We’ve all seen it in the movies: the hero gets captured by the villain’s henchmen and is either handcuffed or tied up, but somehow finds a way to break free of their bindings, escape, and go on to defeat the bad guys.
This type of scenario may be viewed as romantic or unrealistic by some. However in reality, there are several ways to escape from zip ties, handcuffs, rope/paracord, and duct tape.
If you ever find yourself captured by foes in a SHTF or disaster scenario, with a little know how, you can escape and make it back to your group or family.
It’s important to attempt an escape from your bindings at the right moment. If you are seen escaping from your bindings, it will only complicate things for you. As the old saying goes, practice makes “permanent”. It’s crucial that you practice all of the methods below in a recreational setting, at home, before your life depends on it.
Make sure you’re practicing the right way, using the right methods. Otherwise, you could find yourself developing bad habits. Thus, dooming yourself should you ever need to use these techniques in real life.
Table of Contents
Tools of the Trade
A dedicated counter custody or restraint defeating kit will consist of multiple tools carried surreptitiously on your person.
These tools could be of a purpose design or improvised nature, and don’t discount the efficacy of the improvised ones. Whatever they are, they must be accessible in short order and from any position and escape detection during a hasty search by your captors.
A compact, easily hidden handcuff key (double ended for both locking systems found on double lock handcuffs) is an indispensable tool and can save you a ton of grief should you be restrained with handcuffs.
Be advised, being caught with such a key will raise serious suspicions among legitimate law enforcement, though it is not illegal in most jurisdictions.
Wherever you stash this key, it must be easily accessible whether or not you are cuffed with your hands in front or behind you.
A shim is a thin, flexible device used to defeat the ratcheting mechanism of handcuffs. By inserting the shim between the components of the bracelet and then tightening them slightly you can unlock the cuff and remove them entirely.
Purpose-made tools to this end are available, but many improvised options work just as well or better, including bobby pins and flattened pieces of wire.
A hideout blade is another mandatory counter custody tool. Able to make relatively quick work of soft restraints such as duct tape, rope and potentially even zip ties, you might choose a safety razor blade, glass scraper blade, hobby knife insert or even a disposable scalpel for the job.
This is fiddly work, but do your best to build up a reasonably secure way to grip the blade that will not cut your fingers using duct tape or something else.
When it comes time to hide these tools on your person, good options are anywhere around waist level that you think you can get away with.
Inside belt loops, inside tiny stitched compartments along inseams and other joinery on clothing. Redundant locations inside pocket hems or footwear might also be worth considering.
The golden rule is that your tools must escape detection during a cursory initial search so that you have a chance to access and implement them.
Consider also that you are likely to be searched ever more thoroughly and better secured as time goes on in captivity, and you might well be stripped. We will talk more about that in just a bit.
Quick action steps to escape handcuffs:
- Insert shim between jaw and ratchet.
- Press into place firmly.
- Tighten arm of cuff so shim will prevent closure of ratchet.
- Hold shim in place, open cuff.
Handcuffs have been in use for many years, and yet during that time the process by which they work (referred to as the double lock) has largely been left unchanged during that time. In fact, both the single and double lock mechanisms remain virtually unchanged since the invention of handcuffs in 1912.
We’ll start with the single lock handcuffs.
You will need to fashion your own key out of any wire-like materials you have. Good examples of this include hairpins or paperclips. Either way, straighten the material out so that you can make it easier to form it into a key like shape.
Next, place the piece of wire into the key hole. With the wire still placed inside the keyhole, bend it to an approximate seventy degree angle.
Then, place the wire back into the hole and bend the other end. The resulting shape should resemble a crude wavy line.
Now you can insert this key into the hole, sliding it into the locking mechanism until it’s running alongside the teeth.
Simply wiggle the bent piece of the wire until it points in the direction of the locking arm. It should now be in a ninety degree angle when put up against the keyhole. See this video:
The goal is to lift the locking device inside of the cuffs and spring them open. You will need to twist the wire key in different directions. Be patient, it will take several tries.
Check out the steps to escape handcuffs here.
Escaping Zip Ties
Quick action steps:
- Maneuver arms to front of body.
- Raise arms way overhead.
- Forcefully thrust elbows down and back, following through.
- Wrists should “wedge” across chest, breaking ties.
