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Essential Knots for Climbing

The first thing you should know about climbing knots is that you’ll only tie one wrong once … You say you can’t walk a block without having your shoelaces come undone? Not to worry. Climbing knots may seem daunting, but you can get by with only eight essential knots and hitches, and anyone can master them quickly.

The Trace-Eight

The Your tie-in knot, the one that connects you to the end of the rope, is the knot to learn first, and is the only knot you’ll use every time you rope up. Climbers use various knots to tie in, but the Trace-Eight is the easiest to learn and the least likely to untie itself. Unfortunately, it cinches up tight after a hard fall, making it difficult to untie. Consider this a small price to pay for security. Practice this knot until you can tie it, rain or shine, in the dark.

The Trace-Eight is easy to tie. Simply tie a figure eight knot in the standing portion of the rope about 24 to 30 inches from the end, then reverse weave the end of the rope backwards through the knot as shown, being certain to leave a 12- inch tail. Secure the tail with half of a Double Fisherman’s knot, or an overhand. Tighten!


Pay attention every time you tie in. Serious accidents happen each year because someone becomes distracted while tying in and either ties this critical knot wrong or never completes it. Concentrate as if your life depends on it (it does), and make certain you thread the rope through both the leg-loop strap and the waist belt on your harness, as prescribed by the manufacturer.

CLIMBING IN AN INDOOR GYM usually requires just one knot, the Trace-Eight. You’ll use this knot to tie in to the rope, both for leading and toproping. In fact, many gyms require that you tie in with the Trace-Eight, and they will make you take a test to guarantee that you can tie it correctly.

Ring Bend (Water Knot)

Use the ring bend to tie webbing to webbing, and to tie bits of cord into loops. The ring bend is secure and easy to get right because it is simply an overhand knot traced through itself. It is possible for the ring bend, like all knots, to loosen and untie itself—inspect it before every climb, and always tie it leaving at least two inches of tail on each side. The main use for the ring bend is to tie loops of nylon into slings, or “runners.”

Some climbers prefer the ring bend for tying rappel ropes together. The double fisherman’s, however, serves the same purpose and is easier to untie after the ropes have held weight. In particular, knots in wet ropes can be difficult to untie, since they stretch more than dry ropes.


Climbing attracts knot aficionados who can study the craft well beyond what climbers need. But it might not be all amusement: The odd or infrequently tied knot can be useful and might even save the day. The Ashley Book of Knots, by Clifford W. Ashley, is the encyclopedia of knots, with over 3,800 knots and 7,000 illustrations, all drawn by Ashley.


The prusik is a useful friction hitch that slides freely when not weighted, but bites down on the rope when you do weight it. Many variations on the prusik exist, including the autoblock and klemheist, but for simplicity we’ll stick with the prusik. You can learn the other hitches down the road. The most common use for the prusik is to back up your rappel device by tying a prusik on the rope below the device. (Details on that technique are covered in the section on rappelling.)

Two prusiks placed on a rope and clipped to your harness with long runners let you climb the rope by alternately weighting and unweighting the prusiks, inchworm style. This technique is a lifesaver when you fall on an overhanging route and are stranded in space, unable to get onto the rock. Even one prusik on a rope is a good handhold, letting you boost yourself past an impossible move.

To tie a prusik, use 4 to 6mm perlon cord tied into a 12-inch loop with a ring bend. Thinner cord grips better than thick cord, and shoelaces will work in an emergency. Wrap the loop three or more times around the rope until it bites well enough not to slip. Webbing works in an emergency, but requires more wraps to grip, and is more difficult to loosen and slide.


My ropes have a definite life cycle: First use is for the mountains or ice climbing while the dry treatment is fresh. Afterward, a rope becomes my cragging cord. Occasionally, I may have to shorten a rope due to repeated falls, careless crampons or wayward rocks, ending up with at least four ropes to keep track of. A small labeler, the kind that prints out plastic messages, can be bought at any office-supply store and offers a quick organizational solution. The plastic labels, which I wrap around the ends of the rope, are surprisingly strong. I’ll print the rope’s length, where it has been used, my name and address, or even inspirational sayings or safety reminders. Also, if I have to cut a rope, I always re-mark the middle with a bit of athletic tape, applied with the rope under body weight. Once the rope is unweighted, the tape really sets into place.

—Conrad Anker, Bozeman, Montana

Figure-Eight on a Bight

The figure-eight on a bight is a good knot for quickly anchoring the rope, or anchoring yourself to a belay station. A typical belay utilizes the figure-eight on a bight, but also can include a clove hitch, which is easily adjustable and easy to untie after it has held a load.

Munter Hitch

Drop your belay/rappel device and you will be glad you know how to tie a Munter Hitch.

This hitch works for belaying and rappelling: pull back on one side, and the Munter Hitch cinches onto itself, creating enough friction to hold a fall or control a rappel. Tie the Munter Hitch on a large locking carabiner to allow the knot to swivel, as it must when you are paying out and reeling in slack.

Despite the Munter Hitch’s utility, only use it in a pinch. The hitch twists the rope into snarls.

Double Fisherman’s Bend

Joining two ropes of the same or different diameter is a job for the double fisherman’s, which, due to its many twists and turns, is less likely to untie itself than the ring bend. Other uses for the proven double fisherman’s include tying off cord threaded through a nut, and as a variation, the single fisherman’s, to secure the tail of your tie-in knot, the Trace-Eight. Some climbers use the double fisherman’s instead of the ring bend to tie webbing runners.

Though the double fisherman’s works well, it welds itself into a near impossible-to-untie lump after it has held a fall. Since you sometimes need to untie your slings to thread them around objects, such as trees, you can tap and roll a tightened double fisherman’s against the rock to soften it, then use your nut tool (or teeth) to pry it apart.


The saying, “Not neat knots need not be knotted” applies to climbing knots and hitches. Always tie a knot so it is correctly “dressed,” and snug it up as the last step. It is difficult to tell if sloppy knots are tied correctly. Loose knots can come untied.

Girth Hitch

The girth hitch has innumerable applications, including cinching a runner on a knob or around a tree, attaching a sling to your harness belay/rappel loop, and hitching several runners together into a chain to make a longer sling. The girth hitch also works well to cinch a short sling around the shaft of a fixed pin or bolt that sticks out too far, reducing leverage.

Clove Hitch

The clove hitch is popular for attaching yourself to a belay or rappel station. Quick to tie and adjustable, the clove hitch is more versatile and user-friendly than the figure-eight on a bight. If you tie yourself too close to the anchor, simply loosen the clove hitch and let slack slide through. Re-tighten. Reverse the process to position yourself closer to the station.

A cinched-up clove hitch can be difficult to loosen, unless you know the secret. Wiggle the carabiner out, and the knot falls apart.

The caveat is that you must never use the clove hitch to anchor the end of a rope—if the clove hitch slips, the tail could pull through the knot, untying it. Use the more secure figure-eight loop to anchor the end of a rope.

Feature image by EDGAR TORRES on Unsplash

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