OUTDOOR BASICS

Types of Rope for Outdoors: Understanding Rope Materials and Design

Oudoor rope
Mark Foster
Written by Mark Foster

For any outdoor excursion it’s important to be prepared with the right gear. Rope is one of these essentials that could make or break your survival in the outdoors. They’re versatile and multi-purpose, making them an important piece of gear to bring on any adventure. Whether in the forest, on the water, or climbing mountains, there are many different types of rope to choose from.

Since the outdoor elements can be extreme and unpredictable, it’s important to find good quality rope which will best suit your next outdoor activity. This article will give a brief history of rope, rope materials, the construction of ropes, the most common types of rope for outdoors, and its common uses in the outdoors.

Brief History of Rope

The assortment of ropes we use today have a long history. Their usage goes centuries back; there is fossil evidence which shows that rope was used as early as 17,000 BC. Early ropes were made by braiding or twisting by hand. Rope making has progressed from being handmade, to simple twisting tools invented in early Egyptian times, to using braiding machines from the 1800s onward.

History of Rope

Prior to 1939 natural fibres (plant and animal) were the only materials (apart from metal) used to make rope. But once nylon, polyester, polypropylene and Kevlar were developed, it revolutionized the cordage and textile industries. The development of these synthetic materials has enhanced the ropes we use today on our outdoor excursions.

Rope Materials

Natural Fibres

The most common natural fibres used for cordage include cotton, hemp and flax. Although natural fibres were the original materials used to make cordage they have proven to be less heavy duty than ropes made of synthetic materials. Natural fibre ropes are generally heavier and weaker than synthetic materials. They’re also less resistant to all forms of abrasion, and over time they can harden or rot.

Natural Fibres

Natural fibres are used for some climbing ropes which benefit from the roughness. However, ropes made from natural fibres are mostly used decoratively since they’re not recommended for excessive load bearing. Other than being aesthetically pleasing for décor, natural fibre ropes can be used for games such as tug of war and obstacle courses.

Polypropylene

This is the most popular of the rope materials because it’s cheapest out of all the synthetic fibres. Polypropylene is strong for its weight but is not very UV-, heat- or abrasion-resistant. The upsides of polypropylene are its insulating properties and its ability to float.

It’s best suited for use around the water because of its rot and mildew resistant properties. Since it’s made in a variety of different colors you can find ones good for visibility in the outdoors.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene shouldn’t be used for long term applications that have long UV exposure and abrasion like dock lines. Another downside of polypropylene is its lack of stretch memory, because once it stretches it won’t return to its normal size. They’re best used for rescue lines, crab and lobster lines, buoy moorings, aquaculture and net lines.

Polyester

Out of all the rope materials, polyester is the most UV-, heat- and abrasion-resistant, which also makes it more expensive. It’s not quite as strong as nylon but one of its strong points is that it doesn’t lose strength when it gets wet. It has very low elasticity compared to nylon which makes it harder to work with, such as being more difficult to untie.

Polyester rope

Polyester ropes are good for applications that involve little or no stretch such as dock lines, the core of climbing ropes, lifting slings and hammock guy lines.

Nylon

It’s the strongest easily available rope material. Nylon ropes are highly UV- and abrasion-resistant which makes it very durable and long-lasting. They also hold up against chemical exposure and other forms of rot. Because of their strength, elasticity and smooth surface, they’re great for weight bearing. However, they lose about 15% of strength when wet.

Nylon rope

Nylon ropes are very dense and will sink in water, so it’s best to think about how much water the rope you need will be exposed to. The most widely available and marketed ropes are the white “dock lines” or “anchor lines” since this type of rope material works great for these tasks. They’re also a good rope to use as towing lines, pulleys, winches, and other general purposes.

Kevlar

Kevlar was invented and produced by DuPont in 1965. It’s deemed one of the strongest ropes around since it’s resistant to freezing, flame, chemicals, water, stretch and cuts.

