White water rafting is an exiting and fun outdoor sport. However, before you decide to go on that rafting trip, you should know what white water rafting classes of rapids you’ll face before attempting to raft them.
What are the white water rafting classes of rapids? There are six identifiable categories of rapids in the US ranked based on how challenging they are to navigate. They are Class I, II, III, IV, V, and Class VI. The classes increase with the degree of difficulty of paddling and navigating rapids in the river. Novice rafters should start with Class I rapids, while experienced paddlers may attempt higher-ranked ones.
As always, even for intermediate and advanced rafters, going with a licensed rafting company and guide who know the rapids are experienced with the river is the best way to safely enjoy rafting.
Regardless, whether you’re new to white water rafting or are an experienced rafter, identifying the class of rapids on the river before you go on a rafting trip can help you determine if you can safely navigate it with your current skill level.
Below, we’ll explore the six classes of rapids in detail, including their difficulty level, what the rapids look like at each level, and the risks associated with them. Then you’ll be prepared for your next adventure down the river!
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White Water Rafting Classes of Rapids
White water rafting rapid classes were initially created and defined by the American Whitewater Association and are commonly used to label and describe rapids found across the US (sometimes internationally).
There are six categories of rapids, beginning with Class I (“Easy” rapid) and continuing up the scale to the most difficult and dangerous rapids at Class VI (“Extreme and Exploratory” rapids).
Class I (1) Rapids
This first class of rapids is considered “Easy.” It describes a fast-moving portion of water broken up by ripples and small waves, usually ranging from one to two feet high. Typically, they will appear as a portion of water with small white disturbances on the surface.
There is minimal risk associated with swimming or rafting over these rapids. While there are some obstructions in the water, as with most rapids, these obstacles should be easy to spot and avoid.
Additionally, the currents that these rapids generate are gentle and easy to enter and escape, making them well-suited for beginning rafters and even young children. Class I rapids are an excellent start for first-time rafters.
Class II (2) Rapids
Class II, or “Novice” rapids, are categorized by more expansive, clear channels of rapids with slightly more disturbances than Class I rapids.
Class II white water rapids may contain rocks below or protruding from the surface. The rapids also have waves high enough that they will need to be navigated around: Waves in Class II river rapids usually range from one to two feet tall, with an occasional higher wave.
While these rapids contain these obstacles, they all remain visible to the observer at the surface level. Those with any training in paddling rapids should be able to identify and avoid them without much trouble. Class 2 rapids generally don’t require scouting ahead of time.
Class II rapids are also excellent for rafting beginners who are somewhat tentative about rapids, including children. Swimmers are rarely injured in these types of rapids, and it’s usually possible to enter and exit as a swimmer without outside assistance.
Class 2+ Rapids
There is a sub-class within Class II that identifies rapids that do not quite classify as Class III but are on the more difficult end of Class II. If you’re new to whitewater rafting or swimming in rapids, it might be best to avoid these enhanced Class II rapids. Stick to the lower end of Class II instead and work your way up.
NOTE: Beyond Class II rapids, beginners and first time rafters should only raft with a licensed river rafting guide and company.
Class III (3) Rapids
Class III, or “Intermediate” rapids, feature more pronounced waves than Class II. The waves will be of medium size but can be tall enough to flood a kayak or canoe if hit at the wrong angle. (Many of them will range from two to three feet high and are spaced irregularly throughout the rapid pattern.) Therefore, you’ll need to maneuver around them quickly and carefully when possible, which can pose a challenge when facing small, constricted passages on the river.
Because Class III rapids often feature strong currents, they should only be navigated by rafters with at least an intermediate level of experience or those who have mastered novice rapids and are ready to move on to the next challenge.
That said, these Class III rapids can serve as introductory rapids for those who have experience boating and are physically fit but are new to white water rafting. They are not ideal for children or boating novices.
Beginners should tackle Class III rapids only with the direction of a river rafting guide.
Although these rapids rarely cause injury to swimmers, the high waves and fast currents may pose a hazard to those not used to longer, challenging swims.
Class III- and Class III+
Rapids at the lower and upper ends of this class are designated as Class III- and Class III+ rapids, with Class III- being the easier of the two to navigate. You may want to use these designations to work your way up from Class II to Class IV.
