The guyline and tensioning systems normally found on backpacking shelters (including tents, tarps, and hammocks) share two flaws:
- Insufficient cordage is provided. This limits stake-out locations, which is especially problematic in rocky or hard-packed ground.
- Natural anchors like trees, downed logs, exposed roots, and large rocks cannot be used, nor can deadman anchors in the winter. These anchors are stronger and more convenient than portable metal stakes.
As an alternative, I recommend the system that I will share here. It is simple and versatile, relies only on three easy-to-learn knots, and costs nothing.
Desirable characteristics in a guyline system
I’ve seen and experimented with many different systems. What characteristics and features have proven to be most critical?
Most shelters have at least some degree of flexibility in their pitch, in terms of shape, ridgeline angles, and/or height off the ground. This flexibility enables shelters to be optimized for:
- The local terrain, e.g. flat or uneven surfaces, hard or soft soils, and inconveniently located vegetation and rocks; and,
- The current and expected weather, e.g. temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction.
Non-adjustable tensioning systems cannot take advantage of this flexibility. Hence, I use guylines (rather than just the stake-out loops) and I avoid fixed knots and fixed guyline lengths.
Finally, adjustability is especially important with shelters made of silicone-impregnated nylon, which has natural stretch, particularly when wet. With an adjustable guyline system, stretch-caused sagging can easily be eliminated.
In downpours, blizzards, and gusty storms — or a combination thereof — I must be confident that my guyline system will not fail. I have relied on this rigging system for nearly 500 nights and it has earned my trust: the line has never snapped, and the knots have never slipped or become untied. I teach this guyline system on my guided trips as well, and again no client has experienced failure.
When I must set up or break down my shelter in inclement weather or in cold temperatures (when exposed hands quickly lose dexterity), I appreciate having a fast guyline system.
4. No fixed knots or hardware
Before I mastered this guyline system — which took 20 minutes of practice — I first relied on end-of-line fixed loops, which greatly impaired adjustability while also instigating knots, before transitioning to plastic line locks, tensioners, and cleats, which were convenient but imperfect. They:
- Added weight,
- Created an additional failure point,
- Froze up during the winter and in wet-and-freezing conditions,
- Instigated knotting, and
- Required guyline of a specific width (e.g. 2mm) that could only be found at specialty outdoor retail stores with a climbing department.
Cordage & stake recommendations
My top pick for cordage is 1.5-mm Kelty Triptease LightLine. It best balances strength, weight, and user-friendliness — and it’s reflectivity is a major plus when I need to re-find my shelter in the dark.
PMI Utility Cord is a more economical choice, but less strong and twice the weight as Triptease.
Gram weenies might be tempted to use pure spectra cord like Z-Line Dymeema Cord, which has unparalleled strength for its weight. But this is a “stupid light” choice: the cord is expensive, prone to knotting, and hard to work with (because it’s very thin and slippery).
I recommend aluminum Y- and V-shaped stakes, like the 7-inch Kungix Tent Stakes. They offer excellent holding power and can be pounded into the ground with a rock without bending.
I also own a few titanium Shepard hook skewer stakes, but reserve them for optional or non-critical stake-out points only. Their holding power and durability is limited even in ideal soils.
The exact number and lengths of cord depend on the specific shelter. In general, I avoid being stingy on the amount of cord I attach — an extra foot or two weighs very little but it adds tremendous flexibility. My 3-season recommendations:
- A-frame tarps: 8 feet for ridgelines, 4 to 6 feet for sides depending on the usual side height
- Hex-shaped hammock tarp: 8 feet for the ridgelines, 6 feet for the side corners
- Tents and mids: 3 feet for ground-level corners and sides
In the wintertime, longer guyline lengths are needed to tie-off to to deadman anchors, because the anchor is buried under about one foot of snow. For ground-level tie-outs on tents and mids, for example, I use 6-foot lengths.
Knots: step-by-step directions
- Watch the video below starting at 2:00
- And again at 6:00
To secure the tarp to an anchor point (e.g. stake or tree trunk) I prefer to use the McCarthy hitch, which is a simplified trucker’s hitch first showed to me by my friend Forrest McCarthy. If it has a real name, I don’t know what it is.
- Watch the video below starting at 3:00
- And again at 6:10
1. Attach the guyline to a stake-out loop using a bowline; other fixed loop knots would work too (e.g. the Figure 8) but the bowline consumes less cord and it creates a nice round loop. Unless you replace the guyline cord in the future and/or reconfigure your system, you will need to do this only once.
2. Run the guyline around the stake. The maximum distance between the shelter and the stake is a few inches less than half.
3. Run the guyline tip back to and through the bowline loop, then reverse its direction 180 degrees again back in the direction of the stake, thereby creating a 2:1 pulley. Tighten the guyline until the tarp is positioned and/or tensioned correctly.
4. To secure the guyline, pinch the 2:1 pulley so that it can’t slip, then tie it off with a slippery half hitch.
5. To undo the system in the morning, simply pull on the guyline tail in order to remove the slippery half hitch, then unthread the system. Don’t forget your stake!
Step-by-step directions: the trucker’s hitch
The McCarthy hitch demands a lot of cord — about twice the distance between the tarp’s stake-out loop and the stake — so it is generally impractical for long guyline lengths, e.g. the ridgelines on an A-frame tarp. An alternative system is sometimes required too by the shorter guyline lengths, such as when a large rock is in the ideal stake position. In these instances, I use a trucker’s hitch with a slipped overhand loop.
- Watch the video below starting at 4:35
- And again at 6:20
Watch a good YouTube video of this knot.
1. Follow Step 1 from the McCarthy Hitch. Basically, tie the cord to the tarp with a bowline.
2. Run the guyline to the stake, then tie a slip loop into the cord between the tarp and the stake. This slip loop will serve the same function as the bowline loop in the McCarthy hitch.
3. Run the guyline tip around the stake and up to the slip loop, then reverse its direction 180 degrees again back towards the stake, thereby creating a 2:1 pulley. Tighten the guyline until the tarp is positioned and/or tensioned correctly.
