Whitewater Classifications – What Do They Mean?

Whitewater classifications – what do you know about them? When I first took this job I’ll admit I knew little to nothing about what those I – IV classes actually meant. Now after a summer full of rating I have a much better idea and would like to share what I’ve learned.

Class I:

Moving water with riffles and small waves.  Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training.  Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy. Good for novice paddlers.

Class II:

Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting.  Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed.  Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Good for beginner paddlers.

Class III:

Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid.

Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided.  Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found.  Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue can be easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Good for beginner to intermediate paddlers.

We offer trips down Brown’s Canyon and Bighorn Sheep Canyon with class II and III rapids.

Class IV:

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.  Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure.  Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards.  Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential.

Class 5:

Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach.

At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined.

Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts.

Trips through the Royal Gorge and The Numbers would offer excellent class IV and V rapids.

Class VI:

Extreme and Exploratory Rapids These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be changed to a Class V rating.

The Arkansas River truly offers all the whitewater classification levels you could want and look for in a Colorado white water rafting adventure. Hope to see you on the river!

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