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River Rafting Classifications: A Primer

Leavenworth, Washington

So, you want to take the family on a river rafting vacation but you are slightly nonplussed by how rivers are rated.  What does the rating of a stretch of river where they conduct white water raft trips indicate?

Like hurricanes and earthquakes, the higher the classification the rougher the ride is going to be.  But there are some nuances.  Sit tight and allow me to explain.
Embarking on a trip down the Class III Sauk River

The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale goes to Category 5 and, for all intents and purposes, so does the International Scale of White Water Difficulty.  There is a Class VI, but it is considered unnavigable.  Or, at least, not navigable by a normal passenger-carrying craft without a very high likelihood of a fatality resulting.

Ninety-eight per cent of all river trips happen on Class I to Class IV stretches of river.  I don't have any evidence to back that up.  I'm just reasonably certain that is the case.  As hurricanes get more powerful and destructive as they move from Category 1 to Category 5, rivers become more difficult to navigate and your odds of courting disaster increase.

In other words, if you do not know how to swim, or are terrified of the idea of being unloosed on a free-flowing river, or get vertigo from sudden, jarring movements (we had a guest once that fit that description and demonstrate that malady on the cusp of a Class V drop), you would be most comfortable on a river trip of Class III or lower.  A Class V drop, or stretch of river, or river (I will come back to this), is no place for the faint of heart or the leery of water.

Class V, the top rating, suggests congested routes, a wilderness setting perhaps, continuous white water, a lot of turbulence and water hydraulics, and a very tough time performing rescues if necessary.  Not only should the faint of heart and poor swimmers avoid Class V white water, people in less than ideal physical condition, people taking medications, people under a certain age and over a certain age and people with their judgment clouded due to recreational drugs or alcohol should steer clear of Class V rapids.
Boulder Drop - Skykomish.  Dane Doerflinger Photo. 

Class IV is nothing to sneeze at.  The navigation of Class IV rapids is tricky and there are ample opportunities for misadventures and, even though a river rescue is not as difficult as it is with Class V, it is not a simple exercise and, those who find themselves separated from the raft, will find the hydraulics extremely tiring.  There are numerous obstacles to maneuver around in Class IV, the water features can be powerful but, in general, the stress level of your guide has been lowered several notches.  A good paddle raft of hardy paddlers should have no difficulty threading their way through Class IV white water.

Class III is where the majority of commercially-led white water river trips is conducted.  Obstacles are fewer, rescue is much simpler, navigation is straight forward and the river tends to be pool-and-drop, or even long, lazy pools and then - punctuated - with a drop.  This middling rating can have very large and powerful waves, however.  In my experience, most guests seek (and most guides) the exhilaration they experience climbing the mountainous waves on a stress-free Class III river.

Class III is good beginning white water for up and coming guides, but it is also what the vast majority of rafting clients are looking for each and every time they go rafting.  And especially, if they are bringing their families, hosting a wedding party or leading employees in a work group.  Class III is excellent for those who want to be adventurous and have a few stories to tell, but perhaps they are not in the best of paddling shape.  (Guides still want you to be animated, however.  You can't be what we fear the most - a sack of potatoes.)

Class I and II I am going to lump together because, if you are on a Class II river, there is going to be a whole lot of plain old moving water with a little bit of relief on the water's surface, which is, basically, what you would call Class I.  Easy to navigate.  Almost zero obstructions.  Rescue is easy.  (But you are still on moving water, so it is not 100 per cent safe!)  The rapids or waves are mild.  These are the river trips ideal for young kids and their grandparents, and for those who are uncertain if a river rafting trip suits them to begin with.

Earlier I indicated that you can designate a river, or a stretch of river, or a rapid a certain classification.  So, it is useful to know that every river is not likely to be constantly one classification or another.  A Class III river will have numerous stretches of quiet water.  For instance, the Skykomish River, which we consider to be the most physically demanding river we raft commercially and presents the most difficult white water challenges, is not 100 per cent Class IV or V.  Quite a bit of it is Class I through III.

In other words, bear in mind, a river may be classified one class or the other, but every part of the river will not - necessarily - reflect that rating.  You will have a chance to catch your breath and take notice of the scenery flashing by.

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