double clickWhitewater rafting levels and classifications
Whitewater Rafting
Levels & Classifications

Whitewater Rafting Levels of Difficulty

All rivers are rated on a "class" scale to help you determine the size and technicality of the whitewater. Many who are interested in a rafting vacation are in search of more moderate whitewater - aimed mostly at relaxing and soaking up the beauty of the scenery. Those are great trips to do with the younger children. Others are looking for a more intense whitewater. Regardless of your choice, be assured that Western has one of the best safety records in the industry. Western's exclusive J-Rig raft provides accessibility for first-time rafters on even the largest whitewater rapids in Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon, Utah.

Note that the "class" scale was introduced after many of the rapids in Grand Canyon had already been rated. Learn more about that below.

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Interpreting the standard class I - VI whitewater rafting levels:


Class I Rapids - Moving Water Over Shallow Riverbed »

Class I rapids are defined by moving water with small waves that tug at the boat in a downstream flow - it's a relaxing way to spend the day. Rafting trips on class I whitewater are generally labeled as "scenic float trips". Most rivers have stretches of calm Class I water, creating a pleasant break between larger rapids.

Understanding What Makes a Rapid: Rapids are formed when running water moves swiftly over a shallow bed, around and over obstacles, or is constricted by narrow walls. Each of the classifications contains one or any combination of these. Many river trips that are great for starters contain Class I - III whitewater rapids. See the list further below if this is the kind of rafting trip you are looking to start out with.

See Best Trips for Starters

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Class II Rapids - Waves that Make Fun Splashes »

Class II rapids are easy to navigate, generally broad sections of water moving fast enough to create 1 - 3 foot whitecaps. These are waves that are readily seen amidst broad channels that can be spotted without scouting the route from the shoreline. Some maneuvering is required to keep boat headed straight into each approaching wave.

Class II Rapids and Trips:

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Class III Rapids - Fun Waves with Thrill Factor, Requiring Some Technical Skill »

Class III rapids feature waves up to 4 or 5 feet tall that will crash over the bow. Currents (hydraulics) will feel stronger, possibly channeling between brief narrow passages such as boulders or a cliff wall. Boats will shimmy and jolt with the increased punch of these larger waves, but generally, the jolt is brief, with a calmer and wider recovery area below each obstacle or wave, making the consequences of hitting something askew less severe. Plenty of excitement and fun with a guide at the helm! Non-guided rafters can find themselves in trouble in Class III rapids.

Class III Rapids and Trips:

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Class IV Rapids - Whitewater with Obstacles and More Technical Skills »

Larger waves, narrow passages, and multiple obstacles to avoid requiring precise maneuvering to avoid upset. These rapids tend to be longer, steeper, and more "technical" which translates to turns, spins, and lateral moves across the current.

Class IV Rapids and Trips:

See Best Trips for Big Whitewater

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Class V Rapids - Rapids with major Obstacles That are Difficult to Avoid »

Another deserved level up from Class IV rapids, these look different (bigger and more intense). Expect vertical drops, strong currents, big waves, boulders and holes large enough to flip or hold boats in their more powerful hydraulics.

Class V Rapids and Trips:

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Class VI Rapids - Unnavigable Whitewater Rapids »

Generally considered "un-navigable" or "un-runnable", these are amplified versions of what you would find in Class V rapids.

  • Costa Rica's Pacuare River can reach Class VI levels during high run-off. No rafting occurs during those high flows.

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J-Rig in the Grand Canyon

Can I do big whitewater rapids, even if I am a first-timer?

Western River Expeditions matches the size of it's boats to the size of the whitewater, so in many ways it depends more on the raft you choose, or where you sit on that raft than which river you choose. If you can grip a rope and follow the guide's instructions, you are as ready as you need to be for starting out. On rivers where the rapids are more moderate (may vary on water levels), we may bring along paddleboats and inflatable kayaks to let the more adventurous get their thrill while the more conservative can simply grip the ropes on an oar-powered raft.

When the rapids are large (mid-high water Cataract Canyon and all season in Grand Canyon), we use our patented J-rig raft that is more stable and offers a very fun ride. Sit up front for the whitewater rodeo, or stay back in the middle of the raft (a.k.a. the "chicken coop") where things tend to "buck" a lot less.