Class IV (4) Rapids
Class IV, or “Advanced” rapids, can contain various obstacles, depending on the river. Often, they feature turbulent water with fast, intense rapids, but these can usually be predicted by those familiar with rafting.
Other features that may be present in these rapids are large waves that cannot be avoided and must be navigated over, as well as holes or constricted areas that must be maneuvered around with advanced speed and precision. Waves and drops in Class IV rapids can surge up to four feet high, and sometimes higher. The risk of capsizing is significantly higher than in lower level rapids.
These rapids may require scouting before a trip to determine what obstacles are present and plan ahead of time, especially if you have never navigated a particular area of rapids before. Otherwise, fast eddy turns may be necessary to pause and re-direct your boat around an unknown obstacle that suddenly appears.
Risks Associated with Class IV Rapids
These rapids are called “advanced” for a reason. To navigate these rapids safely in a boat, it is often necessary to have complete control. There may be quite a few places in these rapids where there is only one option for a safe move, and so familiarity with the course of the rapids, and an ability to control your boat and take turns at an advanced level, is crucial.
If you can’t predict incoming obstacles or waves and control your boat’s movement in advanced rapids, dangerous hazards in the water will pose a risk.
Class IV rapids are ideal for those who have experience with Class III rapids and can navigate them adeptly. In some cases, athletic and adventurous first-time rafters may attempt Class IV rapids. Still, they should be aware of the dangers and risks that a Class IV rapid poses, especially those without experience.
Class IV is the first category that poses a serious risk of injury to swimmers (the risk is categorized as “moderate to high.”); this is due to the dangerous obstacles and the strength of the currents and fast-moving water. Entering these rapids as a swimmer can pose a risk, and they can also be difficult to escape without outside assistance, especially for a weak or moderate swimmer.
Class IV- and Class IV+
Rapids at the lower and upper ends of this class are designated as Class IV- and Class IV+ rapids, with Class IV- being the easier sub-category. You may want to use these designations to work your way up from Class III to Class V rapids.
Class V (5) Rapids
Class V, or “Expert” rapids, are significantly more tumultuous with more obstructions and often span wider distances than Class IV rapids. They pose a substantially higher risk to anyone but the most expert paddlers. Scouting can help with these rapids; however, they can be quite unpredictable and require instant reactions and decision making even after advanced scouting.
Features that are common in Class V rapids include drops with large waves that cannot be avoided and must be navigated over; fast-moving water chutes that are often narrow and contain tricky obstacles that require expert maneuvering, and holes or dips in the water that cause a risk of overturning or collapse.
These rapids also frequently continue for a significant length, meaning that they can be difficult even for experienced boaters who do not have a high level of fitness.
Risks Associated with Class V Rapids
Swimming in Class V rapids is dangerous. There’s a significant risk of injury due to submerged objects and fast and unpredictable currents, and escaping the rapids can be difficult even with outside assistance. Only the most experienced swimmers should ever attempt to swim in Class V rapids.
Class V rapids are often considered the highest “runnable” rapids out there. They are ideal for rafters who have mastered Class IV rapids and the various techniques of whitewater rafting. With that said, beginners should never attempt Class V rapids.
Sub-Categories of Class V rapids
Unlike the lower classes of rapids, Class V rapids are sub-divided into multiple levels—5.0, 5.1, 5.2, and so on—based on the rapids’ difficulty.
As you can see, Class V contains a much broader range of difficulty levels than any of the other classes of rapids. The progression between each of the subdivisions of Class V represents the same increase in difficulty as all the lower classes. In other words, the increase in difficulty between a 5.5 rapid and a 5.6 rapid is the same bump in difficulty as between a Class III and a Class IV rapid.
For this reason, it’s particularly important to pay attention to the sub-categories within Class V as you determine whether a rapid is safe to boat or swim at your level of experience. As you train and gain experience with rapids, it may be wise to slowly progress through Class V rapids, taking on a higher-level rapid only after completely mastering the previous level.
Class VI (6) Rapids
Class VI, or “Extreme and Exploratory” rapids, is a category given only to rapids with an extreme level of danger and unpredictability due to their intensity. The risk of boating in these rapids is exceptionally high—even the most advanced paddlers risk severe consequences if they make the slightest mistake, as a rescue from these dangerous rapids is sometimes not possible.
