I’ve noticed that when Elise goes online shopping for paracord, she really isn’t ever quite sure what she’s looking for. She typically has colour preferences and has a particular function in mind (to make a paracord wrap for her new ESEE knife, for instance), but at the end of the day, she still has no idea what type of paracord she’s just put into her shopping cart besides how it looks. And you can’t tell the quality of paracord simply by how it looks.
I figured it was high time I took a minute to write a full guide to paracord, mostly for you guys of course, but also so that Elise has a guide to reference in case she wants to switch up the colours of her paracord handles a week from now; you know, so she doesn’t have to ask me, “Is this one good?” a thousand times while going through the Amazon/eBay search results. With this guide, she should get the gist of how to find quality paracord without asking me each time, and so should anyone else that’s taken the time to read this.
I’ve been advocating the use of 550 paracord as a go-to cordage since long before I even began scribbling on this blog, and though I’ve never went into full detail with regards to why yet, I’ll be doing so here. There’s plenty of information online of course, it’s certainly already there for anyone who wants to learn, but I figured sticking all the useful information I could think of into one easy-to-browse source, like we did with our guide to batoning, might be helpful for quite a few people (Elise included).
I’m hoping that any and every question you could have about paracord will be answered in this article, but if you do have any questions that weren’t answered here, take some time to post them in the comments section and I’ll be sure to answer them!
What Is Paracord?
Paracord (otherwise known as parachute cord, 550 cord, and type III cord) gets its name from the fact that it was originally designed for the suspension of lines in parachutes. Made of nylon, and due to its legendary strength-to-weight ratio and fantastic versatility, paracord caught on with other military units, then in time with civilians as well.
A regular nylon or polyester rope, even if marketed as paracord (like unscrupulous sellers, especially on eBay, often do), does not meet the criteria of being paracord if it does not have a braided sheath with a varying number of interwoven strands within it. It’s important to separate common braided cordage with legitimate paracord, especially for survival applications, which is why I bring this up. Typical nylon or polyester rope does not have the versatility that paracord has, and when your life is on the line, you’ll find this distinction especially important.
What’s So Special About Paracord?
Flexibility. The core difference between standard nylon cord and paracord (besides paracord being 3 times strong per mass on average) is the way that paracord can be easily modified to fit any number of situations. Let’s take the golden standard that is 550/type III paracord for instance. If I only have, lets say, 1 foot/30 cm of paracord, but I need more length, I can actually extend what I’ve got to roughly 2.4 meters/8 feet of totally usable cordage by simply pulling the inner strands apart! This multi-tiered construction is precisely what gives paracord its superb strength, as the independent strands (which are typically each made up of 2, though sometimes 3, yarn strands themselves) will keep a cord whole even if a few strands break apart due to being nicked or from friction.
It should be remembered that paracord, even if “rated” at 550 lbs of strength is not a suitable replacement for a proper climbing rope. Its rating is optimal in nature using base case scenario and environment. If a weight is held static then lateral stress is far lesser than if dropped suddenly. What this means is that if you carry something that’s about 540 lbs with 550 paracord, and then the line shakes or the object you’re carrying drops, your paracord is going to snap because there’s extra weight due to the movement that hasn’t been accounted for. Needless to say, you should always be using the right cord for the right application, and always always, always use conservative numbers and estimates. Don’t even go near that threshold! You’d be tempting fate.
What Can I Use Paracord For?
Of course, you can use paracord out of box as a super strong single cord, but you can also segue multiple uses from that same cord by using the inner strands (the “guts”) for lighter tasks. Using paracord for wilderness survival or bushcraft is quite common. You can use the inner strands for doing things like making fishing lines, making small game traps, even holding branches together to hold together a shelter. The outer casting isn’t useless after you take out the inside, either! You can use that on its own for things like bootlaces or securing a knife to a stick to make a spear.
