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Ropes are used in the mountains for varied occasions. They are used from rescue or emergency situations to drying your wet clothes as a clothesline. When going out into the wilderness, bring the lightest and strongest rope you can carry. It can really make a difference when you encounter emergency situations.


Types of Rope

Following are types of ropes used in mountaineering or backpacking work. They are described by their characteristics as well as to their general usage.


The most popular weaves are three-strand, twisted, and braided or sheathed. Twisted rope strands unravel when heated and are therefore difficult to flame-whip when cut. They are whipped with waxed string, plastic whipping compound, or heat shrunk plastic tubing.


Nylon: is the most popular rope fiber used. Aside from being strong, it is lightweight, does not rot and is shock absorbent.

Braided: or sheathed rope, as it is commonly called in the US is actually two ropes, one inside the other. It is very pliable and resists twists and kinks when coiling. These ropes flame-whips easily and it is resistant to abrasion because of its outer casing. One downside of this type of rope is that you cannot see the damage inside the core, hence makes it unreliable for long hauls.

Polyethylene: This type of rope is inexpensive, slippery, slightly elastic, unaffected by water, available in many colors, and it floats.

Polypropylene: Polypropylene is similar to polyethylene but less slippery and more elastic (a better rope).

Polyester: Yes, polyester is also used for ropes aside from the clothes you are wearing. One brand is Dacron and it is used for sailboat sheet and mooring lines and every place you need a rope that is dimensionally stable and resistant to ultraviolet light.

Kevlar: The Dupont Co. developed a gold-colored synthetic fiber. It is used as a tire cord fiber for bullet-resistant vests and as fabrication material for ultra-light canoes and kayaks. Kevlar rope is very light (specific gravity is 1.44); it is about four times as strong as steel of the same diameter, and so expensive that it is recommended only for applications where extreme strength, light weight, low elongation and non-corrosion are major concerns. Kevlar rope is difficult to cut, even with the sharpest tools.


Except for cotton, which is still used for sash cords and clothesline, natural fiber ropes like manila, sisal, hemp, and jute are almost obsolete. These natural fiber ropes have a nice hand; they coil well and hold knots tenaciously. Natural fiber ropes rot easily and for their weight, they are not very strong. For example, the tensile strength in pounds of new manila rope is roughly 8,000 times the square of its diameter in inches. Thus, new three-eighths inch manila will theoretically hold about 0.375 x 0.375 x 8,000 = 1125 pounds (the Cordage Institute figure is 1220) – hardly a match for the modern synthetics in Table 2.


A rope may last for decades if it is well maintained. An ill-kept one will not survive a season. When you buy a rope, make sure that you seal the ends. This procedure is called "whipping." This is done to make sure that the rope will not unravel and waste a perfectly good rope.

Here is one procedure for whipping a rope. First flame one-half inch back of the end. Cut the cooled flamed section and then re-flame the cut end.

Following are other procedures for whipping:

Flame whipping

Almost all synthetic ropes flame-whips easily since most of them are made of plastic material. You just need a cigarette lighter or a small propane blow-torch. Braided (sheathed) ropes, which includes parachute cord, should be seared around the diameter of the cord, just at the back ends, then cut square through the (cooled) flamed section with a sharp blade. For a neat, trim look, finish by lightly flaming the cut end, as illustrated in figure 2. This two-step procedure will prevent the ends from cauliflowering when heat is applied.

Twisted rope tends to unravel when heat or flame is applied. To get around this, wrap the ends firmly with tape, then sear the area behind the tape, along the diameter of the rope. After cooling, remove the tape, cut the ends square through the flamed section, and re-flame the end as illustrated in figure 3. The length of your whipping should equal the diameter of the rope.

  1. Tape the end
  2. Flame behind the tape
  3. Cut through flamed area
  4. Re-flame end

String whipping

This procedure is more time consuming but is more reliable than flame whipping. The "simple whip" illustrated in Figure 4 is adequate for most ropes. Shoemaker’s waxed thread or heavy button/carpet thread (dental floss works great) are the best one to use. When string whipping be sure to wind against the lay of the rope, towards the end.

Plastic whipping

This procedure requires you to dip the rope end into "liquid plastic rope whipping" compound. Allow it to dry and for a neater look, apply heat-shrunk plastic sleeves to the rope ends. These products come in a variety of colors and are available at most marinas.