In some cases, these rapids are even considered “unrunnable,” meaning that a safe trip through them is deemed to be impossible, except by chance. In other words, many rapids labeled as Class VI are considered to have no safe route, even with perfect skill and maneuvering.
Scouting these rapids ahead of time is crucial before attempting them. However, Class VI rapids are characterized by their currents and obstacles’ unpredictability, so there is no way to scout these rapids perfectly to ensure that there will be a safe path through them in advance.
Class VI rapids are usually not open to commercial rafters, as they are too high of a liability for rental companies to take on. While some highly skilled and adventurous rafters take on Class VI rapids on occasion and sometimes make it through them without injury, these attempts are widely discouraged due to the risks posed.
Variations in White Water Rafting Classes
It is important to remember that the above white water rafting classes can be subjective, and difficulty levels vary widely within each category.
Difficulty can also be significantly different based on a particular river’s conditions at various times. (For example, a straightforward, simple rapid can become much more unpredictable and dangerous during a flood or dam release.) Rapids can vary in difficulty not only season by season but even overnight based on weather conditions. Make sure to assess the rapid not just in general, but on the particular day you will be attempting to raft or swim it.
A section of rapids with a particular class level overall may also contain difficult elements here and there that will call for a higher skill level to maneuver around. Be sure to research carefully ahead of time to make sure you will be able to handle a specific rapid, and remember that rafting on any rapids is never without risk.
Getting an expert to assess rapids before you attempt to raft it (such as a professional outfitting organization) can help give you peace of mind as your navigate a river, or steer you away from taking a trip that would end badly.
How to Find Out Classes of Rapids
To determine what class a particular section of rapids is or find rapids in a specific category, you’ll need to do some research.
There are quite a few popular rapids across America that have received standard classifications from the American Whitewater Association. This list is “official,” and the classes can be considered credible and exact. The list includes rapids within four regions of America: Northeast, Southeast, Rocky Mountain, and West Coast.
However, for rapids not on this list, the classifications can be subjective to some extent and can vary depending on who is determining the rapids’ class. It would be best if you double-checked the category of a particular rapid with several credible websites or outfitters before attempting it.
A list of standard class designations for international river rapids has been compiled here.
Choosing the Right Rapid Class for White Water Rafting
Taking on rapids that you’re not equipped or able to handle is never a wise idea. To increase your chances of picking the right rapids class for you, consider these other tips:
- If you’re interested in rafting a river rapid, it’s essential to select one with an appropriate class for your skill and experience level, your physical fitness, and the equipment you have on hand.
- One mistake that novice rafters make is to assume that the higher class a rapid falls into, the more “fun” or enjoyable the rafting experience will be, but this can often be the opposite of the truth.
- Rapids are ranked more highly not based on the speed of the water or based on the features that make rafting enjoyable but strictly based on the level of danger rapids present, in the shape of things like obstacles and unpredictable currents. With that said, prioritize safety over fun when choosing a class.
- Do some research or scouting (or both) of rapids ahead of time to identify any obstacles to keep an eye out for once you hit the water.
- Especially if you’re new to rafting, consult with a professional or outfitter to determine whether navigating a particular rapid will be safe under its present conditions.
- Pay attention to the sub-classes of rapids to get a better sense of precisely how difficult a particular rapid will be, and always work your way up to more difficult rapids if you’re a novice.