4. To secure the guyline, pinch the 2:1 pulley so that it can’t slip, then tie it off with a slipper half hitch.
5. To undo the system in the morning, simply pull on the guyline tail in order to remove the slippery half hitch, then unthread the system. Don’t forget your stake!
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this is the setup we did every night on my Outward Bound trip in Pisgah, 1990. like you said, it’s minimalist, simple and pretty failure proof if you have the knowledge. thanks for publishing.
This is one of the rare occasions where I can scream to the world – “I TAUGHT ANDREW SKURKA THAT COOL KNOT! ”
Share the wisdom!
You sure did.
And then Forrest, at the end of a blizzard-filled day in the Alaska Range, says, “Don’t listen to Mike and his NOLS-ishness. Do it [this] way.”
Everyone has to learn to poop in the woods at some point.
What !?!?! Forest McCarthy? No way! Lets get the calendars out, I taught this knot in the picnic are of that funk hotel outside of Portland Oregon!
I was totally going to call you out for “stealing” this from Mike, but I see he beat me to it! It’s a great technique and it’s what I use every time as well.
Is that a SpinnShelter you are tying to? And if so what conditions do you generally recommend using it for? I’ve been searching to find a 4 season tarp + bivy (MLD UL Bivy) setup for overnight splitboarding but have had quite a bit of trouble researching if each tarp could withstand winter alpine conditions here in CO ;’\
Yes, that is is a SpinnShelter, but I wouldn’t recommend it for winter use. Personally, my standard winter shelter is a mid, like the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid or GoLite Shrangri La 3 (which is best for two). I don’t use a bivy or even a groundsheet with it — you just need to stamp the snow down well, though this is sometimes hard if it’s really fluffy snow.
Why would you not use the SpinnShelter in the winter?
If your “winter” includes snow like mine does, then the SpinnShelter is not a winter-worthy shelter because it won’t support snow loads — the snow will collect atop the tarp and it’ll collapse. A pyramid-shaped tarp would be a better selection, among other types of winter shelters.
I have a lot of tarp experience in the winter. There are lots of options, but the larger the tarp, the more options. Tarps are fine in heavy snow as long as you pitch them steep so the snow will slide off.
The steeper the pitch, the smaller the interior.
A mega-mid is totally fine for 2, and barely fine for 3.
I have an old sil-nylon CAVE from golite (no longer made) and that is a dream in the winter for two. It is basically just a big rectangle of sil-nylon.
Be careful of bivys in the winter. Some of the lightest can get frosty on the inside. Most winter sleeping bags have some sort of water repellant coating. If you are in Colorado, the snow is light and dry, so no need for a bivy at all!
Andrew and I are agreeing and overlapping – repeatedly…
Legit. Thanks fellas
In my opinion, the trucker’s hitch is one of the most versatile and useful “knots” around. I learned it over a decade ago for tying kayaks onto a trailer at the kayak shop where I used to work. It is quickly and easily tied, and is very secure and infinitely adjustable. Good one to know for sure.
Here’s to the trucker’s hitch! Once you master it using a slippery half-hitch for the loop, try it using a half sheep shank instead. In essence, you just use a longer loop for the slippery half hitch and don’t pull the loop all the way through, then use the loop left hanging behind instead. The tension on the rope holds the loop in place, and when you release the tension, it just falls apart. I prefer this form with heavy/coarse ropes and higher tension where even a slippery half hitch can be hard to take out. I’m still experimenting to see if it has advantages for thin tarp lines.
I realise this is a super old post, but thought I’d comment because this is the first time I’ve seen anyone recommend a sheep shank for what is often called a truckers hitch. I think the sheep shank is the only way to go if applying a considerable load. The slippery half hitch jams up easily. If using a system like the one Andrew has detailed here (create a loop and bring the opposing end back through it and tension) an alpine butterfly is a better choice as it won’t jam up nearly as easily.
Anyway, great post…
Sheep shank is not recommended for lines with not enough load but also not recommended for lines with very heavy loads. Taut line and truckers hitch will never fail you. Stick with what works. Sheep shank is used to take up excess slack in a rope. When I see a truck securing a heavy load with a sheep shank, I’ll apologize and switch to that.
I learned to use the half sheep shank from the Collin’s Gem SAS Survival Guide by John Wiseman (ISBN 0-00-470167-4) where it was called the ‘WAKOS Transport Knot’ and where it says it can be “used to secure a high load or tie down a roof”.
I too prefer the alpine butterfly bend. It barely uses more cord. It can be left in indefinitely near the middle of the rope as it is bi-directional. It can be used to tension in either direction giving you the option of close or far tie out tensioning. It’s extremely easy to untie after being loaded. If using it for a tarp ridge pole application for expample if you can attach a lantern to your loop if you aren’t using it to tension. About half the time I double loop at the stake to cut down of the possibility of wind whip on the tarp pulling the cordage up and off the stake. For the example guy out point a traditional bowline is propaby fine but you should get in the habit of using a cowboy/Dutch bowline instead as it is close to a ring load application. Also if expecting high winds use two half hitches instead of slip loop to secure or pull tail through the slip loop and tighten slightly as I’ve had slip loops work their way loose after flapping around.
In Scouting, the Tenderfoot Scouts learn two knots that will serve them for life…the Half Hitch & the Taught-line Hitch…one reason is for this very purpose (another is to hang a clothes line).
At the tarp end put two half hitches, at the stake loop the line and finish off with a taught-line hitch…doesn’t get easier….you probably can’t tension as tightly as with a trucker’s hitch, but you don’t often need that amount of tension to put up a tarp. – Mark
Point made but the mechanical advantage of the two knots I demonstrated is really useful in getting a very taut pitch.
As a Scoutmaster who works with a lot of knots, including the basic ones for Tenderfoot, I agree with Andrew. Scouts learn the utility of basic knots, but then progress to ones that have more specific uses. Sometimes they’re a little more difficult, but are based on the simple ones. A trucker’s hitch or any one of the alternates provide a much better pitch with room for adjustment in rough weather. If you just use a taught line hitch with guylines attached to a silnylon tarp, you’ll be tightening all night in the wind and rain.
