Introduction: Rope Ladder (glow-in-the-dark Version)

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Rope ladders, whether for climbing into tree forts, boarding a tall ship, or to escape out a window in an emergency, they're an adventure to use. Rope ladders are great when storage space is at a premium or if the vertical distance to cross is nonuniform and a rigid ladder will not work. If you live or work in a building that has a drop to the ground from your window and want to have a collapsible method of escaping in case of an emergency, then a rope ladder may be just what you need.

I live at the end of the hall on the second storey of an old wood-framed apartment building. An alternate exit route was deemed necessary due to the building having wood burning fireplaces, inattentive residents who burn food, and hippy neighbours conducting seances. Considering all this, my apartment building is one mistake away from becoming a fiery inferno.

Since January of this year the fire alarm has been triggered at least once a month, I've never feared for my safety more. Never one to be caught unawares, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create my own method of escape in case of an emergency.

The ladder I made uses glow in the dark rope to promote its location in darkness, hopefully offering a faster route to safety if the power goes out in an emergency situation.
A rope ladder forms part of the solution to getting out alive in the case of an emergency or fire.
Be prepared, ensure you plan and practice your safe exit prior to any actual emergency.

Enough talk, let's build a rope ladder.

Step 1: Overview

A rope ladder is a generic term used to describe any type of flexible ladder, rope ladders are different than regular rigid ladders by having a flexible stringer (vertical component - rope) and usually have rigid rungs (horizontal members - steps). There are a few varieties of rope ladders: some use all rope, some use steel wire, some have plastic rungs, while others have wood. Before you begin, explore the types and the situation you intend to use yours in to ensure it's suitability.

This rope ladder design consists of a wooden top dowel which is wider than the opening to be climbed through. The rope is attached to the top dowel and knotted to each successive rung of the ladder at regular intervals to make a ladder. Other designs exist, however the benefit of having the rope pass through each rung is the rope will not slip off the rung, and the knots cannot be untied.

This design aims to play to the strengths of the wooden top dowel by distributing the load near the window frame and leaving the vulnerable centre of the top dowel free of any point load. During operation the force exerted from climbing is transferred to the window frame, the remainder of the top dowel then acts in compression with minimal lateral load applied (meaning the top dowel is less likely to snap like a twig).

This is a good place to give the obligatory warning:
Be smart, use hardwood dowels of sufficient diameter with rope that is designed to carry the weight of the persons intended to use the rope ladder. If opening for top dowel is too large or dowel type/size or rope is inadequate you risk having your top dowel, ladder rungs or rope failing and exposing users and spectators to the possibility of injury or death.

Step 2: Tools + Materials

Scope out your desired location prior to buying anything. You'll need plenty of rope suitable for holding your weight and enough dowels to make it to the ground from your window. The rope and dowels I chose were to suit my weight and distance to the ground, the following information is given to illustrate this example:
  • 9.5mm x 15m (3/8" x 50') glow-in-the-dark rope
  • 38mm (1.5") hardwood dowels - varying lengths (based on window opening and desired rung widths)
  • drill
  • 9.5mm (3/8") drill bit

Step 3: Measure Twice...

Once you've chosen an easily accessible location for your ladder that is free from any hazards at the landing outside we can take some measurements.

top dowel:
Measure the opening width, allowing for an additional +100mm (+4") on each side. This additional amount will allow our top dowel to be placed in the opening without falling out.

Chose a rung width that will easily allow you to slip your feet in and out while descending. Depending on application and foot size this can vary. To keep things simple I used rungs which were 305mm (12") in width. This allowed me to accommodate a foot-hold and enough room to have the rope pass through the  rung on each side.

All rope will have a weight limit printed on the packaging, or on a sticker if you buy bulk. Make sure you select rope suitable for your needs.
This design has a series of knots in the rope, as such the overall rope length will need to be longer than the distance to accommodate for the knots. Time for some math:

The distance from the opening to the ground 580cm(228")
Illustrated in Step 6, each knot used about 5cm (2") of rope.
This design calls for a knot above and below each rung, using 10cm (4") for each rung.

