If you learn just three survival knots — Bowline, Double Sheet Bend, and Halter Hitch — you are ready for just about anything you might need in an emergency.
I’ve spent 25 years learning and teaching survival knots as a S.E.R.E. Specialist in the military, a survival school teacher, and media consultant. I love skills that are easy to learn, practical to remember, and give huge advantages in survival situations.
There’s a reason why “cordage” (a fancy word for ropes and lines) is one of the most basic items every good survivalist has in their kit: you get a ton of bang for your buck. Cordage is cheap, lightweight, compact, and durable, yet has a 1,000 different uses in emergencies.
There are hundreds of different knots and variations with technical sounding names and lingo, which is why many people wrongly think that rope work is too challenging and specialized to learn. Or, some think that they can survive with the basic tie-your-shoes kind of knots.
A basic rule of survival is to get a lot of output for as little input as possible. There are plenty of fancy and specialized knots, and you can spend a LOT of time learning to look cool and impressive (it may even be fun), however to get a job done you only need a few.
Why you should trust us
My journey into the world of knots, hitches, and lashings started in 1991 when I began my training as a US Air Force S.E.R.E. Specialist (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).
I was hooked after the first Bowline. We were taught about 25 knots, hitches, and lashings during training, and we used them for everything from making shelters for any environment, to rappelling down rock faces, to making sinks and drying racks for use around camp.
Since then, I’ve added to both the number and variations of knots I know and work with. I now own a survival training school and have taught countless new people how to use cordage in survival situations. I’m also a consultant on survival TV shows like Science Channel’s Hacking the Wild.
Knot basics and lingo
Don’t be intimidated by all the fancy sailor-sounding terms when it comes to knot tying. Let’s cover the basics so that it’s easier to follow along when practicing.
There are three parts of a line
- The end in your hand is the Working end (also known as the running or bitter end) because it’s doing all the work.
- The middle is the Body of the rope.
- The Standing End is the end you’re not actively working with. It may even be anchored to something already like a tree or the grommet of a tarp.
Underhand vs. Overhand Loops
When you take the working end and place it over the body, you’ve created an overhand loop. Place the working end under the body and it’s now an underhand loop. It’s simply named based on what the working end is doing.
Bights, Turns, and Tails
When you grab a loose section of the rope that’s not crossed in any way you’ve just taken a Bight of the rope. Think of it like a kink in a garden hose, or a pinch of the rope body.
A turn is when the rope goes 360 degrees around another section of the body.
This is different than a wrap, which is when you wrap the rope around other objects like a tree or stake. They’re pretty similar, but the difference is a turn just goes around other rope and wraps go around other objects.
The difference between a bight and a wrap when you’re tying around something like a tree depends on how far you bend the rope. A simple 180 degree U-turn is a bight around the tree. A full 360 degrees would be a wrap.
The tail or tag end is the small section of the working end left over once you’ve done the knot or made a bight.
There are sloppy knots and well-dressed knots. It’s important a knot is “neat”, as if it was getting dressed up for a fancy shindig.
A knot that is not dressed properly may have twisted lines that put more stress on those areas of the rope. It may also not lay or be tensioned properly, which can cause slipping and malfunction of the knot. It’s not enough just to make a knot that is looped and tied in the right way — take care to keep things neat and tidy.
A Bowline is the best knot that makes a fixed, non-slipping loop at the end of a line. You might end up using Bowlines every day because they are super handy.
Fixed loops are useful in a variety of situations and there are many different ways to make them. I’ll show you the common way and my favorite way to tie a Bowline.
We chose the Bowline because it’s quick to tie and easy to release. However, many other fixed-loop knots are difficult to release after being loaded, like the Overhand Loop or Figure Eight on a Bight. Or they take longer to tie around something like a tree, grommet, or handle, such as the Perfection Knot, Figure Eight Follow Through, and Bowline on a Bight.
If you saw the recent movie Hacksaw Ridge, the main character Desmond Doss (who lowered over 75 injured men down a cliff face) used Bowlines for the makeshift belay harness.
Examples of when you would use a Bowline:
- any time you need a solid loop in the end of a line that won’t move or close (think of times when you need to anchor a rope around something – you’re essentially creating a fixed loop with an object inside)
- rescuing someone from the water
- making a carrying handle (imagine a bulky object with rope tied around it — a loop makes it easy to carry or attach to a pack or tie onto a car rack)
- tying an anchor to a post / door / furniture so you can lower yourself out of a burning or damaged building, or tying an anchor to a tree / rock / fence so you can lower yourself or others down a cliff
- making a simple rock-climber harness that wraps around the legs and torso (you’d use a Double Bowline for this)
- attaching a line to a tree as the beginning of a shelter or a clothesline
- attaching a line quickly to a tarp to tie out stake lines
- making a quick hand loop / lanyard for a water bottle, knife, or firestarter so you don’t lose them
Common way to tie a Bowline
- Make a very small overhand loop with several inches of tail. How many inches depends on the thickness of the cordage you are using. If you’re using standard 550 cord, practice with a 6-8 inch tail.
