Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Paracord Dillusion

Paracord is pretty amazing stuff, but certainly not the panacea many preppers believe it to be. As I was ordering yet another 100 feet of 550 from Paracord Planet (color: Creamsicle, if you can believe it), I wondered again if all those preppers who so faithfully wear a half-dozen feet paracorod of around their wrist 24/7 are really on to something.

No. I still don’t think so.

Paracord is nothing more than a common nylon cord that has a loose resemblance to kernmantle climbing ropes in that both 550 and kernmantles have a outer sheath (mantle) and a inner multi-strand core (kern). The sheath protects the core and the core provides the strength. Great idea, but an old one.

The proliferation of ways to carry paracord on your person is astounding. It’s as if preppers discovered the ultimate survival gadget and it’s called “string.” If the scenario you are prepping for includes an absolute need for seven feet of paracord, then good for you. My personal scenario requires a multitude of cordage solutions from those I can weave myself (don't forget your bushcrafting skills), to fishing line to climbing rope to tow chains. And none of those do I plan on wearing around my wrist either.

Again, don’t get me wrong. A hundred feet of anything for eight bucks is a good deal, but those new to preparing really need to broaden their horizons as to all the cordage options out there. My BOB and BOV have real climbing ropes of 8.5mm and 11mm respectively. One is 30m long and the other is 50m. Yes, I do have plenty of 550 around, and often make lanyards for cutting tools that will double as tourniquets (put it where you need it most!), but paracord is nothing special. Hopefully you will believe I don't hate the stuff since my most recent 550 purchase was the lead-in to this installment of the Prepping Professor.

But would I wear it? No, and heres why. Paracord is in the family of cordage which also contains many other great lines. My preference when I have to carry cordage is something much stronger than the paracord such as kevlar line. While much more expensive, kevlar spear fishing line fits that bill quite nicely.

You see, I cut my rope teeth while rock climbing in my youth, and anything sub-ton in strength, in my informed opinion, is only asking for trouble. Most non-climbers and city-type rescue personnel fail to acknowledge the many ways an object’s strength is reduced. Tie a knot in rope and depending on the bends and curves, the knot may have reduced the strength of the rope by a quarter, or even by half! Some knots are better at preserving rope strength than others, so if you have a list of prepper knowledge yet to gain, add that concern to your list in pen rather than pencil.

Here’s something to get you started:

Knot                      % of original rope strength
Flemish Bend        81%
Blood knot             80%
Figure 8 loop         80%
Double fisherman  79%
Butterfly                 75%
Bowline                  60%
Overhand knot       60%
Overhand bend      50%
Square knot           more likely to come untied then to break.

So as you can see, even the sacred Bowline almost cuts the rope strength in half. That means your 550 cord will barely hold the static weight of an average man, but add a six-inch dynamic drop to the equation and you will disappear in a puff of 550 dust.

To take this line of practical reasoning further, all my carabiners are real ones, strong enough to tow a car. I carry and use real mountaineering webbing, straps, rope, cord, and hardware. It still floors me to see survival hardware with the prominent label “not for climbing.” Sorry Charlies, but everything in my bag can be used for climbing.

What I call the “Grimloc Mentality” is a strange mix of combat concerns mixed with hiking lore. Grimlocs are plastic carabiner-like links that break under a particular load, around 80 pounds or so. Why would you want something to break? The answer, I believe, is found in Hollywood horror movies where the evil critter is chasing the hero who inadvertently snags some unbelievably strong article of clothing or shoelace on a tree branch, nail, door knob, or some other supernaturally immovable object. The hero has mere seconds to shed said hooked item or be devoured. The Grimloc mentality is the belief that anything attached to your body must be able to break free when necessary.

And while we are on the subject of breaking, let’s discuss the square knot. More people have been killed by the failure of the square knot than all other knots combined. Although the square (or reef) knot is perhaps 9000 years old, it is phenomenally unreliable, easy to tie incorrectly, slips under load, hard to untie when dry and impossible when wet. And yet it is still taught as a viable knot in the military. Save the square knot for surgical applications where it can do less harm.

Here are two thing to consider if you find yourself with leanings towards the Grimloc mentality. First, scuba divers have carried knives since the first diver got caught up in a fishing net. I know you have a knife so should you ever get caught on something that is vastly stronger than you, pull out your knife and cut yourself free. That is a much more realistic and likely scenario than being chased through the brier patch only to have your first aid kit snag on a branch and require immediate ejection.

And the second thing is that more people have been killed and injured because something broke, snapped, came untied, or was incorrectly operated compared to all the wounds and decapitations because something that should have didn’t. Of course you can find, and cling to for all I care, the few exceptions. But that’s your problem.

So all you members of the Church-of-the-550 please realize that paracord is best kept for handy uses like fixing things, tie-downs, lashes, lanyards, and even the occasional tourniquet. But if you plan on using it for any major survival application, rescue, or mountaineering use, prepare to die.

Carrry on.


  1. All things considered, I'm still a huge paracord fan. I'm not climbing any mountains in any survival situation. I'd be more likely to get... decapitated.

    Just today, I was out bouncing up on down (I'm 232 lbs.) on a single strand of paracord tied to a tree, using two square knots, to be honest. So I guess at the bottom of the bounce, that would have been 350lbs of pressure or so. So 550/2 225 (woulda snapped) or 550/2 /2 (if the knots equally and summarily weakening the cord by a factor of 2) would have snapped at 125 lbs.

    While I don't think my paracord is genuine mil cpec (simply because it has two instead of three strands composing the 7 inner strands) it is super strong, super cheap, and has thousands of uses, and is quite wearable. So where your Kevlar wins the strength test, it fails miserably on the price and wearability test (and, i.e., it's guaranteed, instantaneous availability if worn daily). I guess I just don't think the average guy is repelling (but then, if he were, my tests are showing a safe product to do it with...). The average guy wants to have a hammock, a fishing line, a tourniquet, shelter framework, dental floss, sutures, and all those other needs that only paracord does, and he wants it on his wrist so it's always with him and he doesn't have to think about it. As you implied, it is about cost and versatility, and that's why it will remain the favorite.

  2. The max rating for whatever cord you are using is actually the minimum it is supposed to hold. Knots, UV, edges, age, wear and tear, and amount of previous stress all play a role. I'm sure you found some ancient paracord that literally turned to dust when stretched.

    I love the stuff and rarely have it out of reach, but with 550 being as popular a survival aid as water, air, and tool steel blades, I thought it wise to point out that paracord is but one of many options and has plenty of limitations.

    Wear a 550 bracelet if you want, but be realistic about its value in a true SHTF.