Practice Your Climbing Knots Online
Basic Knots for Climbers and Mountaineers: Notes and Online Animations
by Tom Kirby
AAI Instructor and Guide
Introductory Terminology: Knots, Hitches, and Bends
Not all "knots" are true knots. Technically, a true knot does not need to be tied around anything; it can hold its form on its own without another object such as a post, eye-bolt, or another rope to give it structure. A hitch, by contrast, must be tied around something to hold together; remove the thing it's tied to, and a hitch falls apart. A bend is a knot used to join two rope ends.
In practice, we often use "knot" as an umbrella term to cover all these types, but the distinction is useful to know. If the context makes it unclear what you mean, you can use the term hard knot to distinguish a true knot from a hitch or bend.
Figure Eight on a Bight – Follow-Through Method
This is the first knot many climbers learn. It has become the standard knot climbers use to “tie in” – that is, to tie the climbing rope to the climber’s harness. There are other good knots for this purpose, but the figure eight is favored because of its clean lines and visual symmetry, making it much easier for climbing partners to cross-check than some of the alternatives.
See animation here.
Double Fisherman’s Bend
The double fisherman’s bend is an excellent knot for joining two rope ends of similar diameter in cases in which you do not want the knot to be easy to untie after it has held weight. Its most frequent use is for tying a sling or loop of rope that is intended to be left tied indefinitely. Here at AAI, we use it most often to tie prusik slings and rescue loops. See animation here.
In glacier mountaineering, the butterfly is the traditional knot used by climbers to tie into the middle of the rope in parties of three or more. It is a very neat, compact knot, and it uses less rope than a figure eight or overhand on a bight.
An ideal application for this knot is as stopper knots used to increase snow friction in parties of two. An optimally sized rope team for glacier travel is three or four; with a rope of two, there is a greater danger that in a crevasse fall, the second climber will be unable to self-arrest and will be pulled into the crevasse. To prevent this, stopper knots can be tied into the rope to catch in the snow at the lip of the crevasse, causing friction and slowing the fall. Butterfly knots are perfect for this job because, unlike overhand loops, they present no “flat” side to the snow surface; they protrude from the rope on all sides. See animation here.
Every climber should know how to tie a bowline, not so much because it’s indispensable, but because it’s the traditional knot for securing a rope end or setting an anchor line of any kind, and it forms the basis of many other useful knots. In the old days, the bowline-on-a-coil was the traditional tie-in for a mountaineer; the bowline was tied in such a way as to capture the coils of the rope in an improvised “swami belt” around the climber’s waist.
Today, there are many variations of the bowline that are still the best at what they do, including the bowline on a bight; the French bowline; the double bowline; and the bowline with “Yosemite finish”, which is very popular with sport climbers as a tie-in knot because it's easy to untie after having held a fall.
See animation here.
The best overall performer in a broad category called friction hitches, the Prusik hitch is the one all climbers should learn. Friction hitches in general are used to make a rope or sling “grab” another rope mid-strand, without having to un-weight the latter. Climbers use this hitch in a wide variety of situations; for example:
- to ascend a climbing rope
- as a “tractor” to haul a load on a rope that is already weighted – such as by a fallen climber
- as a “ratchet” to secure a load that is being hauled on a pulley.
The basis of the Prusik hitch is a girth hitch; the Prusik is made by tying a girth hitch around the strand you wish to haul on, then continuing in a series of three or more turns. The diameter of the rope being used as the Prusik sling should be at least a couple millimeters smaller than that of the main line. The more turns you make in the Prusik hitch, the more holding power it will have.
Other useful hitches in the friction hitch category include the klemheist, the Bachmann hitch, and the autoblock or French prusik (see below). Each has a different advantages and disadvantages.
See Prusik animation here.
Autoblock Hitch, a/k/a French Prusik
The autoblock hitch is a friction hitch that is used very commonly for the specific task of backing up a belay/rappel device. The hitch is normally constructed by wrapping the sling in a spiral around the rappel line on the brake side of the device and clipping the ends to a harness leg loop or belay loop. Since the strands of the sling are wrapped rather than tied around the rope, the knot does not "set", and the rope can move smoothly until tightened by friction.
Care must be taken to keep the knot out of back end of the rappel device. Normally this is aided by extending the rappel device away from the body on a sling.
In situations where you need a strong knot that is fast to tie and can be adjusted easily when not loaded, the clove hitch shines. It can even be tied one-handed, with a bit of practice. Its downside is that it’s only a hitch, not a “hard knot”; it needs to be tied around a post or carabiner to hold together, and if you remove the carabiner, the clove hitch just falls apart. For this reason it’s not considered as an adequate substitute for a bowline or figure-eight on a bight.
Another flaw is that, if not tied tightly in a non-locking carabiner, one strand could become caught on the gate and cause the gate to open. For this reason, in situations where the clove hitch is the sole knot securing a climber, a locking carabiner is required.
See animation here.
The water knot, also called the ring bend, is used to join two sections of tubular or flat webbing together, usually to make a webbing sling. In the days before high-quality sewn runners and harnesses became widely available, this knot was commonly used by climbers to tie slings and swami belts; now it is used somewhat less often.
WARNING: While it is useful, simple, and easy to adjust, the water knot does not tend to stay tight on its own in routine use unless weighted. It is also vulnerable to slippage when subjected to cyclical loading (i.e., being loaded and then unloaded repeatedly). At least one recent fatality has been linked to these vulnerabilities. Water knots should therefore be tied with long tails and checked very frequently.
See animation here.
Think of the Munter hitch as a knot that can serve in place of a belay device. The knot is tied around a locking HMS or Munter-hitch compatible carabiner, which might be clipped to your belay loop or some other regular belay anchor. When the brake end of the rope is held in the correct position, the hitch provides sufficient friction to lower a climber or to rappel.
The Munter Hitch, tied correctly, resembles an unfinished clove hitch. In fact, the German name for the knot is Halbmastwurf Sicherung, or “half clove hitch”, which provides the abbreviation “HMS”, used to designate Munter hitch compatible carabiners.
See animation here. Note that the Munter is complete in frame 6 (or at 0:26) of the animation; the completed Mule knot is used to tie off the Munter, or other belay device, to hold a fallen climber.
Flat Overhand Bend
The knot of choice for joining two climbing ropes together to make a full-length rappel line, the flat overhand bend is ideal because it snags less frequently than other knots. When placed under tension, the knot tends to rotate away from the rock surface, making it less likely to slip into cracks or grooves where it might become stuck.
Adopted slowly in the United States in the 1980s and early ’90’s, the flat overhand knot initially was seen as a risky choice by American climbers, who dubbed it the “European Death Knot”, or EDK, an abbreviation still in common use. The knot has important limitations – under extreme load it may "travel" – but under body weight it is adequately safe if tied with tails at least a foot long. See animation below.
WARNING: This knot should never be tied with a figure-eight knot in place of an overhand knot. Contrary to intuition, the knot is much weaker when tied this way because it can "capsize" (i.e. turn inside-out) at loads well under body weight. Once capsized, the knot can somersault up the weighted rope strands, eventually reaching the ends of the tails, which, if not secured with a safety, will pass through the knot. Several fatalities have been linked to this error, including one in Mazama, Washington as recently as May 2016.
All these knots and their uses are covered thoroughly in AAI's introductory rock climbing and mountaineering courses. Thanks to Grog's Animated Knots for the animations linked above.