Be sure to check out our product recommendations and related blogs posts after the article!
Paracord is easily one of the most practical and versatile items a camper, hiker, or bush crafter can carry. But, with lots of different options on the market, picking the right paracord can be tough.
In this guide, we'll explain:
- What paracord is
- What you can use paracord for
- The different types of paracord
- How to spot fake paracord
- What your best options are
What is Paracord?
Paracord is an abbreviation of parachute cord. It's commonly referred to as 550 cord or type III cord — however, those names are related to one of the most popular types of this adaptable product.
Originally this type of rope was designed for military parachute suspension lines. However, its versatility and strength-to-weight ratio soon made it popular with other army units.
In time, civilians began to adopt paracord too. It's one of the essential tools for surviving in the wild because it's suitable for such a wide range of tasks. We'll get into some of them below.
The key to paracord's popularity is that it's a kernmantle rope. Kernmantle is a type of rope construction that features an interior core protected by a woven exterior. This process gives paracord durability, resilience, and flexibility.
The rope's core means it can handle a lot of stress, while the woven exterior protects the cord from wearing away during use.
What Can I Use Paracord For?
The thing that makes paracord so valuable is its versatility. It's ready to go out of your bag as a solid rope that is rated to carry 550lbs in the case of the most commonly used 550 paracord. However, you can also use the inner strands for a variety of lighter tasks.
Paracord is an excellent survivalist option because you can put the inner strands to work to make animal traps, start a fire, make a fishing line, and even use it to secure a shelter together.
Additionally, paracord is great in emergency situations. For example, you can use it to make a sling, a tourniquet, or tie a temporary splint to your leg if you get into trouble.
The outer casing has plenty of uses, too, like bootlaces or fastening a knife to a stick to make a hunting spear.
The uses of paracord are fairly endless, which is why many hikers, campers, and bush crafters carry this rope.
Types of Paracord
When campers, hikers, and bush crafters talk about paracords, they generally mean type III / 550 cord. This type is so popular because it has the best ratio of strength to price.
However, there are a few types of paracord that you should be aware of when you go shopping so that you know what you're looking for — and what to avoid.
Type I paracord is rated to hold 95lbs. It's a fairly cheap cord and contains one core strand. It's best used for light tasks, dummy cording, and decorative use.
Type II paracord has 4-7 core strands and is rated to hold about 400lbs. It's relatively rare, and few stores seem to stock this kind of rope.
Type III paracord offer uses the best mix of affordability and quality. Rated to hold 550lbs — which is why it's called 550 — it has between 7 and 9 core strands. It's readily available and of excellent value.
Type IV paracord is rated for 750lbs thanks to its 11 core strands. However, this extra strength and quality come at a price. It's considerably more expensive than Type III (often twice as much) without providing a justifiable jump in quality.
What is Mil-Spec Paracord?
The types we listed above refer to grades of paracord based on core strands and how much load they are rated to carry. But there is another type of paracord that you should be aware of, called military specification (mil-spec) paracord.
Mil-spec paracord is built in line with the military specifications outlined in this document: MIL-C-5040H. While it doesn't need to be made by a government contractor to be sold as mil-spec paracord, it does need to adhere to these strict guidelines.
The guidelines are very detailed, but there are four easy ways that you can tell the difference between mil-spec and commercial grade paracord.
#1. Inner Strands
One of the simplest methods to tell if your rope is mil-spec is by counting the number of inner strands. The MilSpec C-5040H guidelines require any Type III paracord must have 7 to 9 inner strands.
If your paracord has any less than seven inner strands, it does not meet the manufacturing guidelines and is definitely not mil-spec paracord.
#2. Inside Strands
As mentioned above, mil-spec paracord must have 7 to 9 inner strands. And each of these inner strands must be formed of 3 inside strands or yarns.
The most straightforward way to think of this is to take three strings and braid them together. Then you'll have an inner strand.
Commercially sold paracord will frequently be made with two yarns or inside strings. If your paracord doesn't have three inside yarns, it doesn't meet the mil-spec guidelines.
#3. Twisted Strands
Take a look at your paracord's inner and inside strands, as described above. All inner and inside strands should be twisted to meet MilSpec C-5040H compliance.
Some commercially available paracord has straight inner and inside strands or features a combination of twisted and straight strands. Again, if all your strands aren't twisted, your rope doesn't meet mil-spec requirements.
#4. Colored ID Marker Strand
Examine the inner strands of your paracord. One of them should be a different color than the other strands. This strand goes by a few different names, like:
- Colored Manufacturer's ID Marker Strand
- Colored Marker Strand
- Manufacturer's ID Strand
- ID Marker Strand
Genuine mil-spec C-5040H paracord must have this twisted-colored manufacturer's ID marker strand. The US military assigns each mil-spec paracord manufacturer an individual color (or colors). The reason for this is that it allows the manufacturer to be easily identified and accountable for any failures with the product.
While Mil-Spec C-5040H compliant paracord has a lot of requirements, these four are the easiest to spot. So remember, if your paracord doesn't have all four of the criteria outlined above, it's not compliant with mil-spec guidelines.
However, most Mil-Spec C-5040H compliant manufacturers are not producing paracord that is commercially available. If you find paracord with the colored ID strand available online or in-store, the chances are it is not truly Mil-Spec and is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
Because of this, it is important to pay extra attention to the first 3 criteria, as Mil-Spec paracord is available i.e. it meets the same quality guidelines, it just won't have the colored strand because it wasn't produced by a military contractor for military purposes.
How To Spot Fake Paracord
Unfortunately, there are several unscrupulous actors out there selling fake paracord. While we've outlined how you can tell commercial and mil-spec paracord apart above already, there are also things you should watch out for when you're buying commercial paracord.
Often you can tell you have a cheap, poorly-made paracord just by looking at it. Real paracord feels assuring and solid, while knock-off paracord feels fragile.
A genuine 550-paracord should have 7-9 core strands surrounded by a braided sheath made from three strands. That's where the rope strength comes from, and it's the reason it can hold serious weight.
Fake paracord will often only use two strands in the outer sheath. It has far less material and won't look or feel nearly as robust.
The Type and Quality of Materials
Another great way to tell real and fake paracord apart is the type and quality of materials. Paracord is almost always made from either nylon or polyester. However, the quality of the materials used is a telltale sign.
Genuine Type III paracord is woven tightly and intricately. This process is where it gets its tensile strength. You'll know you've got a solid rope because of the precise and clean workmanship.
In contrast, fake paracords are often made of less durable materials and can look like tired, worn-out cotton.
One of the reasons why paracord is so useful is that it will keep its flexibility and tensile strength even after being used a number of times.
Fake paracord is typically made of lower-quality materials. It's far thinner and loses its flexibility and strength with use.
Paracord is almost exclusively made from nylon or polyester. These materials are used because they are surprisingly lightweight for something so strong.
While less sturdy and thinner than authentic paracord, fake paracord usually uses a heavier material.
Fake paracords are generally far cheaper than the real stuff. And as they say, if it's too good to be true, it usually isn't.
While it can be tempting to save a few dollars by buying cheaper goods, it's a false economy when it comes to paracord. Fake paracord won't be reliable enough to get the job done, and you'll need to replace it quickly.
Genuine paracord will last you a long time and can withstand extensive use.
The Best Paracord
Overall, the best paracord to buy is a 550 Type III mil-spec. When you are using paracord for trips to the outdoors or even around the home, you want something that you can rely on. Make sure you are able to view or see the top 3 most important features of what makes the best paracord when making a purchase decision:
- 7 - 9 inner cords
- 3 strands per cord
- The strands must be twisted together to form the cord