- Think of the tip of the tail as the head of a snake that comes up from underground through the overhand loop, goes around the body in the easiest way possible and then goes back down the hole (through the overhand loop).
- Firmly grasp the head and neck of the “snake” in one hand and pull on the body to dress the knot. This is the way it is commonly taught in Boy Scouts, though they call the snake a rabbit or bunny.
My favorite way to tie a Bowline
- Make a loose running loop in the working end with several inches of tail. To make a running loop, make an underhand loop, reach through it from the top and pinch and pull through a bight of the body. Keep this loop very small and very loose.
- Wrap the tail around your hand (or tree, through a grommet, etc.) and put just a few inches of the end into the loose running loop.
- To form the bowline, pinch the tail where it exits the running loop and the body and pull them apart making sure just the end of the tail stays in the running loop.
The running loop will “pop” the tail through the knot and form a Bowline.
A correctly tied Bowline will have a noticeable bight around the body of the rope and will not not slip when either the body or the loop itself is tugged on.
Another aspect of a true Bowline is that the tail will fall inside the loop, not outside. This may be important in high stakes situations because the tail is less likely to snag on something.
Some in the community will argue that one version is better than the other. Although I’ve never had a Bowline fail no matter where the tail ends up, we recommend doing the inside version since it makes sense to be more protected.
To untie a Bowline, find the bight around the body and lift it up. This loosens the knot and makes it easy to pull apart.
The main modification you may want to know for a Bowline is how to safety that little tail so it can’t snag on anything or get yanked sideways and potentially loosen the knot.
The easiest way to do this is to make a Half Hitch with the tail going around the side of the loop it’s laying against. A Half Hitch is an Overhand Knot tied around something – in this case, the side of the loop the Tail is paired with.
#2 Double Sheet Bend
The second essential knot is the Double Sheet Bend, a knot that joins two lines together to make a longer section of rope. It’s sometimes known as a Weaver’s Knot.
We chose the Double Sheet Bend because when you’re in an emergency, you can’t be picky and you need to move fast. DSB’s are great because you can use lines of differing thickness, like an electrical cord and a dog leash. Most bends, like Reef, Hunter’s, and Zeppelin Bends, can only be used with line of similar diameters.
Second, the Double Sheet Bend is fairly easy to learn and has modifications to make it more secure in personal safety situations, like joining two ropes you need to hang from. It’s also easy to see if you’ve tied the knot correctly, unlike several other bends that can look dangerously alike and are thus easy to tie incorrectly (such as the Butterfly, Ashley, and Carrick Bends.)
Lastly, although it’s secure it is also very easy to untie and will not lock up or jam, so you can easily get the lines apart and re-use them quickly.
Examples of when you would use a Double Sheet Bend:
- anytime you need to make longer lines by combining multiple smaller ones
- making a guide line to cross a river
- making a clothesline
- putting shorter lines together to hang food high up in a tree for safety
- when a line is too short to tie off for a shelter
- tying up bundles and improvised packs and you need to add another piece
- making an improvised rope or line using random materials (strips of fabric from sheets, electrical cords, cords from blinds, strips of rug, shoelaces, etc.)
How to tie a Double Sheet Bend
- Start with the thicker line. Create a bight towards the end and hold the bight flat with the tail on the side away from you.
- Now take the working end of the thinner line and come up through the bight you just created.
- Make one turn with the thinner line over the tail of the thicker rope first, around its body and back under the body of the thinner rope. You’ve just made a Single Sheet Bend.
- To make it Double make a second Turn around the Tail and Body of the larger diameter rope going back under the Body of the thinner line a second time. Now you have a Double Sheet Bend.
- When dressed, this knot will have the thinner line wrapped firmly around the bight of the larger line and the tails of both lines will exit to the same side of the knot.
- To untie it just pull up and away from the knot with the thinner line. This loosens the bend and makes it easy to pull apart.
There is a downside to the Double Sheet Bend: it’s not as strong as some of the other bends, and can slip if one or both of your lines are very slick, like a smooth electrical cord with some grease on it.
But you can modify it into a Triple or Quadruple Sheet Bend by simply making one or two more turns around the bight with the thinner line going back under its own body each time.
You can reduce the chance that the thinner line slips out when under tension by putting a stopper knot on the tail of the thinner line, snugged right up against where it exits the bend.
You can make the Double Sheet Bend even stronger if you change the half-moon bight of the larger line into a fixed closed loop Bowline.
