Tuesday, March 29, 2011

550 Paracord, Universal Utility Line: Cool Gear

Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord, or Mil-C-5040H Type III parachute cord, is an amazingly universal tool that can be used in many different circumstances to improvise repairs, like duct tape, as dictated by your environment. Originally produced for parachutes in the second World War, its lightness and compactness combined with its versatility quickly turned it into a must-have piece of equipment across army units of all kinds. Ex-servicemen quickly spread its popularity to the general population.

What do its users think of it? This is what we collected from numerous forums and reviews: "It is the handiest stuff that I have ever seen... strong, light and durable... There are 1000 uses for it... I highly recommend it to everyone... You can never have enough paracord around... Many uses for this product... Small, lightweight, and strong... Everyone should have great quality [para]cord... So many uses....  Uses are endless and worth having around for almost everything...  This cord is the perfect all-purpose camping cord.... You might be able to break it with a large truck but I wouldn't bet on it... Toss a ream of it in your vehicle and leave some at home too... If you are an outdoorsman or outdoorswoman and you don't have a 1000' roll of this in you gear then you just aren't really serious about it... I didn't know I needed it until I got it... This stuff is amazing! It is very tough and cut-resistant.... A must have for any hunter and outdoor person and survival kit... An absolute necessity in a survival kit... As important as a knife... I have [boy scouts] wrap cord around their hiking sticks as a hand grip material; then there's always some on hand in an emergency.. There isn't a weekend that goes by that we don't use it and my boys are always finding new uses..." 

The one we like best is: "with a 1000' roll of this and two rolls of duct tape I think someone could take over the world!!"  

Why is it so popular?
  • It is very light for its strength. As its name indicates, its breaking strength is rated at 550 lbs, yet 10 feet of length can be carried on your wrist in the form of a woven bracelet. A pound of 550 paracord will produce at least 225 feet of line.
  • It is impervious to water, being made of nylon. 
  • It does not fray easily, as it can be terminated cleanly by burning the end with a lighter or a match.
  • It has strong resistance to light exposure per its original specification, and, as a result, ages well in outdoor use.
  • Each length of 550 paracord can produce 7 to 9 times its length in much thinner line, since it is possible to extract the guts for other purposes, such as fishing line, sutures, etc. In turn, each gut can be unstranded into 3 smaller yarns, although these can be somewhat twisty. While there is no performance difference between 7x, 8x and 9x cores, we have a slight preference for 8x or 9x cores because we can get more gut length out of the same length of 550 paracord, since we have more core yarns.
  • The sheath and its yarns can also be used independently. The sheath is woven of 32 or 36 yarns, which can also be reused to weave material.
  • The versatility of 550 paracord makes it ideal as a light universal rope in outdoor activities. It is highly prized by survivalists. Many users carry a woven bracelet, neck lanyard, or belt of paracord for possible reuse. Others wrap flashlight or knife handles with it for the same purpose.

Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord drawbacks
  • Abrasion is a risk, as it is not resin-impregnated, although the sheath/ core construction provides some protection. 
  • The great elasticity of the cord, which gives it its high breaking strength, is also a weakness for some uses as it can lengthen under strain 30% or more. This will rule out some potential uses where constant length is important. For instance, it would not be wise to use 550 paracord to make a metal canoe fast on the top of a car, as the cord would easily stretch and let the canoe fall in a big gust... 

What it is being used for

We collected some of the uses that people have put it to. One user describes emergency surgery: "I didn't see ... barbed wire... and I ended up with two deep gouges... I cut some 550 cord, pulled out the seven interior strands, and divided the 2-ply strands again. Those were my sutures. A # 8 snelled hook served as the needle, and I used a Leatherman tool to pull the hook through. I gave it 6 stitches... A week later, I removed the stitches, and although they held the wound tightly together, the skin did not adhere to the nylon threads." The variety of uses is quite remarkable: "wall tent, clothes lines... In a group camp usually someone want a piece of cord for something and bingo, here it is... Hang a hammock... Fishing line, net weaving, stitching, and netted containers... I once used the exterior sheath of 550 to weave a small hammock... My primary shelter-lashing material when making lean-tos, wickups, and tarp-shelters...Perfect for hauling up your gun or bow up to the tree stand, the BEST boot laces ever, I've used it to help stake out my tent... This is one of the first thing I add when making a emergency survival kit for someone. Not only is it strong and lightweight, you can separate the strands for even more length. (Each separate cord, and there are 7, is good for about 50 lbs.)... Bought 2 x 100ft rolls and renewed cords on 50 two man tents. Has worked a treat. Good and strong to handle the New Zealand's southern weather conditions... Inner cords can be used for fishing line, sewing repairs, lashing, snares...  Hang antennas from trees... or to tease the cats with... I had to set up a tarp canopy between some oddly placed trees because we were expecting rain in the morning... Everything from making your own parachutes to tying your tent down... I used the cord to set a Z-Drag lift system, using carabiners, in my basement to lift an approximate 400 lb band saw so I could put it in a movable base... I used this rope wile working in Haiti, It really held up to the heat, moisture, and dusty terrain. It held up great, very good product for multiple purposes...  Rope ladder... Survival bracelets - one bracelet up to 30 ft cord... Key rope around the neck 3 ft or so... Braided key rope around the neck 25 ft... Gun straps 100 ft... Boot laces 8 ft... Backpack straps braided triple solomon 20 ft... Knife lanyards... Multi tool lanyards... Small loops to hang off your belt... Made rope swing at the river with it 70 ft french braided wood handle... Lashed together a few make shift beds lean tos... Pulled a car outa the snow with it once triple lapped cord 30 ft then tied off to Jeep pulls minivan slowly carefully out lol... Sleeved a few computer wires with it... Used as a fish stringer few times... Used it for hauling a few couches few times...  Took 20 foot in 6 in sections removed all the inner cords filled it with lead for fishing weights, no more snags... I bought this for a knife handle wrap and it worked perfectly... Ridge lines for tarps... Shoelaces... Hanging food from bears... Vehicle Tie Downs... Sewing fabric... Making a fire bow... Fishing line... String for a bow... Making a shelter...  Fish gill nets...  Animal snares... Anchor line... Binding... Twine... Animal restraints... Dental floss... Splints... Tourniquet."

