How to Use a Throwbag for Whitewater Rescues

April 19, 2016
Rebecca M. FullertonWhen tossing a throwbag during a whitewater rescue, be sure not to stand inside the coiled rope.

If you’re a paddler with a yen for fast-moving water, chances are you’re familiar with a throw bag. But do you know how to use one correctly? Here’s how to help ensure a successful whitewater rescue, should you or a companion go for an unexpected swim.

What You Need

Knowing your gear is critical to success. The rope coiled within a throw bag usually is either 50 or 75 feet in length. The longer length provides more time for a swimmer to reach a slightly off-target throw. The shorter length can mean a more accurate toss but is typically used on narrower rivers. Rope diameters range from 1/4 inch (lighter, meaning more rope can fit in the bag) to 3/8 inch (stronger, heavy when wet). Jim Sullivan, the paddlesports manager at Zoar Outdoor Adventures in Western Massachusetts, recommends the strength-to-weight balance of a 5/16-inch rope. “It holds friction better than the smaller diameters and is still compact and throws well,” he says.

What to Consider

Rope is only as good as the hands holding it, and an accurate throw hinges on the right choreography. Ideally, this means throwing from solid ground rather than from a boat. To scout water conditions, take out above a rapid, identify a stable location downstream of the strongest current, and position yourself there while others in your group shoot the rapid.

A successful rescue hinges as much on what you don’t do as what you do. First off, make eye contact with the swimmer and don’t assume a throw bag is necessary, Sullivan says. If the swimmer signals he is OK, let him swim. If not, “Yell, ‘Rope!’ or the swimmer’s name and wait for the eye contact,” Sullivan says. Otherwise, the swimmer won’t be ready to grab the line.

As you prepare to throw, don’t stand inside the coiled rope or wrap it around your wrist or other body parts. Sullivan advises against a “non-releasable system”; that is, don’t anchor the rope to your boat, a tree, or another object. When a swimmer catches a rope thrown from shore, she’s then connected to the thrower like the pendulum of a clock. “The entire pendulum needs to be totally free of any obstacles, including other paddlers,” Sullivan says. If something goes wrong, letting go of the rope may be the fastest, safest option for everyone.

What to Do

When it is time to toss the bag, undo any closures and pull out a fistful of extra rope to give yourself a little slack, Sullivan advises. Grip the bag in your throwing hand and one end of the rope in your other hand. The rope will uncoil as it sails through the air. How you toss the bag is personal preference. An underhanded throw is often the go-to, according to Sullivan. It’s less wear on your shoulder, easier with larger throw bags, and can get the bag out from under overhanging branches. A sidearm toss can help get the bag around a tree trunk or other obstacle. Or you might be most comfortable with an overhand throw. What method you use depends on personal preference and the environment you are in.

“Aim for the rope to land on the swimmer,” Sullivan says, accounting for the pace of the current. The swimmer should grab the rope, not the bag, and, situated on his back with nose and toes at the surface, grasp the rope to the shoulder opposite the shore.

The rescuer’s stance is important here. “Ropes go taut really fast when a swimmer grabs on,” Sullivan says. “This can easily take folks by surprise.” He recommends sitting down immediately after you throw. If the swimmer is an adult, you might have another paddler hold onto your life jacket, providing a counterweight for added stability. Letting out some slack in the line as the swimmer swings to shore can also reduce tension on the rope.

It may take more than one toss before a swimmer grabs hold, so you and your fellow paddlers might consider putting your pitching arms through some riverside spring training. Good luck!


Many AMC chapters offer introductory and advanced paddling courses. Find a workshop near you.


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Karen Ingraham

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.