Paracord is popping up everywhere. Once an obscure favorite of the ex-military and survival communities, now 550 cord has even found its way to craft store shelves — a sure sign that it has penetrated every stratum of society. And with popularity comes the buzz: “My brother knows a guy who used 550 cord to lift an engine!” or “I heard that black ops soldiers use this stuff to rappel out of helicopters!”
What are the facts? What’s fiction? And most of all, what are the practical ins and outs of paracord? In this article, we explore the most common questions and misconceptions about the most popular rope on the block — paracord.
Is there more than one kind of paracord?
Yes. The US military specified six different types of parachute cord (“paracord”). You can read the whole specification here.
Today, everyone is enamored with “Type III” cord which has taken on the nickname “550 cord” because it is rated to handle a minimum 550 lb load.
But there’s also a “Type IV” paracord which can handle 750 lbs. And a handful designed for lower weights.
With the growing popularity of 550 cord, some novel commercial variants have started showing up. The most interesting one I’ve seen (but never tried) is Titan SurvivorCord, a survival-oriented cord that has, in addition to the expected filaments, a strand of waxed jute for starting fires, a strand of 25-lb test fishing line, and a strand of copper wire for emergency wiring or, better, for wire snares.
Of course, the growing popularity of 550 cord is also going to bring a lot of knock-offs which won’t necessarily meet military specifications. Leading to …
How can I tell if I’m getting real military-grade paracord?
There are a few indicators. The original military-approved paracord manufacturers included a single color-coded strand in the filament; the colors indicated the manufacturer:
But paracord can still meet the military specification without having the color-coded filament. In this case, look for the number of strands in the filament. For 550 cord, there should be 7-9 inner strands, each of them made up of three twisted strands.
And most of all, look for “Mil-Spec” on the packaging or, better yet, “MIL-C-5040H” (a reference to the military specification that defines paracord requirements).
What is paracord made of?
Nylon. This means it has some elasticity to it (see below). Most paracord has an outer nylon sheath and a number of individual nylon filaments (see above).
The number of filaments is dictated by the type of paracord. The filaments are not fastened in place, meaning that you can pull them out. Which, at the end of the day, is the feature that gives paracord its appeal. It’s really multiple ropes in one. For example, you can extract a filament and use it to sew, fish, suture, whip a larger rope, etc.
One practical example: I was up in the wilderness fishing. I’d landed a couple of good-sized rainbow trout, but found I’d left my stringer at home and there weren’t any sticks close to shoreline. Then I spotted a 4″ scrap of 550 cord on the ground, and knew I had my solution. I pulled out the filament strands, tied them together end-to-end, slid the sheath over it, and strung the fish onto it. The sheath made a carry handle and the tied filament strands were more than strong enough to carry the fish back to camp.
How thick is standard paracord?
There is no “standard” thickness. The military specification didn’t designate a thickness, just a weight capacity.
That said, Type III paracord (550 cord) is about 3/16″ thick when relaxed, 1/8″ thick or less when stretched tight.
How strong is parachute cord?
That depends on the type. Type III cord, as we mentioned, is rated to handle 550 lbs. Type IV paracord should be able to handle at least 750 lbs. BUT …
Understand a couple of important caveats. First, the rating is for dead weight — weight when the load is not in motion (“static load”). A bouncing or swinging load (“dynamic load”) creates forces that can exceed its static weight rating by upwards of ten times or more.
Also, knots weaken ropes. Sometimes substantially, depending on how sharply the rope is bent (bent fibers are weaker than straight fibers). The best knots will lower a rope’s strength to 75-80% of the rated weight. The worst offenders bring it all the way down to 60-65% of its rated weight or less. A square knot joining two ropes (never do this!) probably weakens the line to less than half of its original strength! Look up the knots you use to see how they affect rope strength.
Knots aren’t the only offender. Any sharp angle weakens a rope significantly. For example, if your rope runs around the edge of a wall or off of a roof edge, you’re compromising its strength. Water can also weaken nylon rope. A wet rope isn’t as strong as a dry rope.
All of this means that the “working load” rating of 550 cord is much, much lower than 550 lbs. Conventional wisdom says that the safe working load of any rope is around 1/5 to 1/3 of the static load. In other words, assume that you can only hoist about 100-175 lbs with dry 550 cord. It should go without saying that this is not a guaranteed safe working load. It’s your job to assess the adequacy of a rope given all of the factors at play, including motion, knots, etc.
It’s also useful to know the weight ratings for each part of the paracord. In the case of 550 cord, each inner strand has about a 50 lb static load rating. The outer sheath has about a 200 lb static load rating. This, of course, varies by manufacturer.
Can 550 paracord hold a human?
Given what we’ve just discussed … never dangle your life from the end of 550 cord. It will hold your static weight, but not necessarily your dynamic weight; any motion can push it past its limits, like this.
Think about it. The military intended 550 cord to be one of many lines suspending a paratrooper from a parachute. They never intended a single line to hold human weight.
