by Tom Watson – as published in the “Self Reliance In The Outdoors” column/Midwest Outdoors/April 2020
Among the essential survival/emergency gear everyone should carry (knife, fire-starting kit, whistle) is a section of all-purpose cordage. Pretty much everything you need to achieve towards surviving and ultimate rescue can be accomplished with those items.
While you can lash together a lean-to with clothesline or fish with a piece of string, the most practical multi-purpose cordage is paracord. Small enough to bring along ample lengths yet with enough muscle to take on hefty tasks, paracord is an essential piece of emergency/survival gear.
To qualify as survival grade cordage, there are several characteristics and properties that qualify as paracord. All “rope” is made of strand that are either braided or twisted together. Structurally, paracord uses the kernmantle technique similar to how ropes for mountain climbers is made.
Its outmost layer is a braided nylon sheath of 32 woven nylon strands. It provides protection to the inner core, offers additional strength, flexibility and durability to the paracord.
The inner core or ‘kern’ typically consists of up to seven strands of twisted nylon that, along with the sheath, provide strength and a bit of elasticity. Those seven strands are each made from three twisted nylon yarns. “Wilderness” grade paracord will also incorporate a strand of monofilament fishing line (10# weight), waxed jute to be used as tinder and some even a strand of Aramid fiber (kevlar).
Paracord is dynamic in that it stretches some before breaking while supporting maximum loads. There are several strength categories of “paracord”, the most common and popular being ‘550’ – designating its breaking strength during a fall test at 550 pounds. Typically that range of stretchability is between 30% – 40%, meaning that a ten-foot section of para-cord under maximum weight load could stretch to about 13’ before breaking.
Nylon is the material of choice for official paracord because it is waterproof and resists mildew. It also offers elasticity and smoothness. However, it is also prone to UV damage over exposure and time. [NOTE: Does wearing a bracelet in sunny climates cause the exposed paracord to degrade at an accelerated rate?].
As a whole, paracord can be used like any section of cordage to provide secure and strong support to structures such as lashing frames together, creating guy lines for tents or tarps or securing gear to structures (tie-downs to thwarts in canoes). [NOTE: some websites cite paracord as being an emergency tourniquet, perhaps only as a very last resort as the cord itself is too thin, and can cause even more damage.]
The hidden value of paracord is in what’s wound beneath. Those nylon strands can be removed and used individually to create longer strands to be use alone as fishing line or perhaps twisted into use for sewing, creating small snares and other uses where a small diameter string could be used.
Typically it takes one foot of paracord to weave one inch of bracelet. Expanding this to separating out the strands to be joined for making longer cordage/twine, a ten foot section of paracord can provide up to seventy feet of strong line.
Some wilderness cord includes a strand of monofilament fishing line that be withdrawn/unraveled and used for angling. Likewise a strand of jute (sometimes impregnated with wax) can be removed, fluffed up and used to catch a spark for fire starting. Even the empty sheath itself has many utilitarian uses, from make-shift lacing to lashing or any other use for cordage around camp.
Nylon cord or inner strands can be heated, melted and then welded or fuses together for a light load joint. Besides knots to join two pieces of the full cord, ends can be spliced together for a tight bond.
Anyone who takes survival seriously knows that unless you have your kit on your person, you don’t have it with you. Such is the fundamental value of paracord components into emergency/survival kits. It’s right there, ready for action if needed.
One example is the para-cord “grenades” that contain a plethora of fish hooks, line, clips, blades, flint, etc., etc., etc. – all neatly bundled in a fistful of paracord and attached via a carabiner to your other gear.
The more common kit is a bracelet combining a utility buckle with specialty strands within the weave to provide myriad uses of the cord when unwoven. Of all the brands I could find, two stood out as typical multi-use bracelets.
The Friendly Swede Multi-Function Survival Bracelet features a small serrated, circular flat-ring-like disc along with a short ferro-rod on the clasp. Unfortunately, the striker is so short that I found it almost impossible to throw a spark.
What makes this bracelet practical is the packet of survival items inserted within the woven body of the bracelet. Tinder, safety pins, eye knife, assorted fishing items are among the utility pieces the wearer carries at all times. The strands also include a length of fishing line. These bracelet provide about 12 feet of paracord for a large size band.
Outdoor Edge’s ParaSpark features a 1.3-inch knife blade within the buckle and a more practical sized and positioned ferrocerium rod incorporated into the clasp making this bracelet a very practical and functional survival kit as well. The addition of a small whistle molded into the clasp is an added bonus – perhaps more as backup to carrying a larger, more effective sound-projecting whistle signal.
