Making Cordage in the Wilderness

Making Cordage in the WildernessWhen you find yourself in a dire situation in the wild, a piece of string can become a vital survival item. Making cordage from plants you can find all around you is an excellent skill to master. It will help you in the construction of almost anything you need. 

Making cordage from common plants is a forgotten skill. This skill is being kept alive thanks to survivalists and bushcraft enthusiasts. Most people rely on paracords and all sort of modern cordage when it comes to camping. However, it is quite surprising the simplicity with which cordage can be manufactured in nature.

Native Americans have always possessed a vast knowledge of making cordage. Their primary methods of making cordage have been passed down from one generation to another. This technology remains unchanged, and it’s being used even today. From them, we managed to learn which plants are the most useful for making cordage. Below you can find a list of plants that are recommended due to their tensile strength.

Plants useful for making cordage:

Stinging Nettle

This is one of the most versatile plants used by the Native Americans. The stalks of this plant contain a very strong fiber that can have many uses. Our ancestors used it to make a fish line, thread, yarn, snares, nets, ropes, cloth, bowstrings and even sandals. To obtain the fiber, the dry stems had to be pounded to remove the woody parts. After that, the remaining fiber was cleaned by hand.

Milkweed

The advantage of this plant is that you can use its stalks when the plant is green or dry. From personal experience, I recommend harvesting it when dry. Use the same processing method as you would do for stinging nettle. You can make good rope, thread and snares from milkweed fibers.

Dogbane

Also known as “Indian Hemp” this plant was probably the most widespread kind of fiber used for making cordage. It is the best fiber plant found in the West. The stalks contain a fine, soft, silky fiber that is easily worked. The cordage made from dogbane was praised by the first settlers due to its excellent quality and durability.

Sagebrush

The dry bark of this plant can be stripped from the trunk and twisted into cordage. Although this bark is not strong, it has a wide variety of uses. You can make coarse woven bags and blankets from it. You can also make sandals as it is known to be the principal cordage provider for these items in the wild. It will not provide you with strong cordage as stinging nettle or dogbane, but it will serve its purpose. You can use it to tie things together and for holding shelters in place by tying various timbers together. In case you lack proper tinder, you can use cordage from sagebrush.

Hawthorn or Thornapple

The inner white bark of this tree was used by the pioneers to make good cordage. It can be stripped and twisted into strong and rope, and it was used primarily as a fish line or for creating snares. The bark gets stronger when wet, but it becomes a little stiff when dry. Other trees with similar bark, used for making cordage are willow, spruce, elm and snowberry.

Harvesting most of these plants with just bare hands is possible. The hardest part is being able to correctly identify the plants you need for making cordage.

Survival skills of our grandparents

The process of making cordage:

Once you manage to collect the materials needed for making cordage, the delicate work begins. Twisting fibers by hand is not complicated, but it takes a while to get used to the entire process. There is also the fastest way to make cordage called “thigh-rolling.” Let’s look at both methods.

The steps required for making cordage by hand are the following:

  • Two strips of fiber are selected and held in the left hand between the thumb and forefinger.
  • Identify the fiber which is the farthest from the body. Grasp it with the fingers of the right hand and twist clockwise a few turns.
  • Get the twisted strand and lay it counterclockwise over the remaining strand to become the once closes to the body.
  • The second strand, which is now the farthest from the body, is twisted a few turns. Lay it over the first stand precisely as before. Continue doing so until the ends of the strands are reached
  • New lengths of fiber as spliced on at this point. This is done by twisting the last two inches of the ends of the new fibers and continuing the process of twisting and folding. It is recommended to alternate the lengths of the stands so that the splices are not lined up in the finished string.

Suggested reading: Wilderness safety rules to acknowledge

The steps required for making cordage using the thigh rolling method:

If you look closely at most handmade cordage, the plies are twined around in a ‘Z’ twist (the twisted strands lie diagonally from top right to bottom left). The individual strands in ‘Z’ twist cordage will be twisted in the opposite direction in an ‘S’ twist the strands lie diagonally from top left to bottom right).

  • Use two small bunches of fibers that are of different length. Hold the ends of the two strands in your left hand
  • Drape their other ends over your right thigh.
  • Roll the strands down your thigh using the palm and thumb of your right hand so that the strands ‘S’ twist up.
  • At the end of this roll, release the hold of your left hand on the fibers and allow the stands to “Z” twist in the opposite direction.
  • Sometimes a quick reverse roll of the left hand on the twisted cord will help tighten the ply.

The key to making even cordage is to continually splice in a new strand of fiber every couple of inches, well before the existing strands start to run short.

Making cordage takes quite a bit of practice and I recommend watching some YouTube tutorials. It will help you better understand the process before trying it yourself.

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