Old Navy Method

  1. Coil the rope: take care to lay each coil carefully into place, twisting it a half turn so it will lay without twisting. Then, grasp the main body of the rope with one hand and place your thumb through the eye of the coils to hold them in place as shown in Figure 5, Step 1.
  2. Remove the last two coils of rope; take this long free end and wind it around the main body of the rope several times (figure 5, step 2). Wind the free end downward, toward the hand holding the rope body. Wind evenly and snugly. Do not make the coils too tight.
  3. Form a loop with the free end of the rope as shown in step 3, and push it through the eye of the rope body.
  4. Grasp the wound coils with one hand and the rope body with the other hand and slide the coils upward tightly against the loop. The rope is now coiled and secured (step 4). Pulling the free end of the rope will release the line, which can quickly be made ready for throwing.

Sailor’s Stowing Coil

This method does not look as neat, but it better preserves the integrity of the coils (they’re less likely to snag when the rope is tossed out):

Procedure: Coil the rope and double the last few feet to form a long loop. Wind the loop around the coil and secure with a pair of half hitches as illustrated. Hang your rope from the loop at top.


Please keep in mind the following guidelines in maintaining your ropes.

  1. Pad your ropes at potential abrasion points. Abrasion will cause your ropes to be frayed hence decrease their strength and eventually their usage.
  2. Keep your ropes clean. Dirt and grime can get into the rope and cause internal abrasions as well as external. Always use a separate protective pack or bag to transportation and storage. Wash your ropes with cold water using mild, non-detergent soap. You can use fabric softeners as this can improve the flexibility of the fibers. Never bleach your ropes. Always air-dry your ropes and never to direct sunlight. Also never dry them in a drier or under a hot blower.
  3. When storing your ropes make sure that it is in a cool dark place, away from ultraviolet light like sunlight. Store them away from chemicals like acids, alkalis, oxidizing agents and bleaching compounds. These include battery acid, salt, oil and or gasoline, kerosene and the like. Synthetic ropes are not much affected by these chemicals, but remember that these chemicals, even water, can attract dirt, which can cause the rope to wear quickly.
  4. Never step on a rope. This will greatly increase the risk of wear to your rope. Stepping on it can send dirt into the rope and eventually causing added abrasion inside the rope.
  5. Be sure to inspect your rope before and after every use. Make sure that you know the history of the rope as where and what it has gone through. From this you can gauge whether or not to retire the rope.

Tip: To remove the "memory" of store-bought coils, slightly stretch a new rope (tie it off tight between two trees) for an hour or two. An old snagged rope may forget its windings if you soak it briefly in water then administer the stretch treatment.

All ropes – natural and synthetic – are injured to some extent by ultraviolet light. So keep your ropes out of the sun as much as possible.


Left-handed knots are indicated by the LH symbol and appear on the left side of the text or in a special box adjacent to the right-hand knot versions. To save space, the knots, judged by the author as "universal," are illustrated in right-hand form only.

How Strong Are Knots?

As a general rule, knots reduce rope strength by about 50 percent. Table 3 indicates the approximate breaking strength of some popular knots. Note that splices (which really aren’t knots at all) detract barely, if at all, from a rope’s breaking strength – the reason why they are the preferred way to join lines.


Anchor (fisherman’s) bend: 70

Bowline: 60

Bowline on a bight: 60

Clove hitch: 75

Figure eight (end) knot: 48

Monofilament fishing knot (clinch knot): 80

Single overhand knot (half a "granny"): 45

Two half hitches: 75

Sheepshank: 45

Square (reef) knot: 45

Timber hitch: 70

Eye splice: 95

*Figures are derived from: Plymouth Cordage, 1946, and from tests by Scovell, Miller, Dent, Trumpler, and Day, as reported in The Art of Knotting and Splicing, by Cyrus Lawrence Day, 1970; and Ropework, Practical Knots Hitches and Splices, by J. Grant Dent, University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service, U.S.D.A. 1964.


With a breaking strength of approximately 70 percent, the Anchor Bend is one of the strongest knots known. It won’t slip or jam and it can be easily untied. The hitch was originally used to tie the anchor ring on sailing vessels – testimony to its reliability. Probably the best hitch to use for mooring small boats, the anchor bend also works great for securing lures to monofilament fishing line. Its one drawback is that it is difficult to make in large diameter rope. Belt-and-suspenders folk sometimes complete the bend with a bowline on the standing part.

