Imagine that you’re a paratrooper in World War II flinging yourself out of the back of a roaring B-17 over Germany. You tumble into freefall like discarded baggage. The thunder of the props dissipates as the airplane leaves you behind.
Then your static line deploys the chute and you’re yanked upright; your paracord ropes snap taut as the canopy fills. The ropes now holding your body suspended 1,000 feet in the air had better hold. And they will – paracord rope has a tensile strength of 550 pounds.
Paracord’s strength is due to its kernmantle construction. Several smaller nylon strands are woven together in its core and surrounded by an outer sheath for exceptional durability as well as flexibility.
This rope is still in use today, so whether you were a paratrooper then or Bear Grylls sky diving into an off-the-map swath of the outback today, you know that paracord is considered by many trailblazers to be the duct tape of the wilderness.
Its popularity is due to the myriad uses soldiers found for it after it helped them land safely behind enemy lines in World War II.
Paracord rope can be utilized intact, or cut open to take advantage of the strands of smaller nylon in its center. The components of the rope can be used for fishing lines, as a thread to sew buttons, for first aid applications like a tourniquet or stretcher and while camping. Because of its nylon, the rope is mildew and rot resistant, too.
These abilities made paracord a powerful weapon in soldiers’ arsenals and subsequently one of the most turned-to ropes of choice for outback treks today. But no matter how powerful the weapon, the skill required to use it to its full potential is infinitely more valuable.
This is why Baden-Powell placed such a strong emphasis on knot tying when he wrote Aids for Scouting, the book that would inspire the modern scouting movement.
Anyone who has ever needed to lash something together in the wilderness has realized what Baden-Powell noted during the Boer Wars of the late 1800s. Knot tying is one of the most essential skills in both war and camping. It is also one of the most underrated survival techniques.
When you hear the words “clove hitch” or “Swiss seat” do you know which knots they are? Don’t worry if you can’t picture them. In this article, you’re going to revisit these classic knots and hopefully learn new ones so that you can put your paracord to good use. Feel free to grab a length of rope or shoelaces and follow along.
Let’s begin with what is undoubtedly the coolest knot in all of creation. This knot was first made famous in 1987 when Arnold used it to kill his alien nemesis the Predator. Who can forget his famous line – “I’m he-Ah dot it, kill me I’m he-Ah!” right before our hero springs his deadfall trap.
The scenario of the deadfall is essentially the same in every movie since. A heavy log or a small bolder is lashed to a pulley or pendulum rig. When the trigger mechanism is released, the weight swings down like a wrecking ball to smash whatever victim is in its way.
The knot that makes the deadfall trap possible is very simple. You begin with the timber hitch. Every hitch is a knot that ties a rope to an object, and the timber hitch is great at providing sufficient friction around a log so it can be dragged or suspended without coming loose.
First loop your rope around your log. The short end of the rope will now finish the knot while the long end trails off to provide sufficient line for your pulley rig.
The short end of the rope is then looped back over the long end of the rope and under itself. Once the short end of the rope has been looped under itself, repeat the process three times and then pull both ends tight. Your completed timber hitch will look like a simple lasso with its additional rope wrapped around part of the circular lasso.
You can wrap the short end of your rope around the timber hitch as many times as you need to, depending on how much friction you need to secure the log. Making simple loops in the rope is a terrific way to increase friction if your line is slippery.
Say you want to use paracord to temporarily replace a drive belt in a car engine, for example. Paracord is durable enough to accomplish this job for a limited amount of time, but since it’s nylon it lacks the actionable friction to prevent it from effectively turning the motor. Tying simple loops throughout the line will give it enough friction to latch on.
The timber hitch alone does not accomplish the deadfall trap. Once you’ve tied it you can then go with a diagonal lashing like Arnold used, or around lashing. The diagonal lashing is used to bind logs at non-right angles. You can use this lashing to bind two logs in an X or to secure just one log to a pulley.
You begin by tying your timber hitch around the objects that you want to lash. The loop should go around the center of the X if you are lashing two logs together. Once the timber hitch is done, wrap the log tightly with your rope three times, then cross over that wrap at a ninety-degree angle with the second round of three tight wraps.