Zip ties are extremely useful items in a bug out bag or survival kit, and one of the many uses that they fulfill is none other than to tie people up if necessary.
In order to understand how to escape a zip tie restraint, you first need to understand how zip ties work. Zip ties are made of a durable Nylon material with several, tiny teeth that run down one side of the tie. A molded ratchet is located on the end with several small teeth in a small case.
Since it is molded, the ratchet can allow pressure to be placed downward when the tape is placed through the open case, and then brought back up so that the areas in between the teeth on the tape come into perfect alignment with the teeth inside the ratchet.
This is what causes the zip ties to lock. When this happens, more movement will tighten the tie, but moving it backwards will not. It is precisely for this reason that zip ties can make for an effective restraining device.
Even though they are strong, they are not invincible. In fact, one such way to free you from them is to break them. If you have enough strength, it is possible to break apart the locking mechanism, but you can’t always count on this.
As an alternative method to break them apart, you can raise your hands above your head (assuming they are tied in front of you), and then bring them down with much force and speed against the upper part of your abdomen, while simultaneously pulling your elbows back and apart as much as possible.
If done with enough force and speed, the action will break the locking blade in the zip tie. The downside to this method is that it typically multiple attempts and it does cut deeply into your wrists.
There are two additional methods to break free of zip ties other than actually breaking them. You can pick the lock of the zip tie using a thin piece of material to press the locking mechanism up.
If you prevent the locking mechanism from coming into contact with the teeth of the strap, it’s possible to just pull the zip tie out. Examples of materials that you can use to pick the lock include hair barrettes, a pocket clip, paperclips, or if possible, your finger nail.
Finally, if breaking or picking the zip ties is not possible, you can attempt to cut or saw through them. Look around nearby for a material made of stone, concrete, or brick. Any item with rough edges may work.
Quick action steps for the friction saw method:
- Wind cord around ties.
- Grasp cord firmly.
- Pull back and forth to saw through ties.
Although time consuming, it is possible to cut the zip ties using the friction created by rubbing the ties back and forth over the rough edge.
Just in case there are not materials with rough edges within reach when you are trying to escape, you need a back-up plan. Smart preppers know to replace their shoelaces with 550 paracord so it is always available to them.
How can 550 cord be used to cut through zip ties? Simply remove both of your shoelaces (or more appropriately, 550 cord) and then tie them together.
Next, tie a bowline at both ends of the cord, with the resulting loop being large enough for you to slide your foot over. Next, thread the 550 cord under one of the zip ties, and then put one foot in each loop and move your feet into each loop.
Move your feet so that the cord will move back and forth, similar to how you would ride a bicycle. Eventually, the pressure on the zip ties from the 550 cord will generate enough heat to simply wear through the zip tie.
The faster you make the bicycle motion, the more friction you create and the quicker you will cut through the ties. Once the ties break, replace the 550 cord in your shoes and execute your escape plan.
Escaping Duct Tape
Quick action steps:
- Maneuver arms to front of body.
- Raise arms way overhead.
- Forcefully thrust elbows down and back, following through.
- Wrists should “wedge” across torso, snapping tape.
Duct tape is arguably the easiest restraint method to break out of, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Duct tape, a fabric tape reinforced with polyethylene coating, is undeniably one of the strongest adhesives out there. This is great news for when you need to get something repaired, but its bad news if you’ve been tied up with it by hostile forces.
One way to break free of duct tape is similar to the method for zip ties. Raise your hands above your head, and then bring them down quickly and forcefully against your abdomen while pulling your elbows apart. The advantage here is that you won’t cut your wrists like you would with the zip ties.
With that being said, you can heavily bruise, or break your wrists if you’ve tried multiple times with no success. Exercise caution when you’re practicing this method. Start small, then work up to more layers of duct tape. This way, you can tell what your body is capable of breaking using this method.
In addition to cutting through duct tape with a sharp object or rough edged material, there are three additional ways to break free of duct tape. Each one will work but has its own limitation.
The first to to wiggle and flex your hands and wrists until you are able to pull one hand free. It sounds straightforward, but do not be deceived, it takes a LOT of effort and time. It’s not as quick as the next two methods.
The limitation with this method comes into play if the duct tape is also around your arms and torso, making it more difficult to escape.
