Knots vs. Hardware
Among hikers, backpackers, campers, Scouters, and pretty much any outdoor enthusiast, one topic seems to always spark debate: hardware devices or knots?
Are you a knot purist who sees hardware devices as redundant, a waste of time (or weight), or perhaps even an abomination that threatens the purity of primitive living skills? Or are you a “gear junkie” or “knot averse” who shuns knots like the plague, or looks at “knot heads” as backward, regressive, and maybe hard headed?
I’m speaking hyperbolically, of course; I harbor no ill will with either group. In fact, I find myself somewhere in the middle, mostly: I love knots, and yet also find hardware devices extremely useful and sometimes a lot of fun to tinker with.
I grew to love knots as a Boy Scout. It was one skill I was actually good at. I’ve always remembered the “core” knots and have used them throughout my life. I also remember being told that “a good knot is one that can be easily tied, holds fast when tied, and comes apart when you need to untie it.”
To be clear, these “good knots” still take time to learn and master. But more important is to know when and why certain knots can and should be used. Practice and experimentation pay off in dividends when you get out in the field.
Knots, when tied right, are simple, elegant, and efficient.
To tie a knot seems to be a simple thing, and yet there are right ways and wrong ways of doing it and Scouts ought to know the right way. Very often it may happen that lives depend on a knot being properly tied.
The right kind of knot to tie is one which you can be certain will hold under any amount of strain, and which you can always undo easily if you wish to.
The bad knot is one which slips away when a hard pull comes on it, or which gets jammed so tight that you cannot untie it.
Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement, taken from his 1908 edition of Scouting for Boys
There are a lot of knots out there, but I’ve found that a few “workhorse” variety are all I’ve really needed for most tasks, particularly with hammocks and tarps.
Basic workhorse knots everyone should know
- Two half-hitches—used to secure a guy line, among other uses.
- Taut-line hitch—great for adjustable tensioning of guy lines and even tarp ridge lines.
- Clove hitch—I use this often for bear bagging and as a stake tie-off for some tarps, like those made with low-stretch fabrics.
- Bowline—great all-purpose knot. I often use this on guy lines attached to a tarp. Often used as a harness for self and aided rescue.
- Trucker’s hitch—great for tensioning guy lines or for rigging a continuous ridge line. The 3-to-1 mechanical advantage lets you more easily get a line tight. (A simpler variant is what ultra hiker Andrew Skurka calls the “McCarthey Hitch,” using a loop already tied in the line or the tarp as the pulley point.)
- Lark’s Head knot—often used to attach suspension lines to hammocks or other eye loops over tie outs on tarps, etc. Very versatile.
- Prusik knot—Often used in climbing and rappelling for self belay, the humble prusik is a simple knot with a lot of uses, especially for a sliding adjustment.
- Becket hitch/Sheet Bend—The Becket hitch is the number one knot used to tie up hammocks in regions in South America. It is really easy to tie and release, and offers near infinite amount of adjustability. Using a loop on the end of a hammock and a long webbing strap is one of the lightest and simplest no-hardware hammock suspension system. I use a slippery version of the Becket hitch to make releasing even quicker.
Some folks avoid knots because of a perception that they are hard to learn. The key to mastering knots is practice. As a Scoutmaster, I removed all the hardware helpers off tent guy lines as a way to help my scouts practice and learn a skill.
- Doesn’t add weight
- Versatile (a single knot can be used in multiple applications)
- Knot tying is a learned skill that (if nurtured), doesn’t easily break, get lost, or fail
- Knots can degrade the strength of a rope up to 50% (depending on knot type)
- Some knots “bind” when loaded, making them difficult to untie
- Some line, such as dyneema, is very slippery and doesn’t hold knots well
- Poorly tied knots can become risks, either to your gear or to yourself
- If not used often enough, or without practice, you can forget how/when to use knots
I believe that anyone going on a trek outdoors should know how to tie the basic knots listed above. Understanding these knots will help you improvise when hardware is not available, when it fails (which they do, especially the plastic variety), or when hardware is lost or forgotten, whether you are pitching a tarp or saving a life.
That said, hardware devices can be wonderfully useful. They can decrease set-up times, make adjustments quicker and easier (particularly in cold weather or with gloved fingers), provide mechanical tensioning, and quick no-hassle attachment.
I find hardware especially helpful when using thin, slippery line such as Dyneema (Spectra), which has been increasingly popular as a lightweight line, but it doesn’t hold knots well.
My criteria for “good” hardware is as follows:
- The main function of the device must be obvious and inherent in the design.
- The “no knot” method should be simple and straightforward without complex wrapping or weaving, defeating the purpose of going “knot-less.”
- Secondary uses/functions are “discoverable” but should not get in the way of the main function or make it overly complex.
- The device should solve a real issue or challenge, such as improving dexterity, decreasing/eliminating slippage, improving efficiencies, increasing strength, providing mechanical advantage, minimizing weight, etc.
- The device should pack well when attached. Sharp points or burrs pose potential damage to fabric.
- The device should be reasonably lightweight, yet strong enough for its intended function.
I think some hardware devices are solutions looking for problems, or present solutions that are overly complex or not necessary in the first place. If hardware claims to make things simpler and easier, then it should. Otherwise I don’t use it.
- Reduces/eliminates slipping with certain materials
- Provides quick attachment/detachment
- Improves adjustability
- Provides mechanical leverage with reduced friction
- Weight! Gadgets can add significant weight to an overall system
- Some hardware gadgets are overly complex and difficult to understand and/or use
- Hardware can break, get lost, or left behind
- Can be expensive
The best hardware options I’ve used are those that address specific issues in a simple way. It’s like eating salad with a spoon and then one day someone hands you a fork and everything changes. It wasn’t that the spoon didn’t do the job, it’s that the fork changed the game. The next improvement was combining the fork and the spoon together…
When hardware can perform or improve tasks that knots alone cannot, they are at their best. When hardware gets in the way and makes a system more complex, they are at their worst.
UPDATE: A lot of folks have been asking me to break the gallery out into individual photos since the gallery seems to be broken on some devices. I will try to add a few more hardware options in time as well, to show various options. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive, exclusive, or to endorse a particular product.
Now it’s your turn. Are you a knot guy, a gear head, or somewhere in between? What are your go-to knots? What hardware devices do you use regularly?