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Knot Theory – Confessions of an Backpacking Blogger

Knot Atlas 9-32

My head leaks knots. I learn to tie them and forget them in a few days. At one time I wanted to study mathematical topology. It’s probably good I did something else.

My solution is to learn as few knots as possible so that I can just practice a small number. I carry a 5 foot piece of guy-line with me wherever I go and practice tying knots. The looks you get on city buses are precious.

I’m learning these knots so I can practice pitching a flat 10′ x 10′ silnylon tarp this summer. Why a flat tarp? Why silnylon? Why a 10′ x 10′ size. Well, I want to go back to basics and learn some of the old time backpacking skills that people used before cuben fiber, lineloc tensionsers, titanium stakes, and catenary curves. There is more to life than an A-frame style pitch.

I hope to master some good pitches so that I can show people the benefits of using inexpensive flat tarps for lightweight backpacking. With the economy what it is, people are going to be spending a lot less money on new gear over the next two years. I want to change the perception that lightweight backpacking is expensive. It really doesn’t have to be.

Before Cuben (BC), people used to get by just fine with $100 dollar tarps. They developed all kinds of ingenious tarp shapes that let them cope with different weather conditions and environments. It seems like gear was a lot less expensive then and there was more emphasis on skills instead of backpacking fashion.

Yes, I stoked these flames too. But dropping a tax bracket or two has brought an abrupt end to my affluent gear consumption. For the better, I think. I’m much more focused on the skills and experience of backpacking, and far less on dropping my gear weight with the help of “fantasy fabrics,” in the words of Andrew Skurka.

Dropping gear list weight for the sake of dropping weight eventually becomes an empty spiritual exercise. Focus on the experience of backpacking, enjoy the scenery and company of good friends, and your load will feel lighter, even if it’s not the size of a postage stamp.

Don’t worry, I’m still a champion for lightweight backpacking, but it’s time to fry some other fish.

Oh yeah. Learn the taut line hitch. It’s really the only knot you need to pitch a tarp.


  1. I'm exactly the same. I have a terrible memory for knots, and this extends to their names. But you're right, the taut-line hitch is probably the most multi-purpose and useful know for using a tarp (or raising the hood of a bivy).

  2. The figure eight knot, or family of knots, is dependable and easy to learn. It is a versitle knot for joining ropes, making loops, etc. One knot to rule them all.

  3. I'd add the clove hitch to the taut-line hitch and you can do pretty much anything outdoors. Fortunately I learned my knots as a Girl Scout so they are into my looonnngggg term memory now and likely to stay.

  4. More on the philosophical side of things as I have problmes with the knots too. ;)

    Simplifying gear for the sake of simplicity eventually becomes an empty exercise. If you have already pulled the trigger for cuben-or-what-ever shaped-tarp-thing, why not use it and go out there instead of getting new cheaper gear and learning how to use it? Of course simple and cheap things are great to be around as they enable lightweight backpacking for a wider public and maybe spare some of the escessive consumption… Hell, Ray Jardine recommended using shower curtains as tarps at the times BC. It costs something like a dollar and works well enough for many uses (i.e. is waterproof, reasonably light, etc.)

  5. It's good to know that others have the same learning issues…

    Thanks for bringing it back around. I believe you need to walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk if you want to teach and set an example for others. Admittedly, it will be hard to part with my cuben tarps, but I can use the proceeds of selling them used to finance new gear. Cuben has an excellent resale value….

  6. I love flat tarps. It was the first piece of gear that I made on my own and got me hooked.

    Now i have 3 tarps, a backpack, stuff sacks and a bunch of other gear that is similar to the factory made stuff. I actually find my home made gear more durable and usually lighter, and it is completely customized to my needs. Also gives a great sense of accomplishment making the tools you use.

    And your right about the price of ultra light gear. It can be extremely expensive for a few ounces of savings. It is possible to go ultralight on a budget, it just takes some creativity and a sewing machine.

  7. I was thinking about making a flat tarp first, after I learn to sew on some smaller projects. This is going to be a gradual process, but I can relate to the sense of satisfaction you feel using gear you've made by yourself.

  8. "$100 dollar tarps"… Really? you think that's a good number for an inexpensive tarp? Try sub-$50 and that's for a good brand if you look around a bit.