Learn: J-Rig Raft for First-Timers

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I'm nervous about whitewater...Which trips are best for starters?

Several of our trips offer a way to get your feet wet (pun intended) with whitewater rafting! You don't have to know a lot before getting to the river, our guides can give you all the instruction you need. But if you're still nervous (for yourself, your younger children, or Grandma & Grandpa that you're bringing along) then consider these trips for starters:

Southwest Sampler - Class I-II Rapids (possibly Class III in high water) »

Southwest Vacation Package Rafts Sunrise

Rapids on this stretch are fun, but not intimidating. Two nights of comfort in town and one night camping along a more mellow stretch of the Colorado River in gorgeous Castle Valley near Moab, Utah.

See: Southwest Sampler

Green River Desolation Canyon - Class I-III Rapids »

Desolation Canyon Utah Rafting Guide Possibly the best river trip for satisfying kids from ages 5 to 95. Enjoy nearly 60 rapids that are more fun than scary in an oar boat or an inflatable kayak. Moab, Utah also offers a lot of other fun one day-activities.

See: Green River in Desolation

Lower Salmon River - Class I-III »

Lower Salmon River Rafting Paddleraft

Western Idaho's Lower Salmon River is ideal for families with younger kids (Family Magic trips) with rapids that are fun and challenging, but not too crazy.

See: Lower Salmon Trip

Rogue River 3-4 Day Trip - Class I-III (possibly IV) »

Rogue River Rafting Gorge

The Rogue River has a reputation for having a high degree of difficulty, but this refers to the highly technical kayak runs in the upper portion of the river. From Merlin down, the Rogue offers a nice blend of exciting thrills without the drops and ultra narrow chutes.

See: Rogue River Rafting

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Best Trips For Big Whitewater Rapids

Whitewater rapids are a huge thrill ride like nothing else on earth. Nature makes them, we get to play in them! The list below is a sampling of the best trips to reserve if you want to be sure to get the experience of large whitewater rapids. As explained above, different water levels can have an effect on the size and classification of a river and its rapids during different *seasonal water flows. Be sure to plan accordingly.

*Trips whose water flows are regulated by a dam upstream are not subject to as much seasonality and are indicated with an asterisk *.

Westwater Canyon One-Day Trip - Class IV+ »

Westwater Canyon Rafting Al Gore

This one-day whitewater dynamo was named "The West's best short whitewater trip" by National Geographic Adventurer Magazine. Skull Rapid is notorious among whitewater enthusiasts. Paddle rafts and oar boats are the perfect match for this whitewater experience in Moab, Utah.

Westwater Canyon

Cataract Canyon 2 Day Express (Class IV - V) »

Cataract Canyon Express Little Niagara

For white water on the Colorado River, this overnight tour of Cataract Canyon can't be beat. The Big Drops, Little Niagara, Ben Hurt and more make a whitewater pile-up you won't forget. The high speed snout rigs move like corvettes through this whitewater wonderland.

Cataract Express

Cataract Canyon 4 Day Classic (Class IV - V) »

Cataract Canyon Dead Horse Point

The same rapids over the same hundred mile stretch of Colorado River through Cataract Canyon as the Express trip, but a little more time to soak up the majesty of Canyonlands National Park from the river level. This includes a return flight to Moab over Canyonlands.

Cataract Canyon 4 Day

*Grand Canyon 6-7 Day (Class III - V) »

Grand Canyon Lower Jrig Splash 3

Consistently big in any water level, the rapids of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. This section of the Grand Canyon is home to Lava Falls, Crystal Rapid, Hermit, Granite, Horn and Hance rapids. Experience these rapids from Western's exclusive J-Rig raft.

Upper Grand Canyon

Middle Fork Salmon River 4-5 Day (Class III - IV+) »

Middle Fork Salmon River Rafting Mountain 3

In early season the rapids on the Middle Fork can be relentlessly challenging. In later season, lower water, they simmer down to blue ribbon fishing holes. This canyon is known as one of the top ten river runs in the world.

Middle Fork Rafting

*Snake River Hells Canyon - Class III - IV »

Hells Canyon Rafting Rowing Whitewater

The largest whitewater in the northeast funnels through Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.

Snake River Whitewater