Leash for whitewater SUP: Should you use it or not?

Bovec SUP Paddleboarding whitewater sup Stand Up Paddling tour

Using a leash on flatwater is (hopefully) a sure thing. But what about whitewater rivers, where being tight to your board might not always be an advantage? It would be amazing to say an easy yes or no, but unfortunately, the answer is not that clear. Here is what professionals say and what we learned on several water-rescue and SUP courses and of course from our own experience.

What is the purpose of a leash on flatwater?

When talking about flatwater, we mean lakes or calm rivers with no obstacles, no strong current, and no waves.

Using a leash on flatwater might seem useless for some paddlers, but the truth is that you will never meet experienced paddleboarders without a leash. Why? If you fall, the leash will always keep you close to your paddleboard. In many cases, your board will even automatically bounce back, so you never have to swim far for it.

Leash on flatwater SUP

“Ok, but I am a good swimmer!” Yes, we hear you, but there are no exceptions in this case. Stand Up Paddleboards are very light, so even the slightest wind or water current can easily catch it and take it away from you. And you find yourself with no buoyancy, often far away from the shore. That can easily end up drowning or in cold water getting hypothermia.

Wearing a leash doesn’t cost you anything as it comes with all new SUPs. But it will help you stay safe on flatwater.

What about whitewater paddleboarding?

Let me point out, that question of using a leash on whitewater is still an open topic in our small whitewater SUP community. I met with two main opinions and I will share my own as well.

1. Using no leash at all

Most of the whitewater paddleboarders say do not use a leash on fast-flowing/whitewater rivers. The board can get stuck in holes (back current water, circulating water), in between rocks, trees, and so on.

Having the board stuck and being connected to ourselves can for sure cause danger. No doubt. Under the wild water, it is not just hard, but closely impossible to reach our ankle and untighten the leash when the force of the water continuously pushes us up and down and from left to right. So not using a leash seems like a better option.

Using a leash on whitewater SUP

What might be a problem?

Wearing no leash on whitewater can save us from getting stuck, but leaves us alone on a fast-flowing river. And swimming out to the safe zone can be a pretty big challenge. Remember, that a Personal Floating Device (life vest) is not guaranteed to keep you on the surface of a wild river. It HELPS you swim out from the river. And that’s not easy. In many cases, the current keeps pushing you back to the middle of the river.

2. Using a leash on a quick release system

The other approach is to wear a leash on a quick release system on your Personal Flotation Device (PFD). I agree much more with this one. Proper equipment for whitewater paddleboarding (class II-III) for sure includes a lifevest with a quick release system. Having a leash attached to our PFD gives us a chance to unleash in the situations when the board gets stuck somewhere.

Whitewater SUP leash with quick-release system

What might be a problem?

The main and only problem with the quick release system is the human factor. Have you ever unleashed yourself in a real dangerous situation under the water, when the river pushes you in each direction and you are short of oxygen? I guess no. And that’s exactly the problem.

So what to do?

In my opinion, the answer is education. Paddleboarding on a river with certain difficulty is not only about paddling skills, but much more about rescue and self-rescue skills. You can be the best paddleboarder, but you will always fall once or twice. And without a general knowledge of hydrology, whitewater swimming skills, proper equipment, and different rescue scenarios training you will always be in danger.

On swift water rescue courses, you have a safe environment to practice how to open your quick release system in different situations. Having a rescue knife by hand is also important, so you can cut the leash off when things go bad.

I strongly encourage you to wear no leash even on a quick release system if you don’t know the basic rescue techniques. Paddle with whitewater experienced friends, get a guide to provide you with safety, and go to courses to learn more.

Swift Rescue Course providers I would recommend:

  1. Swiftwater Safety Institute – three days course in Zuoz, Switzerland. They will teach you all the essential rescue techniques for moving water.
  2. International Rafting Federation – there are four courses based on the level. We recommend taking the second level – Swiftwater First Responder, which takes two days.
  3. Rescue 3 Europe – courses on demand tailored to your needs.

But there are more things you should keep in mind for your safety on whitewater. Read our article 5 Paddleboarding Safety Rules for Whitewater.

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