     I used 12 rungs:                                          10cm(4") x 12


length of rope from opening to ground (height distance + knots)
7.02m (23')

This shows us that we need 7 meters (23') of rope to make it from the window to the ground.
Since our ladder has two stringers (one rope on each side of each rung), we need at least 14m (46') or rope in total to make our ladder.

Step 4: Cut Dowels

Your local lumber store should have long lengths of dowels for sale by the foot. Select the thickness of dowel based on the heaviest person intended to use this rope ladder. Using hardwood is more expensive but will result in a more robust ladder, if you have just soft wood available consider stepping-up the thickness of the dowels to ensure they hold your weight or use a shorter rung width. Inspect each dowel to ensure there is no warping, splits, or other defects.

top dowel:
Once you've gathered your wood choose the straightest and cleanest piece for your top dowel.
From the measurements taken earlier:
window opening:103cm (40.5")
allowance on each side:

2x10cm (4")

top dowel length:123cm (48.5")

This design calls for ladder rung width of 30.5cm (12") in length. Based on my calculations I figured 12 rungs would put me close to the ground. Cut each dowel to length.

When finished, you should have one long dowel and several shorter, equal length dowels for your rungs. Gather up your goodies and head on back home to finish fabrication.

Step 5: Drill Each Dowel

This ladder has the rope passing through each side of each rung, the benefit of this design is that the rope will not slip off the rung, and the knots cannot be untied.

top rung:
Remember back in Step 3 when we allowed for an additional 100mm (+4") on each side of the top dowel? Mark 100mm (+4") (or whatever distance you need to suit your opening) from each end of the top dowel.

Each rung will need two identical holes drilled close to the end on each side. Marks were made at 38mm (1.5") from each end.

Once you've made the marks it's time to start drilling. Chose a drill bit which is the same size or slightly larger than the diameter of the rope you intend to use.

Not a fan of drilling through each rung? There are several other rope ladder designs which you may want to explore, some use lashing to fix the rope to each rung, some use a mechanical fastener, or you can use a knot around each rung instead.

Step 6: Measuring the Knot Frequency

The distance between each rung is a personal preference. Many traditional ladders have rung spacing at 25.5-30.5cm (10-12") o.c., I chose to match my spacing with the width of each run, 30.5cm (12"). This creates a 'squared' effect when looking at the ladder (space between each rung framed by equal sized rope lengths).

This picture shows that with each knot that is tied the rope shortens by about 5cm(2"). Since this design has a knot on top of and below each rung there is a loss of 10cm(4") for each rung.

Step 7: Assembly

Once you've got all your dowels cut and drilled, it's time to put all the peices together.Start by threading in the bottom-most rung and work your way up to the top dowel.

Lay out your two even lengths of rope, begin with a knot at the end of each rope and thread on a rung. Then tie off the threaded rung on each side, measure up about 30.5cm (12") and tie another knot. Thread on another rung and tie off. Repeat for each side until all rungs are threaded and tied to the rope

It helps to have some tension on the rope as you assemble the ladder, try bracing the bottom rung once knotted and keeping even tension of both sides during threading/knotting. The top dowel is knotted the same way only with some additional space between the to top dowel and the first rung to accommodate the difference in width between the opening and the rung.

Step 8: Deploy!

Once assembled it's ready for a test-run.
Here's an short action movie of the ladder being deployed.

Step 9: Glow in the Dark

Just in case the power is out and it's nighttime, the eerie green glow should help you find your ladder in darkness and hopefully will help you escape faster.

Step 10: Be Safe

A rope ladder may save your life, however consider that this is only one possible way of escaping in case of an emergency. Whether for your apartment, house or office plan ahead and be prepared to look after yourself and your family in an emergency situation and always have a back-up plan in case your primary exit route is not available.

With my rope ladder all finished, I'm now ready for my first emergency.
Bring it, hippy neighbours!

Have you made your own rope ladder, or have an improvement based on the design shown here? Share your creations and ideas in the comments below.
Have fun!