Reef Knot Also known as the square knot, this nautical knot is the basis for the bow used in tying shoes. It's at its best when joining two identical lines (or two ends of a single line) temporarily, but it should not be used if the lines will come under great strain. Besides tying my shoes, I use it most often — usually "slipped" with a single bow, to facilitate quick release — when lashing packs into a boat, tying spare paddles to thwarts, and securing loads to my Freighter packframe.
Bowline The aptly‑named "king of knots," this is the nautical knot par excellence, yielding a nonslip loop that's still easy to untie, even after being subjected to a heavy load. I use it when rigging hauling lines for bear bags, as well as for a variety of other camp chores, but it sees most frequent use in attaching painters and tracking lines to boats. I've also employed it when setting up rescue and salvage lines. And it's a favorite among climbers, too.
Trucker's Hitch An industrial‑strength alternative to the venerable tautline hitch (see description below), this ropework block and tackle offers a twofold mechanical advantage — though much of that advantage is lost to friction. I use it to tie boats down when car‑topping, to tighten sagging clotheslines, and to quiet flapping tarps. Be warned, though: Notwithstanding the frictional losses, it's all too easy to overdo it when cranking down on a trucker's hitch. This can get mighty expensive. For example, you can crack a fiberglass hull, dent your car's roof, rip a deck off a canoe, or pull a grommet out of a tent fly. I've seen all of these things happen. So go easy.
Figure‑Eight Knot Used to form a loop, the figure‑eight makes a good alternative to the bowline for many purposes. In fact, it holds better in slippery braided line than the king of knots, and I use it to fasten the painters to my Pack canoe for that very reason. Tied singly — that is, without forming a bight first — it makes a good "stopper" to prevent the bitter end of a line from slipping through a grommet. In a pinch, the figure‑eight can also be employed to join two lines of different diameters, though this isn't an application you'd want to bet your life on.
Fisherman's Knot I use this to make a long line from two shorter ones. But a couple of caveats apply: First, the lines to be joined must be the same diameter. Second, if security is paramount — when you're piecing together a long tracking line, say, or forming prusik loops — a double fisherman's knot is better than the single knot shown in the photos above. (And a triple is better still, particularly in slippery synthetic rope.) A final warning: The fisherman's knot MUST be tied correctly, and even when tied properly it has no place in climbing or rescue lines.
Tautline Hitch This is the classic hitch for tensioning guylines and similar around‑the‑camp chores. The trucker's hitch is my preference when I'm working with slick braided line, but there's no denying that the tautline hitch is convenient. For one thing, it allows you to adjust the tension on a guyline without untying anything. Try that with a trucker's hitch!
There you have it — my six favorite knots. And though your favorites may not be the same as mine, we can surely agree about one thing: No gizmo ever invented can take the place of a well‑tied knot. After all, no matter how ingenious the design of a patent widget, it can't help you if you don't have it in your pocket or pack when you need it. But once you learn how to tie a knot, it's yours forever. You'll never be without it. 'Nuff said? I think so.