*These are the most useful knots – the ones you’ll want to master first.


The bowline is one of the oldest and most useful knots. Captain John Smith (1627) considered it one of the three most important knots aboard ship – the other two being the sheepshank and the wall knot (a crown-like end knot, which is infrequently used today).

The bowline is a very secure knot, which won’t slip, regardless of the load applied. It is commonly used by mountain climbers to tie their climbing ropes around their waists. Use this knot whenever you want to put a non-slip loop on the end of a line.

Beginners are often told to make the bowline by forming a loop, or "rabbit hole." The rabbit (bitter or free end of the rope) comes up through the hole, around the tree (standing part of the rope) and back down the hole. The bowline will slip a few inches before it tightens, so allow an extra-long free end.

  • Belt and suspenders people will apply two tight half hitches


For complete security, especially in slippery plastic ropes, complete the bowline with two half-hitches, as illustrated. This "improved bowline" is sometimes called the locking bowline. Page 30 shows how to tie a basic "half-hitch."

*BUTTERFLY NOOSE: (Right-hand only)

Mountain climbers use the butterfly noose to attach carabiners or whenever they need a non-slip loop in the middle of a rope. Butterfly loops are secure and will accommodate a load in any direction. They can be spaced along a line to provide purchase points for a winch line – essential in canoe rescue work. Need to pull a long rope tight? Evenly spaced "butterfly nooses" will give each person a secure handhold. The knot is also handy for fastening gut leaders to monofilament fishing line.

Like the bowline, the butterfly noose will not jam, regardless of load direction. Also called the "lineman’s loop," this knot was once popular with telephone line men.


Use this whenever you need to make a two-legged "bosun’s chair" for rescue work, or when you need a non-slip loop in the middle of a rope when both ends are inaccessible.

The bowline on a bight differs from the conventional bowline in that the loop in the center of the "rabbit" (see description of bowline on page 17) is passed over the doubled loop which is hanging below then forced up behind the standing part of the rope. Hold the rope firmly with your left hand as you pull down with your right to tighten the knot.

CAT’S PAW: (Right-hand only)

Here’s a slick way to attach a rope to a hook or the towing link of a vehicle. The cat’s paw is secure under heavy load, yet it comes apart easily – the reason why it remains popular with longshoremen and movers. Form two loops at the end of your rope, twist them around several times, and hook them in place. That’s all there is to it.


A popular knot for mooring boats to piers and pilings, and to secure ratlines to the shrouds on sailboats, the clove hitch is also a common "starter" knot for lashings and the diamond hitch. When absolute security is needed, finish the knot with one or two half- hitches, as illustrated in figure 7c.

DIAMOND HITCH: (Right-hand only)

For centuries, this classic hitch has been used by prospectors, fur traders and trappers to secure gear on pack animals. Use the diamond hitch to tie a load onto a car top or trailer: all you need is one long rope. The real value of the diamond hitch is that strain on one part of the rope is taken up elsewhere in the hitch, which causes the line to tighten. The "six-point" diamond suspension provides security even when the load shifts.

To apply a diamond hitch to a pack frame, begin by tying a rope end at point "a", using a clove hitch (see page 23). Then, loop the line around "b" and "c", as illustrated. Next, twist the horizontal center strands a couple times and feed the bitter (free) end of the rope through, looping it over the frame points in the order illustrated. When the hitch is complete, pull the rope to tighten the hitch, then tie it off where you started it, with two half hitches. Note: when tying to a pack animal, the hitch usually originates and ends at the ring in the girth strap, and the "diamond" in the center appears much larger than illustrated.


Use this beautifully symmetrical knot as a "stopper" knot on the end of a rope. It functions like an overhand knot, but with more bulk. The knot also makes a convenient slip-noose for tying packages. When used in this manner it is called the "packer’s" or "parcel" knot.


The figure 8 loop is a sort of shlocky bowline. It’s easy to make and it holds securely, even in slippery, synthetic rope (some- thing which cannot be said of the bowline.) If you need a quick, non-slip loop in the middle of a rope, the figure 8 is much faster to make than a bowline on a bight. It’s also ideal for putting a loop on hard-to-grasp twine and thread. However, the knot jams under load, so forget about untying it later. Use the figure 8 loop for thin cordage; stick with the bowline for rope.


