Whitewater River Rafting Levels – Know The Scale of Danger

Whitewater rafting is an excellent outdoor activity that is all about experiencing nature and adrenaline. However, every river is different, and there are different levels of difficulty that come with each level. Before you head out into the water, you must learn more about these different types of white water rapids.

Whitewater Rafting Rating System

The international scale of difficulty for whitewater rafting is an American rating system used to determine the level of difficulty for a stretch of a river or a whitewater rapid. The scale was created to evaluate rivers all over the world by American Whitewater Association. The scale has six different categories, and each is referred to as “Class.”

Whitewater rafting can and cannot be a difficult sport, depending on the class you choose. Each class explains the degree of spine chills that you want to enjoy, and some of them are easy to go rafting on, whereas some are very difficult. These classes help in figuring out how much experience you will need and what you can expect on the rapid you choose to go on.

Each class is designed for a specific category. For example, class one is perfect for kids, adults, and beginners of all ages, whereas class 6 is for daredevils and adrenaline junkies. However, it is a smart idea to trust your guide to choose the right class for you since they assess your capabilities and then place you in the group suited for your skillset.

whitewater rafting levels

Class 1: Easy – For Everyone

This class of rafting represents a river flow that is incredibly peaceful and has minimal obstructions. If you opt for this level, then that simply means that you will have a very relaxed ride, and you’ll be flowing along with the river’s flow of current. It will have some occasional small waves and some obstacles like every other river but not something that you will have to be concerned about.

In easy terms, class 1 is a fast-moving water body with small waves and riffles. The few obstructions are very obvious and can be easily missed using little training. The risk to swimmers on this river is very little, and self-rescuing can be done easily, which makes it ideal for kids and beginners. Some examples of rivers having class 1 include the Big Vermillion River in Illinois and the Whitewater River in Indiana.

Class 2: Novice – Safe Adventures for Families

Class II is ideal for novices and families that love a little adventure. This class has straightforward rapids that have clear and wide channels that you can see through without any scouting. When whitewater rafting on a class 2 river, you will need to be prepared for the occasional maneuvering.

On this class river, most medium-sized waves and rocks can easily be missed by paddlers who are trained a bit. Swimmers do not get injured on these rapids, and group assistance can be helpful but is seldomly needed. Rapids that paddlers can come across at the upper end of this range are known as Class II+, and if you start seeing rougher waves, then it means you have entered the domain of Class 2 level rafting. At the upper end, you can also come across waves that are three feet tall (no more than that), along with boulders and occasional rocks.


This class requires you to have a slightly good grip on maneuvering, and here you will have to stay on your toes because you will have to steer your raft away from different obstacles your way.


Some locations for Class II rafting include Cloudburst, Onion Creek Rapid, and Rocky Rapid at Colorado River situated near Moab, Utah.

Class 3: Intermediate – For Thrill-Seeking Beginners

When it comes to class three whitewater rafting river, it can simply be described as a class designed for beginners who want to have a thrill-seeking adventure. Rapids that have irregular wave patterns with moderate waves are usually what you can expect on this river trail. The waves on this rapid are up to four to five feet tall and are difficult to avoid. They can also swamp a canoe easily. Sometimes, you will feel the boat shimmy and jolt due to the punch of these waves, but this jolt is very brief and thrilling for many.

Here, you can come across some strainers and even large waves, but since it is designed for intermediate levels, you can easily avoid it. Furthermore, class III is made of powerful current effects and very strong eddies, especially if you are rafting on rivers with large water volumes.

Non-guided rafts can find themselves in trouble if they are rafting in a class III river on their own. For this reason, If you are an inexperienced party, then you will definitely need scouting. However, this class does not have a lot of injuries while swimming, and self-rescue is easy but does require group assistance, especially in order to avoid long swims.

rafting levels


The requirement for rafting on this rapid includes the ability to master complex maneuvering in fast currents because you don’t know where an obstacle may show up. Also, you must be able to keep your boat in good control when passing around ledges and tight passages because the currents will feel stronger here.


Some areas where you can enjoy Class III rafting include:

  • Marble Canyon, Staircase, Big Hummer, Funnel Falls, Sock-it-to-me, Bowling Alley, Last Chance – all these rapids are located in Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River present near Moab, Utah.
  • Three Fords Rapid, Cow Swim Rapid – which are present in Desolation Canyon on the Green River in Utah.
  • Ben Hurt, Mile Long – rapids present in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah.

Are Class 3 Rapids Dangerous?

Whitewater rafting in class 3 rapids makes the water appear white – this is due to the small waves and bubbles, but it doesn’t pose any considerable danger. It does require experienced maneuvering and strong paddling skills but is not a risky rapid to raft on. However, rapids at the upper end are classified as Class III+ and are dangerous. Also, for people under the age of twelve, such rapids must be avoided.

Class 4: Advanced – For Experienced Adventurers

This kind of whitewater rafting river is designed specifically for experienced and professional adventurers. This is because it has powerful and intense rapids that are predictable but can be tricky as well. You will need to have good boat handling, especially in turbulent water. Depending on the mood of the river, it may feature some unavoidable yet large waves along with constricted passages and holes that require alertness and quick maneuvering.

The risk of injury to swimmers on this kind of rapid is high to moderate, which is not ideal for first-timers. Furthermore, the water conditions can make self-rescuing difficult on your own. Most of the time, even for experienced swimmers, group assistance is needed for rescue. In order to go rafting in Class IV rapids, you will need practiced skills along with a good practice of performing a strong Eskimo roll to give you the edge you need.

