Whitewater Rapid Classifications

It’s almost impossible to predict what to expect on a river. It’s a living, moving, and ever changing body of water. To help you prepare for a day on the river, there have been certain rapid classifications set-up to help you better understand what to expect for specific sections of river. Though not an exact science, Whitewater Rapid Classifications are set between Class I and Class VI. We have assembled this list to help you understand how River Rapids are Classed and Characterized. Always keep in mind that the rapid classes are often times left for debate as to whether or not a particular rapid is actually a class ll or say a class lll – it is often times up to the paddler(s) to decide what the class is based on their own level of skill. For this reason, the Whitewater Rapid Classifications are really more of a guide and they are used to represent how difficult the rapid is to navigate – not how much fun the rapid is.

Class I Rapids

Class I Rapids include fast moving water with ripples and small waves. Their are few obstructions, which are for the most part obvious and can be easily avoided with basic training and knowledge. The risk to swimmers is marginal and self-rescue is fairly easy.

Class II Rapids

The class II rapids are usually wide and clear with channels that are evident without scouting. Maneuvering maybe required but to a trained paddler, rocks and waves should be easily missed. Rapids that are borderline in this class are often referred to as “Class II+” and swimmers are rarely injured and group assistance is rarely needed.

Class III Rapids

Class III Rapids are moderate with irregular waves which can be difficult to avoid and can swamp an open canoe, kayak and/or Ducky. Good boat control in tight passages or around ledges is often required and large waves or strainers may be present but should be easily avoided. Eddies and powerful current effects can be found most commonly on large-volume rivers. Inexperienced parties should always scout the river before taking on the rapids. Injuries are often rare while swimming but having group assistance might be required to avoid long swims. Class III- and Class III+ labels are often times given to rapids that are on the lower or higher side of difficulties within the “Class III” rapids.

Class IV Rapids

Both intense and powerful rapids that require precise boat handling. Depending on the river, the rapids may include large and unavoidable waves, holes, or constricted passages which require quick thinking and maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be a needed skill to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Some rapids may include “required” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting recommended for the first time down. Swimmers will experience a moderate to high risk of injury and water conditions could make self-rescue impossible. Group rescue is preferred, if not essential, and requires an experienced set of skills. Having a solid eskimo roll is highly recommended. Class IV- and Class IV+ labels are given to rapids that are on the lower or higher side of difficulties within the “Class IV” rapids.

Class V Rapids

These rapids can be extremely long, obstructed and very often times violent and leave the paddler exposed to risk. Drops most likely contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep chutes with complex, demanding routes. Class V rapids will continue for long distances between pools which demands experience and core fitness. Few eddies will exist and most likely will be small, turbulent, and difficult to reach. Scouting is essential and can often times be difficult. DON’T Swim, but if you do, swims will be dangerous and rescue is usually difficult even for trained and experienced experts. You must have a very strong and reliable eskimo roll, proper equipment, extensive experience and appropriate rescue skills. Their is a large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV and Class V is a multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, and so on.  Each level is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. Example: going from a Class IV to a Class V is the equivalent of going from a class 5.0 to a 5.1.

Class VI Rapids

These are impossible and mostly left to the crazies who have a death wish. In fact, the overwhelming majority of these rapids have never been attempted and they exemplify the extremes of river difficulty, unpredictability and danger. Errors are very severe and rescue is probably impossible. These rapids are left to teams of experts/professionals at favorable water levels. Upon proper inspection and taking all necessary precautions professional teams will run these rapids many times over and upon relative continued success, the rapids will be re-classed to the appropriate rating if changed at all.