Paracord is considered essential survival gear and has dozens of uses. But, while paracord definitely could help save your life in an emergency situation, its strength is often hyped up.
Here’s what you need to know about how strong paracord really is.
550 paracord is rated to hold 550lbs of static weight and has a safe working load of around 110lbs. This is strong enough to tie down tents, tie ridgeline for a shelter, fix shoelaces, and do many other tasks.
Paracord is NOT strong enough for climbing, rappelling, lifting heavy objects overhead, or even for hanging a bug out hammock.
Military Paracord Strength Ratings
There are a lot of rope products that go under the name paracord. When talking about “real” paracord though, we are usually referring to military-issued paracord. These are labeled with the code MIL-C-5040H.
There are six types of military paracord and each has specific physical properties. Type III paracord, also called 550 paracord, is the most popular with survivalists.
|Type||Minimum strength||Minimum elongation||Minimum length per pound of cord||Core yarns||Sheath structure|
|I||95 pounds||30%||950 feet||1||16/1|
|IA||100 pounds||30%||1,050 feet||no core||16/1|
|II||400 pounds||30%||265 feet||4 to 7||32/1 or 36/1|
|IIA||225 pounds||30%||495 feet||no core||32/1 or 36/1|
|III||550 pounds||30%||225 feet||7 to 9||32/1 or 36/1|
|IV||750 pounds||30%||165 feet||11||32/1, 36/1, or 44/1|
How Is Paracord Strength Measured?
There are many types of tests to measure paracord strength. One of the simplest tests involves clamping one end of the paracord between two grips. Weight is then added to the other end until the paracord breaks.
Other strength tests measure a cord’s ability to withstand breaking when objects are dropped and yet other tests measure how much the cordage deforms.
What Does Minimum Strength Mean with Paracord?
The minimum strength rating is the minimum amount of static force the cord can hold without breaking. For safety, cord manufacturers add a margin of error (usually around 20%) when calculating minimum strength. This means that type III paracord could hold more than 550 lbs of static weight and still not break.
*Some rope brands use the term “tensile strength” or “minimum breaking strength” instead of minimum strength.
**Paracord strength is often given in pounds (lbs) or kilograms. However, it’s more accurate to list strength in kilonewtons (kN).
Static Force vs. Dynamic Force
When trying to figure out how strong paracord is, it is important that you realize paracord strength ratings are based on static force. Static force is a load that does not change size, position, or direction. By contrast, dynamic force is a load that does move and will pull on the paracord.
For example, let’s say that you use paracord to hang a hammock. If you lie still in the hammock, the paracord is under static force. If you start swinging around in the hammock (or shift your weight, get in/out of the hammock…), the paracord is under dynamic force.
Aside from things like knife handle wrappings, most uses for paracord involve dynamic force. Even things like tying a tarp shelter with paracord involve dynamic force: the wind blowing on the tarp will exert dynamic force on the paracord holding it.
How Much Dynamic Force Does an Object Exert?
An object in movement can exert a huge amount of force. A 160lb person, for example, will exert this much force during a fall:
- 10 foot fall = 1,683 lbs of force
- 50 foot fall = 8,410 lbs of force
Unless you are great at physics, it is very difficult to calculate how much force an object will exert (here’s the basic math behind it). Because of this, some brands list “working load” of their rope to indicate its strength.
Working Load of Paracord
Working load is the maximum amount of weight that should ever be applied to paracord. The working load is always much lower than the strength. With paracord, the maximum working load is usually around 20% of the strength. For 550 paracord, this means a maximum working load of 110lbs.
Most manufacturers don’t list the working load of their paracord. When it is listed, it can cause a lot of confusion. For example, in this Reddit thread, someone warned against using Walmart paracord because it listed a working load of 110lbs. As one person responded, “Props to the walmart brand for prominently displaying the safe working load, even though it leads to people like you thinking it’s lesser quality.”
*Note that the working load still doesn’t account for dynamic force: 550 paracord will hold a 100lb cast iron cauldron. But the cord might break the moment that cauldron starts swinging around!
The Navy has a very detailed course chapter about calculating material strength which you can get here.
Other Things That Affect Paracord Strength
Knots and Splices
Each knot you add to paracord will reduce strength. Some types of knots can reduce strength by 60%! In general, splices are stronger than knots.
*Whenever possible, use a tensionless knot around a cylindrical object which is at least 4 inches in diameter. Knots that are around objects smaller than 4 inches put more stress on the cord fibers, making them weaker.
Any place that the paracord bends or is angled will be weaker. For example, if you run paracord under a board to make a swing, it will be much weaker at the place where it bends around the edge of the board.
Nylon absorbs water. When wet, the fibers get stretched out, become more susceptible to abrasion, and lose strength. According to various studies and reports, rope can lose anywhere from 15% to up to 70% when wet. Keep this in mind when working with wet paracord.
When dealing with dynamic force (an object in motion), longer paracord is stronger than shorter paracord. This is because long paracord has more room to absorb shock, meaning that the force isn’t as great.
Keep your paracord away from chemicals. Even drawing on your paracord with magic marker can reduce its strength significantly.
Paracord gets weaker as it ages. There aren’t any guidelines about when paracord “goes bad” though. You’ll have to inspect your paracord for signs of aging like brittle fibers, tears in the sheath, or discoloration.
Can I use paracord to hang a hammock?
While plenty of people have gotten away with using paracord to hang a hammock, it is simply not meant for that. The maximum working load of 550 paracord is only about 110lbs, which is lower than the weight of most adults.
Even though the weight is distributed between two pieces of paracord, both pieces of paracord are weakened because of their knots and because the hammock is at an angle.
So long as you are very lightweight, lie down in the hammock very carefully and don’t swing around, the paracord should hold up. But it would only take one wrong moment for the paracord to snap!
Can I use 550 paracord for climbing?
Paracord should never be used for climbing, rappelling or rescue. Type III (550) paracord only has a breaking strength of 2.4kN. Even type IV (750) paracord is too weak for climbing. It will easily snap when dynamic force is applied to it. Ropes used for climbing will have a breaking strength of at least 9kN and ropes for rescue are even stronger than this.
There are various standards for rescue ropes and safety lines. These include:
- National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA)
- European Standard 1891
For example, NFPA has a minimum breaking strength of 4,500lbs and maximum working load of 300lbs for a one-person rope. OSHA requires at least 5,000lbs of strength for most safety lines. If you want a rescue rope, look for one which is certified by one of these groups.
The bottom line? Paracord has many uses – but climbing or pulling people to safety aren’t among them. If you need rope for rescue, then get rope which meets the minimum safety standards.