Paracord is one item that all preppers love, being rightly renowned for its great flexibility, resistance to rot, versatility and of course its great strength-to-diameter ratio.
You can use paracord for all kinds of rigging, construction and repairs, and used very carefully in a pinch you can even use it for certain types of climbing. It is undoubtedly useful, and we know it is certainly tough, but just how strong is paracord really?
How Strong is Paracord?
Military specification Type-III Paracord (AKA typical “550 cord”) conforming to original technical standard MIL-C-5040H (disc.) and consisting of between 7 – 9 inner 3-fiber nylon strands and surrounded in a 32-fiber nylon sheath is rated for a minimum breaking strength of 550 pounds, hence the nickname of 550 cord.
But paracord could describe one of several varieties of similar, lightweight military cordage that has since proliferated throughout civilian life. We’ll look at the strengths of the various types and what lends them their strength below.
Other Types of Paracord?
Yes, several “genuine” ones. When someone says “paracord” you can bet they are referring to the classic, tried, true and loved Type-III “550” cord, so named for its minimum (nominal) breaking strength listed above. 550 Paracord is a lightweight kernmantle rope made from nylon.
Kernmantle is rope making nomenclature for any sheathed rope, one where the inner, strength-supplying strands or “kern” is protected by a woven exterior, or “sheath” which prevents abrasion, friction and other damage from compromising the rope’s capability.
Other varieties of proper paracord include the thicker and stronger Type-IV, which is rated to hold 750 lbs. per strand, Type-II, rated to hold 400 lbs., Type-IIA, holding 225 lbs., Type-IA, which can hold 100 lbs. before breaking, and Type-I, which will support slightly less at 95 pounds.
All of the paracord above can be found on the commercial market and may indeed be better for this task or that compared to the old standby of Type-III paracord we all know and love, but Type-III, in all its guises, is overwhelmingly the most common and the most popular for preppers, and with good reason. Its combination of positive qualities is tough to beat!
Mil-Spec “True” Paracord vs. Commercial Lookalikes
There is one factor you must take into account when purchasing paracord, especially if you are going to use it for anything more taxing than weaving into key fobs, zipper pulls or bracelets. Not all “paracord” is created equal! While originally specified to be of all nylon construction, modern commercial iterations may deviate from this prescription and thus lose strength.
“Paracord” today has become shorthand for any cordage that is approximately as it has been described above, and all kinds of imitators and spinoffs are on the market, from the excellent to the lame. It is up to you to determine what your requirements are for your paracord and buy accordingly after ascertaining what standard the prospect cordage is made to.
Commercial cord runs the gamut from extremely high quality rope that can handily exceed the original military cord in performance, durability and longevity while packing in the innards some handy jute and brass snare wire, to pale imitation cordage made from polyester fill stuffed in a coarse, weak inferior nylon sheath.
Strength is part of what defines paracord. 550 paracord was, as the name suggests, used as parachute rigging lines, but has been “officially” relegated to the role of general purpose utility, lanyard and repair cord.
If all you need is thin cordage to make a simple lanyard or bracelet from, almost any cord will do. If you need proper paracord for hoisting a hammock, pitching a tent, lashing mission-essential gear to your pack or making a cannot-fail lanyard you had better look for the good stuff.
Telling the Difference
Proper mil-spec paracord is made entirely from nylon, with 7 to 9 thin inner strands making up the kern (core). These strands will be made from 3 fibers, no more no less, each. Real paracord also does not come in all the colors of the rainbow and is often found sold off the spool. One of the biggest and best makers of the real stuff is the E.L Woods Braiding Company, an OEM supplier of all kinds of military cordage.
You cannot simply trust the “mil-spec” label some makers (and sellers) slap on their cord; this is ubiquitous marketing jargon at this point and means nothing unless you verify the standards of manufacture yourself!
Commercial paracord, especially high-quality paracord, may be entirely fine for your application but you must take the time to find out what your cord is capable of before trusting it!
Cord Comparison Chart
|Cord Type||Diameter||# of Inner Strands|
|1/4 shock cord||1/4 inches||48|
|Para-max cord||1/4 inches||3|
|750 cord||5 mm||11|
|550 cord||4 mm||7|
|Mil-Spec Cord||4 mm||7|
|1/16 elastic cord||1/16 inches||6|
|1/32 elastic cord||1/32 inches||3|
Real-deal, genuine mil-spec 550 paracord is, as the nickname suggests, rated to hold 550 lbs. before breaking. Several of these strands working together are mighty indeed, and it is easy to see why so many preppers, adventurers, outdoorsman, soldiers, police officers and hunters trust 550 cord for all kinds of things!