Knots vs. Hardware

knots-v-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.

Regarding Knots

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.”

Taut line-hitch with a slippery half hitch on the end.

Taut-line hitch with a slippery half hitch on the end. The slippery hitch makes it easier to untie.

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.

(Honorable mentions: Sheet Bend, Fisherman’s Knot, and figure-8.)

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.

Knot Pros

  • 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

Knot Cons

  • 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

Regarding Hardware

A LoopAlien is a like a two-headed figure-8 belay device, but miniaturized and full of surprising uses.

A LoopAlien is a like a two-headed figure-8 belay device, but miniaturized and full of surprising uses.

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.

Hardware Pros

  • Reduces/eliminates slipping with certain materials
  • Provides quick attachment/detachment
  • Improves adjustability
  • Provides mechanical leverage with reduced friction

Hardware Cons

  • 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.

 

The humble Lark's head knot. I use this often to rig up hammocks and tarps.

The humble Lark’s head knot. I use this often to rig up hammocks and tarps.

An eye splice (w/locked brummel) on the end of a line makes a handy connection point. Unlike knots, splices like this are not meant to be "undone" and are considered permanent fixtures.

An eye splice (w/locked brummel) on the end of a line makes a handy connection point. Unlike knots, splices like this are not meant to be “undone” and are considered permanent fixtures.

The soft shackle "carabiner" is a replacement for a full-size carabiner. Like the spliced eye, a soft shackle is a "knot" that is not meant to be taken apart.

The soft shackle “carabiner” is a replacement for a full-size carabiner. Like the spliced eye, a soft shackle is a “knot” that is not meant to be taken apart.

One way to use a Prusik knot: an adjustable connection point for a tarp.

One way to use a Prusik knot: an adjustable connection point for a tarp.

The titanium Whoopie Hook is another minuscule device that takes the place of a full-size climbing carabiner, often used to connect a hammock to a webbing strap. Simple, straightforward, strong.

The titanium Whoopie Hookis another minuscule device that takes the place of a full-size climbing carabiner, often used to connect a hammock to a webbing strap. Simple, straightforward, strong.

The titanium Tarp Flyz (4.5 g) are perfect for tarp ridge lines, providing 3:1 mechanical leverage to easily get a tarp taut with a quick, no-knot wrap.

The titanium Tarp Flyz (4.5 g) are perfect for tarp ridge lines, providing 3:1 mechanical leverage to easily get a tarp taut with a quick, no-knot wrap.

Toggles can also be used for load-bearing hammocks. In this example, the webbing spreads the load across the stick and helps focus compressive forces instead of bending forces, so the stick/toggle doesn't need to be very big. The toggle replaces the need for a carabiner, but it is still a hardware item and very useful for allowing quick adjustment and easy pitching and take-down.

Toggles can also be used for load-bearing hammocks. In this example, the webbing spreads the load across the stick and helps focus compressive forces instead of bending forces, so the stick/toggle doesn’t need to be very big. The toggle replaces the need for a carabiner, but it is still a hardware item and very useful for allowing quick adjustment and easy pitching and take-down.

Another toggle example, this time used to hold a tarp. This example isn't as secure. In practice, I'd add a small loop and tie a prusik knot here, but the toggle represents a makeshift hardware device that is useful but isn't carried.

Another toggle example, this time used to hold a tarp. This example isn’t as secure. In practice, I’d add a small loop and tie a prusik knot here, but the toggle represents a makeshift hardware device that is useful but isn’t carried.

A stick toggle used to connect an under quilt to a hammock. Many folks opt for a small metal or plastic biner or clip, but a toggle works just fine. Technically, I'd consider a toggle "hardware" as it isn't a knot. It's super useful but doesn't have to weight down your pack.

A stick toggle used to connect an under quilt to a hammock. Many folks opt for a small metal or plastic biner or clip, but a toggle works just fine. Technically, I’d consider a toggle “hardware” as it isn’t a knot. It’s super useful but doesn’t have to weight down your pack.