Scouts will definitely learn to set up a Patrol Fly using two half hitches and a taught line hitch, but as they become more skilled campers and decide to sleep under a tarp, they realize more useful knots are worth learning.
I used the taught-line hitch too…until now. Occasionally I have to stake so close to the tarp because of a rock or bush that there is not enough length to tighten the taught-line hitch. I see that the Clelland/McCarthy hitch will work down to a length of almost zero. Very cool!
I first learned about this knot nearly 25 years ago during my time in the boyscouts. But of course I forgot about I as I later used mostly traditional tents.
During my time in the forces I was taught this knot again. And since then it became probaply one of my most used knots! (Especially as I learned about the benefits of ultralight hiking)
Somehow my wife seems to be resistant to learn about knots. (But she’s really good at making fire!) That’s why I don’t remove the linelocs on our shelters and tarps. It’s really comfortable to
me that it’s not always my turn to get up in the middle of the night to retension our guylines.
But nontheless even with linelocs this knot can come in handy when one needs to attach additional length of rope to the guylines.
If you’re interested here’s an old post with some pics taken during our honeymoon trip. The pictures show alternative options to tentstakes (all secured with a truckers hitch and some additional lenght of guyline):
I really like your article. For me it’s not only about some handy knots. For me it’s propbaply more about this “brain vs. brawn” thing. Hiking light is not so much about the gear, but about the skills you need to use your equipment efficiently!
Thanks for this great article!
Andrew, thanks for posting this. Thought this was how it’s explained in your book, but I needed the pictures!
Yep, this is how it’s explained in the book. I knew I needed pictures to full explain it but there just wasn’t enough room. Glad that bandwidth is essentially free.
You can also finish this knot with a taught-line hitch instead of the slippery knot. You get the mechanical 2:1 of the first slippery knot with the adjustability of the taught-line. If you loop the tag end of the taught-line, it unties very easily.
Had to watch a taut-line hitch video to understand your suggestion. That definitely would be a good system. The advantage is that you don’t have to tie and re-tie the slippery knot to make adjustments — you just slide the taut-line up and down. The disadvantage is that it’s relatively complicated to untie (though still easy overall). All in all, it’s probably a wash.
Andrew, I will attach a picture of what I mean with the looped end of the taught-line. I’ll attach it as my website on the form. It makes it really, really fast to untie.
You just pull the tagged end.
I learned about an ‘adjustable knot’ from the bushcraft sites that’s, essentially, a taut-line hitch w/ a slippery hitch so it pulls apart as fast as the trucker’s. brilliant stuff, highly recommended.
You could avoid the tying and untying by having a small, separate-piece sliding Prusik or Klemheist permanently installed on the guyline (near where you would be tying the taut-line in Michael’s example). It would act in the same way, except it would be ready to go — no need to tie it. It would be able to provide additional mechanical advantage as well.
There would also be no need to untie it — and this would make it faster when breaking camp.
You could use the usual slippery half hitch to attach the end of the guyline to a small loop sticking out of the Prusik or Klemheist. It would be free to slide and reposition, when you wanted to adjust the tension; but it would grip and hold when released (just like the tautline in Michael’s example).
In fact, it would be very much like taking Michael’s setup and cutting the line a few inches above the taut-line hitch. Then you’ve got a taut-line hitch that is just free and separate, and able to be moved up or down on the guyline, with a few inches of tail hanging off of it. Now tie a loop in the tail, and you can re-attach the severed line to the taut-line hitch using a slippery half hitch on the loop…. Now it’s working again, and it’s easier to break down and set up, and you can still adjust the tension without untying anything.
There is an additional feature that makes the whole process even faster, smarter, and simpler; but I don’t want to make this too long or overwhelming for one reply. In the end though, the whole thing is really simple and streamlined.
This looks similar to John’s system below now that I understand it better. One possible added feature is a small and light, very basic aluminum hook attached near the tying end of the guyline using an Autoblock knot, allowing it to be repositioned easily.
No tying or untying of any knots in the cold or with gloves. Very fast, simple, reliable.
I was playing around with this suggestion. I find the Farrimond Friction Hitch even more promising for this purpose: more stable, and more or less designed with a slippery untying in mind: just pull the slipped end. With an optional extra turn it should able to offer as much friction as you could need.
It’s also convenient in that you don’t have to manipulate the end of the rope, as one does for a taut-line or midshipman’s hitch. While you will have the end of the line anyway, it’s nice to not have to thread it through anything, you can do all the knot work with barely any motion at all.
If the knot can be seen as a “T”, with the main tension being the along the horizontal part, it’s only easy to slide if you take tension off the vertical part of the “T”, which conveniently will have mechanical advantage from the Trucker’s Hitch or McCarthy Hitch. So you give it a firm tug, slide the knot, and then let go, and it locks.
Thanks for this post, I was looking to learn how to setup a tarp — just for car camping with family and young children — to shed rain. I predicted I would mess up a lot, so I investigated the adjustable hitches.
Excellent article … definitely going to switch over to your type of stakes, since mine are of the “gram weenie” variety. :o)
Been using the trucker’s hitch you show for years, but will happily give the McCarthy hitch a try.
Good info. But, what I like the most is the concept “stupid light.” What freedom to use stakes that hold, and line that can actually be untied by human fingers.
Really glad you like this concept — I think it’s a powerful one. You’ll hear that “light is right” and that “lighter is better” but I don’t think it’s this absolute: when weight savings are taken to an extreme, sacrifices often must be made to comfort, safety, durability, reliability, user friendliness, and efficiency. So IMO those weights savings are not worth it.
I teach Mountain Travel for the National Ski Patrol. I want to use this quote (with attribution of course).
Anyone ever backpack with their dog?
