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Trail talk: knotty years

Three Points of the Compass frequently carries a bit of cordage on trail- it may be a couple of extra guys for the Duomid shelter, or a length of thin ‘general purpose’ line, most frequently used for drying clothes on. Or a couple of short lengths of cord passed around my sleeping pad so that my quilt can be more securely fastened down on colder nights. Knowing a handful of knots can be a useful skill.

Probably the first knot I ever learnt was when my mother taught me to tie my shoe laces. Other knots followed, most small boys back then had a length of string in their pocket. I doubt that has been the case for many years. The ‘go-to-guru’ for knots while growing up was my Uncle Len, who would show me different knots, many no doubt used on board, for he was tugboat deckhand and eventually Tug Master. A Bowline tied with hands behind his back was one particular party trick. You run with what you have got.

A few years in the Cub Scouts saw me learning other knots- I confess I recall none of the knots from those days. It was probably Square Knot, Two Half Hitches and a Taut Line Hitch.

It was only when I joined the army as a Sapper that still further knot skills became any sort of vocational requirement. Training took place with 28 Training Squadron, part of 1 Training Regiment at Southwood Camp, Cove, Hants.

Our troop was often doubled down to the forest section of the military training area to be taught various knots, from the simple Clove Hitch for improvised rafting to more complicated lashings for constructing Gyn and Shears. I doubt that such old-school ‘skills for improvisation’ learning forms any part of a modern British Army.

Page from Royal Engineers Pocket Book, 1979. When Three Points of the Compass was a squaddie in the British Army in the 1970s, Cordage- its properties and use, knots and splices was not only an important part of Combat Engineering but was actually put to use
Page from my 1979 Royal Engineers Pocket Book. When Three Points of the Compass was a squaddie in the British Army in the 1970s, understanding cordage, its properties and use, knots, splices, tackle and mechanical advantage was not only an important part of Combat Engineering but also knowledge subsequently put to use
Three Points of the Compass is rear right of this disreputable bunch of new recruits. 77/13 in another World...
Three Points of the Compass is rear right (glasses wearer) in this disreputable bunch of new recruits in front of our wood built ‘Spider’. I later found out that decades earlier, my dad had been billeted in the exact same hut. That 77/13 troop is now part of another world, many years ago. The training camp is now a housing estate

I still have my old army knife. There were different models of this. Royal Engineers had the version that included a large marlin spike, not for getting small boys out of horses hooves but for use with ropework. We often tied our own fancy lanyards for attaching to the shackle.

I mentioned that the Clove Hitch was used a great deal in my army days. This knot tightens down on itself around a length of wood etc. that will not slip along its length. In the days before zip ties, this was also the knot used by postmen to tie and seal the neck of mail bags. Some time after leaving the army I was with the Post Office for a couple of years and frequently sealed mail bags with this knot for dispatch of mail. This is a knot no longer used by the Royal Mail as containerisation took over- now letters travel in trays instead of mailbags, trays travel in wheeled containers, thence to road transport. The world moves on and knots become ever less relevant to many.

My British Army issue knife included a large marlin spike, to assist in loosening knots and splicing work with cordage
My British Army issue knife included a large marlin spike to assist in loosening knots and splicing work with cordage
The Ashley Book of Knots
The Ashley Book of Knots

As a teenager, special knots had to be self-taught as an angler. Slippery monofilament lines required specialized knots and, later, a brief dip into tying flies and replacing rings on rods while rebuilding them required further knots and whipping skills.

When I moved into construction, eventually becoming an owner driver with my own lorries, sheeting loads usually required the Truckers Hitch. Is this also the only knot to be extolled in a music video? Another knot that died the death on the road, replaced by mechanical ratchet straps.

The Truckers Hitch is also a great knot to be familiar with for use when tightening down on shelter guys in a really effective manner. Basically, this is two slippery overhand knots. Andrew Skurka shows this and the McCarthy Hitch really well in one of his instructional films. A good way of making this knot more easy to release after use is to finish with a bight instead of double half hitch. Have I eschewed my Linelocs in favour of using just knots? Not just yet!

Many holidays with my family on boats meant the Mooring Hitch was quickly learnt and frequently used. Lashings were still occasionally put to use when fastening loads on vehicle roofs and trailers but I can’t remember the last time I had to do this. Gardening work called for still more knots to be learnt for sympathetic use of gardening twine. Dipping my toes in to the rabbit hole that is knot tying, I purchased the first of a very small selection of knot books that sit on my book shelves however I remain to this day ignorant as to many knots and only utilise a very small number of the most useful. That is probably the way for most of us, learning a specific knot for a specific task with the great majority of people encountering knots less and less.

