Introduction: Simple Line Tensioners for Camping and Backpacking

Picture of Simple Line Tensioners for Camping and Backpacking

This instructable will show you how to make very simple tent line tensioners from an old plastic paint bucket.

Though I believe it is always useful to know how to tie different knots for backpacking and camping, there is sometimes no substitute for the speed and convenience of these little gadgets. They weigh almost nothing, so you could easily throw a few in with your camping or hiking gear along with some tent cord, paracord, or small diameter rope. I have actually just added these to the guy lines of my backpacking tarps, hammock tents, and standard tents for easy use.

This is my first instructable, so I hope you find it useful.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

To make these tensioners, you can really improvise with whatever you have lying around. I have made them out of broken nalgene water bottles, thick aluminum bottles, aluminum bar stock, etc. For this instructable, I will be showing you how to use a commonly available 5 gallon plastic bucket. In my opinion this material is just about perfect for this. It is easy to work with, lightweight, durable, and weather resistant. Plus you can make use of something rather than dumping it into the landfill.

The supply list:
-Five Gallon Plastic bucket
-Saw (I feel that a table saw is really the safest and most uniform, but use whatever works for you.)
-Drill (a drill press is preferred for straight and uniform holes.)
-Small Drill Bit (13/64 is what I used, it just needs to be larger than the cord so it will slide.)
-Snips or Heavy Duty Scissors (not required, but it makes quick work of cutting these to length.)
-Cord (such as paracord or tent guy line cord.)

Step 2: Cutting the Bucket Into Pieces

Picture of Cutting the Bucket Into Pieces

You should be extremely careful when performing this task. It is probably the most dangerous part of this tutorial, so don't get hurt!

The basic idea here is to cut the bucket all the way around into a uniform ring that is about 1/2 an inch wide. First cut off the top reinforcement that usually holds the handle. Then set your fence for a 1/2 inch width and raise the blade just enough to go through the wall of the bucket.

Turn on the saw and slowly rotate the bucket until you have gone all the way around, leaving a large ring. Don't worry too much if the ring isn't perfect, you can still probably make some tensioners out of some of it. I'd suggest cutting a whole bunch of these rings if you want to make a bunch of tensioners. It's always easier to make things in bulk.

Step 3: Cutting and Forming the Tensioner

Picture of Cutting and Forming the Tensioner

Once you have several uniform rings, you can start cutting the tensioners to length. Mine are 1 1/4 inches long. The easiest way to do this is with a pair of tin snips. I just cut out one and use that same one as a template for the others working my way all the way around the ring. If you do it right, you will have a huge stack of these things in no time.

Step 4: Drilling the Holes

Picture of Drilling the Holes

You can now drill two holes in each piece with your drill (or drill press). Try to get them as even as possible. When you are done you should have something similar to what is pictured below.

Once you have drilled them all, it is also a good idea to spend a little time sanding off the rough parts, saw marks, etc. I also like to round over the corners a little to make them generally less sharp. I think it is worth it because this action will make it less likely that you will snag the tensioner on your cord or line.

Step 5: Rigging the Line

Picture of Rigging the Line

You are now ready to rig the line tensioner. The images below should show you exactly what you need to do.

First lace the line through both holes, with the 'loop' following the slight curve of what was once the outside of the bucket. Now loop around and lace the line back through the same hole on the other side as shown. Tie a knot in the end of the cord and pull it tight.

Step 6: Finished!

Picture of Finished!

You should now have a finished line tensioner like the one pictured below. To use them, tie the long end to any tarp, tent, etc. Use a tent stake to secure the end with the loop which is attached to the tensioner you made. Then to adjust, simply slide the tensioner up (or down) the line until the line is taught. The picture below should give you the basic idea.

Make tons and hand them out to your friends! They are easy to make, simple to use, and a great way to recycle some old plastic buckets that you might find laying around.


static (author)2017-06-15

These are handy devices. While I know how to tie knots I'll leave the knot tying to the purists as I'm no purist, just practical. AFAIK these plastic buckets lack UV protection, don't be surprise they do break in a few years, if they see regular use. Your use of the table saw isn't anymore dangerous than many wood cutting operations are

khilgemann (author)2009-09-11

good idea, creative. I always use a simple taught line hitch knot to do this. just Boy Scout thing.

static (author)khilgemann2017-06-15

Not that I'm do not learn how tie and use knots, but the aren't hardly the "right" thing. To believe that they are is conservatism to a fault.