I’d like to go to a tarp/bivy setup (too chicken re: snakes, spiders, scorpions, other things that like warmth and could kill me in my sleep to just use a tarp). My concern is keeping the dog (50lbs) warm/safe/out of Santa Ana winds… Is there such a thing as a 1.5 person water resistant bivy?
Weight wise I’m up against a 2lb 2oz 2-man tent carried by me or the 3lb 3oz 3-man tent carried between two people (depending on the trip and who is coming).
I don’t think a bivy is the best solution for you — I just can’t imagine a dog wanting to be enclosed in something like that. I’d look into a tarp + nest, like the GoLite Shrangri La 2 or Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid.
I backpack with my dog *always* and I use a tent. We tried it with a tarp, but with the bears, skunks, porqupines, etc., I needed to keep her leashed to the pole, and she was restless and fidgety all night, so sleep was a challenge.
My personal feeling is that a tarp+bivvy or nest == a very poorly designed double wall tent, whereas most UL tents are very well designed. Most of them allow you to use just the fly if you want, and I prefer a free standing design to an elaborately tied down design. I use a Big Agnes Seedpod, which I think is light enough, and definitely big enough for me and my 50# dog. It’s a one-person tent.
I think if I didn’t have the dog, I might try a tarp again (as a tarp) but if I want a double wall setup, I would go with a (well designed) tent.
One complaint I have read about freestanding tents is that you would have to use the footprint with the fly, but I think if you are clever, you could rig a system with some cord to hold the poles at the correct position. If you’re really clever, you could figure out a way to incorporate your trekking poles into the design for a minute reduction in weight.
To get closer to the topic, I just watched a video that used a tautline hitch for the guylines. The hitch had a loop in the knot making it easy to untie. He used a clove hitch for the ground stakes.
What don’t you like about carbon stakes?
To me they seem plenty strong, and with their large diameter, the holding power doesn’t seem that much less than a Y stake, and at about half the weight or less, you could easily bring a few extra for very sandy soil.
They also are a lot nicer on the hands then Y stakes.
I prefer aluminum Y- and V-stakes because I can pound them into the ground with a rock without fear of bending or shattering them. If the ground is so soft that I don’t need a rock (e.g. if it’s water-logged or sandy) then I seriously question whether the stakes would hold when the shelter is stressed by tension or wind.
Hi Andrew, Really enjoyed your talk in Boulder, CO! I look forward to trying your knots. However, I am having trouble visualizing how they would work better than my long-term method of just making a loop with a couple of half hitches that I can then loop around a rock or stake, or freshly tie for a tree, root, or branch. I can then use almost the full length of my line (often 8-10 ft of triptease) to get to that secure tree or huge rock or to find the right place to place a stake. Admittedly I have to untie some of the half hitches, but this only takes a minute or two and provides some boomer holding power in a big wind with my tarp (6 oz cuben fiber). I find this security and flexibility more important than the tiny amount of time lost or the occasional struggle with cold fingers on tight knots. But hey, I might change my mind when I give your system a try. Cheers, Tom
Give my system a try and see what you think. It’s equally secure and flexible as the system you described, but if I understand your system correctly it sounds like mine has less fuss. At the end of the day, both our systems are better than fixed loops and plastic hardware, so if you like your system stick with it.
This is a great guyline system. I am now using it on all my pitches. Where do you get aluminum y-stakes for $1 each? I have looked at several places and none of them have the type of aluminum stakes shown in the photo above or for that low of a price.
Try Warbonnet Outdoors for $1 ‘X’ aluminium stakes.
I just finished adding lines to my tarp for an upcoming trip. I spent some time practicing the truckers hitch with two stakes stuck between my couch cushions with great success.
Thanks for posting this up Andrew
Thank you for this helpful article! I have been using the taught line hitch for years, but it does not do well with short guy line lengths and is limited to only a 50% change in length.
I tried setting up my tarp using the McCarthy hitch and truckers hitch and they work much better.
It’s finally possible to tighten up short lines as much as needed. There are no problems with untangling twisted/knotted guy lines while setting up. Getting that ‘perfect’ pitch is faster and easier.
Maybe best is the weight savings from not using line locks on my Solomid.
Thanks for another tool to be more “Smart Light”.
Hey, everyone. It’s “taut” (as in tight), not “taught” (as in teached).
Great info. Trucker’s hitch is by far one of my favorite tools in the arsenal. Currently working on making the transition from solo tent to tarp and am surprised by the lack of quality videos on youtube on the topic of setting them up and discussing their versatility. Any chance of you putting together something that shows some detail about how different set ups work? Thanks for all the info and the great book. Cheers.
Good pitching instructions — by which I mean more than just written instructions — should be the responsibility of the manufacturer. Look, for example, at Warbonnet’s videos.
Even so, I would like to do something like this, so stay tuned.
Will do. Thanks for the tip. I haven’t purchased a tarp yet, as I’m still researching. With winter coming, I’ll probably stick to the tent for the wind and rain (I live in Bellingham, WA, near Mt. Baker in the Cascades), and have the tarp ready and practiced for Spring/Summer mastery. I’m even considering making my own tarp. Not sure. Thus the research.
Too cool, I used your instructions to use the trucker’s hitch with a slipped overhand loop on this past weekend’s camp to secure my SL2 fly to trees instead of using the poles. The tension stayed tight through rain and sun and with one pull the wet cord came undone with ease. Thanks for such a timely post – I may become a tarper yet!
Read, marked, re-read and shared your book. I have lightened up and used the skills in your book to help my son’s Boy Scout Troop lighten up. I got a bivy and tarp for Christmas. I read your article on the tarp guy line system. Could you provide any tarp set up instructions or tips? Thank you.
The best way to set up a tarp depends on the specific tarp, and there are too many scenarios to cover in a Comments section. The easiest tarps are those with a rectangular or square footprint, e.g. pyramids. Stake the corners at 90-degree angles, pitch the mid, and tighten. Rectangular tarps, A-frames, and tarptents are usually more complicated.
My current tarp set up uses prussik knots tied at the tarp tabs so I can adjust the guyline lengths from underneath the tarp.