    In the summer I've even been known to pick up a cheap Walmart 10×10 tarp (the brown one for $9.00) and a Emergency Blanket ($6.00) and then use some spray adhesive to put them together.

    That works amazingly well for a $15'ish setup with a good hammock (say $30-$60 DDHammock-Treklight) and wool blanket for non-freezing nights. Throw in some paracord and bug-netting and your still under $100 for the full setup.

    Granted I have some pricy stuff myself for winter time fun but I get a bit erked at some of the blogs extolling high dollar kits without a thought to the less expensive options.

  9. I just threw out that number – obviously, you can do a lot better with patience and some ingenuity. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Knots seem to work in my brain, but I can't remember the multiple names for each (or honestly much else- I have a terrible memory). I teach knots to scouts and have developed a couple of methods over the years that "stage" them so they can be remembered when needed. Most knots just build on each other. RevLee and I started doing SAR this year and they showed us a new set of knots- which are essentially variations of ones we know. I carry rope with me (even in my briefcase) and tie knots when I am bored- but stopped doing it on airplanes!

    Funny you mention the 10' x 10' tarp as I am getting ready to order one (or make it) for similar reasons- and to have a good kitchen tarp for troop backpacking trips.

  11. When you tie a lot of different knot, there are some patterns that emerge that can help you remember or even better, recreate a specific knot. It takes a lot of practice to develop this kind of intuition, but I'm starting to get there. For example, I can never remember the direction of the final loop in the taut line, so I just figure it out on the spot because I know how the knot should look when it's tied properly.

    Revlee turned me onto the big book of tarp pitches a few weeks ago that's free and online. I planned on printing it out today and getting it bound at staples, so I could take it with me to my high adventure camp next week and practice pitching shapes in the Dacks. It has a lot of square tarp pitches in it so I figured I'd start there, and then dive into the historical literature to find more.

    I went to OES like you suggested and got some custom tie-outs that will be useful. I meant to thank you, today in fact!

  12. @Earlylite

    Sorry about that last post it sounded quite a bit more bitchy than I intended, stupid head-cold is killing me.

    Knots are always a fun topic I've got a handful of basic knots I learned in the Army and that's about all I ever use but I've got simple needs ;)

  13. Skurka showed me the trucker's hitch in a few seconds & that's all I need to know for pitching a tarp. Linelocs – gone!

  14. I ditched the tautline hitch year's ago. The trucker's hitch or power cinch is the way to go.

    Every canoeist uses it to tie the canoe on top of the car. Just find a canoe put-in and ask for a demo. Or look here:

  15. A friend of mine in Montana is an outfitter and I swear he could build the Wright Brothers Flyer with his tarp, a few sticks, and a rope. He knows just about every knot under creation but repeats almost as a mantra, "Life is a series of half hitches."

    I know that half hitch, a square knot, the trucker's hitch, and that's about it. I keep a diagram of a bowline in my wallet because I can never remember which bush the rabbit goes around or the hole he dives into at the end. After watching the video, I'll have the taught line hitch mastered for the rest of the day. It will be like recalling the wiring diagram on the Space Shuttle when I actually need it.

  16. Two half hitches is a clove hitch around a rope. A taught-line hitch is two half hitches with an extra turn (on a post, a magnus hitch). One more turn is good for slippery synthetic lines.

    Learn to throw a clove hitch and you can get that guy line to stay around your trekking pole. You throw a clove by making the two loops and dropping it over the end of the pole. This can be tied while the ends of the rope are attached ("tied in the bight").

    The trucker's hitch is usually more than you need for a guy line, and ropes are more likely to break at the tight bend where the rope crosses rope.

  17. I once failed a Boy Scout board of review because of knots. Now I just get by with the clove hitch and the double half hitch.

  18. I'm usually pretty good with my knots, but there's a couple that completely throw me every time I need them – figure of eight with two loops? fuggedaboutit. Like you, I often carry a bit of cord around to kill time.

    One good exercise is to practice tying them with one hand. Because one day, you may have to…

  19. Check out free ebooks at and amazon's kindle site on how to tie knots. Knowledge never goes out of style.

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