Now, not everyone was a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout, but the amount of people that are in their mid-30s and that have been camping for years with almost no knowledge of knots consistently astounds me. I know that there aren’t exactly knot-tying classes in elemntary school, but these knots are so useful that you’ll be amazed how much easier things are when you know these knots.
Perhaps the king of knots is the venerable bowline. Every sailor or rock climber should know how to tie this knot. It is a very secure knot under tension, and weakens the cord only by around 30%. It’s so easy to tie it can be tied with one hand, and you can trust this knot to hold body weight. It’s very easy to untie after being weighted as well. However, if it’s not under constant tension (such as in a rock climbing setting), you will need to back up the knot somehow, either with a stopper knot or by tying a Yosemite bowline.
For those that want a knot to hold bodyweight (climbing ropes, etc.) and want more security, the figure 8 follow-through is the best choice. While many rock climbers still love that the bowline can be easily untied, every few years someone gets hurt or killed when their non-backed-up bowline comes loose. For those of us that will trade ease of use for greater strength (15%-20% loss in strength) and security, the figure-8 follow through is the best knot around. You simply tie a figure-8 knot, pass the tag end through whatever you’re tying to, and re-trace the shape of the figure 8 knot. Contrary to older habits there is no need to tie a backup knot with a figure 8–they’re secure without one.
Hands down my favorite knot (technically it’s a hitch, not a knot) is the clove hitch. I love that this can be tied either from the end of the rope, or from the middle of the rope, and how adjustable and strong it is. I use clove hitches for everything from tying up pack animals to posts, to tying into my master anchor point when climbing, to securing to slippery tent pegs. I even taught the guy tying a Christmas tree to the top of my car how much simpler a clove hitch was than the 7-half-hitches he was trying to use. They’re essentially used to tie a rope to a cylindrical object, and are strongest (i.e. don’t weaken the rope as much) when the diameter of the cylinder is very large. For example, a climbing rope clove hitched to a carabiner might see a large reduction in strenth, maybe upwards of 40%, but wrapped around a 3′ diameter tree it may be 10% or lower. Protip–learn to tie it using the 2 opposed loops method!
The strongest and most secure way to tie two similarly-sized rope ends together is the double fisherman’s knot. Yes, a square knot comes undone easily (check your shoe laces), and a sheet bend is great for different diameter ropes, but a double fisherman’s knot has tremendous holding power. If you forget your belt at home you can always make one out of paracord and a double fisherman’s knot—don’t tighten the knot and you can adjust it to fit you on the fly. Be aware, however, that if weighted heavily (especially with body weight) this is one of the most difficult knots to untie. I’m quite sure that the mythical Gordian knot was some variation of a well-weighted fisherman’s knot. But it stays tied, and sometimes that’s the entire point!
Lastly, the taut-line hitch. While the trucker’s hitch is a great way to create a lot of tension, there’s no better knot than the taut-line hitch for the guylines on your tent. The taut-line hitch is one of the few knots that is both secure, and can be easily slid up and down the rope. I’ve even been able to set up a hammock for a 250 pound person with taut-line-hitches–they definitely hold! They do need to be dressed well to work, but if you’re setting up a hammock, a tarp, a clothesline, a mooring line, tying things to your vehicle, or anything else that needs to be both tight and easily adjustable, the taut-line hitch is an excellent choice. You can swap in some other variations on the taut-line like the cinch knot, rolling hitch, or three-turn taut-line.