Different White Water Rafting Classes (Examples)
Whether you’re a beginner or a more advanced rafter, the American Whitewater Association offers suggested rapids for every skill level to embark upon. Here are a few of the common rafting destinations at different class levels throughout various parts of the country:
- Ramcat Rapids on the Middle Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania
- Piddly Rapids on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania
- Powhite Ledges Rapids on the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia
- Staircase Rapids on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia
- Salida Rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado
- Delabar’s Rock Rapids on the Nantahala River in North Carolina
- Needmore Rapids on the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina
- San Juan Rapids on the Lower American River in California
- Bull Falls Rapids on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia
- Fool Hen Rapids on the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana
- Seven Steps Rapids on the Arkansas River (Browns Canyon) in Colorado
- Zoar Gap Rapids on the Deerfield River in Massachusetts
- Nantahala Falls Rapids on the Nantahala River in North Carolina
- Badger Rapids on the Colorado River in Arizona
- River’s End Rapids on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania
- Snaggle Tooth Rapids on the Dolores River in Colorado
- Double Drop Rapids on the Cumberland River in Tennessee
- Hance Rapids on the Colorado River in Arizona
- Fayette Station Rapids in the New River Gorge in West Virginia
- Sweet’s Falls Rapids on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia
- Pine View Falls Rapids in the Cache la Poudre in Colorado
- Zoom Flume Rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado
- Corkscrew Rapids on the Chattooga River in Georgia and South Carolina
- Chamberlain Falls on the North Fork of the American River in California
- Lost Paddle Rapids on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia
- Pine Creek Rapids on the Arkansas River in Colorado
- Drain Pipe Rapids on the South Fork of the American River in California
- Pinball Rapids on Overflow Creek in Georgia
- Lower Barrel Springs Rapids on the Colorado River in Colorado
- Sunshine Rapids on the Green Narrows in North Carolina
- Jacob’s Ladder on the North Fork of the Payette Rapids in Idaho
Final Tips for Safe White Water Rafting
Whether you’re trying out rafting on a Class I rapid or navigating a more advanced rapid, it’s essential to take the same necessary precautions to ensure your safety while on the water:
- Raft with a professional and licensed outfitter: Outfitters are in the business of ensuring that you have a safe and enjoyable rafting trip. They are professionals both at providing you with the equipment you’ll need when rafting and in determining whether a particular rapid is safe to travel under a river’s current conditions and at a rafter’s skill level.
- Wear a helmet: It is always important to wear a helmet while rafting, no matter the level of the rapid or your experience. Even though you are out on the water, rapids are often full of obstacles and submerged rocks, and a capsize could lead to a collision between your head and a hard surface, just like riding a motorcycle on land could.
- Wear a life jacket: Always wear a life jacket with any rapid class. Even if you are a good swimmer, the unpredictable currents and obstacles in a rapid may prove too much for you if you fall out of the boat, which is not uncommon while rafting on rapids.
- Learn to swim correctly in rapids: If you do not have some proficiency as a swimmer, it is very unwise to undertake a rafting expedition at all. Basic swimming is an essential part of rafting, as your boat can be easily overturned in rapids. However, beyond the basics of swimming, it is also helpful to learn the proper technique to swim in rapids if you do end up outside of the boat.
- Never walk in rapids: Another critical thing to remember if you do end up out of your boat while in rapids is to never stand up while in the middle of a moving current. Due to the obstacles and unseen dips and rocks in the water, attempting to stand or walk in any rapids deeper than your shins can lead to serious injury. Float, don’t stand, even if you can touch the bottom. Once you are safely out of the current, you can stand and climb to shore or back into your boat.
- Pack a throw bag with you: Especially if you will be traveling without a guide, a good thing to bring along with you is a “throw bag,” a sack which contains a rope of around 70 feet long, that can be used to help rescue someone if they fall out of the raft.
- Listen to your guide: If you are navigating with a guide, listen to them. They are there for a reason and knows more about rapids than you do. Following their general instructions throughout the trip and specific instructions in the moment can make all the difference between a safe and enjoyable trip and one that ends in serious injury.
- Prepare, and don’t panic: Whitewater rafting can be a huge adrenaline rush even when it goes well. And when something goes wrong, it can happen fast. Familiarize yourself with the steps to take if something goes awry while rafting, and do your best to keep a cool head and follow those protocols precisely if you do find yourself in one of those situations. A cool head can often make all the difference.
No matter what your experience level, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different classes of rapids and to pay attention to the category of a particular stretch of rapids before you attempt to raft it.
While these rankings of difficulty can be subjective and will change based on the season, weather, or water conditions day to day, they are still beneficial for understanding the dangers of a particular river stretch.
Be sure to “start small” if you’re a beginning rafter and work your way up over time. Whether you are a novice or advanced rafter, always pay attention to the class of rapids you are attempting to raft, and take the necessary precautions to give yourself the best chances of a safe and enjoyable journey down the river.