World’s Most Versatile Knot? Hmmmm………
At some point in modern history, and this is not just an arboriculture thing, the lowly clove hitch got a bump in notoriety that was, at least in my opinion, unduly deserved. Now, I know that what I am about to say is, at least at first, going to seem quite controversial, but I know if you stick with me, we can work through this together and hopefully come out on the other side of it a little better off. OK, so what am I talking about? Well, despite what we have been told by literally everybody, the fact is, that a clove hitch is NOT an endline knot. It never was. And I will make the argument that we should not be using it or teaching it for rigging purposes.
Now before we go any further, I just need to clarify that this is not a universal condemnation of the clove hitch. I love the clove hitch. I use it all the time. But it is not an endline knot. The clove hitch is a midline knot, and when utilized properly, there is none finer. The clove is meant to have pull from both ends, preferably equal pull. It was never meant to be used in an endline fashion. Anyone doing tree work for long enough has heard stories of a clove hitch rolling out. I myself have seen it multiple times and have heard many tales. So my question is this: why do we continue to use and teach this knot to the younger generation of arborists?
Two Half Hitches?
Now I know what you are thinking. Everyone already knows that the clove hitch can slip, that’s why it is always shown and referred to as a “clove hitch with two half hitches”. See, that is the part to me that is the most interesting and the most problematic: two half hitches. Not just a half hitch…two half hitches. What is that all about? So you are telling me that this supposedly great knot that pretty much everybody recommends for use in critical rigging scenarios, where knot failure could result in catastrophic property damage or grave injury to any member of the ground crew, requires not just one backup, but in fact, two? Really? I have to be honest here folks, if a knot requires two half hitches to secure it, then you are using the wrong knot! If you want a knot that will really hold, why not just tie 2 half hitches with 2 half hitches! That will hold anything! Seriously, why take the time to tie a clove hitch?
If You Don’t Know Knots, Tie Lots!
Tying half hitches should not be the basis of our ropework, especially in critical situations. We need to take more time to select the proper knot instead of using a poorly chosen knot and just throwing half hitches onto it to make sure that it will hold. Let’s be honest here, anybody and their brother can tie half hitches – “if you don’t know knots, tie lots!” We are supposed to be professionals. We are supposed to have a repertoire of highly specialized, bomber knots that just work – period. We shouldn’t be adding half-hitch backups to our knots and praying that they hold.
Just because it will hold does not mean it is a good choice!
See, the problem with the clove hitch in an endline usage is that there is no change of direction, the rope just goes around and around again. That’s why it is so likely to roll out in the absence of two backup half hitches. Rolling out occurs when a piece slams into the rigging. The shock load can literally rip the rope right off the piece, sending it hurling towards the ground in freefall and flinging the end of the rope up into the tree. This very thing has happened over and over again to people in this trade and yet we continue to use and teach this knot. Why is that? Again, I will fully admit that the clove is without a doubt the best midline hitch available. Easy to learn, easy and quick to tie, easy to inspect visually, easily adjusted, and the list goes on. It really, truly is a fantastic knot. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a midline knot.
The fact that modern ropes are fairly slick also encourages rolling out. Old school manila and hemp ropes have so much more friction to help them grab onto posts and such. I believe this is one of the historical reasons for recommending the clove hitch for use in an endline fashion. A couple hundred years ago, all ropes had friction built into them because of their materials. If you tie a manila rope to a tree with an endline clove hitch, it really does hold quite well, even without the backups. Almost every source that you consult today for basic rope and knot skills, whether in print or online, will list the clove hitch as one of the most important and basic knots for beginners to learn, and most of these sources will show it used in an endline fashion. And, outside of tree work, I have no problem with that, honestly.
The truth is, if a beginner is planning a camping trip and they consult a knots book and learn how to tie a rope to a tree with a clove hitch, its going to work. Of course its going to work. But lets not confuse tying a rope to a tree at a campsite with tying a rope to a 150 lb log that we are rigging out of a huge Norway Maple over top of a deck and a carport. These two situations are not comparable. A poorly chosen knot can suffice in a non-critical situation because the consequences of it failing are trivial. The same cannot be said in mission-critical applications. Likewise, there are lots of knots that will hold in a light-duty application that are likely to fail under heavy load, especially when you throw shock-loading into the mix. This is what is meant by a bomber knot – “100% of the time, it works every time”.
Proper Uses for the Clove Hitch
So now that we have established where not to use the clove hitch, where is it appropriate? Remember, as previously stated, I really like the clove hitch and I use it all the time… as a midline knot. Here are some great uses for it:
- sending tools aloft by tying midline to a climbing or rigging line
- attaching to a carabiner to form the bridge in a traditional, closed climbing system (old-school)
- tying on multiple branches to the rigging line (as an alternative to using loop runners, final branch tied on needs an endline knot)
- making rope ladders, rope railings along a series of posts, etc.
- countless non-critical applications
At the end of the day, I am simply suggesting that you think critically about your use of the clove hitch in rigging. While I never recommend it in my teaching, the clove hitch with two half hitches remains one of our trade’s most loved knots and will (usually) work just fine. I simply want people to put a little more thought into their choice of knots and to consider whether a knot which requires not just one backup but two is really the best choice for the situation. Again, do not use or avoid using something simply because someone else said so. You need to think for yourself, seek out your own understanding, and find your own truths.
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Here are some things that others have said about the clove hitch:
“For some applications it is not considered a particularly secure knot, so it must be used with care.”
Jepson, Jeff. The Tree Climber’s Companion, 2nd Edition. Longville: Beaver Tree Publishing, 2000.
“The clove hitch can jam under heavy tension, making it difficult to untie. Worse, is its tendency to untie itself when subjected to repeated strain and release, such as a boat rocking in waves.”
“As a hitch it should be used with caution because it can slip or come undone if the object it is tied to rotates or if constant pressure is not maintained on the line.”
“The clove hitch is not strong, and its tendency to slip or jam at innoportune moments means that it should never be used in any important or life-threatening applications….To be fair, the only situations in which the clove hitch is of any real use are those in which equal or near-equal loads are applied to either end of the cord in which it is tied – in any other situation, it will almost certainly come loose.”
Adamides, Andrew. Knots. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2008
“One point to note is that it’s best where there is tension on each of the parts. If only one end is under tension, the clove hitch can slip. If you’re using it in that situation, secure the free end with a half hitch or two around the standing part.”
Lee, R.S. All The Knots You Need. Ottawa: Algrove Publishing, 1999
“This is a very important knot of only theoretical value. Without extra support, it is untrustworthy in any situation, except as a crossing knot. You have to learn it for scouting and at sailing schools. If you have to use it, work it up properly; pull length-wise only at both ends before you load the working end.”
“It does have two giant faults: it slips and, paradoxically, can also bind. It should be deeply distrusted when used by itself…..It is not a knot to be used alone.”