Everyone’s talking about paracord these days. Some warn it’s just a fad. Others claim it’s a hobby. Survivalists swear by it. Could it be something more? Join us as we journey down the road of discovery.

Para What?

Types of Paracord
Breaking StrengthMin. Elongation
Type I95 lbs.30%
Type IA100lbs.30%
Type II400lbs.30%
Type IIA225lbs.30%
Type III550lbs.30%
Type IV750lbs.30%

In its original form, paracord was designed for the military to be used as a parachute suspension line. Considered a type of kernmantle rope, it’s traditionally made from nylon, and consists of an inner core (kern), and and outer sheath (mantle).

Found to be too elastic for today’s modern square chutes, it’s no longer the mainstay of paratroopers or skydivers. But, it’s lightweight composition and flexible nature make it the perfect fit for more down-to-earth uses. With an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, high durability, and extreme versatility, it’s no wonder why paracord has risen so dramatically in popularity, despite being demoted to a general purpose utility cord.

History in the Making

While working for DuPont in 1935, Wallace Hume Carothers invented a new synthetic fiber, which we now know as nylon. By 1938, DuPont started marketing this discovery as a replacement for the hog hair bristles of toothbrushes, and the silk in women’s stockings.

Prior to World War II, parachutes and their respective suspension lines were also made of silk. Since silk is an organic material, great care had to be taken to prevent rot and molding, which could obviously be detrimental to the integrity and longevity of parachutes and parachute lines. Even though nylon was a cheaper and more durable replacement for silk, the military was quite content to continue importing silk from Japan.

All of this changed, when Japan declared war on the United States, and bombed Pearl Harbor. The military scrambled to find alternative resources which led to the hasty development of paracord. Proving to exceed all expectations, this unique cordage was quickly embraced, and a large portion of nylon production was eventually diverted for its construction.

Getting to the Guts

Although nylon cordage is usually braided for strength and durability, paracord features a multi-tiered construction, which offers a superior strength and abrasion resistance ratio.In fact, it’s the engineering of the layered construction of paracord which leads to its unique usefulness.

Since Type III 550 Paracord is by far the most popular and common type of paracord you’ll encounter, let’s take a look at how it’s constructed:

The Mantle

The outer mantle of commercial grade 550 paracord is usually comprised of 32 nylon or polyester strands all interwoven together, forming a tubular protective sheath. Military spec cord (officially known as Mil-C-5040 Type III) will always be made of nylon, and never polyester.

The Core

The inner core of commercial grade 550 paracord contains seven individual nylon strands, and in turn, each of these strands are composed of three smaller ones called yarns. The tensile strength of the seven strands can vary by manufacturer, but should be relatively close to 50-60 pounds each, while the mantle should be rated near 150-200 pounds.

Impostors in Disguise

Some manufacturers produce slightly cheaper versions of paracord made from polyester. Although it’s usually just the sheath, sometimes even the core fibers are polyester as well. Hidden beneath the sheath, you will sometimes find an even darker secret: only two yarns in each strand, instead of the usual three.

While polyester is almost as strong as nylon, it is much stiffer and the individual fibers tend to fray at the ends more easily. It also seems to resist a tight knot, but tangle less. For most people and applications, this won’t be a problem — but you should be aware that not all paracord is created equal.

Knowing the difference: Polyester fiber can be dyed multiple colors (think tie-dye), while nylon fiber can only be manufactured in a single color. Try fusing two strands together with heat. Nylon will bond with nylon, but not polyester. Of course, polyester will also bond with itself, so this is more of a quick and dirty way to see if you have a mixture of materials in your cordage.

One Cord to Rule Them All

Left: 50′ of Nylon Rope
Right: 50′ of 550 Paracord

If you’re familiar with braided nylon rope, then you might be thinking that paracord looks pretty similar. You might also be wondering if there’s really much of a difference: they’re both a kind of nylon cordage, they’re also roughly the same in diameter and weight, and yet paracord is often twice the price.

So, what’s so special about paracord, and why would you use it? Aside from being up to three times stronger (per mass on average) than typical nylon cord or rope, it’s more flexible and compact. But the real key that gives paracord its distinct edge, is its extreme versatility. It has the capability of providing a bounty of options when you need to improvise, and this is especially important in a survival or limited resource situation.

