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Do you know how to tie your shoes?
Well, gee. You see, the square knot is the basis for the standard way most people tie their shoelaces.
Oh, you were joking? Whew, you had me worried for a moment there!
That basis thing is still important. The square knot is one of the most basic knots you should know.
There are other useful knots, such as the bowline knot or monkey’s fist knot.
But the square knot is one of the most important.
You see, the square knot is good for more than shoelaces.
It’s not a good choice for tying two separate ropes together, but if you need to use a cord to bind something, the square knot is there for you.
Why You Should Know How to Tie a Square Knot
Also called a reef knot, the square knot is one of the most basic knots.
It’s also one of the easiest knots to tie.
Untying a square knot is also pretty easy, unless you capsize it.
If you want to easily bind something, such as a bedroll, sail, or your shoes, a square knot is a good choice.
Also, if ever you need to provide medical treatment in the woods–be it applying a bandage or tying a suture–the square knot will serve you well.
Steps to Tying a Square Knot
A square knot is basically two half knots on top of each other.
A half knot is the same type of knot as the first step of tying your shoe.
The first movement is easy. Take your two working ends, lay one over the other, then bring it under then back above. Both working ends will be facing up/away from you.
This is the first half knot.
Now comes the hard part.
Take the two working ends and do the same thing, but with the opposite end going over the other one.
Typically you’ll be going right over left then left over right.
In fact, with a bit of rhyming, that’s a good way to memorize how to make a square knot: right over left, left over right, makes a knot both tidy and tight.
Tighten the knot twice, first after the initial half knot, then after the second half knot
Or tighten the knot all at once by grasping both working and both standing ends. I’m a webpage, not a cop.
If you tied the knot correctly then the working end and standing end on either side will be laying next to each other.
Also, if both of the standing ends are close to you, both of the working ends will be far from you. No diagonal shenanigans here.
Variations of the Square Knot
The square knot is simple and easy, but there are related knots.
Are they useful?
Should you know them?
Yes, even if only to avoid the bad ones.
Remember how I said that alternating right over left and left over right was the hard part?
People really do get that wrong, quite often!
Called a granny knot, it’s a troublesome one that’s almost never used for a serious application.
It’s weak in several ways. It unties pretty quickly, unless it has jammed, in which case it can be quite difficult to untie.
Have you ever tied your shoes in such a way that the loops do not lay horizontally but instead rotate to face up and down?
Those shoelaces always seemed to loosen obnoxiously quickly. Then when you went to untie them, whoops, you have a jammed mess on your hands. Er, feet.
That’s because the standard shoelace knot is basically a square knot with loops.
But if you tie it incorrectly, you’ll get the inferior granny style.
The way to fix this is to swap which end goes under the other in the initial movement. Loop as normal.
If you want a granny knot for some reason, the steps are simple: make the same half knot twice.
So if you tie it right under left, tie it right under left again.
You’ll know you have a granny knot when the standing ends and working ends don’t lay next to each other and instead are separated by the cordage.
The square knot holds tight pretty well, but if you want extra security, consider the surgeon’s knot.
This knot is so named because surgeons use it.
You see, flesh can be moist, so sutures need the extra friction from this knot.
It’s also good for fly fishing and tying knots with particularly slippery cord such as nylon.
How to do a surgeon’s knot is simple: add an extra twist to the first movement.
Make sure to go all the way around! When the knot is tight the working ends and standing ends should still be right next to each other.
If you want to be tricky, you should know the thief knot.
No, this one is not for thieves, it is to catch thieves. It looks like a square knot but isn’t one.
It’s not as secure as a square knot, but that’s not the point.
The idea is that someone who undoes it to look through your stuff will tie the rope together again, but will do so with a square knot.
So if you leave a thief knot and come back to a square knot you’ll know you’ve been visited by a thief.
To create a thief knot, take one end and create a bight. That’s when you curve the rope into a u-shape.
Let’s have the working end up and facing the right, for simplicity of directions.
Take the working end of your other rope and bring it over the curved part of the loop.
Move it under the working end then down and over both ends.
Bring it under the standing end, then over the curve to the left, so it is right next to the standing end going into the knot.
Tighten it and you have an insecure knot that looks like a square knot, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the working ends are diagonal to each other instead of on the same side.
Good grief, this knot is even worse than the granny knot. It can’t handle any load whatsoever.
If you pull the standing end then the knot will unfurl pretty quickly.
About the only use for this knot is for parlor tricks or practical jokes.
Though if you’re using a flat object instead of round rope it does hold better, which is why this is also sometimes called the grass bend.
Let’s be honest here. If you don’t know how to tie your shoelaces, then you either are in a little bit over your head or you have a wonderful relationship with velcro and/or slippers.
Square knots form the basis for nearly all shoelace knots.
There’s a lot more than just the double loop style out there.
But every style will fail and unravel itself if you accidentally tie a granny knot instead of a square knot.
Uses for the Square Knot
We’ll get the wrong use out of the way immediately: do not use a square knot to tie two pieces of rope together.
A knot used to tie two ropes together is called a bend.
Square knots look like they’d make good bends, but they don’t.
If you pull a working end away from the standing end on the same side, square knots will capsize.
Continue pulling that end until that rope has formed a straight line and, welp, you have a mess of rope just slipping back and forth.
So what do you use a square knot for?
It is great for binding things.
You’ll most likely use square knots in their looped form, as shoelaces.
Binding your shoes to your feet.
They’re also good for tying up gifts.
Bandages can also be tied with a square knot, especially ones made from cloth in the field.
If your belt buckle is broken, you can still tie it with a square knot.
Or tie a square knot on a rope as a belt.
I like to tie plastic bags together with granny knots if I plan on opening them again.
If not, such as in the case of trash bags, square knots on plastic bags are really hard to untie.
You can even use a square knot to tie a power cord into an extension cord!
I find that one really helpful for when I’m using a power tool and have to keep dragging the extension cord around.
It keeps the plug from falling out.
Lastly, the square knot forms the basis of the art form known as macramé, which is a good way to pass the time when you’re in the woods, it’s raining, you’ve forgotten to bring any form of entertainment, and you have several hundred feet of paracord with you.
The square knot may seem like a basic knot, but there is a surprising amount of depth behind it.
Plus, it is surprisingly easy to mess up tying a square knot!
Much like how you need a good foundation for your house, the square knot is a good foundation knot.
When done wrong, square knots can give you many headaches.
But when tied correctly, square knots can serve you very well.
Why would you use a square knot?
We’ve covered some uses already in the previous section but generally you would use a square knot when you want to secure something with cordage.
The most common example of this is right on your feet. When most people tie their shoelaces, they use a form of a square knot.
You wouldn’t want to use a square knot when you want to tie something up tightly, though.
This is because you can’t tighten a square knot once it is tied, the cordage will only be as tight as you originally tie it.
Will a square knot slip?
Possibly. There are two scenarios that may cause your square knot to slip.
The first is if the knot is not under tension. The way the square knot works, it needs constant pressure pulling in opposite directions to remain tight. The more tension, the tighter the knot.
The second scenario is if you are using nylon rope. Nylon rope is very slick and that lack of friction makes it more susceptible to slipping.
Is a square knot strong?
It depends. I wouldn’t trust a square knot to hold a piano hanging over my child’s head but I do trust it to keep my shoes on.
A sheet bend is a better choice if you need a securing knot that won’t budge.
Is a square knot a quick release knot?
I wouldn’t call it that. A quick release knot usually only involves pulling on one end to release the whole knot.
I’ve probably spent hours over the course of my life trying to untie some stubborn square knot.