I will try now a a variant of your system, just reversed: one fixed loop that is used to loop on the stake, and do the pulley on the tarp side.
Expected advantage is that the guylines will not be permanently attached to the tarp, so
a/ I can have guylines of different length and pick where to use them
b/ I can fold the tarp and keep the guylines apart (probably all put in one bundle and kept in a 8 knot, or wrapped around something.)
And if I need to adjust tension during the night, I do it closer from the tarp, hopefully from beneath it
I use a prussik knot (loop?) to secure my guy lines. I make a few extra loops in case I lose one. Wrap the loop on the main part of the guy line and tie the end of the guy line to the loop. Retensioning is as simple as sliding the prussik along the guy line.
Of course, I didn’t see Pierre’s post right above mine made 3 days prior before responding. D’OH!
I tried this system out on a Colorado Mountain Club winter camping school overnight and it worked out fantastic. Despite freezing temperatures and blowing snow, I was able to rig the entire system with my overmitts on. In the morning, since I used sticks for stakes, dismantling the system was as simple as pulling the cord and yanking the other end upwards, which unthreaded the cord from around the stick left buried in the snow. Prior to this experience, it just seemed like a good idea. Now, I am definitely a believer!
This system’s advantages in the winter is even more profound, since as you said you can leave the deadman anchors buried, instead of having to chisel out stakes from consolidated snow.
I love how well laid out and presented your post is. You’re very detail-oriented and communicate very effectively with your supporting photos and captions. (I try to do the same thing.) I tied the version of the trucker’s hitch you’re using and it works good for tarps and tent guy lines, which is what your posting about. For heavier applications, like securing large structures to an anchor, my choice is a butterfly knot when making a fixed loop in the “rope tackle.” It puts much less stress on the line. http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/01/03/rope-tackle/ http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/01/03/rope-tackle/
Really nice website!
Actually, I wanted to include this link for the Butterfly Knot, which you might already know: http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/02/17/favorite-pioneering-knots-butterfly-knot/
I’m reading this 6 years later, love the internet. I have always used a figure 8 on a bight for my loop in the trucker hitch but this is an awesome looking knot, going to start using this from now on. Thanks Larry
Enjoyed your book and this article. Thanks for sharing them.
Please let me know if any of the following variations on your system have any appeal:
(1) Install a unidirectional slide-and-grip knot (a Klemheist or another in that group of knots, or a simple tautline) at each stakeout loop, and run each guyline through the knot, leaving a short (guyline) tail on the medial or tarp side. Use rest of system as usual. This gives the option of making adjustments from inside, and without tying and untying. Just hold the tail of the guyline with one hand and slide the knot forward with the other. You can stay inside in inclement weather. The unidirectional knots would be better than an unnecessarily bidirectional prusik knot (which would have unnecessary and wasted extra friction in both directions when adjusting). If done right, it only needs to be tied once. Then it’s there.
(2) Install similar knot on other side of guyline, but in middle and free to move along guyline. Instead of tying to the bowline loop, go through the bowline as usual, but tie instead to (a small loop on) the slide-grip knot, which you slide into position nearby. Now you retain the 2:1 mechanical advantage, but can adjust simply by sliding. Can do from inside if positioned properly. Tie once, leave on. Can bypass the slide-grip’s loop and tie directly to bowline in very tight situations. Can also use the extra mechanical advantage (4:1?) when first tying to the slide-grip’s loop, or later.
(3) Combine 1 and 2.
(4) Install very small, smooth, light hooks on ends of guylines, mounted on reliable permanently installed slide-grip knots. Use in place of slippery half hitch. Better in some conditions, and quicker.
Each slide-grip would require only a few inches (maybe four or so) of small-diameter cord. If selected well and tied properly, the knots should be plenty durable. Some of these knots are very reliable and are used to support humans in serious climbing and arborists’ applications — so need to be good.
If you haven’t tried a really good unidirectional slide-grip, be ready to fall in love. These things are hella cool.
Great to see that trucker’s hitch being used. I’ve used it for years and love it. Always wondered why it wasn’t more popular.The big advantages—in my opinion—over the tautline hitch are ease of tying/untying and the leverage it gives to get the tarp taut using any thickness of guyline. As for carbon fibre stakes with aluminium heads…have you ever tried getting one out of the ground once the head has pulled out? I have and it’s a waste of time. I now use great big alloy ones for the ridgeline and titanium for the guys. As Andrew suggests, light and unreliable is not a good plan.
[…] more easily get a line tight. (A simpler variant is what ultra hiker Andrew Skurka calls the “McCarthey Hitch,” using a loop already tied in the line or the tarp as the pulley […]
I’ve used an illustrated how-to book for years covering knot / hitch tying and never thought to apply it to tarp guylines (I normally use nite ize or dutchware). I went through the book again after this article … Andrew’s techniques are in the book but some with different names (and illustrated with thick ropes). Trying Andrew’s way out for the past 2 days in my yard with various tarps and cording, I gotta say learning these techniques is worth the time invested. I am curious about the 2.75mm sterling glocord, I can’t find anywhere (including their site) what it weighs. Anyone know?
I bought some of the 2.75mm Sterling glocord to check it out. I like it. It weighs about 2.6oz per 50 feet. I also like the Lawson glowire. It is also made in USA, has 2.38mm diameter, costs $13.50 per 50′ and weighs 1.6oz per 50′.
Could you please tell me the style and make of your tarp?
I believe Andrew is using Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp with the Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy.
Is there a reason to use sterling cord over 550 paracord? weight?
Hey, thanks for the article!
How many stakes do carry? Six (one for each corner of the tarp and one on each ridgeline)? Or do you cheat down a couple if you know you’re camping in the woods?
For an A-frame tarp, I usually carry eight stakes. For a pyramid, usually six. IMHO it’s not worth using sticks as stakes, unless you’re in a pinch — it may take a while to find good sticks, and their shape is not nearly as trust-worthy as a Y-shaped stake.
