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The Survivalist’s Secret to Making Rope from Plants

The Survivalist’s Secret to Making Rope from Plants post image

One of the most important pieces of survival gear to have is rope, and it is definitely something you should have in your Bug Out Bag for wilderness survival.

But what if you lose your rope or run out?  That is where knowing how to make rope from plants comes in.

*I want to point out that rope making was something that humans have known for a really long time. Prehistoric man started making ropes at least 1.8 million years ago!  How do we know this?  Because archeologists have found imprints of rope in rocks and clay. (Source)

If our ancient ancestors could figure out how to make rope from plants, there is no reason we can’t do it today.  The only skill that modern men are lacking is patience!

Step 1: Find Your Plant Fibers

First off, let’s start with what is fiber.  If you understand this, then you will be able to make rope out of plants even if you can’t necessarily identify the plant in question.

Plants are mostly made of two components:

  • Starches: These are the nutrient parts of a plant. They will dissolve in water.
  • Fiber: These are the parts of a plant which give it structure. Insoluble fibers will not dissolve in water.

All plants consist of fiber.  However, to make a strong rope, you want to choose plants which have the strongest fibers.

Some of the top plants for making rope include:

  • Stinging nettle
  • Yucca
  • Milkweed
  • Dogbane
  • Western red cedar

An advanced survivalist might take the time to memorize the best plants for making cordage in the wild.  But what are you going to do if you can’t find these plants? I personally think it is a lot better to memorize which parts of a plant have the strongest fibers.

The yucca plant is great for making rope

The yucca plant is great for making rope

Best Parts of Plants for Making Rope

  • Bark Fibers: Actually, you do NOT want to make rope out of bark. It is the fibers from the INNER bark of a tree that you want!  They are also very long fibers so are easier to use for making rope than shorter fibers.
  • Stalk Fibers: These fibers are also very strong and long. While they don’t have the strength or length of bark fibers, stalk fibers are easier to access and use.
  • Grass Fibers: These fibers are quite short and not very strong. However, it is very easy to process grass fibers so they are a good choice if you need to make rope quickly and strength isn’t a major issue.

Plant parts like leaves also contain fiber. However, with the exception of a few species, leaf fibers generally are very weak.

To put this in perspective, think celery fibers vs. spinach fibers.  Celery is stalk whereas spinach is a leaf. Which would you rather make rope out of?

* I actually learned a lot about fibers during a papermaking course I took with my wife. It is amazing how many cool survival skills you can learn if you keep your mind open!

Step 2: Separating the Fibers from the Plants

To make rope, you need to separate the fiber from the plant.  Otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of starches in your rope.  Those starches will weaken the rope.  The moment it rains on your rope, you can count on it to start dissolving!

There are a few ways to separate the fibers from plants to make rope:

Method 1: Boil Fresh Plants

If it is springtime and you only have fresh plants available, you’ll need to boil them. When you boil the plants, the starches will dissolve into the water.  You dump out this water and wash the boiled plants.  You’ve really got to wash them thoroughly to get rid of any starches which might be remaining.  What you end up is pure fiber.

Some people half-ass this step and just soak the plants in water.  This works okay if the plant is really fibrous (think woody stalks or inner bark). However, you’ll still end up with a lot of starch remaining and your rope won’t be as strong.

Method 2: Find Dead or Dry Plants

This is great if you are using grass or stalks as your rope-making fiber.  Once the plant has died and dried up, the starches will have dried out too.

If you are using stalks for your fiber, choose plants which have tough, wood-like outers.  Lay the dry stalks out on a flat surface.  Using a rock, pound the stalks so they split lengthwise.  Do not try to cut the stalks open as this will cut the fibers.

Now you can use a knife or sharp rock to scrape out the softer fibers from within.  Discard the outer bark and just use the inner fibers.

Note: Some people find it helpful to soak stalks to make it easier to separate the fibers from the outer bark.  This is fine.  However, NEVER USE WET FIBER TO MAKE ROPE.  It will shorten when it dries, thus causing your rope to unravel and weaken.

This image shows a man soaking jute to soften it. He then cracks open the tough outer bark to remove the fibers inside. Jute is one of the most common natural rope materials.

This image shows a man soaking jute to soften it. He then cracks open the tough outer bark to remove the fibers inside. Jute is one of the most common natural rope materials.

Method 3: Drying the Plants Yourself

If you aren’t restricted by time, then you can just hang the plants to air dry.  Much of the starch will dry out of them leaving behind mostly fiber. Just as if you were using dead plants, you’ll need to pound open stalks and scrape out the fibers.

Method 4: Stripping the Inner Bark of a Tree

The inner bark of trees doesn’t contain much starch at all.  The inner bark also has the strongest and longest of plant fibers. So, this is really the best way to get your plant fibers for making rope in the wild.

Some trees – especially red cedar –  have really long stringy fibers.  You just remove a long section of the bark (you’ll want a survival knife to do this) and then peel off long strips of fiber.

If the fibers are really tough and can’t be broken into thin strips, you can soak them in water and then strip them.

Important: When I say “inner bark,” I am actually talking about the part known as the bast or phloem of the tree.  In a true survival situation, you can strip away as much of the phloem as you need.  If you are just testing your skills though, look for trees with dead bark.   Or, if the tree is living, only take a few thin strips from it.  Taking too much phloem can kill the tree.

In the image, #4 is the phloem and the part of the bark you want to use for making rope.

In the image, #4 is the phloem and the part of the bark you want to use for making rope.

Check out how stringy the inner bark from red cedar is. Just pull it off in long strips!

Check out how stringy the inner bark from red cedar is. Just pull it off in long strips!

Step 3: Buffing the Fibers

Depending on the type and part of the plant used, you might be able to make rope immediately from the fibers you sourced.  However, you’ll probably need to do something called buffing first.

Buffing is a step which softens the fibers so they are more flexible.  It also helps to remove any remaining woody bark.

To buff the fibers, just roll them back and forth in your hands. Or, I prefer to put the fiber strands on my thigh and rub my hand back and forth over them.

You should see the fibers becoming fluffier and stringier.

*Just because the fibers are becoming thinner, it doesn’t mean that they are getting weaker!  In fact, you want the fibers to be very thin and fluffy.  The thinner and fluffier the fibers are, the better you will be able to twist them together.  The twisting is what gives the rope strength!

Instead of using her hands to buff the grass, this woman is pounding it with a rock. Buffing makes the fibers more flexible so they twist together easier.

Instead of using her hands to buff the dry fibrous grass, this woman is pounding it with a rock. Buffing makes the fibers more flexible so they twist together into rope easier.

4. Wrapping Your Fiber into Rope

Now it is time to wrap your plant fibers into rope!  There are a few ways to do this, and none of them can be explained in text very well.  So, here’s a video which will show you how to wrap natural fibers into rope.

This is a great survival skill to know and could save your life.  You might even start trading the rope you made for supplies after the apocalypse! 🙂  But, it is still good to keep some strong rope in your Bug Out Bag.  If you aren’t sure what rope is best, here’s the Survivalist’s Guide to Rope.

Have you ever tried making rope from plants? How did it go? Let us know in the comments or join the discussion in our Facebook community.

Image credit: “At the End of a Rope” (CC BY 2.0) by  cogdogblog
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jute_fibre_extraction.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2015_Smithsonian_folklife_festival_DC_-Qeswachaka_Bridge_rope_making_-_01.jpg

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