When to Try Whitewater Rafting Class V Rapids

Written by Ben Sack, 02.03.2024

For thrill-seekers, whitewater rafting reaches peak appeal at the Class V level: the biggest and gnarliest river-running, most adventurers should ever think about trying.

Although we offer many placid, beginner- and kid-friendly rafting trips on the Arkansas River here at Echo Canyon, we also tackle Class V rapids during the seasonal high flow of early summer. This kind of thrills-a-minute adventure rafting trip is an option for those who understand what’s involved—which is exactly what this article’s all about!

Adventure Rafting in the Royal Gorge

What is a Class V Rapid?

The International Scale of River Difficulty classifies whitewater rapids from Class I-Class VI. Let’s frame the scale by describing the two extremes. Class I is barely whitewater, with nothing more than riffles and a few little waves: sort of like a gently sloshing bathtub.

Compare that to the monster, essentially unnavigable whitewater of a Class VI rapid. If Class I is bathtub-like water, Class VI is Niagara Falls. If stone-cold experts manage to successfully run Class VI whitewater a few times, it gets “downgraded” to Class V. In other words, Class VI is effectively unrunnable, the purview only of the most adventurous and highly skilled river-runners looking to push the envelope—with much Class VI whitewater too ferocious and impossible even for that sort of thing.

Class V whitewater is the upper limit of reasonable commercial whitewater rafting, with big waves, big holes, complicated lines to follow, and/or long relentless stretches of raging water. Such whitewater requires multiple “must-make” moves: in other words, tricky maneuvers that must be executed correctly to keep everybody in the boat. Participants need to be capable of fast decision-making and responsiveness. Strong swimming skills and extensive, practiced knowledge of advanced river rescue techniques are required to deal with situations where rafters do end up in the drink.

What to Consider Before Rafting Class V Rapids

What should you be keeping in mind when considering whitewater rafting Class V rapids? Plenty!

Experience Level

The experience level of the entire rafting party must be evaluated before running Class V whitewater. Can beginners tackle Class V rapids? Generally, no: These rapids—technically advanced and downright dangerous—are not newbie material. Mind you, we’ve certainly seen beginners do very well in Class V rapids, but it’s always best to scale up to a Class V adventure by getting some Class IV trips under your belt.

Being physically fit and well-prepared—with the right equipment and the right skill set—is essential, given how lengthy and demanding Class V rapids can be.

As already mentioned, you need to be a strong swimmer to even think about running Class V whitewater. If guests find themselves in the water in the midst of a Class V rapid, they’re responsible for swimming themselves to shore or back to a boat. Rescue efforts in this magnitude of whitewater can be very challenging even for experts.

When rapids are back-to-back, as they often are in Class V situations, swimmers not only need stamina but also a high level of alertness and responsiveness.

a swimmer reaches out to his raft for assistance

What Outfitter to Raft With

Verifying the credentials and safety protocols of an outfitter is essential regardless of the kind of river you’re running, but the stakes are all the higher when you’re talking whitewater rafting Class V rapids.

You need to be sure rafting guides have the experience, the know-how, and the equipment to not only successfully navigate rapids, but execute rescues and contingency measures if need be.

Rapid Conditions

River conditions and weather can greatly influence the level of difficulty a stretch of whitewater presents. Seasonally high flow—or unusual periods of runoff or heavy precipitation—can turn lower-grade rapids into much more challenging whitewater. Many Class VI rapids can transform into Class V ones in such situations.

Be sure to dress adequately for Class V water—a properly fitting and certified Personal Flotation Device (PFD), helmet, secure footwear, etc.—and for the demands of the season. Higher flows, as here on the Arkansas River and the Colorado River, typically occur during early summer, with associated cold water and quite possibly chilly air temperatures.

Local Regulations

Understand local regulations and advisories before embarking on a Class V trip. Confirm that all rafting guests are not only competent, fitness- and skills-wise, but also confident. Make sure everybody’s a capable self-sufficient swimmer and that there aren’t any significant medical conditions that could impair performance on the run.

When You Should Try Whitewater Rafting Class V Rapids

Colorado Springs raftingIn a typical year in most of Colorado, the greatest river flows typically come in June, when the mountain snowpack melts off to amp up volume and discharge. It’s usually during this month that we see the biggest rapids of the Royal Gorge, including Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, and the Narrows, muscle up from their typical Class VI status into Class V territory.

This time of year, rafters on our Royal Gorge trips can expect continuous Class V rapids, generally completed (given the greater flow) in about an hour or so.

Incredible River Expeditions in Colorado With Echo Canyon

Here at Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Colorado, we’ve got highly qualified Class V rafting guides who’ve been successfully navigating the Royal Gorge in big-water conditions for years. If you’re in the mood for an adrenaline-fueled experience—and meet the experience and physical criteria for a Class V trip—there’s nothing like seeing the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River’s rapids, from Sunshine Falls to Sledgehammer, in their high-flow glory.

Ready for a next-level white water rafting experience? Give Class V whitewater a try with Echo Canyon and book your adventure rafting trip online and start planning your next excursion today!

Share this post:

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.
View Ben's Full Bio »