[VIDEO] White Water Rafting Levels / Classes Explained

Posted June 19, 2023 by Jack Armstrong: grandson of founder George Armstrong
View time: 3 mins

The river classification system is based on an International Scale of River Difficulty and ranges from Class 1 to Class 6 rapids. In this video, we explain the different white water rafting levels, as well as what to expect from each category of rapid on your next rafting trip.

Rapid and river ratings are based on a set of guidelines, and while there may be minor differences in opinion within the whitewater community, the two factors that are taken into account when grading a rapid are: 

1) how many obstacles are present 
2) how difficult it is to execute the maneuvers around the obstacles.

Class 1 Rapids

Class 1 rapids are great for floating. Class 1 is characterized by water moving downstream. Sometimes there will be riffles or small waves but it’s more like a calm river or your favorite swimming hole. No training is necessary for Class 1 rapids.

Class 2 Rapids

Class 2 is perfect for young children and tentative adults. Class 2 water presents slightly faster water. There may be small to medium sized waves and easy-to-miss obstacles. You’ll often see inner-tubers enjoying the splashy Class 2 waves. Some training is helpful, but may not be necessary.

Class 3 Rapids

Class 3 is a great introduction to guided whitewater rafting trips for a wide range of people. Class 3 rapids present faster moving water and currents appropriate for beginner rafters. There may be medium to large sized waves, rocks, and obstacles that require some moves and maneuvers. The ability to swim is recommended but not required.

Class 4 Rapids

Class 4 is best for adventurous beginners and returning rafters. Class 4 rapids present faster moving and more powerful water, and there may be large waves, narrow passageways, small ledges, or large boulders that require precise maneuvering. A trained guide is essential as the moves are more difficult. The ability to swim is required.

Class 5 Rapids

Class 5 is best for experienced, adventurous, rafters who love whitewater. Class 5 presents swift, powerful currents and at times long rapids. The rapids may include many obstacles such as waves, holes, constricted passageways, ledges, waterfalls, and large boulders.

Knowledge of the rapid’s characteristics is crucial, and having a guide with extensive training is essential, as the maneuvers can be very difficult. The ability to actively (freestyle) swim in fast moving water is required.

Class 6 Rapids

Class 6 is best to avoid. Class 6 rapids are considered un-runnable because of the level of difficulty, danger, and the associated risk of injury or death.

Luckily, California has a huge variety of rivers and rapids, and we offer trips on 10 different rivers ranging from easy/beginner Class 2 to advanced Class 5. Whether you’re a first time rafter or a seasoned veteran, we have a trip for you.

Author Bio

Jack Armstrong

Jack grew up 35 minutes from AO headquarters, and is the grandson of our founder, George. His education includes a film degree and art studies from Biola University, as well as lots of experience breaking camera gear outside. After graduating college, he started an outdoors/action sports focused production company and is largely responsible for our video, photo, and social media content. Jack’s favorite trip is the Cal-Salmon, because of the river’s awe-inspiring beauty and the sweet rapids. When he’s not rafting or playing with cameras, Jack can be found skiing, surfing, visiting art galleries, or eating tacos.


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