One of the more common hardware devices: the Figure-9. I rarely use this device, opting for smaller, lighter devices when the need for a mechanical advantage and ease-of-use are important

One of the more common hardware devices: the Figure-9. I rarely use this device, opting for smaller, lighter devices when the need for a mechanical advantage and ease-of-use are important

The Dutch Clip, here in titanium, weigh 7 g, but more than make up for their weight by making it quick to connect/disconnect webbing strap.

The Dutch Clip, here in titanium, weighs 7 g, but more than make up for their weight by making it quick to connect/disconnect webbing strap.

hardware-dutch-hook

A LoopAlien is a like a two-headed figure-8 belay device, but miniaturized and full of surprising uses.

A LoopAlien is a like a two-headed figure-8 belay device, but miniaturized and full of surprising uses.

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?

 

  43 comments for “Knots vs. Hardware

  1. May 16, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Definitely somewhere in between for me. I LOVE my knots, but hardware (especially of the titanium variety) can be a lot of fun.

    I use Whoopie Hooks and Dutch Hooks on my hammocks and Dutch Flyz on my tarp ridgeline.

    For basic ground tarps or other applications, though, I often favor knots. My favorites are the following, roughly in order of how often I use them:
    – Bowline (best knot ever!)
    – Double half hitch
    – Clove hitch
    – Sheet bend
    – Trucker’s hitch
    – Buntline hitch

    I used to really like the tautline hitch and still use it in some circumstances. But, I’ve had it really tear up paracord under stress and almost cause more harm than good. I’ve looked to a few other knots (trucker’s hitch or other basic knots – or even hardware) for tarp lines because of that.

    • Derek
      May 16, 2013 at 7:47 am

      Thanks Brian. I’m with you with ground tarps, etc. Hardware doesn’t play much of a part for me on tents or ground tarps. With hammock camping, hardware plays a bigger part, especially with suspension systems. Depending on what suspension system I’m using, I can get away without any hardware, but it really helps speed things up. I like the “quick start” method when I backpack, so finding little efficiencies here and there really pay off when I’m going light and fast.

      I’m also a real fan of the “pseudo” hardware: toggles. So simple, so straightforward, and something you can put together on site. All the advantages of hardware without the weight penalty.

    • Dan Preiser
      May 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

      The bowline is the best knot ever! A bowline tied with paracord and a large load, can be difficult to untie sometimes. I leave a “tail” when tying the last part of the bowline, makes it easier to undo quickly.

  2. May 16, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Funny how those knots are ones that we teach to Scouts…

    • Derek
      May 16, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Absolutely no coincidence there :)

  3. May 16, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Alpine butterfly should make the honorable mention list. One of the most under appreciated and under used knots out there. Maintains near 80% of line strength.

    Paul

  4. Coy Starnes
    May 16, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Great article! I have found the figure 8 workers better for my hammock than any knot I’ve tried. It holds without slipping but is easy to untie. I just run the rope through both ends of my tree hugger straps and start doing figure 8’s. I will do at least 4 complete figure 8’s and then tie off with a half hitch, I have not tried any of the hardware devices but could see where they would be handy.

    • Derek
      May 16, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      So, do you do a figure-8 follow through? I’m imagining what I do when climbing: tie a figure-8 near the end of the rope and leave adequate standing line. This standing line goes through the webbing and then I tie the follow through figure-8.

  5. Coy Starnes
    May 16, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    Derek, it really only goes over the standing end and then is fished of with the half hitch on the standing end. Part of the figure 8 is going between the loops of the tree huger. Easier to show than explain so hhere is a short video on the Hennessy site that shows how to tie it.

    http://hennessyhammock.com/articles/set-up_instructions/

    • Derek
      May 17, 2013 at 5:40 am

      Okay, I understand what you’re doing now: the figure-8 lashing! Here I was thinking something more exotic ;) the lashing works, but it is one technique I was referring to that is not easily adjustable.