The use description we like best, though, is this one (we are not sure about its truthfulness though): "tying up burglars (or your wife), securing split trees, rappelling down buildings during the apocalypse, restraining zombies, or zombie dogs, and/or camping. You simply cannot beat the versatility of this product.
Side-note: Given how well it works on zombies, I feel it would work equally well on were-wolves and vampires."

The trap of commercial paracord

True mil-spec paracord is specifically referenced as Mil-C-5040H TYPE III parachute cord or Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord ("Mil-C-5040 TYPE III" without the H is also good), and  the cord batch carries a testing certificate guaranteeing its performance. Commercial paracord, however, is not tested, and often carries significantly lower performance. Some samples of commercial paracord use different, cheaper, materials, for the core yarns or  for the sheath, or a lesser number of core yarns. Some of them have very low breaking strength, or use material that degrades quickly. So, when you buy commercial paracord, as opposed to Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord, you do not have any guarantee of performance.

A common way to advertise commercial (i.e. with no guaranteed performance) paracord is by calling it  "mil-spec 550 paracord." This is NOT for Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord - it could be for any quality of commercial paracord, with no way to know what the breaking strength of the paracord will be. Trustworthy vendors who sell commercial paracord will specify that it is not made for parachuting applications.

The trap of Type II or Type IIA paracord

The Mil-C-5040H military specification defines 6 types of paracord: type I with braking strength of 95 lbs, type IA, with breaking strength of 100 lbs, type II with breaking strength of 400 lbs, type IIA with breaking strength of 225 lbs, type III with breaking strength of 550 lbs, and type IV with breaking strength of 750 lbs, which is difficult to find. Many items labeled "paracord" or "mil-spec paracord" without a mention of 550 lb breaking strength with be type II or type IIA paracord, with a minimal breaking strength which is significantly lower than 550 paracord. This is even worse than the manifestly falsely advertised "mil-spec 550 paracord" items. In particular, most bracelets or lanyards made of "paracord" are typically made of type II or type IIA commercial paracord.


True Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord only comes in white, black, camouflage colors, or international orange, due to the original military specifications. Cool colors are available in commercial versions (including interesting reflective colors). We recommend using two colors, one earth or green color for camouflage uses such as hanging food outside the reach of bears, and international orange for other uses.  

Buying Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord

In order to buy Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord, with guaranteed breaking strength, you need to buy paracord that is advertised exactly as "Mil-C-5040H TYPE III parachute cord," "Mil-C-5040H TYPE III paracord," or "Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord." The better sites will also publish the official certificate of compliance (i.e. test verification) from their paracord tests. True Mil-C-5040H TYPE III 550 paracord is 30-70% more expensive than cheap commercial 550 paracord, but only slightly more expensive than good quality paracord.

Where to buy Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord

We recommend buying paracord from vendors who focus on sky jumpers, parachutists or emergency workers, because their paracord is much more likely to buy the true Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord. For the same reason, we recommend buying a USA-made product.There are very few sites where you can find the true blue item. Best Glide is a provider of aviation survival equipment, and provides a certificate of compliance. Best Glide carries all regular military colors. Adventure Survival Equipment, a division of Best Glide, is also a good online choice. ParaGear is a paruchuting store.   LifeView Outdoors is a  retailer of recreational outdoor gear.

If you are willing to compromise down to high quality commercial 550 paracord,where you will find a better set of colors, but non-guaranteed performance, you might want to check out Cabela's, TakKnife, CheaperThanDirt , CountyComm or  CampingSurvival

Statistical user ratings

We could not find a statistically significant set of user reviews for true Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord, so we looked for user reviews of decent quality commercial grade 550 paracord. We found 211 reviews, of which 195 were positive, for a 92% approval rating, with a 3.6% margin of error at 95% certainty. This represents an excellent rating, which could only increase if applied to true Mil-C-5040H. A presentation of our rating methodology can be found on ConsumerPla.net Statistical Ratings Explained.

  • Mil-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord is an extraordinarily versatile general purpose utility line, as useful as duct tape.
  • It is light and compact, with high tensile strength, and can fit into any survival or mini-tool kit. It is almost a required part of any such kit, and is highly appreciated by its enthusiastic users.
  • True MIL-C-5040H Type III 550 paracord is superior to commonly found commercial "mil-spec" paracord, and can be found in a few sites, such as Best Glide, a provider of aviation survival equipment.

Want to read more about it? Try Cool Tools, Outside Magazine, Survival Topics. or this excellent Wikipedia article. The Survival Forum, which is not a survivalist forum, but an emergency gear forum, is an interesting place to discuss paracord use. There are many sites with tutorials on specific paracord braiding projects, along with YouTube tutorials - Stormdrane's Blog has many projects illustrated over the past few years. General purpose braiding sites, such as Boondoggle Man, also provide excellent references. The actual MIL-C-5040H specs can be found with the DoD, or on EverySpec. Essex Mills published, in 1954, a Test Report on MIL-C-5040.

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