[…] I only needed to use them partially once, and it worked okay. Since then I’ve discovered the guyline system that Andrew Skurka has developed. You need to know your knots, but it’s convenient and […]
Am I missing something? I was doing this at 9 years old in Cub Scouts. Why suddenly is everything A.S. describes treated like outdoor gospel?
David, you appreciated learning this in Scouts, yeah? Well, many appreciated learning this here. We are all always learning – just because you learned this at 9 years old doesn’t mean the whole world then also knows it. You know a lot of things I don’t, I bet, and vice versa. Same with everyone else in the world. Andrew is doing a damn fine job at making a good source of skills and experience available to the entire world, unlike your Scouts class.
My only comment would be that tieing the line to the tarp is an unnecessary rigidity. If you want your system to stay truly deployment flexible you need a mechanism that allows you to easily remove the lines from the tarp. Using a figure eight knot then girth hitching the line to the tarp allows you to move your different length lines around to any location on the tarp. another point is that the figure eight knot wont untie its self as the bowline is known to do. For additional clarity the girth hitch is tied by putting a figure eight loop in the end of your line then threading the long tail through the tarp and back through the figure eight loop and pulling it tight. Its an under utilized and completely reversible line anchoring system.
With a rectangular tarp or poncho/tarp, I would tend to agree with you here — it’s convenient to have a system that allows you to quickly swap guylines between tie-out points, like via girth hitches. When I used a poncho/tarp more often I did exactly this, so I could quickly transform it from tarp to poncho, or vice versa, without re-tying lines.
However, it’s unnecessary with any fixed-shape tarp — including all mids, catenary cut A-frames, and probably most hammock tarps — since these shelters do not offer the pitching flexibility that would warrant a completely different length guyline. For example, with my A-frame tarp I have 4-foot lengths on the sides and 8-foot lengths on the ridgeline. If it’s a nice night I may use all of the length, whereas on a storm night I may only use half of it — an easy adjustment to make without swapping lengths.
[…] can find lots of vociferous debate on this topic! Other things you might see suggested are Blake’s hitch, Prusik or maybe a variety of Trucker’s Hitches. I’m […]
I just finished reading the book and enjoyed it. I feel silly because I have no clue how to tie the slippery hitch. I get the part about doubling the rope back into the bowline and using it as a pulley, but from that point I am lost. Is there a video or more pictures somewhere I can look at. I don’t know anybody that I could ask either. I’ve looked up clove hitch and slippery hitch and can do the knots. I just don’t know how to tie it in this scenario.
This post really does need a video, sorry about that.
To make the slipper half-hitch…
After you loop your sharp end through the bowline loop (or slip loop, if you are using the truckers hitch) pull the sharp end towards the stake/anchor until it is sufficiently taut. Now, pinch the pivot so it won’t slip, and lay the sharp end at a ~90-degree angle across the taught section. Next, take a bite out of the sharp end and pull it through the loop. Pull the bite towards your pinched pivot, making sure that the tail does not come through the loop; otherwise it is no longer a slippery half-hitch.
Also, watch this video starting at 1:52: http://youtu.be/w9YVoZMndbc. However, he pulls the tail through, ending up with a knot that must be untied, versus a slip knot that can just be pulled.
Thank you! I’ve already convinced other people to buy your book!
It looks like a trucker hitch with the tie-off on the hitch. If you use tie-off near the stake by putting a slip-loop in a rolling hitch around the base of the stake, the taunt will be tighter.
A neophyte question here. I’m considering a more minamilist shelter but wondering if this would be wise for warmer months in the northeast, where the threat of deer ticks with Lyme is high. I would assume camping on the open ground would increase risk.
I would use a tarp on such trips, but not just a tarp. If you were to include a bivy or bug nest, you’d get a lot more comfort (some some safety) for not much weight. My pick for such trips would be a tarp and hammock, which will get you off the ground, away from not only deer ticks but also from ground water, understory vegetation, rocks and roots, and hard-packed campsites.
[…] and even snow. Heavy-duty shelters spell heavy pounds. But how light can we sanely go – and what must we know to go […]
[…] Using recommendations from a few experienced tarp users, I tied bowlines to create a fixed loop at the end of each guyline, then hitched those loops to the tie-outs. I used taut-line hitches to pull the guys nice and snug; the one time I ran the line back up through the tie-out before tying the taut-line hitch (making a pulley), it was even easier to adjust. […]
I use prussik loops running on my lines, which are attached to my tie outs with a simple sheet bend, or a bowline. The prussik loops are fully adjustable and this avoids having to tie a loop, which even for the best of us sometimes needs to be untied and retied again in a different spot. The prussik can just be slid up and down to where it is needed and a simple loop through and a slipery hitch behind it to secure is all you need. It will not slip at all once tensioned.
The advantage of the McCarthy and trucker’s hitch over the prussik is that you can more easily use unconventional anchors such as deadman anchors buried in snow, plus tree trunks, branches, roots, and downed logs. I use these types of anchors frequently because they are generally more secure than stakes. With a prussik, there is no easy way to loop such anchors without untying and retying the entire knot.
Great book & post! I went ahead and got a tarp, stakes, and some guyline. Maybe I missed this somewhere, but one thing I’m having trouble with is the order in which to pitch the tarp. I have tried it out in the field and cannot get a good taunt pitch!
So if I just want to do a basic A-frame pitch and I’m going to stake out the 4 corners + 2 midpoints at the ridgeline with trekking poles, what order do I stake them out in?
It seems like most people would stake out 2 corners on one side of the tarp, then go to the other side of the tarp, pull it taunt, stake out the ridgeline midpoint with a trekking pole, then finish up (stake out the other ridgeline midpoint then the 2 remaining corners). However, with the knots you suggest I find this order does not lead to a taunt pitch. What order do you suggest?
Assuming you have no fixed anchor to use, e.g. a tree trunk:
1. Start with the two rear corners. Place the stakes about 2 ft away, in line with the lengths/sides of the tarp.
2. Front ridgeline. At this time, you should have equal tension between this point and the two rear corners.
3. Front corners.
4. Rear ridgeline.
I have tried the slippery hatch hitch knot and it keeps coming off. Anybody have a good video of how this is supposed to work? I am trying to do the first knot at the top with the bowline. I normally use a bowline on one end the larks head it on with a taut hitch at the other so I can use the rope as a tightener but this looks quicker so I want to give it a try this weekend.