PCfreak (author)khilgemann2010-04-26

ya i bet some of us were boy scouts once 

schwieb (author)khilgemann2009-09-11

Thanks! I use a taughtline hitch for many things myself (including tent lines). As I said in the beginning, this is no substitute for knot skills. Every camper/hiker ought to at least be able to tie a bowline and a taught line hitch. I just find it easier to 'pre' do this on things I need to go up fast! Tents and hammocks fall in this category especially if you need to set them up in inclement weather or if it has started to get dark.

TN_FIXIT (author)2016-05-12

I make/made mine out of the lids from plastic milk jugs. They aren't as compact as the ones you made, but they don't require any cutting (just drilling).

Boyds1878 (author)2016-01-17

Thanks you inspired me to make some from the thicker 55 gallon plastic barrels

jigglez (author)2015-02-19

Any design diy that works like Lineloc 3.

dpuffer87 (author)2013-06-03

These are kind of neat. But really I just use a taut line hitch. Works every time.

chokapi (author)dpuffer872013-12-17


lalderman burton (author)2013-07-14

I'm thinking you could shatter the bucket and cut the rectangles from there for a more safe approach. If you use a sander and some strong cutters.

kz1 (author)2012-12-18

If you wanted to make them super secure & slip proof for securing loads on vehicles or pack animals, cut two notches on one of the sides to form a cleat. pull the rope taught, then slip use thumb to push the line between the two holes up and over the cleat. Nice idea and great use of discarded plastic.

kz1 (author)kz12012-12-18

Even more slip-proof would be to pull the line above the cleat, twist line 180 degrees making a loop and drop that down over the cleat.

abibelnik (author)2012-07-02

Now that's what I'm talking about !!!
thank you!

easy, cool, useful, well explained and great photos ! :)

ArtisanEclectic (author)2012-06-04

My model Sailboat has something like this on it to adjust the rigging. Except they have three holes. They're called bowsies. The line goes thru the first and middle holes. Thru the clevis or grommet or w/e and back thru the last hole of the bowsie and is knotted there. They are very easy to adjust and I have never had one move on me.

8bit (author)2009-07-30

Thanks for the 'ible.

pcooper2 (author)8bit2012-01-07

Don't you mean 'able?

The Ideanator (author)pcooper22012-02-04

Its i'ble, a contraction

caarntedd (author)pcooper22012-01-18


mole1 (author)2012-01-18

I've never seen one of these before and am only pretty good at a square knot...sometimes..... so I'm really excited about your solution. Thanks for the ible!

WVvan (author)2010-05-19

Double Plus Good!

PKTraceur (author)WVvan2010-11-27

Poetry slam?

pcooper2 (author)PKTraceur2012-01-07

No, Newspeak -- a reference to George Orwell's novel, "1984".

carpe_noctem (author)WVvan2011-02-02

shhh! Big Brother is watching!

e.bender (author)2011-07-28

learn to tie a bowline, it'll save you time and a bucket. well done instructable however

pcooper2 (author)e.bender2011-12-28

A bowline is the wrong knot. What is needed here is called a taut line hitch.

schwieb (author)pcooper22011-12-30

If you want to bypass the creation of these items then pcooper is correct. a bowline is only for creating a loop connection to a fixed point. A taught line hitch will create a sliding knot that can create similar tension. I do believe every camper ought to at least learn to tie both of these knots.

I still maintain that these tensioners are faster in a pinch. In addition, the seem to get the line much tighter and keep it there much longer. That is really up to you to decide.

mikesnyd (author)2011-07-21

I found the safest way to do this on the table saw is to leave small connections. So dont cut all the way around. instead raise the blade to said height. It can be anything really. Lets say once inch. Then put a small pencil line about an 1 1/4" on your fence. just push the bucket all the way through. then for the next cut make sure to match the bottom line of your cut with the mark on your fence. Push through and repeat. You will be left with a bunch of little sections you can cut out afterwards with your choice of saw or razor. Once off you may sand flush if you like.

jsadler1 (author)2011-06-18

A table saw should not be used that way. That really is dangerous. A hand saw, a jig saw or a band saw would be far more suited for the task.

Evilrick (author)2010-01-15

I have made tensioners out of several different materials but this is a new one for me. I have used thin wood and metal strips with great results and holding power. I do have one question, is it necessary to make the loop in the second hole for these? I have never done that, I usually just run the line through the two holes of the tensioner and tie. The loop is pulled from the middle of the holes and put around the stake, the angle of the line keeps it in place. Has worked for me for many years. 

schwieb (author)Evilrick2010-01-19

Whatever works is what is necessary!  I tied mine this way because I have seen it done like this on other tents. If your way works go with it. 

I will say that these plastic tensioners really hold up well.  I don't know how long your wood ones last, but the plastic pretty much lasts forever!

