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River Knots

As pleasurable as a run down one of the nation's great wild and scenic rivers can be, there is always the chance that you'll find yourself in an unexpected situation. These situations aren't common, but experiencing one is a matter of "when," not "if." Hopefully, it's little more than a pinned boat, but in a few rare situations, lives may be at stake. At times like these, the more people who have basic outdoor knowledge, the better. And first and foremost among that knowledge: knots. Though they seem simple, if relied upon but tied incorrectly, they pose a risk to the whole group.

In this guide, I'll build an arsenal of knots that all should learn and be prepared to use when necessary. Along with these knots, we'll also start getting into boat rescue and recovery. This is no substitute for a swift water course, but it will leave you better off than knowing nothing at all.

To begin with, we have our basic knots found in the previous post. We won't re-review these as they are foundational, and not all apply to the river.

First and foremost, everyone should learn how to tie and follow through a Figure 8 knot. The knot is simple enough, but the follow through can be confusing the first several times you tie it, and the knot is next to worthless until you learn to tie a clean follow through.

In knot speak, a "bight" simply means "a loop." The first follow through starts with the basic Figure 8. Take the tag end (loose end) and run it though a carabiner, loop or other device to which you wish to secure the knot. Then, follow the knot back through. (See the below picture of a climbing harness to understand a typical application.) This is a figure 8 on a bight due to the loop.

Next, we'll take a line and turn it into a loop. This loop will be used later in the discussion around the Prusik (a critical climbing and rescue knot). In this case, the follow though starts from the other end, the "working end." Take the long end -- aka "the tag end" -- and follow through from in the opposite direction through which line originally exited the 8.

Lastly, if you don't need to tie onto a fixed closed ring/line, you can clip on with a carabiner. A quicker way to tie the figure eight on a bight is to double the rope over and tie a quick single knot.

The water knot, used on webbing/tape is another follow through knot. It's used to tie webbing together or forming a loop as shown in the Figure 8s above. Instead of starting with a Figure 8, the water knot starts with a simple overhand knot, which is followed through with another piece of webbing to join them together, or the other end of the same piece of webbing to form a loop.

The last of the foundational knots you will need to know is called the "alpine butterfly," "lineman's loop," or "butterfly loop." This knot is useful when you need a secure loop in the middle of a rope or line. The loop can then be used to attach other lines or hardware. The easiest way to tie this knot is using your hand. Once formed, you can clip what you like to the loop. As with any great knot, it comes undone with little effort.

You can use the follow through knots for attaching two lines webbing of similar size. But be cautious, as these knots will fail when the two lines are of significantly different size; Unless the lines are within about 20 percent of each in terms of diameter, the smaller line can slip out of the knot. For dissimilar sized lines, always use the sheet bend, or the double sheet bend. This is a beautifully simple, yet powerful knot, and my personal favorite. The one drawback to this knot is that it can come undone unless it's under a load. A correctly tied double sheet bend results in both tag ends on the same side. In the image below, the tag ends would be the top of the red line and the yellow line exiting at the center top of the knot.

By adding another loop, you increase the security of the knot and give yourself extra piece of mind.

With these knots -- and someone experienced in a bit of water rescue and rescue systems -- you're on your way to becoming a valuable member of the team. In the next series, we'll discuss how to use these knots for simple tasks like tying a Prusik, different ways to secure to shore, and a few knots to tie onto a stranded boat.


Matt Smith

Founder, CEO