I guy pretty much the same but my lines are tied to the stakes with bowlines and I use a truckers hitch to attach them to the tarp. If it’s windy I cut small branches into toggles to hopefully take some of the strain off the loops on my tarp.
If you find taking out aluminum stakes painful, you can do one or more things to avoid the pain:
– use another stake to lever out stuck stakes
– loosen & pull on the rope, not the stake, in the out direction
– use a file to round off sharp edges & a circular file to smooth where the rope goes
Spectra guy lines are also an excellent way to tear apart your tent because they have ZERO STRECH (technically they do creep but this is not an issue for tent use) which translates to a high shock load on the tent’s grommets when the wind picks up or when you accidentally trip over them.
Paracord is easy on your grommets because its made of nylon which stretches…. but remember that using either smaller diameter line or longer line will improve the stretch characteristics of the cord… so my suggestion is to use at least 6 feet per line of the thinnest braided nylon cord you are comfortable using.
Andrew… I highly suggest you contact Brion Toss who is considered (by us mariners) to be the leading expert on line and read up on spectra load testing @ bethandevansDOTcom/load.htm
Clearly the complexities and nuances of guylines, knots, and tarps are knot for me!
I figured that “McCarthy” knot out without reading either one of you before I just saw it — it’s common sense.
I’m quite late to the party, but I thought I’d point out that the trucker’s hitch provides an ideal mechanical advantage of 3:1, not 2:1. However, given the friction between the 2mm cord and the stake as well as the rope on rope friction at the slipped loop, it’s unlikely you’re getting much better than a 1.3:1, but every little bit helps 🙂
I enjoyed the post and and the comments, Thanks!
I was going to mention the same thing. Mechanical advantage is quite a confusing topic for many people. Here’s a little explanation from the Wikipedia article on truckers hitch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trucker%27s_hitch
” . . . in the common use of the trucker’s hitch, a static hook, ring, or rail, serves as the lower pulley, and the rope across the top of the load is the portion being tensioned. Thus, the standing part of the rope is represented by the top anchor point in the diagram, and the theoretical ratio is indeed 3:1 when the working end is tensioned.”
Any recommendations on what kind/brand of Tarp to go for? There seem to be a lot out there, with a huge price range.
Without more context about you, your intended uses, or your budget, no, no recommendations.
Note that this guyline system is equally applicable to tents, especially non-free-standing tents. Most shelters, including tarps, come with tensioning hardware already, but it is easy to remove.
I often use a trucker’s hitch as well, but I like to wrap the slip half-hitch around both of the stake lines (looks like a 3 to 1 pulley). After the slip half-hitch, I often throw on another loose half-hitch, just in case.
For a more permanent set-up, you can put a mid-loop knot like a directional figure 8 or butterfly loop in the line instead of the first slip knot (step 2 in your pics). Unlike the slip knot, these will stay in the line after you take it down, ready for when you to pitch again. Might be a bit faster to pitch – definitely easier when I have cold, clumsy hands.
Great technique, thanks! What do you use for snow anchors?
Sticks, collectively about the circumference of the thick end of a baseball bat. In the morning, pull on the slippery half hitch, tug on the cord, and go. You don’t need to un-bury the anchors, which overnight have become encased in a square of compacted and icy snow.
Great knots Andrew and sweet video update. For tarp camping I’ve been using these knots as well and some others. Here’s my setup: http://www.onlinecaveman.com/bushcraft/sleeping-under-a-tarp/
What are your thoughts on using a piece of shock cord to self-tension lines?
No first hand experience. Have never sought out such a solution.
Would imagine that it needs to be a stout elastic cord in order to work. After setting up my shelter with the system explained here, the guylines are “guitar tight.”
I suspect small shock cord would allow the shelter to shift and move in windy conditions causing it to change shape, which would create slack or shift loading on your anchors, poles, etc. And the longer the piece of cord the more it would stretch.
I’d also heard the theory of using shock cord. The idea being that if the line is not allowed to flex in strong gusts of wind, it could easily tear.
What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve never heard of a high quality backpacking shelter being torn by strong winds. I don’t think it’s a valid concern; meanwhile, the shock cord makes a lot of things worse.
Back in the day (late 80s, early 90s) Sierra Designs used short loops of shock cord (bungee) on the fly-to-tent pole connections. I think the idea was to self-tension as the fly got wet and stretched. On my tent I found it didn’t make that much difference and the bungee elasticity was the first thing to go.
A set of small UL climbing cams or chocks can be anchors also. I’ve used these above treelike to hang a hammock or guy off to using a tent or tarp on mixed elevation treks where I’m descending into and ascending above treeline.
Another article with some good advice. I particularly like this version of the trucker’s hitch which is super-easy to untie: http://www.outdoorresearch.com/blog/stories/master-the-art-of-the-backcountry-tarp
What do you think is an ideal size for a flat tarp for backpacking and mountaineering? Primarily solo use with occasional girlfriend. Worst case scenario a storm worthy pyramid or holden tent setup. I’m looking at an 8.5 x 8.5 cuben fiber or 10 x 10 silnylon tarp.
Frequency of precipitation? Tolerance of girlfriend?
Most of the time frequency of precipation is low but and tolerance of girlfriend is moderate (outdoorsy but new and skeptical to tarp camping). Looking for something for Sierra and Wind River High Route late summer and early fall, but versatile for those times when things are…less than ideal. I already have a silnylon duomid but am really intrigued by the versatility, simplicity, and durability of a flat tarp and the lower weight and no stretch (hate having to wake up to retighten guy lines) of cuben fiber. Most manufacturers only do 8.5 by 8.5 in cuben though.
I forgot to add I’m 5’10 slim and she is 5’6 slim.
8.5 x 8.5 should be fine.
