Rapids Ratings - What They Mean For Your Safety On The River

Canoes and Kayaks

When you’re out on the river, one of the most important things to know is how safe the rapids are. Different rating systems exist to rate rapids’ difficulty. Knowing what they all mean can help you ensure you’re always paddling in waters suitable for your experience level.

This guide will break down the different rating systems used around North America and what they mean for your safety on the river. So whether you’re a beginner just starting out or an experienced kayaker looking to explore new waterways; grab your life jacket and read on for all you need to know about Rapids Ratings!

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The Rapids Rating Categories

Rapids are the turbulent and fast-flowing part of a river. The ratings of a river depend on the intensity of these rapids. This means that a river is not necessarily a Class III or IV during the entire course, just during its peak or common feature points.

So, the river may contain sections that are graded lower than the general rating, meaning the scale is non-linear, nor is it fixed.

Here are the classes or categories on the Rapids rating scale:

Class A

Class A is the lowest rapids rating. Lake water or still water that does not have any perceptible movement comes under this category.

Class I Rapids

Class I is characterised by having small waves and few obstructions that kayakers and rafters can easily tackle. This is because it poses little threat to swimmers, and self-rescue is easy if the currents aren’t too powerful.

Class II: Novice

A river with wide and clear channels comes under the novice category. There might be medium-sized waves that trained paddlers can easily maneuver. The river might have rocks that require a little navigation around them. Swimmers are also safe in this water and seldom injured in case of turbulence. The rivers at the upper end of this range are given the “Class II+” rating.

Class III: Intermediate

The intermediate rating category is also the median class on the scale. The waves are not uniform, and kayakers, swimmers, canoers, and rafters need to be experienced in boat control. Expect fast current, irregular waves, ledges, and tight passages. Inexperienced persons are advised to go with scouts to avoid injuries if they land into trouble. The lower or upper end of the class is denoted by a negative or positive sign, respectively.

Class IV: Advanced

One step ahead of the intermediate class of rapids is Class IV, or the advanced category. This category of rapids requires precise boat handling.  Class IV rivers may have constricted passages, fast flows, and rocky obstructions. In addition, the waves in class IV can get up to four feet high, and the risk of capsizing is much higher. As a result, kayakers should have a strong Eskimo Roll.

If you are swimming, there is a moderate to high risk of injury because of the powerful currents and fast-moving water. Entering these rapids will put you at risk and can be difficult to escape without help, especially for a weak or moderate swimmer.

Class V: Expert

Class V rapids are difficult to navigate. They are characterized by their long, obstructed course and violent currents. Because of their level of danger, rafters and kayakers must take the time to scout the rapids before attempting to run them. However, the water can still be very unpredictable and require quick reactions and decision-making. Class V includes drops with large waves that kayakers can’t avoid, fast-moving water chutes, and holes or dips that cause a risk of overturning.

Proper equipment, extensive experience, and having perfected the Eskimo Roll before attempting the Class V rapids is essential.

Rapids of this category have an extensive range of difficulties beyond Class IV; Class V is an open-ended multiple-level scale designated by classes 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc.

Class VI: Extreme and Exploritory Rapids

The extreme end of the rapids rating scale is Class IV. Because of the danger and unpredictability of the rapids in these rivers, even a tiny error may prove to be highly consequential. As rescue may be near to impossible, these rapids are rarely attempted.

These rapids are usually not open to commercial rafters and kayakers, as they are too high of a liability for rental companies to take on.

However, if a Class IV river is run several times, meaning its course is attemptable, its rating can be changed to Class V.

kayak rapids

Are The Rapids Ratings Absolute?

As mentioned before, the ratings of the rapids in a river are based on most of the peaks of the river. Therefore, the ratings are not fixed. Also, several factors determine the rapids in a river, hence changing the rating of the river in normal circumstances.

Regional Rapid Ratings

Each region has different interpretations of the ratings since the ratings are not based on a qualitative but rather a subjective scale. For example, river runners may perceive a river as a Class III even if it is rated as a Class IV run. So, checking in with the locals before stepping into a river you’ve never been through is advised.

Changing Conditions

Changing conditions like weather, spring floods, rains, and unnatural or natural additional obstacles may up the difficulty rating of the rapids. So, a Rapids Rating cannot capture the river’s difficulty across different seasons and flows. It is a snapshot of the most common perception of the difficulty of informed persons.


The level of help and assistance available is also a factor that adds to or reduces the difficulty of a river. For example, a remote area with little to no help might be classified as a Class IV or IV+.

Summing Up Rapid Ratings

Rating systems like the Rapids Ratings serve as an invaluable guide for water adventurers. However so is good judgment and consultation from multiple sources are necessary before running a river. Also, ensure you run a river based on your skill set and expertise. If you’re running a river without the required experience, any unexpected hazards may cause injuries.

It is advised that unfamiliar rapids are scouted for the first time, so one gets an idea of the course before attempting it.


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About The Author 

Hi, my name is Andy and I am the creator and owner of Canoe-Kayaks.com. I’ve been into water sports for as long as I can remember and I love nothing more than spending a day on the water with my family. This website is a way for me to share my passion with everyone, through providing some helpful guides and tips for canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding.

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