You have now made a + with your wraps to go around the X intersection of your logs. Whether you are lashing two logs together or wrapping your knot around one as Arnold did, your timber hitch will be at the center of your wraps’ intersection.
Depending on how many lines you have you can always increase the number of wraps. More wraps mean more friction around your object and less likelihood that your lashed object will slip out of your knot.
If you are tying two logs together tighten your wraps with two fraps above and below your X. A frap is a nautical term meaning to take up the slack.
It’s essentially just an additional loop or two around your logs to tighten the lash. Whether you’re lashing two logs or just one, you finish the diagonal lashing the same way – by using a clove hitch.
If you’re hoisting your log into a tree so that it can come crashing down on an unsuspecting alien or bear, tie your clove hitch around the part of your log that will be pointing to the sky.
Begin the clove hitch by making a loop around a log. Next use the excess rope that is trailing off away from the loop to create a second loop around the log. The excess rope for this second loop should head back in the direction of the first loop. Instead of letting the excess line go over the rope to form the loop, as you did with the first loop of the timber hitch, tuck the excess line of your second loop under that second loop to complete the clove hitch.
Your finished clove hitch should look like an X with the two ends of the rope going in opposite directions of the knot.
And you’ve done it! Use the excess line of your clove hitch to hoist your deadfall trap over a tree branch and into the air. If you want the deadfall to swing like a pendulum you can tie another lashing around it and pull it horizontally around a second tree.
Attach both ropes to an anchor of some kind that will be your trigger mechanism. This anchor needs to hold fast enough so that the deadfall won’t trigger prematurely by accident. You can use a wooden stake that you kick loose or a lashing that you cut with something reliable like an axe.
If you’re just trying to lash one log or lash two logs side by side, then you may want to go with a round lashing instead of a diagonal lashing. To tie the round lashing you simply tie more wraps (about eight,) and don’t cross the wraps over one another. Tie them off on both ends with a clove hitch to finish them.
Say you want to trigger your deadfall without cutting it and without using a stake. In that case, you need to lash it to your anchor with the highwayman’s hitch. Begin the highwayman’s hitch with a bend in your rope – not a loop like the other knots.
Next, press the bend of rope around the object that you want to lash your rope to. Then take the long end of your rope and make a second bend with that end. Take this second bend and pull it over your object and through your first bend. You’ve now made a loop around the object with your two bends.
Now keep your fingers through your second bend and take the short end of your rope, which should be dangling off to the side, with your other hand. Pull the short end of the rope away from your second bend and underneath the object to tighten your first bend around your second bend.
Once you’ve done that make the third bend out of the short end of your rope and put that bend through the second bend you were holding with your other hand. Once your third bend is through your second bend hold your third bend and pull on the long end of your rope to tighten the whole thing.
The miracle of this hitch is that if you pull on the long end of your rope it will tighten the knot. If you pull on the short end of the rope, the knot will completely release itself. Go ahead and try it. Pulling on the short end is a great way to test whether you’ve tied the hitch correctly.
The legend behind the highwayman’s hitch is that bank robbers originally used it to tie their horses in the Wild West. These bandits needed a hitch that was going to reliably hold their getaway animal to the post but would also release quickly when they needed to make their escape.
If you want to protect your camping equipment from thieves, the thief knot is a great tool for taking a security system with you on the trail. The thief knot is a knot that’s disguised to look like a simple square knot.
A square knot, also known as a reef knot, is tied by folding one end of a rope under another, then folding that same end back under the rope again. You essentially duplicate the same fold and then pull it tight to complete this basic knot.
When you’ve finished tying it you’ll notice that the working ends of the knot are on the same side. The thief knot is designed to look like a square knot, but its working ends will be on different sides when the knot is completed.
Instead of folding one end of the rope under the other, begin the thief knot by bending the first end of the rope. Hold this bend tight with your thumb and thread the second end of the rope through the bend.
Bring the second end of the rope under the bend you are holding together with your thumb, and then thread the second end of the rope back through the bend in the direction from whence it originally came. Pull it tight. Looks like a square knot doesn’t it? But it’s a thief’s knot in disguise. Notice that the working ends of the rope are on opposite ends.