At the end of the day, the uses of paracord really come down to your imagination! From making nets all the way to assembling straps, you really have a great deal of bushcraft function options with only just a few feet of paracord on you. The same can’t be said for plain-Jane nylon rope. No way in hell.
Types of Paracord
There are 4 notable types of paracord. When survivalists discuss paracord, they are almost always referring to type III paracord/550 cord, due to its ubiquity as the middle child of the strength-to-price ratio. Bang for buck, type III paracord is a survivalist’s perfect fit. If you encounter genuine paracord in day-to-day life, it’s almost guaranteed to be type III/550 cord paracord.
For the sake of being thorough, however, lets take a look at all four types of paracord.
|Example||(no example; rare)||Example||Example|
|95 lbs||400 lbs||550 lbs (hence commonly being called *550 paracord!)||750 lbs|
|Very cheap, both in terms of cost and quality. Usually used for dummy cording, decorative uses, lacing, and other light duty tasks.||Never seen it sold anywhere. I wouldn’t bother looking either: simply skip it and go straight to type III/550 cord. Type III/550 is both cheaper (because it’s more common and available) and stronger.||Middle of the road in terms of both strength and quality. Usable for the vast majority of survival applications. Highly affordable.||Very strong, though cost reflects this. Significantly more expensive than type III paracord. Over 50-100% price increase over the type III alternative.|
Now before you rush out and buy your 550 paracord, we should discuss the reality that not all paracord is created equal. And just because it says something like “military rated” or “Mil Spec,” doesn’t mean it’s actually military grade in quality.
A Word of Caution: Be Careful What You Buy
True Military Spec paracord consists of a quality nylon outer layer, and an inner layer of 7-9 strands that each consist of 3 yarns, also made out of nylon. Thus, if you completely unravel the inside of Military Spec paracord, you’ll get one outer shell, and 21-27 individual yarns altogether.
Being labelled as Mil Spec paracord implies that the core standard of the paracord you’re interested in buying is the same as used for “official” military paracord. This might sound dandy to you, but just because the para-cord you’re looking at has 7 strands like “legit” paracord, doesn’t mean the materials used are of the same high quality or that the assembly is the same/the manufacturer has the same quality control. I have handled both Chinese paracord and American “military quality” paracord, and I can tell you that, when it comes to paracord, the American stuff is of much better quality, both in terms of tightness of the weave and the materials used. So do yourself a favour and opt out of that China-made paracord; get yourself some American-made paracord instead – unless you want some cheap stuff to play around with in the backyard.
In case you’re new here and need a disclaimer: please note that I’m not at all the kind of person who’s here to sell you on “American is always better.” I own plenty of manufactured-in-China knives that are better than some of my manufactured-in-America knives. I’m not the type to hold back from buying gear just because it isn’t made in the West, as I believe in assessing a product based on its own merits and not where it’s produced. Not knocking those who prefer to buy American, just want to be clear that I’m here to tell you how it is – with as little personal bias being involved as possible. And although many things made in China fare well in terms of quality, paracord is typically not one of them.
Commercial paracord, that’s paracord that isn’t made specifically for the military, can be good or bad. As I’ve stated, the Chinese commercial paracord is typically not anywhere near as good as the American stuff, but even the American stuff, while it’s a hell of a lot more trustworthy, I would field test before I needed. Be incredibly prudent when choosing your paracord sellers, and do remember that the adage “you get what you pay for” is ground in truth. The purpose of this paracord for any survivalist is ultimately to be there in case you need to use it in potentially life-saving ways. You should be able to trust your life with the paracord you’ve bought, so always keep this in mind when you make your purchase.
This is standard U.S.-made paracord (7 strands, 2 inner yarns), in case you’d like a visual reference:
Regardless of where you buy your paracord, it’s always best to remain at least a little skeptical concerning the advertising/marketing terminology of any given product. Whichever paracord you get: test, test, test! You know, before you end up in a situation where quality may be the difference between life and death!
