How to Tie a Versatile Bowline Knot like an Expert

bowline knot

What Is a Bowline Knot?

A bowline (pronounced “boh-lin”) knot is one of the most commonly used and essential knots for outdoor activities and survival. Sometimes called the king of knots, the bowline is incredibly versatile, in part due to its ease of use but also because of its reliability. A bowline knot is used to form a fixed loop—that is, one that doesn’t tighten or loosen—at the end of a length of rope.

This knot is especially handy because it can be tied using only one hand, leaving the other free for the person tying the knot to use. It’s also very secure, in that it doesn’t slip or come loose under load. For these and several other reasons, the bowline knot works well in rescue situations, as well as sailing and aviation.

bowline knot
Bowline knot Credit: 101knots

Pros and Cons

Like any knot, a bowline knot has its advantages and disadvantages. This knot is one of the most reliable knots you can use, but certain circumstances are less than ideal. Advantages and disadvantages vary depending on the particular situation.

Benefits of Using a Bowline Knot

There are several reasons why the bowline knot is considered one of the essential knots to learn. From its ease of use to its reliability, here are a few benefits to learning and using the bowline knot.

Ease of Use

The bowline knot is so commonly used in part because it’s such an easy knot to tie. The initial steps are so similar to the effortless overhand knot that it requires only a little bit more maneuvering. The mnemonic device discussed below makes it even easier.

Security

Largely considered one of the most reliable knots, there’s not much that can cause a bowline knot to fail. When the loop is under load, it’s almost impossible for the bowline knot to loosen. Even so, unlike other knots, the bowline is easy to untie once you unload it.

Safety

The bowline knot is frequently used in rescue situations because a rescuer can tie it with one hand. It can be secured by a rescuer and thrown to someone in need of rescue, or tied by the person needing rescue themselves, without having to let go of whatever they’re holding onto for safety.

bowline knot
Photo by Max Saeling on Unsplash

Problems with Using a Bowline Knot

While generally considered a reliable knot, the bowline can fail, coming loose or capsizing under certain conditions. Here are some issues to be aware of before using a bowline knot.

Coming Loose

One of the things that makes a bowline knot so valuable is that it won’t come loose when under load. However, when there is no load on the loop, bowline knots can sometimes wiggle themselves loose.

Capsizing

The bight (or folded) portion of a bowline knot can capsize under certain conditions. A knot capsizes or spills when it rearranges itself (or becomes rearranged) into another knot.

While this is sometimes done intentionally, it’s not something you want to happen with a bowline knot. A capsized knot is often weaker and more prone to slippage than the knot that it capsized from.

Slipping

When tied correctly, a bowline knot is known to be secure against slipping. However, if the initial loop is formed incorrectly, the resulting knot will be sideways. Sideways bowline knots are highly prone to slipping and capsizing, so the person tying the knot must begin the first loop correctly.

How to Tie a Bowline Knot

Tying a bowline knot is very easy to do and can even be done one-handed. A common rhyme used to help remember the steps goes:

“Up through the rabbit hole, round the big tree, down through the rabbit hole, and off goes he.”

This mnemonic device will make more sense as you dive into the steps in more detail below.

Step 1: Plan Your Knot

Determine how big you want your final loop to be, and at the end of the rope where you want the loop to be, measure off enough rope to make it. This length of rope that will form the loop is called the “working end,” “tail,” or “end.” The remaining length of rope is called the “standing end.”

Begin with the working end of your rope toward you and the standing end away from you. It can be helpful to think of the standing end like a tree trunk and the working end as a rabbit. The standing end will mostly stay put, like a tree, while the working end will move around like a rabbit.

Step 2: Make a Loop

Remember that the working end is the length that you will be using to form the final loop. Where the working end meets the standing end, make a smaller loop (called a “half hitch”) by bringing the working end over the standing end. The half hitch should be on the right-hand side of the rope. To continue with the rabbit mnemonic, think of this loop as a rabbit hole.

Step 3: Bring the Working End Up

At this point, you have a rabbit hole at the base of a tree trunk, and the rabbit is still underground. Bring the rope’s working end up through the half hitch you just created, as though the rabbit is coming out of the hole.

Don’t pull it tight; the knot isn’t finished yet. Only pull a few inches of the working end through, just enough for the rabbit to get around the tree and back into the hole.

Step 4: Secure the Knot

Now take the working end to the left behind the standing end, bring it back to the front, and down through the same loop you just brought it up through. Continuing the mnemonic, imagine that the rabbit, having come up from his hole, runs around the back of the tree, back to the front, and pops back into the hole. Pull on the working end, and your bowline knot is secured.

5 Uses for a Bowline Knot

You can use a bowline knot just about any time you need a fixed loop at the end of a rope. Whether used on its own or as the starting point for other knots and loops, there are dozens of applications for a bowline knot. Five common ways of using a bowline knot are:

#1 Tying Guy Lines

A camper can use a bowline knot to secure your guy lines to a tree when setting up a tent. You can use this same application to set up a hammock as well.

#2 Setting a Snare Trap

After tying a bowline knot with a relatively small loop, the person tying the knot can feed a bit of the standing rope through the bowline knot. This creates a sliding loop, similar to a slipknot, that can be used as a snare in a survival situation.

Related post: How To Make A Snare Trap

#3 Hanging a Bear Bag

A bowline knot is simply a solid, fixed loop at the end of a length of rope. If you need to secure something to the end of a rope, such as a carabiner clip, the bowline knot is a perfect way to do so. This can come in handy when securing a bear bag overhead, for example.

#4 Securing Two Segments of Rope Together

If you’re in a situation where you have two different lengths of rope that need to be secured together, a bowline knot is a perfect solution.

Sometimes called a “bowline bent,” this knot begins with a bowline tied at the end of the first length of rope. The second rope is passed through the loop in the first, then tied into a bowline knot itself. Each rope serves as an anchor or load for the bowline knot in the other rope, making this joint very secure.

#5 Rescue

Imagine a scenario where a person has to be rescued from above. A rescuer can use a bowline knot to secure a rope around a tree, allowing them to rappel down to the person in need of rescue.

Alternatively, someone can tie a bowline knot at the end of a rope before lowering it to the person who needs help. This gives them a more secure way to hold the rope, making rescue easier.

bowline knot
Photo by Robert Gramner on Unsplash

Variations

The bowline knot on its own is straightforward and versatile. However, there are countless variations on this knot that you can use when a standard bowline may not work.

Water Bowline

This version of the bowline begins with two half hitches instead of one. With the one closest to the standing end on top, these loops are held together to form a clove hitch.

The rest of the bowline continues, as usual, using the overlapping half hitches as though they were one. This variation is more resistant to being shaken loose.

Double Bowline

Similar to the water bowline, the double bowline begins with two loops. However, these two loops are formed going the same direction, rather than opposing, as in the water bowline.

Again, the remainder of the knot is worked as usual. The second loop makes this knot less prone to capsizing, especially for beginners.

Yosemite Finish

While not an entirely different variation on the bowline knot, the Yosemite finish adds extra security. Begin with a little bit of extra length in the working end.

After working the standard bowline knot, but before tightening it, bring the remainder of the working end through the final loop and back up through the rabbit hole. This reduces the risk of capsizing and slipping.