Once popular for tying leader to line, the fisherman’s knot is now seldom used for this purpose as there are better knots for slippery nylon. However, mountaineers like it for tying ropes together because the knot has a finished, symmetrical look. Canoeists and kayakers use the fisherman’s knot to secure rope "grab loops" to the ends of their boats. Note: the knot is somewhat stronger when tied against the lay.


Use two half-hitches to tie a rope to a tree or a boat or animal to a ring. Sailors sometimes complete a clove hitch with one or two half-hitch when they want infallible security. It’s important that both half-hitches are alike, as illustrated, i.e. both left or right- handed. Half-hitches are one of the most essential knots in macramé.


This is the quickest, most secure way to tie a boat or pack animal to a ring or bar. The "round turn" on the rail takes most of the stress off the basic knot. For faster removal, complete the hitch with a quick-release loop ("slippery" end), as illustrated.


Looks like a slippery half hitch, but it’s not. The mooring hitch holds fast under load yet comes apart instantly with a pull of the bitter end. You can tie it loosely and allow it to slide up to the rail like a slipknot, or jam the knot anywhere along its length so you can reach and release it without getting off your horse or out of your boat. This slick little hitch is well worth learning!

PRUSSIK KNOT: (Right-hand only)

Use the Prussik knot whenever you want an absolutely secure loop that won’t slip along a tight line. Mountaineers use this knot for footholds to help them climb a vertical rope. The Prussik loop slides easily along a tight rope, yet it jams solidly when a load (horizontal or vertical) is applied. This knot is useful for rigging rainflies in camp and for rescuing rock-pinned canoes in a river. Make the loop from a length of parachute cord, completed with a fisherman’s knot.

SHEEPSHANK: (Right-hand only)

Problem: your rope has a length of worn section in the middle. Eventually, you’ll get around to splicing it, but for now, it will have to be used as is. The solution is the sheepshank – an ancient knot used by sailors to shorten rope that’s too long for the job at hand. The sheepshank holds only when there is tension at each end, even then, it sometimes fails. For this reason, it is best to secure it by inserting sticks of wood through the end loops as illustrated in figure 2-19.


Scenario: The rutted, muddy road worsens with each yard you travel. "Gotta keep up speed, or we’ll never make it," you mutter. Then, it happens: suddenly, you’re axle deep in coal black ooze, and despite the determined whining of the front drive wheels, you realize you are going nowhere. You take stock of the situation. On hand, is a shovel, 50 feet of three-eighths inch diameter nylon rope, and four sets of willing arms. With these, you’ll have to free the car. First, you shovel the "stopper" mud from under the belly of the car. Then you attach your long rope to the auto frame and rig a power-cinch around a smooth-barked birch nearby. Just six inches ahead is firmer ground. If you can just move the car that far. The four manpower winch line tightens: seconds later, the car pops free, like a cookie from a mold! The power-cinch is the most ingenious hitch to come along in recent years. It effectively replaces the tautline hitch and functions as a powerful pulley. Skilled canoeists use this pulley knot almost exclusively for tying canoes on cars, and it remains popular with truckers for securing heavy loads in place. Use it any time you need to tie an object tightly onto a car top or truck bed. Begin the hitch by forming the overhand loop shown in Figure 2-20, step 1. Pull the loop through as in step 2. It is important that you make the loop exactly as shown. It will look okay if you make it backwards, but it will not work! If you’re tying something onto a car top, run the bitter (free) end of the hitch through an S-hook attached to the bumper. (Step 4.) Snug the hitch and secure it with a pair of half-hitches around the bight, as illustrated in step 5. Or, for ease of removal, end the power-cinch with a quick-release half-hitch, as in step 6. The power-cinch as a multiple pulley: For additional power, as in the above scenario, forms a second loop in the free end of the rope as shown in step 7. This will double the mechanical advantage, albeit increase friction. The Nantahala Outdoor Center (a whitewater canoe and kayak school) as the "Z-drag popularized this rescue technique – commonly set up with aluminum carabiners instead of rope loops –" because the rope pattern forms a lazy Z when viewed from overhead.


