Paracord is hailed as the fix all of nylon cordage. It can be used to make a bow and arrow, it has almost innumerable uses in survival situations, it’s light weight and it is remarkably strong for its size.
But can you rappel with a paracord? Yes, there are techniques you can use to rappel with paracord in an emergency, but only if the other option is death. While paracord is incredibly useful in other areas, it’s not as strong as the regular climbing rope that you would use while rappelling. When you’re dangling from a rope, you’re putting your life literally on that line, and you want to make sure that that line will absolutely hold your weight. Paracord just can’t provide that promise.
Paracord comes in several different sizes and different strength ratings, based largely on the number of nylon strands that make up the rope’s girth.
Military grade paracord will typically be around 4mm thick and house 7 – 11 nylon braids. The more civilian styles of paracord house anywhere from 1 – 9 nylon braids and typically measure 3mm in diameter.
Paracords are often rated and labeled with a number followed by the hash symbol (#). This number indicates how many pounds the cord is able to hold before breaking.
But don’t let this number trick you into thinking that if you weigh under 550 pounds, you’ll be able to easily support your weight with a length of 550# paracord. As you’ll see, it’s much more complicated than that.
Can you rappel with a 550 paracord?
Some outdoor adventurers enjoy going on their adventures with as little gear as possible.
If it can be left behind, they’d like to.
Many of these adventurers would be very happy to leave behind the heavy climbing rope behind, taking instead the same distance of paracord wire.
Can you rappel with 550# paracord? The short answer to this question, as we covered above, is yes but only in life or death circumstances when you have no other option.
One might think that since the paracord is rated to be able to withstand 550# of weight, it should be able to hold my body weight of 175 pounds, or whatever your weight happens to be.
But as with most things in life, there are subtle nuances that once you understand them, they change your entire perspective.
We’ll cover here a few of the main reasons why rappelling with paracord as your only lifeline is not a good idea.
There are two different kinds of nylon climbing rope: Static and Dynamic.
A static rope is what you might find at Home Depot, the braided burlap rope or plastic ropes. They are called static ropes because they are inert, when you tug on them they don’t give at all; they’re static.
Dynamic climbing ropes on the other hand, are designed to give a bit of stretch. This stretch is helpful to lessen the impact of the rope catching you after a fall while you’re rock climbing; it also gives better friction when passed through a belay device etc.
While in a proper dynamic climbing rope, the stretch it gives is often your saviour, with the paracord it would be your downfall.
Paracord has a measured factor called elongation, which is really just another word for that stretch we were talking about earlier.
Typical paracords are rated with 30% elongation, which means that if you had 10 meters of rope and you put it under a full load, it would stretch to 13 meters.
This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that when a line is put under tension, it’s easier to cut. This is true on thicker ropes too, but they’re more resilient to scrapes and cuts because they are very rarely put under a maximum strain.
Dynamic climbing rope is made to hold 12-14 kilonewtons of force, that like dangling a midsize car from a single line for a little while. So it doesn’t even feel us when it’s holding up our measly couple hundred pounds.
But if you rested your full body weight on a 550 paracord that would be somewhere around 20-30% of the cord’s maximum capacity.
So a 10 meter length of paracord at that point would probably be stretching to 11 meters. That makes the paracord that much thinner, which makes it that much more vulnerable.
Almost all of the recorded climbing rope failures have happened because the rope was old and damaged, frayed or in some way cut.
If you’re rappelling down the side of a cliff, your ropes might be running over the sharp end of a rock.
The more weight and the more tension in the line, the more susceptible a rope is to cuts and slices from sharp rocks.
Experienced climbers look for these dangers when setting up their rappelling gear and take action accordingly.
But climbing rope is designed to hold up to a few scrapes and scratches, that’s why it’s built thick. Paracord on the other hand is substantially thinner than climbing rope.
The typical diameter of a paracord found on the market to day is around 3-4 mm.
Whereas the typical diameter of a climbing rope is two or three times that. It’s plain to see that a three or four millimeter thick section of rope stretched tightly to only two millimeters thick would be remarkably easy to slice with even a remotely sharp edge of anything.
This is precisely the reason why it is a bad idea to use paracord as your primary climbing or rappelling rope. When put under strain it becomes much more dangerous than the climbing rope alternative.
Why is it only good in an emergency and not as usual rope for rappelling?
Paracord has many uses, but climbing rope cannot be one of them.
The method we’re going to explore in this section will show you how it can be done, but putting your life on the end of a paracord line is inherently very dangerous.
You can double up the cords so that they are twice as strong, but this still doesn’t solve all the problems that using paracord presents.
The thin diameter of the rope means that it is more easily cut than the thicker climbing rope, and will not be able to handle any accidental extreme strains you put onto it.
That being said, if you’re on a cliff face or somewhere high up and need to get down, the alternative being death, you can fashion a rappelling system out of a length of 550# paracord and a good climbing carabiner.
You won’t be able to use some of the typical harness free rappelling methods out there like the Dülfersitz method or the South African Abseiling technique.
The paracord is too thin and would cut into your skin as you descended. Instead you’ll need to fashion a harness for yourself out of a length of this paracord.
One method is to fashion a harness out of the same length of paracord that you’ll be rappelling down. You’ll tie a loop around your anchor with your paracord.
Ideally you’ll want to double up your paracord at any given point in the system. This effectively doubles the strength of the paracord making it slightly safer for you to climb down.
Once your paracord is looped and wrapped around the anchor, you’ll want to double check that the paracord reaches the ground where you’re trying to descend.
If it does not you may want to find a different way down, or sacrifice the safety of the doubled up rope in order to safely reach the bottom.
Assuming that the cord reaches the bottom with plenty to spare, you can then pull up the paracord until you have both ends in hand.
Measure out three or four meters of paracord from the end and ensure that there are no knots or twists in the lines; this section will be what you make into your harness.
Tie the end of the paracord to the measured out point, (three or four meters from the end) with a bowline hitch. You want to make sure that this hitch will not move so be sure to tie your bowline correctly.
You’ll wrap the loop behind your back so that one part of the loop cradles your upper legs and the other part holds against your lower back.
Connect both ends of this harness loop together with the carabiner; any wiggle room or shifting in the lines should be managed before you step off the edge.
Next, you’ll step up close to your anchor and grab the paracord right up next to it. Make a half clove hitch and pass your carabiner through this hitch, making sure to keep your harness securely around your hips and waist.
This clove hitch will be what you use to hold and steady your weight down to the ground. Do not let go of the rope on the underside of the clove hitch, this is your life line and letting go would mean death or serious injury.
When you’re ready, you can slowly and carefully lean your weight into the harness and guide the rope through the clove hitch rappelling system safely to the ground.
I would like to stress one last time that this technique should only be used in emergencies where the alternative is death. Use or practice this own technique at your own risk.
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