A second method for getting through duct tape, and you may have guessed it, is to chew through it. If your hands have been tied in front of you at a point where you can bring them up to your mouth, use your teeth to gnaw through the tape or at least weaken it.
This works best if used together with the first method of working one hand free. The obvious obstacle here is your mouth must be free. You will need another strategy if your captors thought to cover your mouth with a duct tape as well.
A third method to escape duct tape is to get the duct tape wet with water. Duct tape is water resistant, not waterproof. This means it can withstand moisture and water for only short periods of time.
If enough water or moisture is applied for long enough, the adhesive can and will fail. The more wet the tape becomes, the easier it is to peel away from whatever it is stuck to—in this case your hands or wrists.
If you have any water bottles or are near a natural water source, get the duct tape around your wrists soaked and you’ll have a much less challenging time wrestling free of them. If you aren’t within reach of a water source and can’t get your hands to your mouth to use saliva, you’ll have to use a different method.
If duct tape is around your mouth, simply extend your tongue out of your mouth and lick the tape surrounding your lips, while simultaneously opening your jaw vigorously. With enough practice, you will be able to free your mouth from the tape, as the adhesive can’t stick to a wet surface.
Escaping Rope / Paracord
Quick action steps:
- Create slack in ropes however you can so you can move (see below.)
- Maneuver against edge, sharp or rough object.
- Shimmy back and forth to saw through rope incrementally.
The fourth and final restraint that we will discuss breaking free from is rope/paracord. The neat thing about rope is that you can actually, in a way, influence how tightly it is tied around you.
Pretend to be cooperative while you are being tied up by holding your knuckles in the direction of your captor, but keeping space between your wrists and elbows. This makes it easier to slip your hands out later when trying to escape.
If the rope is being tied around your chest (to a tree for example), take a huge breath to fill your lungs with air. Hold it as long as you can, hopefully until your captor is done tying you up. When you release that air from your lungs, there will be a little slack in the rope.
The first way to break free of your bondages is to cut through the ropes with a knife, rock, or any other sharp object. You can also use something as unsuspecting as a key in your pocket.
Assuming your mouth hasn’t been gagged or taped over, you can use your teeth to loosen up the ropes.
After some work, you should be able to slip out of them. This method is made even more effective if you hold your wrists slightly apart like in the above example.
If none of the above examples work for you (maybe you were expertly tied up or your captors caught you holding your elbows apart) and it’s impossible for you to loosen the ropes or wrestle out of them, then what you’ll need to do is to take your shoelaces (or better yet, paracord if you have it) and make a large loop on both sides.
Next, place one loop around your left foot, bring the rest of the shoelace around your ropes one time, and then place the second loop around your right foot.
Get on your back with your feet up in front of you, and then move your legs as if you were riding a bicycle. In anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute, the shoelaces should saw through the ropes.
The Restraint “Arms Race”
I must remind readers that these techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Today’s cutting edge counter custody technique could be proven hopelessly obsolete next year, next month or next week.
This is because the bad guys, particularly professional kidnappers of all stripes, improve their techniques in direct responses to the challenges that they encounter and the countermeasures they see being propagated on the internet.
It is a game as old as time itself between adversaries. Move and counter move. One great example about our zip tie defeating technique above.
The technique is effective, no doubt about it, and in response to this kidnappers in Central America, particularly Mexico started implementing what is known as vampire cuffs to counter this.
Vampire cuffs are just zip ties, but ones upgraded with sharp spurs, made from additional zip ties cut down radically into points, attached at the location where the underside of the wearer’s wrists will be.
Now, if someone attempted to use the momentum based snapping technique detailed above when wearing such vampire cuffs the “fangs” will bite deeply and painfully into the wrists, inflicting lacerations.
Pain is a disincentive to be sure, but on the offhand chance that a person is able to power through with the technique they will likely be bleeding substantially and could leave a trail of blood for captors to follow should they escape.
This is just one such example, and there are many others besides. The point is you should not plan on encountering a textbook simple example of restraint or illegal custody. Practice accordingly.
Complications of Captivity
If you are taken captive, you must escape at the first available opportunity that affords you any chance of success. The reason is your situation will only get worse and worse, and your chances shrink the longer you are held captive.
This is because captors that move you or reposition you will invariably increase their security by searching you more thoroughly, improving or supplementing your restraints and other such measures that will make it more and more difficult for you to get away or protect yourself.