How to Test Your Paracord for Quality
The easiest way to gauge the varying quality of true military paracord in comparison to the commercial stuff that’s sometimes labelled “mil spec” is by looking at what makes the true military paracord so special. First off, as I’ve mentioned, it’s 100% nylon, both for the outer shell and for each inner strand, consisting of 3 100% nylon yarns each. The cheaper commercial stuff frequently replaces the nylon with polyester, and the strands often have 2 yarns instead of 3. Which is fine. It will do in a pinch. It’s just not particularly “mil spec.”
Performing these two tasks is the only consistent way to really tell how close to military spec the paracord you’ve bought is: First, look at the number of yarns the inner core strands contain. Do you they have 2 or 3? If you’ve got 3 you’re closer to mil spec. Second, in order to determine whether the inner strands in your paracord are made of nylon or polyester, try to join the inner yarns with some nylon by burning the tips and fusing them together. Nylon will bond with nylon. Polyester will not bond with nylon (though polyester will bond with itself). If you’ve got polyester inner strands, but a nylon outer layer, that’s hugely problematic in case you ever need to create one mega line from all your strands, as the inner yarn won’t bond with your nylon outer layer, even if you need it to.
To test your paracord for quality, no surprise here: field test it. How do you do that? Just use it for anything you might need it for in the wilderness. Try making shelters with it. Use it to make traps. Apply unreasonable amounts of stress to it just to see how much it can feasibly handle. Take it apart and use the outer shell to fasten a knife to a stick and practice using that stick as a spear. You’ll be making sure what you’ve got will be good for what you may be needing it for, and you’ll be improving your bushcraft skills through practice in the meantime. Win-win.
I feel it bares repeating, but even if your paracord is not close to mil spec, if the quality of the paracord feels tight, and you have also field tested with no issues, then simply stop worrying about whether the paracord you have is good enough. Accept the fact that what you’ve got in front of you is good stuff, regardless of its origins.
I will note that I rarely buy, let alone use, legit “military” (labelled MIL-SPEC MIL-C-5040 type III paracord), as it’s far more expensive and annoying (as it’s less common) to get hold of. For 99% of bushcraft or survival uses one might encounter, high quality U.S.-made paracord that has 7 yarns, consisting of 2 yarns per strand each, is plenty strong enough. I know that people can feel strongly about this, but after years of using it, I have yet to have it fail on me, so I can’t say I have any cause to complain. As always, however, this is my opinion only, and your mileage may vary. If you feel more comfortable buying legit military grade stuff, at least you have all the facts and can make that choice for yourself; though if you don’t care and just want something reliable, the commercial 550 U.S.-made stuff, is fine.
Expiry and How Best to Store Paracord
Para-cord principally degrades with exposure to UV light, i.e. from being left out in the sun. Even then, it degrades very, very slowly. Not much else besides actual wear and tear from being flung around in sand and other abrasive dirt will degrade paracord over time. To keep damage to an absolute minimum, therefore, be sure to store our paracord someplace dark, out of the reach of the sun, and to not over-use your paracord. It’s better to be using new paracord than the same one over and over again.
Since para-cord is made of nylon, it’s mildew resistant and also offers significant resistance to humidity (non-contact), but to be on the safe side, it should definitely be stored in a cool, dry place inside a water-proof bag or container, on top of being away from UV light. These are optimal storage conditions for pretty much any gear you’ll want to stockpile, as well as any long-term storage/non-perishable foods, so keep this in mind if you’re planning out where to put your stockpile in your house.
All this said, always check your para-cord for signs of abrasion/friction damage (i.e. look for fraying) – especially if you’re going to use it on something critical. Better to be safe than sorry!
100 feet of paracord can translate into 800 feet of usable, strong cordage. Its multiplicative abilities cannot be understated, so bare that in mind when you question if you have room in your pack or on your EDC for a few feet of this wonder-product!