Essential Knots for Survival and Regular Outdoor Activities

Have you ever tried sawing a log with a screwdriver? You need the right tool for the job, and this goes for knots as well. The Pipe Hitch and the Pile Hitch are multipurpose knots you’ll use in nearly every outdoor sporting activity.

Great Knot Books

Here are three of my favorite books about knots:

  • The Ultimate Book of Everyday Knots, by Geoffrey Budworth.
  • The Ashley Book of Knots, by Clifford W. Ashley.
  • The Everything Knots Book, by Randy Penn.

Characteristics of Useful Knots

  1. Easy to tie. You should be able to whip up a knot in a jiffy. Of course, practice is essential, but simple knots are easier to learn and use than complex knots. That’s a no-brainer, right?
  2. Holds well. Knots that slip or roll are useless. That’s why the Reef (or Square) knot is better than the Granny knot, which tends to capsize (spill) or jam. Also, the Bowline is a wonderful knot unless you tie it in shock (bungee) cord, and then it tends to capsize — in this case, use the Angler’s Loop.
  3. Easy to untie. If you’re using cheap twine, you might not mind cutting it when you’re done, but good rope is expensive, and it’s better to untie the knot and save the rope. A good knot holds without jamming, so it’s easy to untie.
  4. Multiple applications. With a few multipurpose knots in your skill set, you’ll always have the right knot for the job.

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Knot Terminology

I’m not a member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, so I lack certain credentials to speak with absolute authority on this topic, but I have experience on a shrimp fishing boat and decades of practice and research. The following definitions are generally accepted.

  • Knot. Any fastening made with a rope, string, twine, or something similar.
  • Bend. A knot used to tie a rope to another rope (e.g., Sheet Bend) or to itself (e.g., Bowline).
  • Hitch. A knot used to tie a rope to an object other than a rope, such as a cleat or post. Note: Bends and Hitches don’t follow these definitions rigorously. For example, the so called Fisherman’s Bend (aka Anchor Bend) is actually a hitch, and the Sheet Bend is often called a Becket Hitch, though it is by definition a bend.
  • Working End. This is the part of the rope that gets handled and worked in the process of tying.
  • Standing Part. This is the part of the part of the rope that the working end works on. If you tie a rope to an anchor, the working end goes down with the anchor, and you pull the standing part to haul it back out of the water.
  • Bight. A U-shaped curve in the rope. It does not cross.
  • Loop. A curve in the rope that crosses itself. If the working end lies on top of the standing part, it is an overhand loop. If it lies under the standing part, it is an underhand loop.
  • Strength (aka Efficiency). Any knot reduces the amount of force needed to break the rope. The less the knot weakens the rope, the stronger (more efficient) it is.
  • Security. If a knot holds well, it is secure. If a knot unintentionally rearranges its parts under load so that it no longer holds, it is said to capsize or spill, and any knot that has this tendency is insecure.

The Pipe Hitch

I use this wonderful, almost magical knot whenever I need to hang something from a smooth vertical surface like a bamboo pole or a metal pipe.


In the video above, I illustrate building a canvas tarp shelter in a bamboo grove, and I tie the ridgepole from a standing bamboo pole using the Pipe Hitch. Downward tension on the standing part of the rope tightens the coils around the pole with a fearsome grip, and the knot holds in place. Yet it is easily adjustable; if I need to raise or lower the roof of my shelter, I just slip the hitch up or down on the vertical bamboo pole. When I’m done, I pull down again on the standing part, and the coils tighten, and the knot holds fast.

I demonstrate how to tie the Pipe Hitch in the video:

  1. Stand near the vertical pole or pipe, and hold the rope on the other side of it, so the pole is between you and the rope.
  2. Wrap 3 to 6 coils around the pole, starting at the top and working down. The smoother the rope or pole, the more coils you need.
  3. Pass the working end over all the coils and wrap another coil around the pole above the others.
  4. Pass the working end under the diagonal and around the pole one more time (above the coils you made in step 2).
  5. Finish by tying two half-hitches to the standing part.

Now apply downward tension on the standing part. This tightens the coils. At first the whole works will slip, but as the coils tighten, it will hold.

By the way, check out Nite Ize reflective rope. It’s great for tents, tarps, and really any campsite application because the reflective strands in the rope are so easy to spot at night with a flashlight.

The Pile Hitch

This extremely versatile knot has countless applications, is fabulously easy to tie, and never jams.


The Pile Hitch is useful for marking off a boundary at construction sites or crime scenes; tying a throw line to a rope; or tying any mooring to a post. It is easily cast off, and because it is tied in the bight, you don’t need access to either end of the rope. It’s easier to see the structure of this knot if it’s tied to a smaller object, so here’s another picture:


Photo by: Tom Murphy. Image source.

Again, watch the video for a demonstration of this knot:

  1. Create a bight in the rope and wrap it once around the pile.
  2. Run the bight under the standing part and then over the end of the pile.

It really is that simple.


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