Tie your valuables up with this knot on the trail. To the unsuspecting thief, the thief’s knot will look like a square knot. They’ll untie it, and seeking to cover their tracks, re-tie a square knot. When you see that the knot securing your pack now has the working ends of the rope on the same side you will know someone has been going through your things.
But enough with the cool and tricky knots. It’s time to move on to heavy-duty knots for heavy-duty paracord. When traversing mountainous terrain you might encounter a cliff at a dizzying height. Perhaps you still have your parachute with you.
You could base jump. That’s what Leonardo da Vinci originally designed the parachute for. But perhaps you’ve got a hole in your chute, or your rope has been compromised because you’ve been making deadfall traps.
No fear, you can get to the bottom of the cliff by rappelling. You don’t have a harness you say? Yes, you do, you’ve got paracord. The knot that you tie to create a rappelling harness is called a Swiss seat. You will need about 12 feet of rope to accomplish this knot, depending on the size of your waist.
Adjust the length of rope accordingly to find the length that works for you. If you have a little bit of slack it won’t be an issue since your entire body weight will soon be resting on this knot and pulling everything tight.
To begin, find the center of your rope. Do this by bending your rope in half so that the ends touch each other. Your bend will be the center of your rope. Put the bend against your left hip if you’re right-handed and vice versa if you’re left-handed.
From that starting point bring one end of the rope forward and loop the other behind your back. Bring the section of rope that you looped around your back to the front, so that the slightly unequal lengths of the rope are now in front of you. One end should be in your left hand and the other should be in your right.
Cross both ends of the rope under one another two times to create a half hitch around the front of your waist. Tighten this and you’ve created a sort of belt that will hang free on your body. The half hitches can be considered the belt buckle.
You’ll notice the loose ends of the half hitch are now hanging parallel to your legs. Grab both ends of the half hitch and bring them through your legs, around your butt and up to your hips. You should make what could be described as “rope briefs.” They don’t call it a Swiss seat for anything.
The next step is to take the ends of the half hitch that have gone through your legs and up across your butt to your hips and tuck the ends of those ropes under the original belt you made with your half hitch. Think of it as making holsters for a gun belt.
Once you’ve tucked the right and left ends of your rope through the inside of your belt, tuck the ends of your rope under the section of your “rope briefs” that come up across your butt. This will make a loop around your belt and that butt section of rope.
The loop could be considered the socket of the holster that you were creating. Put the end of both ropes through the loops that you created. This makes a half hitch on both hips that tightens your loose ends of the rope.
You now have a loose end of the excess rope at both hips. Up until now, you’ve mirrored just about every knot that you’ve made on your right side with the knot you’ve made on your left but now you need to bring the ends of your rope to the hip that you won’t be repelling with. The purpose of this is to tie the knot away from your break hand. Tie your Swiss seat off away from your dominant hand.
Bring the long section of rope across your waste and away from your dominant hand. Tie a square knot to bind your two loose ends of the rope together. Then lock both loose ends off with a half hitch on each side of the square knot.
Tie the half hitch by tucking each loose end of rope under the rope forming your belt section and the front of your “rope briefs.” Then, tuck your loose ends of the rope through the loop you created to tighten it off. Stuff any excess rope into your pocket if you can.
Once those hip knots have been locked off, put a carabineer through the two ropes forming your belt and the side knot. This way the center of your gravity will be supported in a comfortable “sitting posture” as you repel.
As you can see, there is a knot for every survival situation. Knots are also the secret to creating advanced rigs and structures when you’re out on the trail. Take advantage of the lashings included here to build walls, bridges, tripods, and flagpoles.
Learn to love your rope. You may not get them on the first try, but just like learning an instrument, once you get ahead of the curve you’ll begin to tie advanced knots with incredible dexterity.
There is an incredible wealth of YouTube videos that can be referenced for further instruction on how to tie each of these knots.
Animated Knots by Grog is an excellent site where you can view step-by-step images in a slide show to learn how to tie knots for a variety of situations.
With practice, you’ll discover that with enough rope you can do anything.