The ParaSpark’s strands include nylon cordage, waxed jute for tinder, and #10 monofilament fishing line incorporated into the woven cord used to braid the bracelet. A small, domed compass also graces the clasp, offering yet another useful survival tool. However, protruding up 3/4” above the 1/4” thickness of the band, the dome of the compass could be a nuisance with tight-fitting cuffs or gloves.
Un-weaving the paracord means you give up the advantage of the bracelet. Re-weaving the curly springiness of the cord would probably take some effort. There are, however, websites that show you how to weave your own bracelets, too. The bottom line is the fact that wearing these paracord creations mean you have at least a few resources with you at all times – a significant value in its own right.
Be Safe, Have Fun out there.
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While most outdoors enthusiasts are active all year long, once summer is over and the few days of fall hunting have passed, November is often the time to pack the gear away for the winter. All too often, that means stuffing away what’s broken with a promise to yourself to “fix it before I head out next spring” or “get more of these this winter”. Jump ahead to that anxiety-filled morning next year as you eagerly grab gear so you can head outdoors only to be reminded that your tent pole is still broken, your field jacket ripped and someone ate all the Snicker bars out of your “emergency kit”!
Much of our outdoor gear – whether it’s for hunting, fishing, paddling or even bird-watching hikes – suffers from the wear and tear of back-country use. A season’s end reassessment of your gear and supplies – and using the 3 R’s: Restore, Repair, Replenish will help you keep gear in good shape and ready to be called into service quickly.
Restoring gear in this context may be as simple as bringing back the edge to a dulled knife – or fish hooks – to cleaning gear such as sleeping bags and camp stoves. If you can, it’s always good to try to repair damaged gear ASAP – sometimes not to the level we’d like if it’s an emergency fix in the woods, but clearly more damage can occur the longer a proper repair is put off.
How many times have you sneaked a candy bar out of your survival/emergency kit? How many bandaids have you used or handed out over the past summer? What about those all-weather matches you grabbed when your lighter ran out trying to start your campfire? It’s a mindless pilfer of small units of gear that are often forgotten – until you need them most and realize they’re gone.
There is one advantage to “borrowing” an item from your emergency/survival kits – you may notice that something’s gone bad, prompting you to check other goodies that haven’t been inspected in a long while. It’s often the wake-up call we need to initiate our own 3R’s process.
Here are some key maintenance protocols (in the field and at home) to follow for different pieces of gear:
EMERGENCY FOOD SUPPLIES
FIRSH AID KIT
These are pretty straight forward and obvious maintenance routines, but so often overlooked – or more precisely, ignored at season’s end. Sure it’s OK to take a break for a week or two, but find time in those off months of winter to deal with the 3Rs.
Like most situations we encounter outdoors or anywhere, prevention is so much better than trying find the proper cure. When we do have to deal with the “cure”, a self reliant outdoorsman/woman knows it’s better to deal with it sooner than later, especially if it’s time to restore, repair or replenish your outdoor gear.
Harvesting fish from beneath the frozen lakes and rivers of the Arctic/sub-arctic regions was a critical part of the subsistence lifestyle for most north-country native Americans. There were typically three methods for harvesting fish: traps/nets, spearing from “dark house”- like tents or simply kneeling down beside a hole and dropping a hand line down through the ice. Let’s look at the last method as it has applications today in an emergency situation due to its effectiveness and simplicity.
The native ice fishing “rod and reel” set up consisted of either two sticks or a deeply-arched handle (wood, antler) called a niksik. Both utilized a line attached to the end of one of the sticks or end point on the niksik to which a lure or barbless hook was attached. Both methods let the angler wind string up/down by simply rocking his/her wrist back and forth which allowed the line to feed to/from its windings as the sticks/handle tip moved from side to side.
With the two-stick method, the line is attached to the end of the first stick, and wound around both sticks until all the line was coiled onto the ends of the two sticks. Once baited, the hook is lowered down into the water by simply unwinding the line from one stick to the other until the desired depth was attained.
Upon hooking a fish, the angler used the free stick to catch the line in the water and pull it sideways, parallel to the other stick. The process was reversed and the hook line stick was used to gather the line now hanging from the other stick and pull it back, raising the line that much further again. The back-and-forth process was repeated until the angler could haul the line and fish up and beyond the hole and then shake off the catch onto the frozen lake/river surface.
Another great advantage of this simple tool is that you can operate it with your gloved or mittened hand. With the added advantage of not having a barb on the hook, a deft ice angler could raise or lower the bait, hook a fish, bring it up the hole, out onto the ice and shake off the catch – all without removing a glove or switching hands for any reason.
While re-baiting the hook would probably require a bare handed effort, once the bait was in place, the hands could be covered again and fishing could commence – right along through to the “catching” part of the process.
