When in doubt, replace the line

Throw ropes get a fair amount of abuse. Most climbers would cringe at how we treat our ropes. Ropes worst enemy is dirt and grit, very common on river banks. Dirt and grit get in between the rope fibers and break them down prematurely. The best way to prevent this is to hand wash or machine wash (daisy chain first). After washing, hang and air dry (don't use a dryer as the heat may damage the rope, especially Polypropylene). At the end of each season, manually inspect the whole length of rope. Pay close attention to any sheath abrasion. If the rope core is bulging out, it is time to retire the rope and perhaps use it for hanging clothes. Here is a great article on rope care from Sterling Rope: Rope Care & Retirement. Here is another good article: REI Rope Care Article.

Avoid sun exposure, keep clean, avoid stepping on the line, avoid sharp or rough edges

All synthetic materials break down with sun exposure as many old-timers know all too well when we used to paddle fiberglass boats. Many inexperienced rope handlers step on ropes. Do this around rock climbers and you will get more than a big frown. Shoe tread collects small particles of silt and tiny rock shards. Both of these get worked into the center of your rope and work over time to tear and wear down the long rope fibers. Another hazard in rescue work is lowering or bending rope over a ledge. Think about how you cut rope, you move the rope back and forth over a sharp surface. Essentially, you are doing the same when you run a line over a ledge. Rock climbers place padding (or run through a large diameter hose) between the rock and rope for protection.

When you first purchase a rope, re-tie the end knots so they are too small for your hand to pass through. Unpack the entire rope and re-stuff. Toss it a few times to get used to throwing and stuffing the rope.

Most boaters use a throw bag system. Throw bags are very easy to stuff and the bag makes safe storage in your kayak quite easy. When stuffing a throw bag, neatness does NOT count. Avoid the temptation to make neat loops outside the bag and transferring to the bag. This technique often results in snagged lines and short tossing distances. The best approach is to keep jamming the rope inch by inch into the bag with your fingers. When purchasing a throw bag, you want lots of room.

The next most common system is a waist bag or one that fits in your PFD pocket. These are bags you wear and are always with you. A huge advantage of this system is the rope is always ready whenever an accident takes place. This can save a great deal of time racing back to your kayak, unclip the bag, and race back to the accident scene. By the time you get back to the victim, they could be hundreds of yards downstream. Waist bags are also handy for midstream rescues where it is too difficult to reach by throwing or too great a distance from shore. One drawback of these systems is the need to make them small - typically 1/4" line and typically only 50' in length. Many boaters also carry a standard throw bag in addition to the personal throw bag system.

Coiled lines may be carried on a raft or used in a common swimming area. Be very careful when carrying in a boat to make certain it is unlikely to uncoil - this can be very dangerous. A coiled line along with a rescuer that knows how to use this system is extremely adaptable and fast. Throw ropes take forever to re-stuff and many boaters miss on their first toss (remember, practice frequently). An experienced person can gather and retoss a coiled line in a few seconds. It is real easy to toss only the amount of rope you need as well with this system. This avoids snagging the rope or bag on rocks downstream. After the initial toss of a standard throw bag, you can (and should) take advantage of the coiled throw rope technique.

RescuePhilosophyThrow ropes are the bread and butter of rescue. All boaters should carry one and learn how to use them. Practice often to increase range and accuracy. Different types of throw ropes have distinct advantages. Unattended ropes can be a major safety hazard, send someone upstream to warn other boaters.

I am a very strong fan of throw ropes. In my opinion, every intermediate boater should carry one and know how to use them. Class III runs often have a few more challenging rapids that will be tempting to run. Setting safety on more challenging or dangerous rapids is always a good idea. Besides placing a boater downstream of the rapid, the most common way to set safety in rapids is the trusty throw rope. Fortunately, throw ropes are packaged in a number of convenient formats these days. Some fit in a pocket in your PFD, there are waist bags, and traditional throw ropes come in all shapes and sizes to fit pretty much any size boat. Whenever I lead a Little Falls Workout (combination boating & rescue skills clinic), I require all participants to carry a throw rope. Rope throwing should be practiced multiple times each season to keep your skills sharp.

Lets dream about the perfect throw rope for SWR. This throw rope would have the following properties:

  • Floats - What good is the rope if it sinks well below the water surface?
  • Strong - Unpinning canoes and rafts take a great deal of strength
  • Easy to handle - The rope has to be thick enough to grab and not slippery
  • Lightweight - If it is too heavy, you will not carry it
  • Durable - Avoids rotting and lasts awhile
  • Reasonably Priced

Stretches (Dynamic) or doesn't (Static), it depends on the usage. When retrieving swimmers, some stretching is ideal. When hauling or unpinning a boat, stretching can be a real nuisance or even dangerous. Climbers prefer dynamic ropes, cavers don't. SWR shares more caving uses than lead climbing. Just like cavers, SWR may involve careful lowering of a rescuer and certainly top roping.

Throw ropes typically are made of some type of synthetic material like Nylon, Polypropolene, Polyester or Dyneema(Spectra). Many throw ropes use a combination of these materials. Here is a chart comparing rope fibers:

Fiber Floats Strength Stretch Price Weight
Polypropylene Yes 1900 Lbs 4% $33.30 (75') 2.5 lbs (75')
Polyester Yes 5981 Lbs 1% $69.35 (75') 4 lbs (75')
Nylon (Poly Sheath) No 3282 Lbs 2.4% $37.60 (75') 3.5 lbs (75')
Dyneema (Spectra) Yes (Neutral Buoyancy) 5261 Lbs 1.4% $83.00 (75') 2.85 lbs (75')


If you can afford it, it is pretty hard to beat a Dyneema throw rope. Nylon with a Polypropylene sheath isn't a bad second choice. All throw bags have foam in the end of the bag to ensure the end of the rope floats. The Polypropylene sheath also adds some flotation. Nylon throw bags have been in use for many years and are great for rescuing swimmers. Nylon also has high abrasion resistance and holds knots quite well. Sterling Rope also has an extra strong polypropylene line (4,000 Lbs) with a nylon sheath called Swiftwater Response that costs $56.80 that is a very reasonable alternative to either Nylon or Dyneema. Here are the specifications for various rope types: Sterling Rope Specifications. This article from Sterling Rope covers greater detail on rope construction: Rope Construction.

The next consideration is the length of rope. Fire fighters have the luxury of large rafts/boats to carry their equipment. They also handle major floods and very heavy load conditions. A 300' 1/2" line is standard equipment for them. There is no way we can properly throw a 300' line or even fit one in our boats. Most kayak throw ropes are between 50' and 75'. 50' is fine for a rope you carry on your person in a waist belt or in a PFD pocket bag. The ideal length for your primary bag is 75'. This length is still quite easy to throw and handles most small streams and rivers quite well. Since each boater typically carries a throw rope, you can easy tie two together when you need a longer line.

The final consideration is the diameter of the rope. Although 1/4" is more challenging to grab hold of, this diameter isn't a bad temporary measure for waist or PFD pocket bags rescuing swimmers. This thinner diameter is totally unsuitable for hauling or vertical lowering. A 1/4" Polypropylene line has a breaking strength of 950 pounds versus 1900 pounds for 3/8". A common rule of thumb for knots is 50% strength loss, this brings you down to 500 pounds breaking strength. A couple of strong paddlers pulling on a Z-Drag can easily snap this line thickness. 3/8" line is much easier to hold and pull on and is the best choice for your main throw bag.