How Experienced Do I Need to be to Raft Each Rapid?

Written by Ben Sack, 02.26.2019

How Experienced Do I Need to be to Raft Each Rapid?​

So you’re ready to escape to the mountains for an exciting whitewater rafting trip, but you aren’t familiar with which level of difficulty is appropriate for the skill level of your group.

Too challenging and the excursion can turn from fun to scary in one second, but too easy and you won’t find that adrenaline-boost that you’re looking for!

Fortunately, there’s something called the whitewater rapid classification system that can help guide you as to which trip to plan, and what you can expect from the river as you’re splashing down the river on an excursion you won’t soon forget.

What is White Water Classification?

Whitewater classification is a system that categorizes rapids into six categories based on their level of difficulty. This system provides guides and adventurers alike with a tool to gauge what they can expect on the river and to determine the appropriate skill level for different excursions.

The key is this: not every rapid is appropriate for all levels of rafters.

What may be “play” for an expert can be a real challenge for a novice. While many of us are seeking adrenaline-pumping rapids, it’s important to not get in over your head.

Your age, fitness level, whitewater rafting experience, and degree of thrill-seeking all play a part in what the best classification of rapids are for you. By understanding these classes, you’ll be ready to plan your ideal adventure down the river!

Class I-Class II Rapids: Appropriate for All Skill Levels

the most gentle river class - class IClass I rapids are small but fun waves in fast-running water. This class of water is typically what people traveling down the river in tubes are looking for.

Class II rapids are a bit more exciting with some maneuvering required but still considered appropriate for rafters of all ages and experience levels.

With Class I and II water you’ll get to enjoy calm, relaxing stretches in between more exciting rapids of Class II+. These are the moments where you’ll get to enjoy the pristine wilderness and maybe even spot some famous Colorado wildlife. If you’re wanting a float trip, where you simply float down the river, you can stick to stretches with just this level of whitewater.

Class III Rapids: Where the Excitement Begins, But Experience Isn’t Necessary

Royal Gorge RaftingClass III whitewater requires maneuvering skills on the part of your raft guide—fast currents create waves big enough to jostle the boat around and get your blood pumping. 

If you’re looking for a trip ideal for young kids or anyone who’s a bit nervous, Colorado whitewater rafting with Class I-II waves interspersed with Class III provides just enough adventure with stretches where you can relax in the beautiful Colorado mountains.

Class IV Rapids: For Intermediate Rafters or Beginning Thrill-Seekers

With Class IV rapids, you’ll find small vertical drops and impressive obstacles that require lots of paddling and physical endurance. These rapids are often best saved for those who have rafted before, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out the first-time adventure-seekers.

If you’re in great shape and ready for a physical and mental challenge, you may be ready for Class IV rapids rafting trip on your first river expedition. Just remember to listen to your guide and follow their directions to stay safe!

Class V Rapids: Expert Class

Adventure Rafting in the Royal GorgeClass V rapids occur in turbulent water: to raft these highly technical rapids you need extensive rafting experience and be prepared for a tremendous challenge. These long, thrilling and dangerous rapids require impeccable skills paired with physical fitness and endurance.

Even the most experienced rafters will find Class V rapids challenging. Without previous river experience, you won’t be able to to take on these rapids. They require a well-coordinated team effort to maneuver safely.

Class VI Rapids: Extreme Caution is Advised

the upper limit of navigable whitewaterClass VI rapids are so powerful that most have never been attempted, particularly by raft. These are the rapids you’ll often see in the extreme kayaking videos that make most of us nervous by just watching them!

This class of rapids is so challenging that even the most experienced kayaker is risking serious injury… so outfitter rafting trips avoid this class for rapids whose challenge is a bit more fun.

What’s the Most Advanced Class of Rapids I Can Do as a Beginner?

If you’re physically fit, at least 14-18 years of age (water level changes minimum age recommendations), and ready for some adrenaline-pumping excitement, you can join in on trips with Class I-III rapids interspersed with Class IV rapids. These rapids will get you wet and jostle you around, providing a memorable adventure for you and your group!

Does White Water Level Impact Rapid Class?

While the class of a rapid doesn’t change year-round, the difficulty of it can. One stretch of water can be much easier at one time of the summer than another, and water levels play an important role. To be sure to pick the right trip for your group, give us a call. We can discuss the current whitewater levels with you and make sure that we plan the best trip possible for you and your friends or family.

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About the Author

Ben Sack is the General Manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado's largest white water rafting outfitter. He's also a raft guide, a photographer, and he loves exploring Colorado and beyond with his wife and two boys.
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