In the book “Bushcraft”, by Richard Graves, good cordage is described as having three key characteristics; 1. Length 2. Strength and 3. Flexibility. All three attributes must be present. Most grass for instance can be long and flexible but may lack strength. For the bushcrafter, the industry standard cordage is military parachute cord AKA “paracord”, “chute cord”, “p cord” or “550 cord”. With a tensile strength of 550 pounds and 7 inner strands composed of 2 strands each, 550 cord is amazingly strong and versatile. There is a good reason why this cordage is so popular in bushcraft and survival communities. That being said, there are other great choices for cordage that shouldn’t be overlooked. While 550 cord is great to carry, at times it can be too much cord than necessary and in other scenarios, it may not be enough. After friction fire starting techniques, one of the hardest skills to learn is cordage craft. So, let’s apply the three desirable characteristics of cordage to discover and understand alternative choices to 550 cord and build an understanding as the basis for cordage training.
550 Type III cordage, for reasons explained previously, is an excellent minimum standard and essential to pack. There are other great synthetic options out there providing great strength and alternative use. Military Type IA cordage is significantly thinner than 550 cord but has a tensile strength of 100 pounds. Around camp, there are many times when something small must be suspended far under the 550 pound load limit of Type III cord. I’m perfectly content with reserving my heavier cordage for heavier jobs. Bank line is a similar thinner diameter option that is less expensive than IA cordage. Moving to a thinner cordage than type 1A line is 50 pound Spiderwire braided fishing line. I prefer this fishing line over monofilament and have used it for sewing thread, dental floss and to dummy cord items to the inside of pouch pockets to prevent losing them. Not to mention, if you need fishing line, this is the one to carry as there is nothing better for survival fishing techniques. Sure, you can use the innards of 550 cord but dedicated line works better.
If you are more environmentally friendly and care to only pack natural cordage with you because you believe nylon cord is evil, there are many options available. Please understand these options will likely deteriorate faster and will not be as strong pound for pound as anything synthetic. If you can live with this reality, you are left with cotton cordage, jute and sisal as popular options. Jute has the added benefit of being able to be pulled apart and used as tinder for fire starting. You can also use rawhide or leather lace for small jobs. Natural cordage, left behind in camp, doesn’t make you feel like you’re polluting the environment as it ultimately will go back to the land with minimum trace left behind. Whether you make it off the land or pack it with you, natural cordage allows you to preserve your 550 cord. Whenever you can, save your best resources and improvise cordage. This is one of the fundamental tenets of bushcraft, doing more with less. Even if you feel like you have no cordage available but have a cotton T-shirt on, don’t forget you can take the bottom hem and cut it off. I’ve experimented with this method with bow drill fires and find it very durable for this fire starting technique.
If you like the idea of turning a t-shirt into a piece of cordage, you may find alternative cordage made from discarded items equally interesting. One lesson I have shown to survival students and students in my Geography and Cultures class at the high school is how to turn plastic grocery shopping bags into cordage. With simple reverse wrapping, strips of plastic bags or even the entire bag all at once can be twisted into a braided rope. This same principle can be applied to any number of plastic materials and with proper splicing, your cordage can be unlimited in length. One of the more interesting ways I’ve seen cordage made is by creating a jig to cut a continuous strip from a 2 liter bottle. Check it out, it’s easy to find with a quick internet search. Remember, your cordage must be long, strong and flexible. Think of the possibilities around you right now as your read this. Wires, electrical tape, cord and garbage bags will all start to look different to you as long as you know how to convert them.
It’s certainly important to carry cordage in the backwoods but is equally important to know how to use it. Various knots, hitches and rope manipulations will extend the life of the cordage you carry. You should learn how to make cordage and how to coil it. You should learn which cordage is best for a particular use and also which knots are meant to prolong the life of it. Cordage can be a lifesaver or it can be a threat to your safety so of course I’m going to recommend having a means to cut it free from an object or yourself. I may know a particular knife company called Fiddleback Forge where you can find a good blade for that very purpose. Remember, cordage is more than string, it is a concept. Anything long, strong and flexible can be converted into cordage and the survivor who has an understanding of how to find it, coil it, carry it, and use it will be more ready for the long haul than the guy who just carries 550 cord.