We’ve built up this reverent, almost mystical view of paracord which casts it as some kind of covert, black-ops military gear that compacts to the size of a fist but still manages to hold a soldier under full battle gear. It’s not special forces rappelling rope, folks. It’s parachute cord. Which isn’t to say it’s not neat stuff; we just need to keep it in perspective.
Can I use 550 paracord for climbing and rescue?
Absolutely not. Climbing rope is ten times stronger than 550 cord. It has a static load break strength of 4700-6700 lbs for a reason (see discussion about static versus dynamic loads above).
Can I use paracord for a hammock suspension?
Some do. And why not? Type III paracord is rated at 550 lbs, right? And if you have two ropes, it should handle 1100 lbs of load! Right? Wrong.
Paracord’s 550 lb rating is for a vertical load. In a hammock, you’ve got an angular load. As it was explained to me by a very helpful engineer, to find out how much weight you’re putting on the ropes, follow this formula: your weight / cosine of the angle that the rope makes with vertical.
The recommended hanging angle for a hammock is 30 degrees from horizontal, or 60 degrees from vertical. The cosine of 60 degrees is 0.5. Assuming you weigh 180 lbs …
180 lbs / 0.5 = 360 lbs
So you’ve effectively doubled your weight. You’re exerting 360 lbs of force on the ropes, 180 lbs on each one. BUT, remember that the safe working load of 550 cord is closer to 100-175 lbs. So you’re pushing it to the edge of its breaking strength. Even Type IV paracord only has about a 150-250 lb safe working load. Add some swing or bounce or the wrong knots and you could easily push it too far.
That’s at a 60-degree angle. Suppose you decide to increase the angle of your hang to 70 degrees so you can lay flatter. That will increase your effective weight to 530 lbs. At 80 degrees, the weight you put on the ropes shoots all the way up to over 1,000 pounds! The tighter you stretch the hammock between the trees, the more effective weight you’ll put on the ropes. Factor in that moment you plop down and add some swing to the equation and you can see how quickly the stress on those ropes multiplies.
I’ve heard people say, “550 cord has never broken on me yet, and even if it did, we’re only talking a few bruises.” Personally, I don’t want to ever hit the ground, especially in the middle of the night. The last thing I need is a bruised hip or cracked rib three days from home. Not to mention that a fall like that will probably put a dozen tiny puncture holes in my hammock, which can turn into a catastrophic tear without warning.
But let’s take a big step back. Why are we married to the idea of paracord for hammocking? Especially when there are lighter, stronger ropes available? For example, Amsteel at the same diameter as 550 cord weighs nothing, doesn’t stretch like paracord (because it’s polyester, not nylon), has a safe working load rating of 2400 lbs and a 5400 lb breaking strength. Better still, it will make whoopie slings — one of the easiest ways imaginable to adjust the hammock lay. Or get some flat polyester straps. A little heavier, but much, much stronger than 550 cord and better for the health of the trees.
Paracord is fabulous for many things. Hammocking and climbing aren’t two of them. There’s just no reason to sling a hammock with 550 cord unless it’s for the simple sake of standing your ground about slinging a hammock with 550 cord. In which case, that ground is all yours. And if your face hits it one night, you won’t be the first (see also this thread).
Does paracord float?
No and sort of (only tested on Type III 550 paracord).
Coiled 550 cord will sink immediately. Loose 550 paracord will float until it gets saturated. How long does that take? It seems to depend on how tight the weave of the sheath is. The tighter the sheath, the longer it will take water to get inside the paracord — potentially hours, but not guaranteed. Another factor is whether the cord is getting stretched tight in the water. That will force the air out faster and cause it to submerge more quickly.
My observation is that Type III paracord’s raw materials are not buoyant, but the air trapped within the paracord’s sheath gives a single strand just enough buoyancy to hover at the surface.
If you need rope that’s guaranteed to float, look at the Spectra and Dyneema ropes like Amsteel, Dynaglide, Zing-It, etc. These are as strong as a steel cable of the same diameter and they’re so light they float. You can find various varieties in arborist or marine supply stores.
How abrasion-resistant is paracord?
Moderate to good. The outer nylon sheath has a tight braid that’s reasonably tough and smooth — as much as any other braided nylon rope. But from my experience the fibers will snag on tree bark and wear over time. Remember, this is parachute cord. It was designed to suspend a parachute, not rub across rough surfaces.
If high abrasion-resistance matters, again, look at Spectra/Dyneema. Dynaglide, for example, is designed specifically as a throw-line for arborists. It slides over tree branches like Teflon and has a 1,000 lb static breaking strength at a 2mm diameter.
Does paracord resist tangling?
Not really. Paracord is a relatively “relaxed” rope. I’m guessing that’s because it was designed to bundle tightly in a parachute (but don’t quote me on that). As a result, every kind of paracord I’ve handled was pretty willing to tangle. Almost eager sometimes.
You might consider learning how to coil it properly to avoid tangles. This YouTube video demonstrates my favorite way to coil thin cord.
