The ability to create the tools you need with the limited resources at your disposal is at the root of self-preservation and survival. Improvising products needed for survival tasks begins and ends with this mindset: Everything around you, natural and man-made, is a resource.
Cordage is any type of line used to secure, tie or lash. Whether it is part of your bug-out bag, your individual first-aid kit (IFAK) or you create your own, knowing the uses and applications of cordage is one of the essential skills of survival and self-reliance. You don’t know how much you rely on something until you really need it; and so it is with cordage. In almost any survival situation you will find myriad circumstances in which you need some kind of rope, thread or line.
You may need some type of cordage to help tie supports for a shelter, to make a bow drill for fire, to make a trap trigger, bow string or fish line for food, or simply to lash materials together for ease of portage. To address the fundamental material needs of survival, you will find the need for some manner of cordage. If you don’t have the ubiquitous paracord bracelet or shank of rope in your kit or “SHTF” pack, you will have to find or create your own cordage with the materials in your environment.
Regardless of the task that requires the need of your cordage, there are three attributes and expectations you should have for your product. It should be long enough to meet the task, strong enough to support or bind the required load, and flexible enough to work with while not breaking under weight or manipulation.
Simply put, the cordage needs to match the task. Sometimes flexibility is the most important attribute, for example, if you are trying to attach something light to the MOLLE on your 3-day pack. If the task is to hang something heavy from a branch, the strength of line will be a more important consideration.
TYPES OF CORDAGE
Cordage can either be synthetic or natural. Whether the line is purchased from the local camping store or you are creating the cordage yourself, the raw materials and not the process is what classifies the cord as synthetic or natural. Synthetic cordage is line manufactured from man-made materials. The most common mass-produced line used for packing in kits is military parachute cord, or “paracord,” as it is commonly known. If a line is strong enough to be trusted by the military to support the weight and force of a paratrooper’s chute opening 3,000 feet above the ground, you know you can trust it for your most demanding tasks. You may, however, find that you don’t require that much tensile strength for small jobs and instead require the other attributes of flexibility and length, saving your paracord for heavier jobs. Nylon line of different diameters and lesser tensile strengths can meet many of the usual needs of survival. Bank line is a thinner nylon rope that is easier to pack (less bulky in its roll) and easier to tie and maintain knots due to its slim diameter. The #36 Bank Line can support 340 pounds; probably more than enough tensile for most camp needs. Bank line can be useful for everything from tying off your tent or tarp to acting as an emergency fishing line.
Natural cordage is fashioned from materials created by Mother Nature, such as hemp, cotton, sisal, flax and even silk. Manila (hemp) rope made from the Philippine abaca plant has enough resistance to make great climbing rope. Sisal rope made from the Mexican agave or sisalan plant is not oiled, creates tight knots and is often used for livestock purposes. The much thinner jute twine can be used for fine tasks like attaching smaller tarps, rain flies at your campsite or setting harder-to-see trap lines. You can use your survival knife to fray the ends of jute line and pull them apart to create effective fire-starting material. With a ferro rod or bow drill and some jute twin in your kit, you are ready for fire-making. Leather and sinew are other natural lashing materials that can be used
for various tasks including attaching flint-napped axe heads to shafts or broadheads to arrows. One of the great benefits of natural twines and cordage over synthetic cord is that it is 100-percent-biodegradable and creates zero-pollution.
“Natural cordage is fashioned from materials created by Mother Nature, such as hemp, cotton, sisal, flax and even silk.”
Knowing the importance of cordage to your survival, you can seehow critical it is to understand how to create line from scratch. Your environment will dictate what raw fibers or materials you have to work with. In the woods, you may be able to locate a variety of natural plant fibers to choose from whereas in a predominately urban setting, you might find yourself limited to man-made or plastic-industrial sources.
This simple three-braid (bag) weave provides a strong cord suitable for bigger loads. Because of the light density of these bags, even a long coil is quite light.
1. Lay out three of the bags into long “fibers.”
2. Tie them together at the top with a simple overhand knot.
3. Begin the weave by placing one strand over the center.
4. Bring the alternate outside.
5. Continue, alternating down the length of the three bags.
6. Weave in additional bags (“fibers”) to make (splice) the rope longer.
URBAN (SYNTHETIC) CORDAGE
In a town or city, you might have access to some plant sources for working fibers, but you most certainly will be surrounded by plastic products. Trash bags, grocery bags, packaging materials and plastic bottles are readily available and with some practice can be made into functional cordage.
If you have access to a good stash of plastic grocery bags, these can be easily woven into a handy rope with many uses. A simple three-braid weave can be accomplished in quick fashion by straightening out three of the bags into slim “fibers,” tying a knot on one end and then beginning your braid. You can splice in more bags to make your plastic rope longer.