In simple words, Class IV rapids involve narrow passages, large waves, and multiple obstacles that must be avoided, which requires precision in maneuvering on turns.


What you need to know when rafting in class 4 rivers is precise handling of the boat along with reliable and fast turns. These eddy turns will make you scout rapids, maneuver around, and even rest. Scouting for class IV is very necessary if it is your first time on such a rapid.


If you want to go on these slightly dangerous rapids for more thrilling and experience fun, then simply head to the following sites:

  • Skull Rapid – found in Westwater Canyon, Colorado River near Moab, Utah.
  • Big Drop 3, also known as Satan’s Gut, and Big Drop 2 in the Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.
  • Dubendorff, Hance, Granite, IV+ Sockdolager in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Class 5: Expert – For Seasoned Veterans

Class 5 rapids are described as obstructed, violent, and extremely long, which can be very risky for a paddler. It contains unavoidable large waves along with steeps and holes, demanding routes, and congested complexed chutes. Class 5 rapids continue for very long distances in between pools, which is why the paddler needs to have an excellent level of fitness.

The eddies present in these rapids can be turbulent, small, and sometimes very difficult to reach, whereas, at the higher end of the scale, all of these factors are mixed, allowing only an expert to raft through them. Due to the large difficulty range lying beyond the class 5 rapid, it is considered an open-ended and multi-level class.

It is further classified as 5.0, 5.1, and 5.2, etc., and each magnitude is more difficult than the previous one. For example, if you increase the difficulty level from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1, then this is the same as increasing the difficulty from Class IV to Class V.


The main requirement for class V rapids is good fitness along with scouting. Swimming in these rapids is very dangerous, and rescuing is often very difficult, even for professionals. To raft in these waters, a reliable Eskimo roll, extensive experience, proper equipment, and practiced skills for rescue work are needed.


  • The Wind River Canyon Whitewater, Thermopolis, US
  • Hood River’s West Fork, Columbia Gorge
  • Farmlands Stretch of White Salmon River, Pacific Northwest
  • Husum Falls Drop, Klickitat County, Washington
  • Lava Falls, Crystal Rapids – situated at Grand Canyon, Colorado River

Class 6: Extreme and Exploratory Rapids – For Those with a Deathwish

Whitewater rafting in class 6 rapids has almost never been attempted. This is because Class VI rapids exemplify the extremity of unpredictability, difficulty, and danger to a whole new level. It has no space for errors because the consequences for such errors lead to drowning, and rescue can, in most cases, be impossible.

After a paddler has run over a Class VI rapid many times and been successful, which is a rare case, then the rating for this can be altered to a Class 5.x rating. However, this is not the end of the class. There are also rapids with class VII and VIII ratings, and they are similar to VI but require more focus. These rapids come with plenty of narrow, long, and difficult passages with turbulent water. Just like class VI, both class VII and class VIII are designed for professional rafting enthusiasts who have mastered the art of precision maneuvering.

  • Rapids IX and X

This is the ultimate navigable river system and is for daredevils who are not afraid to risk it all. Such rapids provide you with a higher adrenaline rush and are very similar to class VI rapids. Here, you will find plenty of spinning, gushing rapids, obstacles as big as a house, and twisting water features. The Tunnel rapids and Gore in the Colorado River are two examples of such streams.


Class VI whitewater rafting is very, very dangerous. It is ideal for a team of experts only and that, too, under favorable water levels, taking all kinds of necessary and over-the-top precautions and making close personal inspections. Remember, taking safety precautions here is essential.


You can find class VI rapids at:

  • Costa Rica’s Pacuare River can reach this class when there’s a high run-off. During this time, no rafting occurs, but you can do it if you want a daredevil adventure.
Whitewater River Rafting Levels

When Do I Need a Rafting Class?

This is the most common question asked by people wanting to go on these water adventures. If you are wondering about the appropriate age for joining these classes, then you should know that there is no hard and fast rule to determine the age. Some factors that do play a part include the difficulty level of rapids, the length of the river, and the time it’ll take to cover it, along with good paddling.

Younger children and some adults have a good attention span that they can dedicate to this activity. Younger kids that are around the ages of five to nine are more suited for river trips that can last around three hours on the water, whereas some have a shorter span of one to two hours.

Every child is different and has a different attention span. Kids that are over the ages of 10 up to their teens can enjoy full-day trips with three to five hours of river time. Middle-aged teens can enjoy long days on the rafts and even overnight river rafting adventures.

If your child is five years old or above, then he can be introduced to rafting classes right away, and if you are in your mid-teens or twenties, then you can take these classes as well.

When it comes to whitewater rafting adventure, then you can take kids under the age of twelve on rapids with a Class 1 to 3 rating. However, kids older than twelve can handle class 4, depending on the learning they have had and the paddling help that the guide may need. Class 5 can only be enjoyed by strong paddlers and individuals who are quick and can react quickly. In simpler terms, Class 5 is good for older teens only.

Apart from the age limits mentioned above, anybody can easily take rafting classes whenever they want. This is a very fun sport to learn and provides you with a whole new experience that you have never experienced before.


When deciding on which river rafting tour is ideal for you, don’t stress yourself out. The best advice we can give you on choosing the right class is to trust your river rafting operational guide to choose the right route for your excursion. These guides are professionals and have years of experience; they will size your entire family or the group you are going with and then narrow down the choices of which route and class to take.

They run these rivers daily and want you to enjoy the river as much as they want to. So whichever river rafting tour you pick for your family, just relax and have the time of your life. Read the guide mentioned above to get a grasp on the different classes and locations present, and most importantly, make sure to have fun.