8 Knots Every Climber Should Know

Photo: Ben Herndon/Tandemstock

Entire books are devoted to knots, but don’t be daunted by the possibilities.

It’s best to focus on the essential knots all climbers should know—there are some you’ll use every outing, and others you’ll only need during emergencies. With nothing more than a bit of rope or cord, you can do everything from simply tying in to building elaborate self-rescue systems. The trick? Actually knowing those knots—and understanding when to use them. 

Where to Get Started

Climbing gyms are among the best places to start building your repertoire of climbing knots. Aside from belay clinics, many gyms provide anchor-building stations and other staging areas. These are amazing tools for simulating outdoor scenarios and practicing knots. 

Before you climb outside on your own, we recommend going a step further: Take a gym-to-crag clinic with a local gear shop or climbing gym, or enroll in an anchor-building course with an accredited guide service. Self-rescue clinics, also hosted by guide services or gear shops, are invaluable as well. 

The Importance of Climbing Knot Safety Checks

In 1989, Lynn Hill, one of the greatest climbers of all time, reached the top of a route, sat back into her harness—and fell nearly 70 feet. The cause: An incomplete knot. Hill made a mistake anyone can make, regardless of experience level. She had begun to tie the rope to her harness with a figure-eight knot, but got distracted before finishing. When she weighted the incomplete knot, it worked itself loose. 

Fortunately, Hill fell into a tree and survived. But this story has become a famous case study because it highlights the importance of partner safety checks. Ask your partner to double-check your knots whenever possible. Your knots should always: 

  1. Be correctly tied 
  2. Be well-dressed (neatly organized and tightened)
  3. Have the prescribed amount of “tail,” or free rope extending from the end of the knot to act as extra safety margin (this varies by knot) 

Why Practice Matters 

When it comes to learning knots, there’s simply no substitute for hands-on practice and repetition. For some knots, you’ll get that repetition simply from having to tie them every time you climb. But it’s just as important to practice more obscure knots—like the Münter hitch or mule overhand—on a regular basis. That’s because these knots are critical to self-rescue, and it’s best to commit these knots to muscle memory before a crisis. 

Two climbing ropes with knots connected with carabiner Photo: Oldmn

Eight Essential Climbing Knots

1. Figure-eight follow-through

What it is: The most common knot for tying into a harness. 

Basic method: Create a figure-eight in the rope. Loop the free end through both tie-in points of your harness. Now trace the original figure-eight with the free end. (Leave four to six inches of tail.)

When to use it: Tying the rope to your harness before climbing

2. Overhand on a bight 

What it is: A simple knot used to create a fixed loop in the rope. 

Basic method: Pinch the rope in your hand so you’ve created a loop. Use this loop to tie an overhand knot. (If it’s near the end of the rope, leave at least a foot of tail.) 

When to use it: Blocking a belay device, tying anchor masterpoints, shortening a loop, backing up a mule hitch

3. Clove hitch

What it is: A self-tightening hitch that can be tied one-handed and is easy to untie.

Basic method: Create two small bights, one twisted over itself to the left, one twisted over itself to the right. Slide them together and clip a carabiner through both loops.  

When to use it: Tying in direct to an anchor in lieu of a personal tether, building anchors, equalizing pieces of trad protection

4. Girth hitch

What it is: A quick way to tie a loop of cord or webbing to a harness or fixed point 

Basic method: Feed one end of a loop through both tie-in points. Feed the opposite end of the loop through the first and pull taut.    

When to use it: Tying a personal tether to your harness, building anchors when carabiners are limited, slinging natural features as protection

5. Double-fisherman’s knot 

What it is: A means of fixing two ends of cord together to form a loop

Basic method: Lay two ends of rope together. Wrap one end around the other three times, then push the tail of the initial stand through the barrel and tighten. Repeat with the other side. 

When to use it: Tying a cordelette into a loop for self-rescue or anchor building

6. Barrel knot 

What it is: A low-profile stopper knot that won’t get caught on rock features 

Basic method: Fold the end of the rope in half. Wrap the tail up the bight three times, then poke it through the middle and tighten. Leave at least a foot of tail 

When to use it: Knotting the ends of a rope as a safety backup before rappelling, “closing the system” before belaying, backing up a tie-in knot

7. Münter hitch

What it is: A hitch that can be used to belay or lower a climber

Basic method: Create two small bights, one twisted over itself to the left, one twisted over itself to the right. Fold one over the other and clip a locking carabiner through the loop. Tug the climber’s strand to pull the hitch into a lowering orientation. Pull on the brake strand to pull the hitch into a raising orientation. When you switch between orientations, the knot will adjust by “flipping” through the carabiner.  

When to use it: To belay a climber in emergencies or in complicated low-angle alpine terrain; to lower a climber (in conjunction with a friction-hitch backup) in rescue scenarios.

8. Mule-overhand 

What it is: A hitch for locking two strands of the rope in place around a knot or hitch 

Basic method: Pinch a small bight of rope in one strand of the rope. Twist it such that the two strands of rope become pinched together. Push a loop of tail through the small bight. Use that loop to tie an overhand knot around the two rope strands. 

When to use it: Securing a Münter hitch in place during a rescue operation, tying off a belay device to go hands-free 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.