The same type of plastic bag can be used to create thinner lines for a variety of uses. Many years ago, a Filipino martial arts instructor in Mindanao showed me how to cut strips from the plastic bag with a knife, then folding and twisting the strips into long fishing-line-diameter strings that can be used for garroting a sentry or catching rainbow trout in the nearby creek. These same strips can be twisted into a two- or three-braid cord for heavier tasks.
Even the omnipotent roll of Duct Tape/100mph Tape can be harvested for cordage. Tear a portion long enough for the task then rip the strip lengthwise. You can then use the twist-and-braid method to create a very resilient line. Alternatively, by taping the two strips together, you create a ready-made two-ply strapping that can now be braided into a formidable rope suitable for a variety of tasks.
CAVEMAN (NATURAL) CORDAGE
Our ancestors did not have a selection of nicely coiled polypropylene-coated rope in their possibles bag. What we now refer to as primitive skills, they called “another day at the office.” Natural cordage was everywhere. An easily found and harvested material for creating natural cordage is tree bark from deadfall and branches. Using a knife to start a “pull tab” at the end of the branch, pull with consistent pressure up the length of the branch to get a long strip of fiber. This is easier if the bark is wet. Remove all the exterior bark from the fibers then roll them individually to create a thin cord that can be twist-braided into very useful cordage. The best tree fibers for this are elm, walnut, maple, aspen, cedar, and cherry.
Fibers from the stalks of plants like stinging needle, fireweed and dogbane create handy cordage for everything from bow-drill to bowstring. The dogbane stalk is remarkably easy to harvest for fiber. After crushing the stalk lengthwise, either with your fingers or by flattening with a rock, run the back of your blade from the top to the bottom to separate the tough outer shell from the fibrous center. These fibers then almost “self-twist” as you use the twist-and-braid method to create one long run of line.
The leaves of some plants can also be transformed into lengths of ready-made line. The yucca plant that is found now even in most suburban landscaping can provide leaves that can be separated into separate fibers to be twisted and braided for cordage.
On January 22, 2016, three inmates managed to orchestrate an escape from the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana, California using handmade cordage. The prisoners were all charged and are waiting for their day in court on serious, violent charges. After cutting through the grate in their room, the men traveled on hands and knees through unmonitored plumbing tunnels and ventilation shafts to make their way to the roof.
From here they used their improvised cordage of knotted bed sheets and clothes to rappel down the outside walls to freedom. This is not the first jailbreak for this facility. In fact, since the jail opened in 1968, more than 15 inmates have cut through grates and fences and climbed down from the jail’s roof using everything from knotted bed sheets to electrical cords and even a garden hose.
This lightweight, nylon rope was first used widely by WWII paratroopers for the suspension lines of parachutes. The different categories of paracord are rated by their tensile strength. Type I is rated at 95 pounds while the Type IV is 750 pounds. The most commonly used paracord is Type III, whose rating of 550 pounds has given it the short-name of “550 cord.”
All paracord is of a “kernmantle” design. The interior core fibers create the tensile strength of the rope, and the exterior sheath protects the core from the wear and tear of use. The military quickly figured out this versatile rope could be used for much more than just hanging off parachutes and quickly adapted it for a variety of uses from securing items to rucksacks to making rifle slings. This rope is not only strong, considering its lightweight portability, but is also consistently reliable and resistant to the elements and won’t quickly rot or weaken.
The popular 550 cord has since been adapted commercially and is the mainstay of every outdoorsman. There are some differences between commercially-available and military specification compliant (mil-spec) paracord. The main difference is that mil-spec paracord is guaranteed to have a core of 7 to 9 twisted inner strands.
For the end-user, the critical difference is that mil-spec tensile strength is “as rated.” In other words, you would be well advised to not trust your next parachute jump to commercial 550 cord. Nine feet of 550 cord can be coiled into a bracelet (or 100 feet into a belt) and will provide myriad cordage utility. The core of the rope can be removed when thinner, finer string is needed, such as for sewing thread or fishing line. The outer nylon sheath can also be used alone for a less elastic cord for use as boot laces.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Ultimately, your holistic understanding of cordage should include all aspects —from creation to knots to maintenance. As survival-skills instructor Kevin Estela says, “Remember, cordage is more than string, it is a concept,” and survival cordage is a mindset. Though some kind of line should be included in your load out, you may find yourself having to create your own makeshift cordage while in the field.
If you understand the characteristics of what makes a good line, you can improvise your own cordage with the materials you find. As you learn and experiment with different fibers, notice the strengths and limitations of each. Test different materials and different weaves and twists. Don’t wait until the need is dire to realize your cordage-creation skill set is not up to the task.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the How-To special issue of American Survival Guide.