The 2 Deadliest Knots

The Two Deadliest Knots

The square knot and the bowline are useful, classic, foundational knots. But they could also be called the most deadly, because their misuse has resulted in the most accidents. We will walk you through the basics and how to tie them; and, if you want to truly master them, you will learn when and when not to use them, how to make them more secure, and what knots you can use instead.

The Reef (Square) Knot and Bowline
The square knot and the bowline

Square Knot

There are many knots called square knot, so it might be better to call it a reef knot like it is outside the U.S. This is because sailors used it to tie up excess sailcloth when reefing their sails. When it comes to its proper use, the main thing to remember is that the reef knot is a binding knot, not a bend. A bend is when you tie two ropes together to make a longer rope. The bend will be the weakest part of this new rope; so, needless to say, if you are going to bet your life on this rope you had better choose your bend wisely. The reef knot is simply not secure enough in those conditions, especially when joining ropes of differing thickness.
The square knot is used for binding, like tying a sack, not for joining bedsheets together to escape a tower

The square knot is a binding knot, not a bend! 



Tying the knot. Right over left left over right. In other words, keep track of the same end of line and make sure it is always the one moving/going over. Tying this incorrectly will result in a “granny knot.” Both loose ends should end up on the same side, unlike the thief knot (Don't worry, it's hard to tie that one on accident).


 

Bowline

Imagine you are clinging to a root on the the side of a ravine that is flooding. Your panicked friends throw down a rope and you quickly tie a bowline around your waist just in time before the rising rapids can carry you away. You have to come up with unlikely scenarios like that these days to justify using the bowline over other rescue and climbing knots. because it is easy to tie wrong and harder to inspect, it has sent a number of climbers to their deaths as the loop to which the harness is tied. Unless you are an expert climber, you should use more secure knots like the alpine butterfly or figure 8 loop for climbing, spelunking, or rescue (see below).

Still, it is a well-loved, ancient method to tie a fixed loop. It is quick to tie and untie, even after being under a heavy load. It is used frequently in sailing.

 Tying the knot Start by making a loop, with the working end on top of the standing line. The amount of slack you have on the end at this point will determine how big your main bowline loop will be. Bring the end below the first loop.  Start by making a loop

You may have heard of the infamous mnemonic, “The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree and back in the hole,” but did not know what it meant. Here you can see that the “rabbit” is the working end, the “tree” is the standing line, and the “hole” is the first loop you formed. Pass the working end upward through the hole then counterclockwise around the standing part (clockwise will make a Dutch bowline). Pass it down through the hole again.

This shows which parts of the rope are the "rabbit" the "tree," and the "hole."

Tighten the knot by holding the working end and pulling on the standing line.


Backing Up Knots

Another thing both of these knots have in common is that they can both be made considerably more secure by backing them up. This is done by simply tying the loose end around the line like below. Sometimes, even just taping the loose end does a lot of good.

A square knot with the end simply tied off, and a bowline with the end taped

Alternatives

Figure 8 Loop

The figure 8 loop is safer and more secure than the bowline, but it is more inclined to jam and has to be tied in the bight. It is the recommended knot for a climbing harness.

How to tie the figure 8 loop
Alpine Butterfly

The alpine butterfly is a possible alternative to both the reef knot and bowline. Use it to isolate loose ends, a frayed section, or length that is simply not needed, without taking too much strength and security out of the line. It is also used to put several loops in the middle of a rope that you can attach things to. There are faster ways to tie this knot, but this is the easiest to demonstrate.

How to tie the alpine butterfly

 

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