12 Knots You Can’t Live Without


Clifford W. Ashley was an artist, author and sailor and was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1881.

Because of his boyhood environment, he took a keen interest in whaling and all things related to the sea. After attending art school in Boston, he found himself under the tutelage of Howard Pyle in Delaware, where he created book frontispieces (illustrations facing the cover page of the book) and illustrated magazine stories. He spent six weeks aboard a whaling ship in order to do research for an article about whaling for Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1904 and later published a series of instructional articles (“The Sailor and His Knots”), which proved to be the prelude to his later opus, The Ashley Book of Knots, a magnificent tome that made him famous in 1944.

“A rope will easily unravel when it’s cut, leaving the exposed ends to eventually fray. To keep this from happening, there are a couple of ways to resecure the strands together again: whipping and fusing.”

In it, Ashley warns: “A knot is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong. Make only one change and either an entirely different knot is made or no knot at all may result.”

The book contains more than 3,900 knots categorized by type, including knot usage and the instructions for tying them. Nearly 75 years later, it remains the most comprehensive book in print about knots.

Types of Knots

Although the art of tying both functional and fashionable knots has been around since man first needed to lash down his hut or tie off a fishing net to his hollowed-out canoe, knots have been both utilitarian and beautiful—an expression of both personal artwork and pride in workmanship. There are thousands of them; however, generally speaking, knots are used for five main reasons:

When a good rope and a secure knot are the only things keeping you from plummeting to an “uncomfortable demise,” it’s important to know how to select—and tie—the right knots.
This illustration from the Encyclopedia Britannica shows how to make a short splice to repair a rope or join two similarly sized ropes together.
  • Splicing two ropes together
  • Lashing one object to another
  • Tightening down or adding tension to a rope
  • Making a loop to affix a moving object
  • Hauling or hoisting objects

Knot Terms

This poster illustrates another 16 useful knots. With so many to choose from, it could take some time to find some that will best suit your needs.
  • Bend: A knot that joins together two ropes or fishing lines.
  • Bight: Made by folding a piece of rope so that the two parts lie alongside each other. When they’re tied near the rope’s end, the parts will be the “tail,” laying beside the “standing end” (please refer to additional definitions of these two terms below). A bight can be used to finish many knots, making them easy to untie by just pulling the tail.
  • Bitter End: From the term, “bitts” (metal posts used for attaching mooring ropes), this term is applied to the tail end of a mooring line.
  • Breaking Strength: The load at which the rope breaks
  • Dressing a Knot: Arranging the components of the knot to optimize security and/or strength
  • Fake (or Flake) a Rope: Lay out a rope neatly on the deck in a zig-zag pattern, ready for easy use
  • Frapping Turns: Additional turns added in another axis to bind a knot
  • Hitch: A knot that attaches a rope to something
  • Hollow Braid: A loosely woven, single-braid rope that can be spliced
  • Lay: The direction in which the strands of a rope twist
  • Loop: Made when a rope forms a partial circle with the ends crossing each other
  • Racking Turns: Lashing turns that pass between poles to better bind against the pole
  • Round Turn: Two passes of a rope around an object to completely encircle it
  • Slipped: A knot is slipped when it’s completed using a loop or loops (for example, shoelaces).
  • Solid Braid: A tightly woven, single-braid rope that can’t be spliced
  • Splice: A knot made using the strands of a rope rather than the whole rope
  • Standing End: The long end; the part that isn’t knotted
  • Stopper Knot: A knot in the end of a rope used to prevent fraying or to prevent the end from passing through a hole
  • Strands: The major components of a rope
  • Tail: The short end; the part getting knotted
  • Turn: One pass of the rope around or through an object
  • Whipping: A binding knot that’s used to prevent a rope’s end from fraying

Whipping or Fusing a Rope

Because a rope is generally made by braiding together small strands of rope or fiber, it sometimes has a tendency to return to unbraided form; that is, it unravels, which is frustrating when trying to tie a knot. A rope will easily unravel when it’s cut, leaving the exposed ends to eventually fray. To keep this from happening, there are a couple of ways to resecure the strands together again: whipping and fusing.

“ … knots have been both utilitarian and beautiful—an expression of both personal artwork and pride in workmanship.”

Whipping. Use twine, string, fishing line (or even dental floss) and lay it on the rope to form a loop. Wrap the string around the rope with neat, tight bindings until the length of the whipping is two or three times the diameter of the rope. Pull the working end of string through the loop. Pull hard on the other end of the string to draw it tight under the bindings. Cut off the loose ends.

Fusing. For nylon, polyester or polypropylene rope only—not rope made of natural fibers. Tape up the rope around the area to be fused. Cut the rope in the middle of the tape so that the cut end of the rope is intact and smooth. Use a candle, lighter or another heat source to melt the ends of the strands together.

Joining Knots

As this term implies, “joining knots” connect two pieces of rope together (or the opposite ends of each rope). These are usually the easiest knots to master and the most widely used in everyday life.

Sheet Bend: A sheet bend is the best knot to use to tie two ropes together, whether they’re the same or different thicknesses.

“’A knot is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong. Make only one change and either an entirely different knot is made or no knot at all may result.’”

The sheet bend knot is useful for joining together two lengths of rope with different thicknesses or diameters. To tie this knot, make a bight on one of the ropes (on the heavier one if they have different thicknesses) and pass the end of the second rope through and around the bight. Tuck the running end of the second rope under the part of the rope that was passed through the bight.

Square Knot: The square knot is a binding knot that’s used for tying two ends of the same rope together to secure something tightly.