TwoPaths (author)schwieb2011-03-07


Pine wood tensioners can last at least 47 years of rugged use!

If using wood, insert the rope/cord through opposite sides of tensioner, that allows more friction to hold it in place. Some materials are slipperier and need the extra friction (sissel is much more slippery that hemp and doesn't last as long either.)

Plastic does allow one to make the tensioners small though.

Something that is more rugged than wood or your bucket based tensioners is scrap from a 35 or 55 gallon plastic drum to make them! For our big (12'x16') family wall tent we use metal stakes (they look like 10" to 16" nails ;-). I've added "tags" to each stake from the drum plastic, their just tensioners with the hole for the stake just smaller than the diameter of the stake, with a 8" to 10" loop of cord tied in the other hole. This makes it easier to pull the stakes when it's time to pack up. Just grab a loop and pull up and most of the time the stake just comes out, first time!

A word of caution: Use a C-clamp to hold down each blank when you drill it. Also, be sure to keep your drill moving so it doesn't get away from you or you'll end up with your drill bit "stuck" in the tensioner!  Which can be problematic in removing the drill bit!

Just my family's 2cents. Hope this helps some of you.

Evilrick (author)schwieb2010-01-19

The ones I made I made from walnut, it's very hard wood. I have been using them for over 20 yrs. on hundreds of trips. They are a bit large for backpacking(1/4 x 1 x 2 inch) though they don't weigh much, but I use them when camping with my van & trailer, so size is not a problem.  I use them to hold a 12 x24 heavy plastic tarp, set up either as a lean-to or as an overhead tarp, and have never had any problems with them slipping. I only use 2 holes, one at each end, run the line through one hole, then through the other hole and tie a knot in the line.  Put the loop formed (between the holes) around the stake and slide the keeper up until the line is tight.  If your tensioner has a bend in it, make sure you run the line on the outside of the bend, that way the line rides on the bend and not under it. That causes more of a bind in the line for it to grab better.  Have seen and used many store bought systems and find most of them slip. The first  pic is a 12' x 24' set up with 9' x12' tarp sides, I used this setup for  11 days, 6 of which it rained. The second pic is a 9' x 12' tarp hooked to the back of my trailer, the third is a blowup of the second and shows 2 of the tensioners in use, not the best pic, but you can see them, the last is my camping trailer setup, the trailer is 5' x 8' .

JBowmanDIY (author)2010-08-21

I think this is an awesome instructable. aside from teaching me a new way to set my tarp up over my hammock, I've found a new way to cut down up to 30 minutes of my time tying knots! Thanks!

.happy.hippie. (author)2010-04-02

i made these about 2 weeks ago, and filled a whole ziploc bag with them.  i made them out of a square bucket and the work GREAT! these things are indespencible!

keng (author)2009-07-29

DUDE...don't get out!!! there's a huge black mamba below you!!!

snook123 (author)keng2010-03-19

ha ha

zubain (author)2009-11-26

I use straight, wooden ones to tension my clothes line. They are very easy to make from scrap wood and work very well.

gibson_se (author)2009-11-19

It might be better from a safety and convenience point of view to drill the holes before cutting to final size. Just cut straight strips of plastic the right width, mark out how big you tensioners are going to be, then drill the holes before you cut them apart.

3leftturns (author)2009-09-29

These are really cool, but I usually toss the original tensioners that come stock and tie a taut line hitch. But the curved plastic may make it easier to use. I may have to try these though. Nice 'ible.

erosser (author)2009-09-16

Always handy to have a few of these, and yours are particularly lightweight and sturdy. Nice work!

Meleemaker (author)2009-08-19

Okay you talk about broken nalgenes for improvised tensioners. Im unfamiliar with these "broken nalgenes" Could you explain that to me? Ive only had one break on me

schwieb (author)Meleemaker2009-08-25

I have actually had 2 nalgene waterbottles break on me over the past several years. Plus some people might be looking for looking for an alternative use for some old bottles that are not BPA free. I think you might be missing the real point I am trying to make here though, which is that you can make these things out of about anything you can find. Though not essential the curvature of a bottle, can, or bucket can also help grab the cord.

Meleemaker (author)schwieb2009-08-25

I know the actualy point was missing, it was more just to say somthing funny. And the new ones are BPA free believe it or not. But I really think its a really nice way to make somthing like that. I cant remember exactly what was posted in it, but if your tarp doesnt have eyes for the cord, you can make a button with some dirt and wrapping the cord around it on the opposite side of the tarp.

rownhunt (author)2009-08-21

great idea!

About This Instructable




Bio: I am a technologist who loves spending time in the outdoors. I am also hopelessly addicted to gadgets and love to build things with my ... More »
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