Learn About the Many Levels of Whitewater

Article by Libby Tobey

For anyone unfamiliar with the world of whitewater sports, the idea of running rapids for the first time might seem daunting. Some of us, at hearing the word “whitewater,” might conjure up mental images of crashing, man-eating waves and thundering waterfalls. Whitewater sports, however, don’t have to be terrifying quests for adrenaline. On the contrary: rafting, kayaking, and other whitewater sports can be a perfect way to have fun while exploring and appreciating the spectacular rivers all around us.

One of the tools used by river runners is the International Scale of River Difficulty, a “class” system that assigns sections of river and individual rapids a I-V rating. Sometimes, +/- additions are made to the rating to be more specific (i.e. class III+). These ratings, which can be found in guidebooks or on websites like American Whitewater, are a great way for boaters to decide which rivers will be fun, accessible, and within their ability level. Note that a single river can have different sections of varying difficulty.


Labryinth Canyon, Green River, UT

Labyrinth Canyon, Green River, UT | le fromage

Class I

Class I stretches of river are characterized by relatively calm moving water. There are no large waves or obstacles, making them perfect for new boaters to learn on.

Example: Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River in Utah.


North Fork Flathead River, MT

North Fork Flathead River, MT | Scott Bosse

Class II

Class II stretches of river generally have more rough water than class I rivers and present some obstacles (typically rocks and logs).  These rivers might require some maneuvering on the part of the boater, but most maneuvers are still relatively low consequence.

Example: North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana.


Snake River, WY

Snake River, WY | Tom Kelly

Class III

Class III stretches of river may present some large waves, hydraulics and obstacles, and may also contain some small (typically 3-5 ft.) drops.

Examples: Alpine Canyon of the Snake River in Wyoming and the Upper St. Louis River in Minnesota. 


Husum Falls, White Salmon River, WA

Husum Falls, White Salmon River, WA | Jeremy Reding

Class IV

Class IV stretches of river are often characterized by longer or more complex rapids, large waves and hydraulics, significant obstacles, and possibly some large drops.

Examples: White Salmon River (BZ Corner to Husum Falls) in Washington and the Kennebec River Gorge in Maine.


Nantahala River, NC

Nantahala River, NC | Roger Smith

Class V

Class V rivers are usually characterized by large or continuous whitewater with many obstacles and some large drops. Often, high consequence maneuvers must be made to run these rivers safely.

Examples: Nantahala Cascades in North Carolina, and the Little White Salmon River in Washington.


While this classification system is a useful tool, it’s also a subjective one- so make sure to do your research before putting on! As a general rule of thumb, class I and II rivers are considered appropriate for beginners and those with minimal whitewater experience. Class III rivers are more appropriate for intermediate boaters, while advanced and expert skill levels are recommended for anyone running class IV and V rivers, respectively. Remember that rivers vary widely in character and are dynamic and constantly changing. When running new rivers, check with experienced local boaters or outfitters for advice or changes in river conditions.

Finally, making sure that everyone is safe on the river is essential! Make sure that every boater wears a lifejacket, or personal flotation device (PFD) while on the water. Take time to inform yourself about river safety equipment and how to use it, and consider taking a swift water rescue course to learn some river rescue basics. This is a great way to meet other boaters and brush up on safety skills as well. Always know the major features and access points of a river you plan to run, and be sure to double check conditions and river flows before you go.

No matter what your ability level, there are resources out there to help you get acquainted with your local rivers. The American Canoe Association is a perfect resource for anyone seeking introductory whitewater courses, paddling clubs, or more river information. Rescue 3 specializes in swiftwater rescue courses, which they offer regularly in many U.S. states.

Be Safe, and Have Fun!