First knots. Here are 5 very basic types that I find myself using in the field more than others:

  • The bowline – Forms a strong & reliable fixed loop that is secure yet unties easily.
  • The double-fisherman’s knot – Used to connect two ends of a rope so they slide along each other & lock.
  • The slip-knot – a “slip noose” made using only one fisherman’s knot.
  • Butterfly knot – Forms a secure multi-directional knot/loop in the middle of your rope.
  • The square knot – NOT USED FOR CLIMBING. EVER. Used only to secure gear.

Bends are used to connect two pieces of ropes. For example: you have two 50 foot sections of rope, but you need 100 feet, a bend is used to connect the two 50 foot sections. Here are a handful of useful bends:

  • Carrick Bend – Excellent for joining two large diameter ropes. Add a fisherman’s knot at the end for added security.
  • Sheep Shank – Not the most secure, requires constant tension, but can isolate a damaged section of your rope in an emergency.
  • Sheet Bend – Great non-critical knot for tying two ropes of unequal diameter and varying materials.
  • Figure Eight/Figure 8 follow through – EXCELLENT to tie-in with when climbing, super secure. Tie a safety knot on the tag end for even more security.
  • In-line Figure 8 – Used to tie and build a directional loop in the middle of your rope.

I regularly use the In-line Figure 8 bend when constructing a one-rope bridge. I could also use a butterfly knot, I suppose, but I find the in-line 8 is easier to tie when you still have 30 ft of rope to mess with after the spot where you want your loop to be.

Rope and carabinersI am tempted to get into what sort of rope you should invest in, but I feel that is a topic for an entirely new post. For now, I suggest buying yourself nothing less than a 9mm synthetic rope for emergencies. Do not get the rope you find at Home Depot or Lowe’s, get yourself to REI, or another outdoors outfitter, and ask for some 9mm climbing rope. As a firefighter, I keep a 30 foot section of 9mm nylon rope attached to a carabiner via a figure 8 bend in my cargo pocket of my bunker gear. Why? because should an emergency happen on a second or third floor, and my exit is compromised, I will attach that carabiner end to something secure, and bail out the window. 9mm is my comfort zone for minimum safety vs weight in my pocket, but I weight 205 lbs, plus have another 60-70lbs of gear on. If you weigh 150, give or take, you may be able to get away with 8mm or even 7mm, but that’s your call.

Again, a 30 foot section with a locking carabiner folds up small enough to not be a real killer space or weight wise, but it can save your butt if you really need to navigate a small ravine or cross a small, but difficult stream.

That’s all I got for now. Keep doing the stuff!

Ne te quaesiveris extra.

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