Paracord is short for parachute cord. That’s the derivation of the word, and that’s how this type of accessory cord had its beginning. But today paracord is simply a useful type of accessory cord. Paracord is thicker and stronger than twine or string, yet thinner, lighter, and more compact than rope.
Paracord can be used for a myriad of applications:
* lacing up a boot
* making a belt or wristband [instructables.com]
* tying down a tarp in strong wind
* setting up a makeshift tent
* wrapping the handle of a knife
* wrapping a water bottle [you have to see this]
* making a sling or a handle or even a watchband [ instructables.com ]
* starting a fire with a fire bow [ video ]
* as a fishing line
* as a snare for small game
and much more.
High-quality paracord is used by the military; it has a nylon sheath and a seven-strand nylon core. Unfortunately, much of the commercially available “paracord” is lower quality; it breaks much more easily, and it does not have the seven strand core.
I purchased 100 ft. of paracord from Rothco, specifically:
“Nylon paracord 550 type III commercial”
“7 strand core, 100% nylon”
I took a piece of this paracord apart, and the core is seven separate strands [see photo to the left], and each strand is a double twist of white nylon. The sheath is thick woven black nylon, which adds tensile strength, and also protects the core from wear. The inner strands are thin enough and strong enough to use for fishing line. 100 feet of paracord is surprisingly compact and lightweight, and that’s 700 feet of interior strands plus 100 feet of sheath.
The term ’550 lb. test’ is not to be taken literally. The figure probably comes from a maximum breaking point (a best case scenario). You cannot reasonably expect even top-grade paracord to hold your weight in any kind of situation where a broken cord might result in injury or death. Paracord is very useful as a type of “accessory cord”, but it is absolutely not suitable for climbing, rappelling, or anything upon which a life would depend.
The thickness of good paracord is about 3 mm. Rock climbers sometimes trust their weight to nylon accessory cord with a thickness of 7mm and a tensile strength of over 2000 lbs. of force (lbf.). But never anything thinner.
Here is a photo comparing the inner core of paracord 550 to the core of 4mm nylon accessory cord [click photo to enlarge]. Notice that the 4mm cord has a much thicker core. Unless you need the smaller diameter of the paracord, or the seven inner strands, you should probably consider using a high-quality accessory cord, rather than paracord.
Is Nylon Best?
Good paracord is 100% nylon: sheath and core. But is nylon really the best material? Isn’t there a newer high tech material that outperforms old-fashioned nylon? The best rope and accessory cord is that used for rock climbing, rescue, marine and similar applications. My survey of rope material used in those fields found several different types of material:
Kevlar (generic: Aramid) Pros: much higher tensile strength than nylon, handles high temps well. Cons: stiff, does not hold knots well, loses strength when knotted or worked.
Technora: same pros and cons as Aramid; also, highly resistant to cuts. Technora is often used in fire rescue rope, because it retains its strength when exposed to high temperatures.
Dyneema: very high tensile strength, cut resistant, lightweight. This material is so strong it is used in commercial marine applications to replace steel cables of the same diameter. It’s one thing to say that a material is stronger than steel by weight, and quite another thing to say that it is stronger at the same size. But Dyneema is also about as each to knot as steel cable, and it is very slick.
The high-tech materials above all have similar pros and cons. They have great tensile strength, but they are hard to tie and do not hold their knots well. This limits the all-round usefulness of this type of cord. They are mainly used for specialized applications.
What type of rope material do rock climbers use? Nylon. It is still among the best materials for rope and accessory cord. It ties easily, holds many different types of knots well, and does not weaken much when knotted or worked.
The only comparable material for accessory cord (but not for dynamic climbing rope) is another old-school material: polyester. It is more durable than nylon and has lower stretch with greater abrasion resistance. But nylon is more supple and knots more easily. But otherwise, they are on a par with one another.
Good paracord is about 3mm in diameter. The advantage is that 100 ft. does not take up much space or weight. But it also means that even the best paracord has limited tensile strength. Another option is the type of accessory cord made by manufacturers of climbing rope. Some examples:
4mm NiteLine — Polyester sheath on a braided polyester core; Tensile Strength: 1,000 lbf. (4.4 kN). Niteline is 1mm thicker and a great deal stronger than paracord; it includes a highly reflective strip in the sheath, which might be useful for safety applications.
4mm Accessory Cord — A nylon sheath with a nylon core; Tensile Strength: 809 lbf. (3.5 kN).
5.5mm Titan — made from Dyneema and nylon; Tensile Strength: 3,100 lbf. (13.7 kN). A stiff cord that is difficult to knot.
3mm Tech Cord — a smooth polyester cover over a bulletproof core of 100% Technora; tensile strength: 1/8″ (3mm) 3,600 lbf.
Nylon Accessory Cord — 4mm cord, tensile strength: 809 lbf.
4mm Accessory Cord — a nylon cord with an MBS (minimum breaking strength) of 1,034 lbs at only 4mm in diameter.
4mm GLOcord — same as above, but with a reflective strip embedded in the sheath.
6mm PowerCORD — a 6mm accessory cord with a Technora core instead of the standard nylon core, which doubles the strength of a standard 6mm accessory cord. Tensile strength (mbs) is 4,271 lbf.
5.5 mm ARAMID — this material is the generic version of Kevlar; Tensile strength 4,046 lbf. (18 kN), but difficult to knot.
Back to the topic of paracord. If you want to have a length of paracord always available, you might consider wearing a paracord belt. Commercial paracord belts are available online, but they tend to be a little pricey. You can make your own belt from paracord and a buckle. There are several different methods (see this YouTube Search). The problem with most of these methods is that, when you want to use the paracord, taking apart the belt is time-consuming.
However, this approach to making a paracord belt, called Slatt’s Rescue Belt, let’s you unravel the belt very quickly, many times faster than with other types of knots.
I’ve tried making this type of belt. It is a slow process. After tying one row of knots, you have to manually tighten and arrange the knots before going on to the next row. You are spending more time making the belt, in exchange for less time taking it apart.
Also, I found that the thicker accessory cord made too large a belt (in thickness and width) than actual paracord. The 3mm cord is suitable for this type of belt. I think you would have a difficult time with even 4mm cord, and the 5mm stuff is unworkable as a belt.
I’ll close with some photos of different paracord belt styles:
Slatt’s Rescue Bracelet