Kevlar won’t rust, but it doesn’t have a resistance to UV rays. It can withstand temperatures up to 160oC until it begins to weaken, and surprisingly becomes stronger with exposure to subzero temperatures.

Kevlar rope

Since Kevlar material doesn’t stretch at all, it’s the best choice for jobs that need complete stability. This type of rope is commonly used for winch lines, mooring lines, and whenever extreme temperature situations will be faced.

Rope Construction

Twisted/Laid rope

Usually has 3 strands of fibre twisted together to create a spiral look. The fibres used are first made into threads then twisted into strands. The resulting rope has a hard bumpy finish which makes it bulky and harder to grip. It’s stretchy and simple to splice but has the tendency to kink up and isn’t the easiest to knot.

Twisted Laid rope

Twisted or laid ropes were common up until braided ropes gained popularity. Having a braided rope of the same material and weight as a twisted rope would be softer to handle and more flexible. Although twisted ropes are a cheaper design to buy, they’re not the best choice when looking to invest in heavy duty rope for the outdoors.

Braided rope

Single/hollow braided rope only has a woven core, so it can be smashed flat. Double braided rope is made up of two single braids, one inside the other, making it stronger than the single braid. For their durability, double braided ropes are more common than single braided ropes.

Braided rope

They’re usually made with polypropylene, nylon, and polyester, but sometimes a combination of materials is used. When a combination of materials are used, the inner braid is chosen for strength and the outer braid for resistance to abrasion. It’s generally more expensive, but when compared to the same diameter size of twisted rope it’s slightly stronger.

Kernmantle

It’s a German word which translates to core (kern) and  jacket (mantel). Kernmantle is a specialized rope with many twisted fibres in the inner core and a braided shell on the outside. This design can support heavy loads without breaking because it offers high strength and abrasion resistance.

Kernmantle rope

Because of its durability, kernmantle style ropes are used for rock climbing since it also gives the right amount of stretch. The inner core provides a lot of strength while the outer layer offers abrasion- and tear-resistance. Materials commonly used to make kernmantle ropes are polyester and/or nylon.

Common Types of Outdoor Rope

Bungee/Shock Cord

It’s a very stretchy type of rope because the inner core is made up of one or more elastic strands which gives it a lot of stretch. The outside sheath is usually made of polypropylene or woven cotton. Its best use is to latch things together, however it’s not recommended as a primary rope because it’s too stretchy, tends to rot quickly and strands can’t be unraveled it to use as separate cordage.

Bungee/Shock Cord

Bungee cords are also usually made to be fairly short (no longer than 3 feet). Shorter bungee cords are useful when you want to bundle gear up such as sleeping bags, sleeping pads, paddles or anything else that’s tubular.

Climbing Rope

For mountaineering it’s of upmost importance to invest in proper climbing gear. Ropes can make or break any climb you set out for (literally), so make sure you buy rope specifically for rock climbing, because not just any rope will do.

Climbing Rope

Modern climbing ropes tend to have a kernmantle design since the outer “jacket” of the rope offers resistance to abrasion and the inner core provides strengths from all of the separate strands. They have the right amount of stretch to help keep a climber’s spine intact from any abrupt falls.

This type of rope is not only ideal for climbs and rappels, but can also be useful for weight bearing tasks and hauling other heavy items around.

Guyline Cord

They’re best used for securing tents, flies and tarps and for replacing or lengthening existing lines. Some are made with reflective yarn woven into the cordage which are helpful at night to avoid tripping over them. Having guylines for your tent, fly and tarp help provide structural stability against heavy winds and other unexpected weather conditions.

Guyline Cord

They’re also useful for making lanyards or loops to prevent losing gadgets such as flashlights, GPS units, etc. Although guyline cords are used frequently for outdoor gear they’re not recommended for weight bearing purposes since it’s very thin, even thinner than parachute cord.

Parachute Cord

Parachute cord is arguably one of the most versatile and practical types of rope for outdoor survival. They’re also called 550 cord because its minimum breaking strength is 550 lbs and can be used thousands of times because of its durability.