You’re likely to be strip searched if not stripped out right and this means that most of your tools we have squirreled away, discussed above, will be gone.
Consider that you might be duct taped, zip tied or handcuffed when initially captured but what happens if you are handcuffed and duct tape and bound with rope or strapped to a gurney somewhere else? Your chances of freeing yourself can begin to close in on zero under such circumstances.
Remember that you likely will not have a better chance to remove your restraints and get away then you will in the early stages of the event.
Frequently Asked Questions
A question that commonly comes up whenever discussing this subject is the probability of injury, both in training and a live event. Dynamic techniques that rely on strength and momentum will be subjecting the delicate carpal bones of your hands and wrists to considerable forces.
The fingers in particular are vulnerable to damage. It stands to reason that injury is far from out of the question. Even in the case of soft or subtle techniques relying upon picking or tool usage you might need to struggle mightily in order to position yourself for success.
The answer to the question of whether or not your hands or wrists will be injured, either injuries to tissue, ligaments and tendons or something worse like a fracture or dislocation, is complex as there are many factors involved in the calculus.
Perhaps the most obvious is the innate fitness and sturdiness of your own biology. People who are young, fit and athletic are less likely to be injured. Stronger tissues and bones are more resistant to injury, especially over multiple sharp movements or impacts. Folks who are already dealing with infirmity, old injuries or a general lack of athleticism will probably suffer more.
The type of the restraint, too, makes a big difference. Ropes and duct tape, while more than capable of being strong enough to lead to pull the muscles, sprained tendons and serious chafing generally are yielding and flexible enough to afford you a margin of error for multiple or botched attempts without serious injury.
Handcuffs, by comparison, are invariably made from steel or other alloys and generally will not give way from force alone before your bones and tissues will. They are notorious for biting into the wrists of those wearing them under load and can dislocate your thumb if you try to pull them free.
Zip ties are somewhere in the middle. They are flexible but pretty hard, and though they can be broken as described above a botched attempt will see them cut into your flesh readily and they may prove strong enough to withstand attempts to break them, potentially leading to soft tissue injuries.
Keep in mind that meaningful practice at escaping restraints, particularly when using dynamic techniques, is definitely going to involve some pain and may involve injury. Don’t sell yourself short by softballing restraints used in training and practice, and always take proper precaution when practicing these techniques.
When considering your counter custody plan, you might be wondering whether or not handcuffs all use the same key. Although the strict answer is no, the practical answer is yes.
At least, if you are in North, Central and South America, that is. The vast majority of handcuffs are based on only a couple legacy designs, and since and given set of handcuffs are temporary and not truly permanent restraints the only modest security increase of specialized keyways creates too great a logistical burden on those who typically employ them, namely law enforcement. Accordingly, handcuffs use a standardized key, and keys intended for double locking handcuffs have a double ended key to fit each lock.
This is not to say you won’t run into some specialized handcuffs or handcuff like restraints such as thumb cuffs that utilize alternate keys. Certain handcuffs utilize high security cylindrical keys but these are a rare exception.
Overwhelmingly, you can buy a standard universal handcuff key and be confident that any handcuffs you are restrained with can be unlocked by it.
Bottom line: Yes, any decent pair of bolt cutters can easily defeat chain linked or hinged handcuffs, and with a little bit of extra effort can defeat rigid cuffs.
Now, there is the academic and the practical answer to this question. Academically, as I said, yes. Practically, probably not unless you have someone to help you or you are lucky enough to have your hands cuffed in front of you.
This is because bolt cutters require a considerable amount of strength to operate and the likelihood that you’ll be able to position the bolt cutters in such a way to cut the chains or links joining your handcuffs if your hands are not in front of you is pretty slim.
One should also keep in mind that using bolt cutters to attack the bracelets of the handcuffs while they are being worn is risky as it will be fairly easy to bend or warp the metal in such a way that it impales a person’s wrists. It is far better, if you have access to bolt cutters, to use them to free up the hands and worry about getting the bracelets off later.
Ready to Give These a Try?
Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in a situation where you will need to break free and make an escape. But when it comes to prepping, you must be ready for anything. Like we’ve mentioned before, have a friend or family member on standby while you practice getting out of these restraints.
The more your practice, the easier it will be to get out of them…and easier for you to make your daring escape should the time ever arise in an SHTF situation.