#3 Halter Hitch
Lastly is the Halter Hitch, sometimes known as a Slipped Half Hitch, an incredibly useful knot that can tighten or hold a line yet is very easy to release.
Technically a hitch is different than a knot. Knots function properly with just the line(s) you’re using. Even if you’re tying a knot around a tree, like the Bowline, you don’t need the tree in order for the knot to hold. A hitch needs something else, like a tree or a carabiner, in order to function.
The strength of a hitch is often determined by how much friction is created by the object it’s tied around. For example, a tree has more friction because of the bark compared to a smooth flagpole. The Halter Hitch is no different, though it is always tied back around the rope itself and thus the rope will be creating most of the friction to reduce this problem.
Examples of how you can use a Halter Hitch:
- securing gear or harvested materials to the outside of a pack
- making an improvised backpack out of a sheet or poncho
- tying out stake lines to trees or rocks for a shelter
- attaching a food bag to a bear hang line
- combining with other ties like a Trucker’s Hitch to create very tight lines for situations like shelter lines in high wind storms or a zip-line across a barrier
The main advantage is how easy it is to untie. If you need to move quickly, you can put up a simple tarp A-frame in about 5-10 minutes and have it down in less than 30 seconds. It also uses less line in the tying compared to alternatives like the Slippery Clove Hitch, and is easy to tie under tension unlike the Siberian Hitch.
How to tie a Halter Hitch
- Anchor the standing end around a tree or table leg. This hitch is used to hold things tight, so you need to be able to pull the working end away from something anchored to create tension.
- Take the working end and make a bight around what you want to attach to, say another small tree or a backpack.
- Make a second bight with the tail around the body. Practice doing all of this while keeping the line very taught. If you are right handed, use your left hand to pinch the point where the bight in the tail connects with the body to prevent losing tension as you tie the hitch.
- Form another (third) bight in the tail a couple inches out from this point with your right hand. Make a turn with this bight over and then under the tensioned part of the bight in the body making sure as you come back around and up, you come through the loop you just made.
- Keep rolling the bight in your right hand away from yourself as you pull up until it tightens down on itself and presses firmly against the body where your left hand has been pinching to keep tension.
- To dress, press firmly against the body. Then you can stop pinching the second bight and let go.
- To untie simply pull the tail sharply and it comes apart.
If you want to make it more secure or turn the slipped loop into a fixed loop, make an underhand loop in the tail and place it over the loop of the hitch, then pull the underhand loop tight. You will see different ways to “secure” or safety the Halter Hitch if you google around; ignore them, they make it much more difficult to release once it’s been under tension and limit what you can do with the remaining line.
If the object you’re tying around is very slick and you have a long enough line, you can make one or more wraps around the object first before making a bight around the body and tying the Halter Hitch. This reduces the pressure on the hitch considerably and helps it hold better. Make sure the coils around your object are dressed well.
Grog’s Animated Knots describes an unslipped basic version of this as the “Noose Knot”, but we prefer the slipped version described above because it’s easier to remove.
Practice tying survival knots!
Knots are a diminishing skill — if you don’t practice every once in a while, you’ll forget how. You don’t want to be stuck, trying to remember how to tie at the moment your life depends on it. We know from teaching lots of new survivalists that the best way to learn these knots and truly bake them into your memory is to practice, practice, practice.
Nailed the first three and want more?
You can survive most situations with just the top three. If you want to dig deeper, here are 10 more knots that might be better in more specialized situations.
(aka Wagoner’s Hitch, Wagon Knot, etc)
- Makes a line much tighter than you can by just pulling on it
- Great to make things like a very tight shelter line, a bridge across a ravine, or secure extra gear to the outside of a backpack
Alpine Butterfly Knot
- Make a fixed loop in the middle of a line
- Isolate a damaged part of a line
- Make a rope ladder
Double Fisherman’s Knot
- Attach two ropes together for jewelry
- Make a Prusik Loop (also known as a sling-a strong loop of cordage for climbing)
- Ascend or descend a vertical rope slowly and safely without assistance
- Attach one rope to another allowing it to grip yet also move when desired
- Emergency rappel hitch to lower yourself or another quickly and safely (requires a rapid link or climbing carabiner)
- Cinch around vegetation for stakes
- Tie off a line for a friction fire bow
- Adjustable knot used in climbing applications
(aka Slip Loops)
- Wikipedia explains the difference between a Slip and Running knot
- Attaching line to random material
- Stringing up an animal to skin
(aka Arbor Knot)
- Improvised cinching strap
- Quick lashing
- Connect 2-4 poles at a central spoke hub, like the top of an A frame or Tepee
- Tie logs and poles together at 90 degree X intersections, like to make improvised rafts
- Attaching poles to trees for sturdy shelters in winter or deadfall prone areas