You want true, military-grade 550 paracord, but where to get it? And how do you recognize it when you see it?
There is a lot of misinformation, misleading advertising and outright lies out there.
Well, enough’s enough.
To get to the bottom of this, I personally interviewed two certified, U.S. -based manufacturers who
currently supply our military with the highest-quality 550 cord. They told
me what to look for and where civilians like you and me can buy it.
This is what I found out.
Paracord is a thin rope, comprised of a woven sleeve wrapped around several, usually 7, inner strands. The number 550 refers to its break-strength, in pounds.
It is time and battle tested, having been used as parachute cordage by the military for years. Made popular in World War II, paratroopers quickly discovered the versatility of this cordage in survival situations. (Other than when falling from a plane, I mean.) Over the years, its popularity among civilian survivalists has grown, and for good reason.
Skilled survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts can use it to build survival shelters, for hunting, fishing and trapping. It’s great for field repair work, in medical emergencies, when climbing or even for general hygiene. (More on this below.)
Not all paracord is created equal. Military and commercial versions may
have different number of inner strands, weaves, colors and be made of
similar-looking, though still different materials.
There are actually four main types (I, II, III, IV) that range from 100 pounds (type I) break strength to 750 pounds (type IV) break strength. NOTE: Break strengths may vary by application and manufacturer. The most common is type III, better known as 550.
You’d think that all 550 cordage would be constructed the same, but this is not the case. Certified defense contractors are held to a higher standard.
Military-spec type III 550 paracord is constructed of top-grade 100% nylon for maximum strength and weather resistance. It has a woven outer sleeve and at least 7 inner strands, each with specific weave and color-coding requirements.
The vast majority of all type III 550 cord sold retail in the United States is commercial grade, often made overseas.
But even if it is made in the U.S. by an official government contractor, it still may not be military grade.
This doesn’t mean commercial-grade is necessarily bad, far from it. But it definitely is not the genuine cordage used by the military.
NOTE: 550 cordage used by the U.S. military will pass all of the following tests. If yours lacks even one aspect, it is probably commercial grade, or worse.
Like I said before, most of the paracord sold in the U.S. is commercial grade and frequently made abroad. Simply, foreign cordage is cheaper. Where quality cordage may cost 15 cents per yard in America, retailers can get it manufactured in China for a third of the cost.
Though this cordage may pass the 550 pound break test, its reliability and consistency isn't top-notch. It may fail when you need it most.
While rock-solid strength and performance are paramount for actual parachuting, retailers assume that the general-public is less discriminating for their everyday use.
But for some, and I’ll group many survivalists in here, outfitting oneself with the best equipment for an emergency is absolutely essential.
Frankly, retailers of military 550 cord are difficult to come by.
Because manufacturers deal in such large quantities, they don’t sell direct retail. They sell to distributors, but tracking where the product goes after that is harder than it sounds.
After speaking with the manufacturers above, as of this writing I found only one company who sells the same paracord that our military uses:
Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment, also known as
Best Glide Adventure Survival Equipment
They buy their paracord from E.L. Wood Braiding Company. You can get it retail at
For the purposes of this article, I purchased 50 feet of 550 MIL-C-5040
paracord in OD green from bestglide.com. With standard shipping, it came
to $12.69. The order shipped the next day and their customer service
has been great.
You can get commerical-grade 550 cheaper, about half the cost, but you’re not getting the same quality and reliability.
This is actual, military-grade 550 cord in OD green I purchased from bestglide.com. Notice the neat, tight, 3-ply cabling.
The strand cabled with black and yellow is manufacturer-specific and required by the military. There are a total of 7 strands.
The black cord is a commercial-grade 550 purchased from Lowe's. It is 7-stranded nylon and has a 550-pound break strength.
Though not military-grade, it is still serviceable cordage and in an emergency, better than nothing.
The major differences are the lack of color-coded inner strands and the loose, 2-ply cabling.
This one surprised me. It is red-sleeved cordage purchased from Walmart in a bracelet-making kit. It was not advertised as "550", nor did the packaging disclose its materials, so I'm not sure exactly what to call it. It was made in China.
Though the cabling is loose and inconsistent (there were large irregularities along its length), each strand contains 3 strings.
Despite the more robust cabling, I would still not trust this cordage in any weight bearing capacity.
Notice the lack of color coded inner strands.
Any good survivalist could rattle off a Forest Gump-quality list of the numerous applications paracord has in emergencies. The following examples illustrate its amazing versatility:
Trapping: Because 550 cord is thin, flexible and weather resistant, it lends itself to snaring small game. However, because it is a fabric, trapped animals can chew through it, so be sure to check traps regularly or preferably construct instantly lethal traps, like a twitch-up strangle snare or Paiute deadfall.
Medical: The smooth inner nylon strands make improvised, though serviceable, sutures. Being smooth, they’re also good for dental floss. Use the whole cordage as a tourniquet, to make a sling or to help stabilize a splint for a sprained joint or broken bone.
Repair: The inner strands work well as thread to repair torn clothing or packs. Wrap the strands around the edges of a bandana to make a draw-string pouch.
Hunting: Paracord can string a bow, secure the tip of an arrow, spear or stone war club, and even be used to fashion a bola.
Fishing: Smaller fish can be taken by line or net. Split the outer sheath and knot the inner strands end to end to make a line. Then lay the knotted inner strands in a grid and knot them together. If spear fishing, secure a length (use more than you think you'll need) to the end of the spear to make retrieval easier.
Shelter: Make a lean-to or A-frame shelter. String a length between two trees and hang a tarp or branch boughs over it.
Sleeping: Lash branches together to make a raised sleeping platform. Weave full strands together, like the fish net, to make a hammock. Particularly helpful in wet climates.
Click HERE for more on paracord and survival shelters
Water survival: Lash logs together to
make a raft. Construction is similar to the top of the sleeping platform shown above, minus the uprights. If exceptionally desperate, use short lengths make a flotation device by tying off the
waist and cuffs of a pair of pants. Inflate by blowing
into a leg cuff, then tie shut.
Climbing and Rappelling: 550 test cordage can be used in rappelling, but for safety, if you have enough, double or triple-up the cordage to ensure a safe ascent or descent. While the break strength is 550 pounds, the working load limit is only rated around 150 pounds.
To ensure I always have a length of 550 cord on me, I made a bracelet and watchband, each out of single 12 foot strands.
Learn how to make your own paracord survival bracelet
Learn how to make your own paracord watch band - Coming Soon!
Learn how to wrap a machete handle