How well does paracord hold a knot?
Because paracord compresses, it holds a knot very, very well. Maybe too well. If your knot gets heavily loaded, you may not ever get it untied — depending on the knot. So you’d do well to learn some knots that untie easier.
For creating a taut line (stretching the line between two points, like a clothesline, tarp ridgeline, or staking out a tarp), consider using a Nite Ize Figure 9 rope tightener. These inexpensive little knot replacers make taut lines a piece of cake. But maybe their best feature is the fact that you don’t have to undo any knots when you’re done.
When joining two lengths of paracord, some knots, like the Alpine Bend and Zeppelin Bend come apart pretty easily, even after being loaded. Yet they’ve got great holding power. I’m a huge fan of the Zeppelin Bend. Other knots like the Double Fisherman’s may as well be permanent.
If you’re using a hitch to secure a load to a fixed point (like tying off a bear bag), wrap the rope around the anchor point a few times first to absorb the stress. This takes the burden off of the knot, reducing its job to just keeping the end of the rope from slipping. Remember, it’s friction that holds your load, and nobody said that the knot has to supply all of the friction.
For example, if you’re hanging a bear bag, a good knot for tying off the end of the rope is a Round Turn and Two Half Hitches. But instead of just one round turn, wrap the end of the rope around a branch or tree trunk enough times to hold the load, then put in your half hitches. You can even tie the second half hitch with a bight (a bow). That will make it easier to untie the knot later without compromising its strength. Rule of thumb: if you’re struggling to hold the load while putting in your knot, you’d do well to wrap the rope around something a few times first.
How much does paracord stretch?
Under load, it can stretch quite a bit. Thirty percent, to be exact. The military specification required that all types of paracord be capable of stretching at least 30% without breaking.
But how much does it stretch under light loads? Still more than you might think. This guy did an informal test where he suspended a mere 10 lb weight from the end of a 10-foot line of 550 cord. Over 24 hours, it stretched 11.5 inches. That’s 10% elongation under a weight that barely tipped the needles at 1.8% of the rope’s breaking strength.
Then again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any nylon rope stretches. That’s considered one of the virtues of nylon: it can stretch under load without breaking. That characteristic stretch gives nylon rope its impressive dynamic strength.
Again, paracord is parachute cord. When deploying a parachute, you’d want a stretchy line to absorb the shock, otherwise you’d get a nasty jolt when that chute opens. Dynamic climbing ropes are always nylon for the same reason. You wouldn’t want to fall and have the rope instantly snap tight. That’s also why many people prefer nylon ropes and straps for vehicle towing.
What lengths does paracord come in?
The most common length for paracord is 100 feet. But you can easily find 50-foot coils and 200-foot, 500-foot, or even 1000-foot spools.
Titan Paracord, for example, has an Amazon store where they sell authentic 550 cord in a wide variety of lengths and colors. Authentic 750 cord is also available on Amazon in various lengths and colors.
How much does paracord weigh?
The military specification requires that Type III paracord (550 cord) not weigh more than 0.071 ounces/foot (6.61 grams/meter). In other words, 7.1 ounces per 100 feet. For Type IV paracord (750 cord), it’s 0.097 ounces/foot (9.02 grams/meter), or 9.7 ounces per 100 feet.
That’s if you get paracord that adheres to the military specs. In commercial paracord, those weights can fluctuate, but probably only within an ounce or so per 100 feet.
What’s the best way to fuse the ends of paracord?
You’ll definitely want to fuse the ends because they fray. The filament strands will also tend to pull out if you don’t fuse the ends.
Burning the ends is the best way to go. Paracord is nylon, so it melts nicely.
Pull back the outer sheath of the paracord to expose about 1/4-1/2″ of filament. Now hold the end over a lighter or candle until it turns liquid. Then let it dry. Make sure that the filament has fused to the sheath.
If you don’t want a bulbous mushroom head on the end of the rope, pinch it before the liquid dries completely. You’ll want to have some rubber gloves on for this.
I’ve also seen people put heat shrink tubing on the end of the rope. Not a bad idea, but you should still melt the end first to make sure the filament strands fuse to the sheath, otherwise they could slip down the sleeve and weaken the rope.
How much should I expect to pay for paracord?
There’s cheaper commercial 550 cord out there for around $0.07-0.10/foot. If you’re paying less than that, you should seriously question what you’re getting.
If you want the genuine, military-approved stuff, expect to pay a little bit more — maybe even as much as $0.15-0.20 per foot for Type III paracord (550 cord). Interestingly, Type IV paracord isn’t much more expensive than that.
You could easily call paracord one of the most useful ropes on the planet: not just for its strength, size, and knot-holding ability, but even more so for its versatility. Paracord is many ropes in one. I’ve prepared the handy infographic at the top of the page to summarize the high points about this wonderful rope option. Feel free to download it or pin it if you’re a Pinterest user (you should be if you’re not). Use it freely, just don’t remove the attributions.