Out of This World Repairs

Take the Hubble Space Telescope for instance. In 1997, NASA astronauts used a variety of unconventional tools and supplies to repair the telescope’s damaged insulation… one of which was off-the-shelf paracord. Think about this for a minute: a few dollars worth of paracord, was used to repair a $4.7 billion satellite! Simply incredible.

Hidden Reserves

Now imagine you’re out camping and need to secure some tarp, repair your tent, or construct some crazy contraption for survival or convenience (by creatively hitching a variety of things together). If you only have a few feet of paracord, you can easily extend the amount of length you have to work with, by simply unraveling it.

Due to its unique construction, 5 feet of paracord, can easily become over 40 feet of usable cord! Obviously the only caveat here, is that all paracord is rated for a specific breaking point when it’s fully intact. Once you start breaking it down into its individual fibers, the load it can bear will obviously decrease.

Imagining the Possibilities

You may be resistant to unraveling your cord, but you’ll be missing out on some of the best benefits that it has to offer. Specifically, you can use parts of the inner kern for fishing line, as thread to repair clothing, to fashion a net, as tinder to start a fire, and of course, as light-duty tie-downs. Your options are nearly limitless! And don’t forget about the sheath itself, which can be used to replace a broken shoelace, sash, belt, or even as a light load bearing rope.

The point here, is to use your imagination. Bushcraft is its specialty, which means that paracord has so many more practical uses, that a plain old nylon rope can never hope to compete with. Ounce for ounce, dollar for dollar, paracord is the winner hands down — and that’s not even including how it’s being used in arts and crafts.

Beyond the Basics

In addition to regular paracord, several new and novel trends are starting to appear on the market. One of the more interesting ones, is a cord geared exclusively for use in emergency and survival kits. It still contains the usual nylon strands, but it also encases 25 lb. fishing line, copper wire, and waxed jute for fire starting. This gives the cord a more rigid feel, but offers a host of vital utilities if truly needed. You’ll find this particular flavor of cord used most often in survival bracelets and paracord grenades.

Roping in the Fun

Paracord Bracelet

That’s right, paracord isn’t just for the military, survivalists, and your neighborhood jack-of-all-trades. Chances are, you know or will meet someone who is avidly braiding a bracelet, belt, keychain, or necklace.

Paracord Grenades

Paracord projects range from the mundane plant hanger or water bottle cover, to the more creative wall decor art piece or decorative figurine. Working with paracord is fun and easy. It doesn’t hurt that it’s pretty inexpensive too. Paracord has become so popular in the crafting community, it could almost be considered the modern version of macrame from years past. If you don’t believe us (or need some inspiration), check out these amazing and creative ideas on Pinterest.

Towing the Line

Now that we’ve sung the praise of paracord, let’s not forget about the downsides of it. First and foremost, paracord is not a climbing rope! Although Type III is rated for 550 pounds, this is a static load weight (weight that’s not in motion). Loads that bounce or swing, will create a dynamic load weight that exceeds its static weight by ten times or more. Read that again: 10x or more.

Never trust paracord to suspend you or any other heavy object unless you have no other options available in an emergency situation. It’s much safer to assume that your 550 paracord is more suitable for loads of 100-200 pounds. Naturally this is a rough estimate and not a safety guarantee. It’s ultimately up to you to assess your situation, consider the load factors, and decide how adequate or safe a given rope will be.

Like all ropes, knots and sharp angles will severely impact the strength rating of your paracord. Most knots will reduce the strength by up to 20%, while a square knot could half the rating. And by the same token, running your cord over a roof, ledge, or wall will further reduce its holding power.

Finally, wet rope is never as strong as dry rope. This holds true with nylon-based ropes, even though they’re made out of a synthetic material. Where nylon presents an edge however, is in it’s moisture, mildew, and rot resistant nature.

Betting on a Winner

Now that you know what paracord is and what it’s used for, you might think about supplementing your emergency or survival kit today. Here are a few links to get you started:

Tools and Utilities

550 Paracord Coil

$6.99 USD

Bags and Accessories

Paracord Fashion Bracelet

$9.99 USD

Bags and Accessories

Paracord Survival Bracelet

$15.99 USD

Bags and Accessories

Paracord Monkey Fist Keychain

$13.99 USD
$22.99 USD