The Seductive Bowline
The figure of eight is the perfect knot to attach a climbing rope to a harness. It’s simple, bombproof and easy to learn. Despite that climbers are occasionally tempted by something else, something more exotic. The seductive bowline.
The bowline and its variants offer one big advantage, they don’t cinch tight. Take a few falls on a lead climb and you’ll see why this is tempting. Figure eight knots seize up easily and can be a pain to undo. Unfortunately the advantage of the bowline is also its weakness. Because the knot doesn’t cinch very tight it can shake itself apart when not under load. Imagine being halfway up a cliff and looking down to see that!
This is why we look at bowline variants. These knots are attempts to maintain the desirable properties of the bowline while locking the knot so that it can’t untie itself. This page is a list of all the bowline variants I’ve seen around the place.
This is the bowline, the basic knot all the variations here build upon. Normally the bowline is taught with a mnemonic, something about rabbits running over logs and down holes. I’ve never had much luck with the rhyme and prefer to tie the knot by identifying its key parts. These are the twist around which the knot is tied, the bight ‘choked’ by the twist and the lock around the long end of the rope. If you visualise these features as you tie the knot you’ll never get it wrong.
On its own the bowline isn’t safe enough for climbing. Importantly the problem isn’t strength. Indeed, the bowline reduces the strength of a rope by a similar amount as the figure of eight.
The following variations on the bowline are attempts to improve the bowline so that it can be used as a tie-in knot. Ideally we’d like to preserve the strength of and ease of untying the bowline while making it more stable. Throw in easy to tie and you’ve got a winner.
Bowline with Stopper
One of the simplest ways of reinforcing a bowline is by adding a stopper knot. This minimises the risk of the knot untying itself. Although I have seen people climb with a plain bowline and stopper, I wouldn’t use it. It’s a little too spartan for my tastes. Having the stopper knot inside the loop is also a bit of a pain.
I haven’t drawn stopper knots in any of the other diagrams on this page, but typically you’d use one with any form of the bowline. The standard stopper is the double overhand knot tied around another strand of rope.
Doubling the loop around which the bowline is tied creates a double bowline. This variation is a little more resistant to loosening but doesn’t offer that much over the regular bowline. Rather it’s the base of several other variations.
Yosemite Bowline / Bowline with Yosemite Finish
The Yosemite bowline is one of the most famous bowline variants. With a name like that you can imagine that it’s well loved by climbers. More than almost any other knot on this page it also has a long history of use in climbing which is certainly comforting!
This knot is quite fiddly and in my opinion it’s one of the hardest variants to tie and recognise. Since the end of the rope emerges parallel to the main strand the stopper knot can be tied in clear view.
There is a slight issue with the Yosemite bowline. If the knot is tightened improperly, or if the knot comes loose and reforms, it’s possible to create something that isn’t a bowline. It’s not clear whether this actually happens in practice and whether the resulting franken-knot is dangerously weak.
Double Bowline with Yosemite Finish
The Yosemite bowline can also be built upon the double bowline. This creates a knot that is locked off and cannot reform like the standard Yosemite bowline.
Double Bowline with Tucked End
This method of securing the double bowline puts the tail of the rope out of the way and allows you to easily tie a stopper knot. It’s also easy to learn and simple to inspect at a glance.
End Bound Double Bowline
This is another simple lock based on the double bowline. It’s similar to the tucked bowline but a little more secure. I don’t really like that the end doesn’t come out parallel to the main strand, although I suppose you could combine this with the tucked bowline.
Rethreaded Bowline / Bowline on a Bight
The rethreaded bowline is probably the other commonly used bowline variant. In Germany I saw around half of the climbers using this this instead of the eight. It’s conceptually simple, has a distinctive shape and is easy to inspect. This is the knot I was taught and use whenever I feel like tying in with a bowline.
The only downside to the rethreaded bowline is that the main loop is doubled. This can be a pain to thread through the tie-in points on a harness and people often use the belay loop instead.
While you’ll need to rethread to tie in to a harness, the same knot can be tied without access to the end of the rope. This is why the knot is typically called the ‘bowline on a bight’.
This knot is usually referred to as Scott’s simple lock after its inventor. I quite like the name ‘woven bowline’ as it neatly describes the lock. Staring at a loose bowline you can find three parallel strands of rope in the knot. The woven bowline is formed by weaving the end of the rope through these three strands - over, under, over.
The woven bowline is my personal favourite bowline variation. It’s an elegant concept that results in a knot which is easy to tie and has a distinctive shape. I hope someone does a whole batch of serious tests on this knot so it can spread far and wide.
End Bound Single Bowline With Yosemite Finish
This is a strong contender for the ultimate climbing bowline. It’s strong, stable and easy enough to tie. I found this knot described by PACI who have done some tests on it. It combines the looped end of the EBDB with a Yosemite finish. I suspect it has the potential to gain a cult following amongst climbers although it will never replace the eight.
Should I use the Bowline?
Whether to use the bowline as a tie-in knot is a surprisingly controversial topic. Some people are passionately opposed to it. I’ll briefly outline the arguments against the bowline.
The bowline and its variants are more difficult to tie than the figure of eight knot. Making a mistake while tying in could be disastrous.
The figure of eight, with its distinctive shape, is much easier to visually check than the bowline and its variants. Furthermore the existence of so many bowline variants makes it even harder to be sure what knot you’re looking at. For example, go back and take a squiz at the tucked double bowline and the Yosemite bowline. Think you could tell which is which at a glance?
The figure eight is ubiquitous, every climber knows it. The bowline and its variants are a little more esoteric and it’s not guaranteed that your partner will know the knot you’re using. This makes partner checks much less useful.
These are all valid concerns and you’ll have to decide what’s right for yourself. Personally I take a fairly conservative approach. That is, use the eight as a default knot and switch to the bowline occasionally. I usually want two conditions to be satisfied before I use the bowline:
- Climbing single pitch sport routes where I expect to fall often.
- With a partner who knows the knot I’m using.