The square knot is a very popular knot that can be used to tie packages and bandages; to join together paracord; and to connect shorter ropes into one. To tie a square knot, hold one rope end in one hand and the other rope end in your other hand. Twist the left-hand rope over and under the right-hand rope and pull it tight. Twist the right-hand rope over and under the left-hand rope and pull it tight. If you tied this knot correctly, both ends of the rope should be on the same side of the knot. (If they’re on opposite sides of the knot, you’ve mistakenly tied a “granny knot,” which will come undone.
A bowline creates a loop at the end of the rope that won’t slip, shrink or expand. It’s good for mountain climbers, for securing an animal snare or for hauling up a load. To tie a bowline, hold the standing part of the rope in your left hand. Use your right hand to make an overhand loop in the standing part so the rope still points toward you. Take the running end around your waist and then up through the loop. Pass the running end that you just pushed through the loop around behind the standing part of the rope and back down through the loop. Hold onto the three ends that point toward you and pull up on the standing part to tighten the knot.

Lashing Knots

Sometimes, objects need to be secured down; for example, makeshift tent poles, cargo in a truck bed or a horse to a hitching post.

Clove Hitch: The clove hitch is used to attach a rope to a post or rail.

A clove hitch can be used to secure a line to a tree or post quickly (but it can slip over time), and it can also be used in shelter-building. To tie the clove hitch, throw the rope end around the pole and lay it over its own standing part. Bring the rope end around the pole once more. Finish by carrying the end under the rope itself. Then tighten the hitch as much as possible.

Timber Hitch: The timber hitch is used for moving or dragging heavy cargo.

Tension Knots 

When you set up a clothesline or string up a hammock, you need a knot that allows you to tighten the tension being placed on the rope to keep it taut.

Midshipmen’s Hitch: The midshipmen’s hitch is used when you need a loop that will hold tight when pressure is applied but that you can easily move up or down.

Two Half Hitches: This is one of the simplest knots for tying a rope (such as a clothesline or a boat rope, for instance) to a pole or a ring.

A two half hitches knot, similar to a taut line, can secure a line to a pole or a tree. Pass one end of the rope around the post. Bring the rope end over and under its own standing part and through the loop you’ve formed this way. Do the same once more in front of this first half hitch. Again, bring the rope end over and under the standing part and through the loop formed.

Unless you’re a professional sailor or have the ambitions of Clifford W. Ashley to collect and categorize every possible knot in the world (as well as invent a few of your own), you won’t have a justifiable need to learn to tie 99.9 percent of the 3,900 knots known. However, having a good handle on a reliable core of knots, along with knowing their capabilities, limits, applications and instructions, will serve you well in any outdoor or survival situation.

A figure eight knot is a stopper knot used to prevent fraying or to prevent the end passing through a hole. In addition, it’s a prerequisite knot to learn in order to tie some of the more-difficult knots. To tie this knot, hold the standing end in one hand and pass the running end over the standing end to make a loop. Pass the running end behind and under the standing end. Finish it off by passing the running end down through the loop you just formed. If you tied it correctly, the knot should look like the number 8.
A blood knot is used to secure two fishing lines together and is frequently used in fly fishing, both in casting and adding a fly to the line. Overlap the ends of the lines to be joined. Twist one around the other exactly five times and then bring the ends back between the two lines. Repeat the twisting process again on the other line (but in the opposite direction). Slowly pull the lines in opposite directions. The twists will gather together, and the knot will close.
A clenched knot is similar to the blood knot and can be used to secure hooks, lures and swivels in fishing line. It’s the most popular fishing knot. Thread the line through the eye of the hook (or lure, etc.) and wrap it around itself at least five times. Bring the end of the line through the first loop, then behind the eye and then through the large loop again. Pull on the end to tighten the coils against the eye. Trim off any excess line.
The Palomar knot is used to secure a hook (or lure, etc.) to a fishing line or to fasten a fly to a line leader. Lay 6 inches of the line against itself and pass the loop through the eye of the hook. Tie a loose overhand knot with the hook hanging from the bottom. Pass the hook through the original loop and slide the loop over the eye of the hook. Pull down on both ends of the line and cut any excess fishing line.
The taut line hitch is indispensable if you’re anchoring tent lines to stakes, because it grips relentlessly when taut. Wrap the rope around a post or a tree (either vertically or horizontally) several feet from the free end. Coil the free end twice around the standing line, each coil closer to the post. Then make one coil around the standing line on the outside of the two coils. Tighten the knot and adjust it as needed.
An anchor knot secures a line to an anchor, but it can also tightly secure a line to a post or tree. Wrap the rope twice around the anchor (or post, etc.). Pass the end behind the standing line and through the first turns on the anchor. Pull it tight and then tie a half hitch around the standing line and pull tight. Optional: Tie down the free end.
The sailor’s knot joins together two ropes but is easier to untie than a square knot. Make a loop with the larger-sized rope (if one is larger than the other) and lay the loop on top of the second rope. Pass the end of the second rope over one side of the larger rope, under the other, over the loop, under itself and over the other side of the loop. Pull all four ends tight and tie down the loose ends if needed.

The Ashley Book of Knots

  • Author: Clifford W. Ashley
  • Doubleday (January 1, 1993)
  • More than 3,900 different knots with step-by-step instructions are included
  • 7,000 illustrations
  • Hardcover; 619 pages
  • Dimensions: 8.81×1.53×11.16 inches

MSRP: $85

Editor’s Note:

 A version of this article first appeared in the October 2021 print issue of American Outdoor Guide.



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