Looking for a gift for someone who enjoys the outdoors at any level? Here’s my gift list of practical outdoor gear that comes in handy for anyone – from beginners to seasoned adventurers – these particular items are always critically handy – and having more than one is a smart investment for the self reliant outdoors enthusiast:
STORM WHISTLE – Carrying a signal whistle is a critical component of every survival kit. You can yell only so long; you can blow a whistle all day and night. Make sure kids have one and realize it’s not a toy. STORMs are particularly rugged and loud. Do NOT get whistles with the rattling pea inside – if it gets stuck, the whistle won’t work.
FRICTION FIRE STARTERS – (top) BLAST MATCH, – can be used with just one hand; requires a hard surface to push against for spring steel to generate sparks on ‘flint’. (bottom) The GERBER STRIKE FORCE is a conventional two-piece unit with added convenience of a small compartment for stowing tinder. You should have several ‘flint- steel’ kits amid your gear. Both work of these units work extremely well, producing hot, directed sparks.
SOL EMERGENCY SPACE BLANKET – There are many mylar-material “emergency sheets on the market and carrying several along is smart. The SOL blanket is especially rugged and offers two sides: reflective and contrast color (orange). These are particularly good in snow where the silvery side can be hard to see from the air or afar. Compact in size but huge in warmth retention. You can never have too many emergency survival blankets.
XTORCH – Flashlight/table light/tent light/solar recharger – all in one unit. The XTORCH has incredible shelf life power retention. It’s solar panel gives you constant energy for three types of lights as well as recharger port for phones and GPS units. Basically waterproof and stoutly built for rough handing outdoors.
‘MPOWERD’ LUCI LIGHT – Perhaps my favorite camping/kayaking light I own. Solar charged, it inflates to a cylindrical lamp that offers low, high and flashing white light (comes in colored versions, too). It floats and is waterproof making it a great running light on a kayak when deflated. When inflated its a table lamp or tent light. Super lightweight, holds a charge forever and can be re-charged just by the ambient sunlight in a room. MPOWERD Luci Lantern
LARGE-MOUTH INSULATED CONTAINERS – No longer just a “thermos” bottle , today’s insulated containers have superior insulating qualities that retain heat or cold much longer. Pouring/sipping spouts detach to reveal wide-mouth options for carrying everything from herbal teas to chunky stews. Some have retainer screens to keep tea leaves and ice cubes from pouring out. GSI Outdoors is among a few choice brands with a variety of options, in a variety of sizes..GSI Microlite 500
LURE LOCK – Simply put, this is a tackle box with a special gel liner on the bottom that holds fishing lures in place within the box – when open to prevent gear falling out, and when closed keeping the hooks from dulling through constant contact with other lures and compartment walls. Stuck sand, twigs, and other detritus wash off easily and completely from the sticky, lure-hugging bottom. Anglers are gonna love this!
CAMP KITCHEN FRISBEE/FLYING DISC – Absolutely my most favorite, versatile piece of camping gear around the campfire kitchen and beyond – from cutting board, berry picking basin, gas stove windbreaker to rimmed plate for stews and spaghetti dishes. You can sit on them on cold/wet ground; you can even use them to make an emergency paddle. They come in a variety of sizes, and even those that are marketing promotions and don’t fly very well – they work great around the campsite. I’ve been packing kitchen frisbees along for over 40 years – best cooking tool I own!
As we approach the season where we can start enjoying a comfortable day out on the water, it’s a good time to refresh ones self on the hazard of drowning. What to look for might be quite different from what you expect to see, especially as depicted in so many Hollywood movies.
The process of drowning is typically quiet and subdued. No arms waving frantically overhead or body thrashing wildly, no screaming or yelling. A drowning victim typically cannot scream or yell as their body is in survival mode. They will be gasping for air, their mouths right at the surface and their heads possibly tilted way back. Their arms will be pushing down onto the water for support.
Don’t let loud, boisterous splashing detract you from the lone, passive, immobile swimmer – she/he might be your drowning victim.
Like most dangers, the best safeguards against drowning is prevention – with barriers to control access to water (fences around pools, restricted swimming areas, etc.) and to have rescue devices (life ring buoys and rope) handy. Always make wearing a life jacket/PFD an on-water requirement, too.
If you need to personally rescue someone, try to get some form of floatation (seat
cushions, even a small, empty ice cooler) to them. Keep it between you and the victim as they will attempt to crawl up anything that’s near. Professionals are trained to deal with clinging victims, but as a novice rescuer, you could be pulled under as they try to climb up on top of you.
Another good way to help create a safe swimming environment, especially with kids, is to have a buddy system. Have kids pair up, count off in two’s and assign them that number. Use a whistle to announce a “Buddy Check” drill and have each kid yell out their numbers. It helps them watch out for each other.