The Great Tow Tether Debate


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The Great Tow Tether / Cow Tail Debate

Yes, this debate was just brought up again by Abe Herrera and Kevin Cripps in the podcast, Tales from the Cripps. I thought there could be more detailed pros and cons of these tow tethers laid out in an article online for the masses. Going by many names — pig tails, cow tails, monkey tails — they differ in length and material by manufacturer.  I use a shorter one made by NRS that has elasticity built in, keeping it snug against my vest. I chose this one to cut down the possibility of a snag on wood when not in use.

Abe Herrara mentioned a great point. Make sure the carabiner you are using is hooked to a point that will pull through when it is stowed on your jacket. Your shoulder strap will not fail if you have an accidental snag. So the new Kokatat and Stohlquist rescue vests have a D- ring made of plastic which has a built-in split for this very stowage. The Astral rescue vest has a great pull tab with a release button, so the manufacturers have thought this part through.  If there isn’t a pull-through stowage, you can use a small zip tie with a breaking point of 5 pounds..

The Pros:

  • Ability to tow a boat to shore instead of just pushing it: This can save your boat and gear when in a canyon with difficult or impossible egress options.
  • Rescue an unconscious person: God forbid, but if a paddler is unconscious you can get them to the side quickly. Pushing an unconscious boater to the side is slow and difficult, whereas towing them quickly and predictable to shore could make the difference in resuscitating the victim.
  • Ability to quickly and safely clip into a rope or webbing: Clipping a rope into a tow tether can make it possible to rescue yourself if someone throws you a rope, or to hook onto a Tyrolean traverse. There are many situations where a rescuer can use this tether as an asset. I have anchored myself to a tree with this quickly then thrown a bag, if my footing is not stellar for yarding in a swimmer. The possibilities for this to be a benefit in a rescue are endless.
  • Live bait: By clipping yourself to a rope that another rescuer is managing from land, it is possible to extract a swimmer that is stuck in a hole. In or out of their boat, a person can be caught by a rescuer with a rope clipped into the end of their tow tether or just on their D ring on the back of their rescue belt on the life jacket.

[Pro Tip: Before trying to tow the boat, flip it up right (hull down) so it catches less water when you’re towing it. Aim for the same side as the swimmer is heading if possible. Never clip into a boat when a serious rapid is below, and there is a good chance you would have to run a hard rapid while clipped in.]

The Cons:

  • Potential for snagging on wood when not in use.
  • Possible snag on a rock or wood when in use, hopefully you have practiced the quick release under pressure. In the podcast Abe and Kevin discuss practicing the quick release deployment of your tether and rescue belt.

Buying Tips

There are numerous subtleties to consider when buying a tow tether. The Astral web toe tether is longer at 6 feet, and does not include elasticity. I like that you won’t get smashed in the face with a carabiner if your wide gate slipped off the boat or rope, without elasticity in play it will not whip back at you as hard. What I don’t like, is how it seems to come out of the zipper, which creeps open when I have it stuffed in the pouch on the side of the green vest… I have had the 6-foot web toe tether creep out on me while in the side stowage pocket. Luckily, I’ve and realized this in time and repacked it before it snagged.

NRS makes a few lengths. If I am paddling something very woody and tight I go with the shorter versions of the elastic-covered tubular webbing. If I am in big water and want some space between a boat I am towing and my boat and body sometimes I switch out to the longer tether.

I choose to use a toe tether since they have a reasonably low profile, and can be so useful in a variety of rescue scenarios. That being said, I acknowledge there is a bit of risk wearing one. Regardless, as part of a team on the river, folks who know the river run well or are more experienced paddlers can utilize this too to prevent the loss or damage of kayaks (and/or save folks from losing or cracking a boat). In more serious situations it gives great options for assisting anyone in need.

Mr. Podcast Himself Kevin Cripps’ Take

“Despite having learned and practiced using rescue tethers in several whitewater safety classes, I recounted in my interview with Abe how my overexuberance to use the tow tether on my first rescue vest resulted in a briefly scary situation. This experience has led me to respect the tow tether as both a powerful and potentially dangerous tool. I know of an incident on the Poudre River where someone had a near fatal swim due to attempting to rescue a boat using his tow tether. As a result he swam into a long and dangerous Class V rapid. 

I believe Abe nailed it when he emphasized the criticality of education and practice in a safe and controlled environment before trying to use it in a real rescue situation. With practice, judicious deployment, and following a few simple protocols, the tow tether is a useful and sometimes critical tool in the river environment, but should be reserved for those willing to put in the training to use it properly.”

After posting on my facebook page and PDX kayaker facebook, we had some great points made with comments in the discussion.  Here are some screenshots of those ideas about using a tow tether, and clipping in (including Dave Fusilli’s comments save at Hamma Hamma Falls on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and video link to this save).

Options to buy direct from manufacturer or read about the different products:

NRS Tow Tether with Carabiner 33″ for $47.96 , or 53 ” for $52.95

Astral Web Toe $90

Kokatat River Tow Tether $85

Nick Hinds
Nick Hinds
Nick Hinds grew up in NC, spending time canoeing and c-1ing around the western part of the state since he was 11 years old. During his 4 years at University of Colorado at Boulder he added whitewater kayaking, so he could earn money teaching at Boulder Outdoor Center. Starting as an intern at Paddler magazine in 2003, Nick began his 20 year career in the Paddlesports Industry. He worked for 4 years with Eugene in Steamboat at Paddler, then 8 years with Canoe & Kayak magazine after moving to Seattle. Spearheading the guidebook for Washington and Oregon, in 2016 he helped publish Paddling Pacific Northwest Whitewater . After 4 years with American Whitewater and 3 with Werner he now handles advertising and marketing partnerships for Paddling Life.


  1. Hi, I don’t see this method of towing a boat like a very good idea .You may likely get the towed boat into your ribcage at some point during the rescue ,if you hit a hole or some big waves that slow you down while the towed boat keeps a higher speed .What I do now, in a similar situation I remove the pig tail from my life jacket belt and use it as a rope to simply tie the two closest handles of the two boats , thus reducing the slack and avoiding being hit by the towed boat .Not sure if all pig tails are designed for the same purpose .

    • Tie two boats together? How do you release the towed boat if things go south? Doesn’t sound very safe to me. Please be more specific before someone ties boats together without anyway to separate them in an emergency.


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