I would NOT take a flat tarp on the WRHR, and probably not the SHR either. Too few opportunities to dip into the trees where this type of shelter excels. Take your DuoMid, which you can set up anywhere you have to.
A question, on the first part of tensioning,after tying the bowline and running the cord around the stake: “The maximum distance between the shelter and the stake is a few inches less than half.”
What does this mean? Specifically, could you define the “maximum distance of ___________”, and “less than half” of _____________.
I thank you for the detailed and (mostly) quite clear descriptive page. Thanks, too, go to the commenters for their many interesting variations. Happy camping, all.
The maximum distance between the shelter and the stake must be a few inches less than half, because you need those few spare inches to tie the knot. If you allowed the distance to be half or less than half of the guyline length, you wouldn’t be able to tie the McCarthy hitch. If you can’t avoid that situation, your backup is to use the trucker’s hitch.
Just two remarks: Bowline was used to tie climbers’ harnesses to the rope. As there were apparently a few fatal failures, the Swiss Alpine Club “ruled out” the bowline and recommends to knot an overhand on a bight. I have used this on my tarps with good success. They never came undone and can be untied pretty easily if required.
The McCarthy hitch “comes natural”, if you once learnt to knot an overhand with slip opening. I mean you are pretty likely to re-invent it by yourself if you tinker with your guylines. I learnt it from Ray Jardine’s Tarp Book.
Hey Andrew, I have a 6×9 flat tarp that I’m thinking of adding a tie-down to partway along the ridgeline. My hope is that by guying this tiedown to the bottom-end trekking pole instead of the tiedown at the end of the ridgeline I can get a modified a-frame pitch where the sides and back ridgeline are pitched all the way down to the ground for extra splash and wind protection but where the interior space is better preserved, especially at the bottom, than it is when I just forego the bottom trekking pole and pitch everything at the bottom down to the ground. I’m assuming you’ve used tarps with this set-up , and was wondering where you would suggest putting the mid-ridgeline tiedowns?
you can use a small river rock, ball, marble etc really anything not too pointy and wrap the guyline around that covered by the tarp to add a guyline anywhere you want. Just use two half hitches or a small noose to secure it.
A clove hitch works well, too.
Hey Andrew, have you ever seen a “Truckie’s hitch”? As opposed to Trucker’s. I’ve only seen it used in Australia but it comes untied after unloading much more easily than the slip loop version. http://knots3d.com/knots/en_us/103/truckie-hitch
Thanks for the video. Very helpful info. Well done.
Kungix stakes are no longer available from Amazon. Is there a reason you prefer them over the MSR groundhog, substantial price difference notwithstanding.
These work very well too. Same weight as Kungix and the single notch does not bend as easily (I’ve bent several Kungix with a bit too zealous of a stake rock blow)
If you like the triple notch, these are basically the same. Probably the same overseas manufacturer TBH. Again, same weight.
If price was no object, get the stakes from MSR or another brand. The quality is more reliable.
Thanks Andrew. These knots come under the heading “BACKPACKING SKILLS”.
If backpacking neophytes wonder what we mean by learning the skills this is a great example.
Using the correct knots means your tent will stay put in a storm and you do not have to get out of your tent in your skivvies at “Zero Dark Thirty” in a rainstorm to re-tie a guy line.
Hi, I know this post is older but I just thought I’d throw a question out there. Do you have a favorite knot or particular orientation to use when setting up a net tent under a tarp?
Not sure what you mean. Like, to tie the inner net to the tarp?
Simple and well explained. I’ll be tying these this weekend on my hammock’s rainfly
The photo showing a line going down to a ridge of the tarp has some excess trucker’s hitch line hanging down.
That is a GOOD thing B/C when it rains buckets the water running down the line drips off the excess line hanging down instead of running into the tarp.
Hi Andrew, my son and I are excited to replace the cord on our new Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2. Question – it appears Kelty TripTease LightLine is discontinued. Although I’ve found it on Amazon. Do you still recommend this line or do you prefer another now? Thanks for all that you do. We bought your book and are now working on the camping recipes! 🙂
Guyline tech is not rapidly improving, and Triptease is still a good product.
The other line I like is the MLD Pro. A little more difficult to work with, but manageable, and very strong for its weight.
MSR, Sea-to-Summit, and other companies make a similar product. Google search on “reflective tent guyline” and several will pop up.
Lawson Equipment Glowire: 2mm guyline in several reflective colors. Made in the USA. I bought some when I couldn’t find the Triptease anywhere, and it’s very nice.
“…TripTease LightLine is discontinued.” Say it ain’t so!
I hope not too. The thing that sets Triptease apart for me is the flexibility. All others I have tried have a bit more stiffness to them that degrades handling in cold weather, particularly ability to tie knots and thread through loops. Lawson glowire is another alternative if Triptease is being discontinued.
I just bought another roll, Campsaver had plenty.
Good useful info. I have been using the truckers hitch decades but using the slip loop was new to me. And trying to get those old overhand knots undone was nearly impossible. Simple and very effective slip loop. 5 Stars on the video!
Super-useful as I prepare for my upcoming trip, and I was enjoying all the discussion in the comments too. I don’t have a technical contribution to make, but I will offer that the words “taut” and “taught” are often confused. The knots you demonstrate here are great for making the lines taut.
I guess Andrew taught us how to make guy lines taut.
I just used this system for a quick three day trip this past weekend. I practiced it in my yard setting up my tarp twice before heading out, and had no issues once I was out there. So happy I stumbled upon this old blog post before I invested in additional hardware that would have been unnecessary. I brought a few additional guy lines in case I had trouble getting a stake in and needed to lasso a rock. I can’t believe I haven’t taken the scissors to all of our tents in the garage yet. Thank you!!
Excellent. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been camping for years and years and will now leave line locks at home.
I am forever grateful, at age 61, to have learned your knots because I forgot two stakes on the Wonderland and was able to tie off to objects. Thanks!
McCarthy hitch = Mooring Hitch, which is not that trustworthy of a knot
McCarthys are never trustworthy…