Leashes 101: It’s that Time Again

It’s time to talk about leashes. Why we need them. What kind to use. What kind not to use and how to take care of them. Again.  Lots of new folks are joining us on the water during the pandemic so here’s a primer.

Why We need Them

Leashes keep you connected to your board (or canoe or surfski for that matter.) And after all, your board is the biggest Personal Floatation Device available to you on the water. Staying connected to the board increases your ability to self-rescue and it increases your likelihood of being rescued by someone else, should you need it, especially in the event of injury.

Why We Need Leashes Even on Calm, Flat Water

Harken back to high school physics we we learned Newton’s Third Law of Motion:

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

That means if you fall off your board and launch yourself to port, the board will react in kind, with the same amount of force, launching itself to the starboard. If you fall off the back, the board will launch forward, away from you. Should you end up hurt, your board is not necessarily going to be right there to grab on, without some sort of swim, which you may not be able to do. If there is any current or any amount of wind, even a small breeze, that could propel the board even farther away from you, making recovery or rescue problematic.

But, by wearing a leash, you keep that from happening. You can easily retrieve the board without an unnecessary expenditure of extra energy. Even on a small lake.

Leashes are even more essential if you are:

  • Surfing
  • Downwinding
  • Paddling in rougher conditions (Rough relative to your skill level)
  • Paddling in cold conditions

In fact, some beach communities have local ordinances requiring the use of a leash if surfing. No leash, no session. And you might get fined.

What Kind of Leash to Use

If you are paddling on flatwater, generally a coiled leash is preferable. That will aid in the board springing back to you after a fall. Also, the leash trailing behind you is more likely to stay out of your way.


For surfing and downwinding, a straight, uncoiled leash is preferable. In the surf zone, you do not want the board to come springing back at you, where it could collide with your head or another part of your body. Same with downwinding.

For whitewater paddling or fast river paddling, use a quick release leash so that you can separate from from it and the board if it gets caught on something. Some whitewater paddlers will forgo the leash. But if you use one, make sure it is the quick release type.

Calf and Ankle Leashes

Calf leashes are worn just below the knee. The cuff of the calf leash is longer so that it will fit snuggly around the top of the calf. Wearing the leash in this spot helps keep the leash out of your way as you step back toward the tail for things like pivot/buoy turns or when trimming the board in downwinding and to keep the board from pearling or nosediving when surfing.

Ankle leashes are fine for general paddling.

Purchase a leash that is equal to or a bit longer than the length of your board

How to Wear the Leash

  • Wear the leash on your dominate leg – which is usually the leg that you would step back with as you move into surf stance or to do a pivot turn.
  • Regardless of where you wear the leash cuff, it needs to be snug.
  • Always keep the spine of the leash – the hard part that swivels and attaches the leash cord to the cuff- to the outside of your leg or ankle and facing away.
  • If you are wearing a quick release leash, make sure it is attached to a spot where you can easily grab the release pull or toggle.

Caring for the Leash

Check the condition of your leash regularly. Like all things, over time, with normal wear and tear, leashes can and will fail. It’s not a matter of if but when.

Check the actual leash cordage for nicks, cuts, and other signs of wear. Replace if you see any.

Check the spines at the cuff and at where it attaches to the velcro straps that attach it to the board. Look for damage, check that it still swivels. Bend it back and forth to reveal any hard-to-see cuts or damage. Replace if necessary.

Check the velcro and make sure it is still “sticky” and look for wear and tear.

Check check check the leash strings!!! This might be the most overlooked piece of sup gear! The string is what attaches your leash to the board.  The string is most likely the first thing to wear out and or dry rot. Replace it often! That string is more apt than any other part of the leash to fail in rough conditions. Consider using two leash strings in heavy conditions like you might experience on the Maliko Run or in the Columbia River Gorge.

Don’t drag your leash behind you in the sand or dirt and grass when carrying it, especially when it’s wet.  Debris will get stick in the hooks and loops of the the Velcro, making it hard to attach snuggly and leading to break down on the fabric.A

Always remove the leash for transport on top of the car.

Tips and Tricks

  • Keep an extra leash with you, in your paddle gear bag, in case someone needs one.
  • Keep extra leash strings in your “Save a Paddle Kit” in case yours breaks or is rotted, or in case someone else needs one.
  • If you need to take your ankle leash off because it is tangled or caught on something and you are in the water and cannot reach it do this: slip your paddle behind/underneath your knee and it will help float your leg up, making it easier to reach your cuff.

Most importantly- just wear it.