Its military specifications require that there must be a braided nylon sheath inside, where there are 7-9 interwoven strands of separate cord intertwined in pairs and sometimes threes (Kernmantle design).

Parachute Cord

A cool trick to learn with paracord is that the separate interwoven strands inside the paracord’s outer sheath can be used as a strong repair thread. It’s best to find mil-spec or military grade paracord because cheap knock offs will not give you the same durability.

Parachute cord is used often for outdoor survival because it’s very lightweight, thin yet strong, dries quickly and is rot- and mildew-resistant when wet.

Common Outdoor Uses

Thinking about the other uses of rope in the outdoors? Here are some of the most common:

  • Setting up a clothesline is handy when you’ve got wet gear to dry
  • A great towing device when you attach it to a person or any heavy objects that need to be moved (because having multiple people along the rope to help tow will make all the difference)
  • Rescue line to help reel someone out of the water in an emergency situation
  • Travel aid for crossing difficult terrain or across bodies of water with a strong current
  • Shelter support to help make your tent, fly or tarp stronger against heavy winds or other extreme weather conditions
  • Building things (eg. to make an emergency shelter, a raft, animal trap or snares)
  • Good for anything that needs to be tied up or hung (eg. a bear cache)
  • Emergency repairs because the threading of rope can be taken apart and used as a smaller thread (eg. to sew a wound in a remote wilderness emergency situation or tent repairs)

So next time you find yourself at the store wondering which type of rope to buy, you’ll have some insight into which kind will best suit your outdoor adventuring lifestyle. Rope material and its construction are important factors which will help you decide which kind of rope will be more useful in the water versus stabilizing a tent or tarp.

Given the multiple uses rope can have, it makes it difficult to give definitive advice on which ropes to buy for the outdoors.

Rope outdoor uses

The choice is largely based on your specific outdoor activities and needs. Therefore, it’s important to be informed on the pros and cons of each rope material and design. When looking to buy rope, make sure to ask your rope vendor the details of each rope they sell and their proper use.

Once you’ve invested in the rope most suited for your outdoor needs, it’s also important to take proper care of your gear.

Make sure to inspect the rope prior and after use to assess any wear and tear. Other factors to consider about the longevity and tensile strength of your rope include temperature extremes, length of load bearing, stress, improper use and improper storage. Once you have your rope knowledge and appropriate style rope in hand, you’re well on your way to being prepared for your next outdoor adventure.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Foster
Mark Foster

Mark Foster loves to push his limits when it comes to survival in the wilderness. He might go for a 30-days adventure without any food or equipment except for a survival kit and a knife. We should mention that his survival kit has 122 items in it, so he know what he is doing. Mark is working on his book to share with the world all his experience gained during those brave adventures.

  • Edward Gregory

    Personally, I prefer nylon rope, unlike hemp, it’s not stinky.
    However, I hate the melted ends on it; they’re scratchy and rough, so I use a quickie Sailmaker’s Whip on the ends and leave about 1/8 inch of fluffy loose fiber. For some occasions, I use 9.5 70m bicolor from either Eidelweiss or Edelrid. It’s been beastly in all settings – it’s my go to a multi-pitch rope. I highly suggest a 70 – some routes require it, and you can link pitches in multi-pitch, or fold the rope in half and guide two people.

  • Mark Foster

    Go for the Kevlar if you want to try something new Edward. You’ll be surprised that this rope is resistant to water, chemicals, freezing temp,etc. I highly recommend it together with the nylon rope that you prefer.

  • Liz Baldwin

    Paracords are awesome. They are really innovative. They are not only survival buddies but crafts as well. I learned how to make a paracord bracelet before using the cobra knot and I wear it now. Just in case we need it for an emergency or the length of the one in stock is not enough. We’ve used it before for tying a tent to trees.

  • Mark Foster

    I love that more people are discovering the usefulness of paracords. They are essentials to camping. They’re not merely fashion accessories – they do have a benefits. In one of my camping trips, the parscord has done it’s job and has saved the day. There are DIY paracords to suit your style and preference.