  6. May 17, 2013 at 8:47 am

    I couldn’t read the info on the hardware it disappeared too quickly … where else is this so I can actually comprehend what each piece is?

    • Derek
      May 17, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Are you referring to the image gallery at the end of the article? The images pop up with text using Javascript. There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding image page, but I’ll dig in and see if I can fix that or get you the content if this is what you’re looking for. In a nutshell, the few hardware devices that I show here include: LoopAlien, DutchWare Whoopie Hook, DutchWare Clip, DutchWare Tarp Flyz, and the Nitize Figure-9.

      • May 17, 2013 at 12:21 pm

        Yes, when I click on the photo, there is a statement that flashes past as the next photo comes into view. It appears that the statement is an explanation of the hardware and what it’s used for … I’m getting a hammock and I definitely need to know how to make it easier for me … anything that doesn’t require me to remember how to tie a knot will be helpful. ;-)

      • May 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm

        The first two work and I could read what they are, but the next ones still flash by.

  7. peabody3000
    May 18, 2013 at 1:53 am

    could anyone recommend a good knot for shortening a length of rope? in other words if rope is tied from one tree to another but is too long, and re-tying it to the trees is not an option, what knot used in the middle could be used to take up the slack?

    • Derek
      May 23, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Is this for a tarp or hammock?

      • peabody3000
        May 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm

        no, its for something else entirely.. not a challenging situation but just one where i need to take up slack after both ends are tied off

        • Derek
          May 23, 2013 at 4:02 pm

          I know a sheep shank is used to shorten a rope, but I don’t think it works in your scenario. You could tie a truckers hitch in the middle, using the line as the pulley.

          • peabody3000
            May 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm

            yes i think ive seen it done on pickup truck beds and always wondered.. ty

  8. Andrew
    May 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I too am quite new to Hammocks and the hardware names without explanations of their intended use is quite overwhelming…
    It would be nice if the text explanations of the hardware pics in the gallery stay together. I found myself trying to flash back and forth trying to catch a word of the associated text. The first couple of images have the text on the same page… So it can be done… Otherwise a great little article- thank you.

    • Derek
      May 19, 2013 at 8:09 am

      I will go back and add an update.

      • Peter Guzman
        May 22, 2013 at 6:28 am

        Yes, I’m also trying to read the text explanations with the pieces of stick you are using on the cords. Looks like something I could definitely use. Did you happen to update somewhere that I am missing. Thank you.

    • Derek
      May 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      What hammock do you have? A climbing carabiner is great for eliminating some knots or complicated lashing methods.

  9. May 27, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    If you learn how to tie knots properly and practice using them then everything becomes so much easier. If like me your mind goes blank as soon as you see a piece of rope then hardware rules lol.
    Seriously I guess they both have a place and it really comes back to kowing how to use either option properly.

    • Derek
      May 27, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      I agree!

  10. edpersky
    June 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    I have read the description of the dutch hardware and it gives good details of them except for one factor which I feel is important and that is – what is the holding strength of each, or what weight can they withstand before breaking or deforming. If these are used for tarp suspension than there is probably no worry but what happens if you start using the tarp ridge line as a hangar for other things as well. Clothes line, hang sleeping bags, underquilt, water filters, packs, etc. Also staking the tarp down in heavy rain and/or high wind.
    Also some will try to use these for Hammock hanging or at least taught line ridge line for the hammock which will put stress on the hardware when they lay in their hammocks. I myself have thought about using these for that purpose and I know I would not be alone.

  11. Tim
    January 11, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Hey Derek, just finished your book which was very informative. I’m new to the hammock scene and just bought a Hennessy Expedition. Bought the gear to use the climbing rings to suspend the hammock from but after reading your book was interested in trying the Slippery Larks Head knot, just can’t find any directions on tying the knot.

    • Derek
      January 11, 2014 at 10:18 pm

      I’m working on a video that shows a few mods to the Hennessy. I’ll add that in. If you look up larks head knot you’ll find a lot of examples. To make it slippery, you just don’t pull the standing end completely through, leaving a bight or loop. Another good alternative is a clove hitch. It holds a little better and is just as easy to tie as the larks head; it just takes a different twist in the second loop.

