Become a Better Motorcyclist With a Piece of Rope

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Become a Better Motorcyclist With a Piece of Rope

How do you improve your motorcycle-related skillset if you don’t have a motorcycle? I found myself facing that very question over the holidays. I read a few articles about riding technique, but wanted to learn something that I could practice immediately. So I decided to learn a few handy knots.

Photos and video courtesy of

During a trip to Northern Michigan fifteen years ago, I crashed my 1984 Honda Interceptor while accelerating hard over a humped railroad crossing.  I had hoped to fly and impress my friend Jake (who I had just overtaken), but one big tank slapper and a block-long crash-sequence later, I was cut up and the bike was on its side.  With its newly twisted handlebars and a now-inoperable front brake, the bike seemed even more annoyed with me than I was with myself.  I rode the rest of the way with only a rear brake, and we decided to take the bike home on a trailer at the end of the weekend.  I’d expected our lack of tie-downs to be a problem, but Jake had a bit of rope and quickly tied my mangled pride-and-joy securely onto his father’s trailer.

Rope knots

Jake deftly employed a few knots he had learned on sailboats.  His quick, unquestioning way of tying them was impressive, but all the loops and twists seemed hard to remember.  Was he sure he tied them right? How did he know which knot to use?

I was nervous that they wouldn’t hold.  After all, if I’d been the one to tie my bike down, my clumsy, inquisitive knots would have loosened, and the bike would have fallen on its side. When it came time to unload the bike, the knots would have been impossible to untie.

The good news is that it won’t take long to add a few basic knots to your mental toolkit.  Most good knots share three qualities: they’re easy to tie, they won’t come undone, and they’re easy to untie afterward.  Knowing a few knots is liberating.  Rope is cheaper, and more reliable tie-downs and elastic nets, is lightweight, and is easy to find all over the world. The first two knots I learned—the bowline and the truckers hitch—make it possible to tie a motorcycle down to a trailer, and the taut-line knot is handy for securing light loads quickly without having to retie it each time.


Knot 1: The Bowline

I’d heard so much about the mythical bowline over the years that I was surprised by how easy it was to learn. It has a very specific purpose, to create a loop at the end of a rope.   It’s a great knot to learn, since it won’t slip or tighten, and no matter how hard you pull on the loop it won’t come undone.  It’s easy to tie and untie as well, though only when the standing end is not under load.


Knot 2: The Truckers Hitch

Think of the trucker’s hitch as a “winch in a pinch.” It’s a rudimentary block and tackle made from rope that can be locked at the end with two half hitches.  The “block and tackle” provides a theoretical mechanical advantage of 3:1, which means that the standing end will see 3 pounds of tension for every pound of force on the tail end of the rope.  It’s a very satisfying knot to tie—I struggled the first time, but as soon as I saw the little rope machine I’d created, I was hooked.


Knot 3: The Midshipman’s Hitch

The appeal of the midshipman’s hitch is easy to understand when you see it in action, and it’s perfect for securing a bag on to the back of a motorcycle.  Basically, a rope loops around a tube and ties onto itself with a knot that grips the rope under tension but slides when slack.  A combination of these can be used on the grab rails of a motorcycle to secure loads without having to retie the knots each time.

Learn To Tie Five More Knots On Page 2 >>

  • SniperSmitty

    Informative article. Wouldn’t carrying an extra brake and clutch lever along with some hex wrenches also be practical? Only if you laid it down at parking lot speeds.
    Exactly this is outlined on my group ride website. But I’d still bring some rope. Especially if we run into any adventurous girls along the way.

    • Piglet2010

      Extra levers are a good idea at a track day or school.

  • Davidabl2

    “What knots do you recommend for motorcyclists?”

    One knot that immediately comes to mind for use on the dumbest automobile drivers is the hangman’s knot..
    which doesn’t seem to be included on animated knots ;-(

    But here it is from another site:

    • Dave

      Sure it is. They just illustrate it with only one turn. It is even described as such.

      • Davidabl2

        But that’s not the knot i remember seeing in westerns and pirate movies ….
        Though, as noted in Animated Knots, it should work just fine…

  • Dave

    Never leave home without some paracord. It’s extremely strong, light, and packs small. They sell little paracord keychains and bracelets that unravel into great emergency-length cords for exactly the use you’d need on a bike. It’s also one type of “rope” that works with all the knots in this article.