If you end your knots with a "quick-release" (slippery) loop, as illustrated, you’ll be able to untie your ties with a single pull. Form the "QR" feature by running the bitter end of the rope back through the completed knot – same as making a "bow" when you tie your shoes. Use a simple overhand knot with a slippery loop to seal draw- string bags and stuff sacks. The plastic "cord-locks" sold in camping stores for this purpose are for people who don’t know how to tie slippery knots.


The sheet-bend is one of the most useful knots, and one of the few that can be used for tying two ropes together, even when rope sizes and materials differ greatly. Some years ago, a friend

of mine won five dollars when he fixed a broken water-ski tow-rope with this bend. When the tow-line snapped, the ski-boat captain bet my friend that he couldn’t tie the two ends of the slick polypropylene rope back together tightly enough to hold. My friend won the bet and skied the remainder of the day on the repaired line. It’s important that the bitter (free) ends of the sheet bend be on the same side, as illustrated, otherwise the knot will be unreliable. If you want the knot to release instantly, end it with a quick-release (slippery) half hitch (figure 22b). For greater security, especially in plastic rope, use the double sheet-bend (Becket Bend). Same as the single version but with an extra coil around the standing loop (figure 22c).


Not a knot, per se, but a handy method of tying leather or nylon straps together to form a long rope. Nothing more than a single half-hitch, each made opposite to the other.


Here’s an artistic way to tie two ropes together. Similar to a fisherman’s knot, the S-knot has more coils and so is probably more secure, especially in slippery ropes. Place the ends of the rope parallel to one another and take three or more complete turns around the two ropes, then run the bitter (free) end down the center of the knot. Do the same with the other rope. Finally, slide the knots together to complete the S-knot.


For centuries sailors have used this knot for reefing sails and tying things aboard ship. The square knot is still used for this purpose but is probably more popular for tying packages, gauze dressings, tourniquets, and other medical applications. Don’t use this knot for joining two ropes together if they will be under load! The square-knot jams under tension and falls apart (it becomes two half-hitches) if the ropes are very dissimilar or the pull comes unevenly. Use a sheet-bend, fisherman’s knot, or two bowlines for joining ropes. To form a square knot rather than a common granny, complete each over-hand knot opposite the other. Thus, if the first knot is formed right-handed (right over left), the second must be made left-handed (left over right).


Sailors use the rolling hitch whenever they want to attach a rope to a spar. The knot is much more secure than a clove hitch, especially when the load is parallel to the spar. The same hitch can be applied to a tight rope that’s secured around a tree or tent stake, in which case it is called the "taut-line hitch" (figure 2-27b). Boy Scouts prefer the taut- line hitch for anchoring their tent guy lines. The hitch slides freely, yet jams under load. The original rolling hitch (figure 2-27a) is a fine knot for its intended purpose. The taut-line version, however, is less versatile and much inferior to the more powerful power-cinch (trucker’s knot) explained on page 38.

TIMBER HITCH: (Right-hand only)

Use the timber hitch for hauling logs, timbers, heavy pipe, and cumbersome objects. It’s very strong (about 70 percent), won’t slip, and it can’t jam, no matter how heavy the load. I often attach the tow rope to my Jeep with a timber hitch when clearing brush and trees. It always comes apart easily. It’s best to complete the timber hitch with a half-hitch near the hauling end to keep a long log from twisting.


Use this classic lashing to secure two spars that touch each other at the point where they cross. Begin the lashing with a clove hitch or timber hitch around the vertical spar, just below the cross-piece (A). Run the cord over the horizontal bar, around behind the vertical bar, then back over the face of the horizontal bar on the left. Tighten snugly, then bring the cord behind the vertical bar and up the right front side of the horizontal bar. Repeat this three or four times. Finish with two "frapping" (binding) turns to tighten the lashing, and lock everything in place with a clove hitch on the crosspiece.


Here’s a fast, secure way to make a support for a camera or coffee pot. If you end the lashing with a quick-release (slippery) clove hitch, it will come undone instantly. Procedure: Lay out the spars on the ground with the center spar pointing away from the other two. Begin with a clove hitch or timber hitch at the end of one of the side spars. Then, make six to eight loose turns around all three spars and finish up with two frapping (binding) turns between each spar. A clove hitch on the center bar completes the lashing. Note: the sheer lashing (not illustrated) – which is used to secure parallel spars in bridges and tables – is simply a two-legged version of the tripod lashing.


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