  12. Caleb
    February 6, 2014 at 10:24 am

    One of my favorite hardware setups is the sliding ring method. In my case, I use a climbing carabiner with a rounded spine.

    Going from the hammock to the tree huggers…..

    midway down the line, place three wraps around the spin on the carabiner. Continue to the tree hugger and then return back toward the carabiner and hammock. Form a marlin spike hitch and use the carabiner as the “spike”. Slide the carabiner forward or back along the line to adjust tension.

    I am sure you have seen this Derek, but I wanted to spell it out best I can incase someone wanted to try it.

    • Derek
      February 6, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks Caleb! I’m not sure I’ve seen this one before, although it reminds me of a few. Please send me a photo.

      • Bruce
        June 16, 2014 at 10:03 pm

        Hmmmmm…. any way I could get a copy of that photo? This sounds similar to something I’m thinking of for my set up. I’m in the Land of BIG TREES (Seattle, Western Washington) & the webbing on my DIY hammock is not quite long enough to get enough of the “Speer Wrapping” to hold. I’m thinking of running the webbing around the tree & then hooking back into the webbing with the same Marlin Spike & Carabiner that Caleb mentioned (my webbing is both tree hugger & suspension).
        Thanks!
        Bruce

  13. May 18, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    What is a good tensioning knot to sub for the tautline on tarp lines? I have been using the tautline and I like the ease of adjustment with it, but reading folks above that the tautline will degrade the cord, thinking perhaps there is a better option?

    • Derek
      May 19, 2014 at 6:07 am

      I’m not sure I agree that the taut line hitch needs to be replaced. All knots weaken rope to some degree but it takes a long while. A truckers hitch is another tensioning knot I use with guy lines.

  14. May 29, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    I love knots and grew up with natural fiber ropes and para cord. However, I really love zing it and lash it and the blue stuff. Some of my knots just will not hold. I have tried the traditional taught line with zing it with poor results. Does yours work well. I was using new zing it and it was slippery. I will teach my scouts the traditional knots but maybe I should also teach them how to splice zing it. Any suggestions?

    Another Derek

    • Derek
      May 30, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Amsteel is slippery, and it is very difficult to get knots to hold, particularly if there is a lot of tension. I find that prusik or kliemheist knots hold well, so long as the rope used on the knot is smaller diameter than what it is tying to. Where I most often use Amsteel rope is on hammock suspension, ridge lines, and tarp ridge lines. I don’t use it on guy line, where I use my knots most often.

      Teaching splicing is a great tool, and could possibly count towards some Scouting merit badges like Pioneering.

  15. James Arber
    June 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    For a tautline alternative, look up cawley and farrimond hitches, IMO are better quick release. I believe that the tautline or any fiction hitch under tension would eventually begin to work the outer sheath away from the inner strands ie para cord.

  16. Justin Carlin
    October 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Do you spice your loops for prusik knots or tie the ends as is pictured in with the larks head?

    • Derek
      October 13, 2014 at 10:02 pm

      It depends on the material. Some line cannot be spliced because they aren’t hollow. But more often I just tie fisherman knots. It’s faster/easier.

  17. Ken
    October 9, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Excellent overview of useful knots, hitches and hardware. I encourage people new to camping tarps, hammocks and similar gear to become comfortable, competent with the basics that you recommend in your book and articles first. Then after a lot of practice with those learn to use time saving hardware and impoverished methods for when hardware is lost or not available. I have some H.W. from Dutch and Nite Ize but Titanium carabiners rated at over 500 lbs load are the most versatile for me, not strong enough for mtn/rock climbing but you can hang a hammock from or stuff like water bottles from front of backpack or canoe, bike and many other applications during the day with or without rope/webbing hitches. 9 grams each from vendors like Kieth. Multiple use saves weight, space and money.

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