    My last use was to tie a length of it to my boot and the stub of a broken shift pedal after a crash so I could ride home. Bungees wouldn’t have worked cause of the stretch.

    • Davidabl2

      Ingenious. But most people carry a pair of vice-grips for this use and many other uses as well.

      • Dave

        Yup. Caught out that time almost unprepared.

  • Davidabl2

    For those of us that plan to do next year’s “Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride’ the Household knots section of AnimatedKnots shows a number of ways to tie a tie-
    including a bow tie! Essential if you’re planning to wear a tux. A bow tie is probably appropriate with skinny jeans as well ;-)

  • Lee Scuppers

    That trucker’s hitch is 2:1, not 3:1.

    You can use a marlinespike hitch for the standing-part loop if you’re short on rope and/or space, just make sure the loose end of the loop is on the working end, or it’ll pull the loop closed – pulling rope into the loop from below/working end. Looks cleaner too. Or an alpine butterfly knot is fun and won’t jam.

    If you’re putting a lot of strain on it, put a carabiner through the standing loop, and loop the working end through that, so you don’t abrade the rope. Guess how I learned that one…

    • Jen Degtjarewsky
      • Lee Scuppers

        That loose working end doesn’t gain you any advantage. You’ve got two runs of rope between the two “pulleys”. If you pull one inch on the working end, you’ve reduced the distance between the two “pulleys” by one half inch.

        If you loop the working end around the hook a second time and pull one inch in the opposite direction (towards the top of the screen), then that inch will be divided among three sections of rope, reducing the distance between hook and loop by 1/3 inch. That’s your 3:1.

        • nick2ny

          No, Wikipedia says it can be either 2:1 or 3:1, though the way it’s commonly used is 3:1.

    • nick2ny

      But you put some doubt in my head. I was calculating it with your force of pulling being added in there too (may need to get creative with how you arrange the knot) relative to the force on the standing end, which I think is fair to do if you’re tying down a motorcycle–rather than trying to, say, lift a motorcycle from the floor of a garage into a truck using the bottom loop. Then, if you’re pulling on the rope with a force of 100 lbs–each segment of the block and tackle has a tension of 100 lbs for a total of 200 lbs, but the standing end is feeling a force of 300 lbs, and when you tie off and release the rope, the force in each rope should jump to 150 lbs, for a total of 300 and a 3:1 mechanical advantage.

      Here’s a good image of mechanical advantage. Looks like trucker’s hitch is classified as a 2:1 Gun tackle. Don’t know if it really is fair to classify it as 3:1, after looking at this image: For my classification of 3:1, you have to be trying to pull the roof down, rather than the block up.

      In any case, with frictional loss from rough rope–rather than pulleys–you won’t ever see anything like 3:1.
      From wikipedia: Theoretical considerations aside, in real world use the mechanical advantage of the trucker’s hitch is significantly less than the ideal case due to the effects of friction. Friction has been reported to reduce the mechanical advantage from 3 to 1, down to less than 1 to 1 in many cases. One advantage of the friction within the trucker’s hitch, compared to a hypothetical pulley-based system, is that it allows the hitch to be held taut with less force while the working end is secured.

      What do you reckon?

      • nick2ny

        As pictured-a fixed roped tied around a hook, I think the truckers hitch is 2:1. You can flip it and make it 3:1, though. Note that if you use it as described, it’s 3:1. See here:

        By inverting any tackle, you always gain a mechanical advantage of 1 because the number of parts at the movable block is increased. By inverting

        a gun tackle, for example, you gain a mechanical advantage of 3 (figure 4-26). When a tackle is inverted, the direction of pull is difficult.

  • Justin McClintock

    No clove hitch? That’s the basic knot for lashing any two things together. No two-half-hitches? No sheepshank? Come on guys! :-P

    • nick2ny

      I’m knot claiming to be an expert here

  • Nickrocksout

    Best article ever. Nick is so smart, and I just love to the way he writes. In the future I would definitely like to hear more about this hero “Jake”.