Three Points of the Compass is frequently carrying a bit of cordage in the ditty bag- here are a couple of extra guys for the Duomid, a length of thin line most frequently used for drying clothes on, and a couple of short lengths passed around my sleeping pad that my Katabatic Quilt can be attached to on colder nights
A short length of cordage may be slipped in to a ditty bag for a variety of uses and knowing a handful of knots makes life far easier

Just a very little knowledge of knots reveals that the mysteries of cordage and knot terminology need not be. For instance, a bight is just another name for a loop of cordage, a hitch is a knot that secures cordage to an object and a bend is simply a knot that connects two pieces of cordage.

Leaving construction behind me, I eventually became a museum curator, a role I held for thirty years. I occasionally had to put knot skills to use in the museum store. One of these knots, the Sheet Bend, was primarily used for joining two lengths of cordage together, more usually different types or diameters of rope. Ever the cautious guy, if markedly different thicknesses, I would occasionally make this a double sheet bend via an extra turn around the bight (initial loop). Though I must confess that I usually had equal diameter cordage and invariably simply used a Reef knot or Square knot as so quick and easy to tie. In essence this is the first knot I ever learned as it is how I tie my shoe laces. However this is not a good bend and Ashley was extremely disparaging about it in his seminal work on knots. I took a lot of satisfaction in packing and safely fastening down various large/fragile/awkward/heavy museum objects in transport for movement. As the years progressed, I observed with dismay the decrease in such basic knots and fastenings knowledge demonstrated by many of the various van and lorry drivers engaged to move objects. Ratchet straps and a wing and a prayer became the norm.

There are a few other knots that I really should spend some time developing a little ‘muscle memory’ of as I keep forgetting how they are tied. repetitive practice is all that is required. I should get a proper hang of the helpful Prusik and Double Dragon for example. On the other hand, some knots that I learned decades ago I am attempting to leave behind and replace with better knots, though old habits can be difficult to drop. One knot in particular was frequently used when stringing a poncho up as an overnight basha on countless nights in the army- the Taut Line Hitch. This was a great knot for attaching guys and drying lines etc. as it adjusts easily to keep taut (hence it’s name). However an alternative to this and quicker to release after use, is the Farrimond Friction Hitch. This strong sliding friction knot can take a lot of strain without slipping or closing. It is also good for adjusting the length of cordage without having to retie the entire knot.

Of all the different jobs and pastimes I have experienced, backpacking and camping has been where just a little knowledge of knots has proved most useful. For simply attaching cordage to a tree or post it is back to the knot taught me by my Uncle when I was aged in single digits- the Bowline. This is the knot with rabbits, trees and holes and all that. It is also a good knot for attaching a new guy to tent tie out loops and quickly makes a loop that will not tighten under tension. If I want to ensure that the loop is unlikely to slip then I will use a Figure of Eight Loop or Double Overhand as a stopper knot.

There are various phone apps available showing knots. Some are animated, some are free, others have a fee. Many include knots that are of little interest or use. Some are good apps, others less so
There are various phone apps available showing knots. Some are good apps, others less so. Some are animated, some are free, others have a fee. Many include knots that are of little interest or use.
Knots 3D app

Additionally, there is the Round Turn and Two Half Hitches. I probably use this most often when putting out a drying line to a fixed anchor, a tree or post etc, where I know I won’t be adjusting it. Other include the Alpine Butterfly– for putting a loop into cordage that can easily be removed after use. This is good for creating a loop that won’t slip and can also be used for mechanical advantage.

There are various aids to learning knots- YouTube, some terrific websites, the excellent Knots 3D app. The little set of Pro-Knot cards shown below is old-school analogue. There are also some terrific books that I look at elsewhere. The best way to learn, or relearn, is to simply spend time with a length of cordage and practice knots. I will be putting aside some hours over the coming weeks practicing those I know well, brushing up on some others that I should know, and perhaps adding one or two others to my ‘arsenal’. Now, time to learn the Siberian Hitch.

Set of six Pro-Knot cards
Set of six Pro-Knot cards

These six plastic Pro-Knot cards are joined together and fan out as required. Cards have knots on each face and 19 are included. It is a good selection- Bowline, square knot, water knot, rolling hitch, clove hitch, sheet bend, prusik knot, trucker’s hitch, mooring hitch, butterfly knot, tautline hitch, sheepshank, timber hitch, buntline hitch, constrictor knot, half hitch, double fisherman’s, cleat hitch, figure eight and bowline on a bight. All basic and useful-to-know knots. This 24g set of cards measures 90mm x 57mm x 3mm but would be total overkill on just about any hike. They work well as a desktop aide memoire, or while car camping or slipped into an EDC or bushcrafting kit. The little set of cards and a length of cordage also help to usefully while away an hour or two on a journey or stuck at an airport terminus.

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