Whitewater Rafting for Dummies

The hardest part about going white water rafting is choosing which stretch of river to tackle.

Seriously.  North America is white water heaven.  You can pretty much close your eyes and point at a map of the United States, and as long as you don’t hit the middle part, you’re going to find a white water river to run.

So, how do you choose?

White water rapids are all rated according to difficulty.  Just to make things easy, it’s actually called the International Scale Of Whitewater Difficulty, and the ratings go from Class I to Class VI (those are roman numerals for the unaware).

There are a lot of descriptive and helpful breakdowns of each class out there, but this post is going to be about choosing a river, not necessarily what the classes tell you.

Here’s a good way to break things down when considering a commercial rafting trip:

Little: Little rapids are great for kids, families, and people who are scared.  Class I and II rapids are little, and sometimes Class III rapids can be little.  Basically, it means that the rapid is easy to navigate, the chance of you falling out of your craft is small, and mostly what you’re doing is floating along with the current.

Medium: This is solid class III territory.  Medium rapids sometimes, but not always, require participation from you to go somewhere in the rapid.  In other words, you’ll probably be paddling here.  If you mess up, the consequesnces are usually mild, meaning you might fall out of your boat and you might not.  Sometimes Class IV rapids can fall into the medium category, but the stakes are higher and you’ll definitely need to navigate.  Good for families and even moderately active people.

Big: Class III and Class IV rapids are usually big.  Turbulent waves move the boat around, and you need momentum to get through intact.  Big rapids can be long, or have hidden obstacles, or have obstacles that are visible but hard to avoid, or some combination of all three.  People who go on big rivers should have a healthy sense of adventure.  Families are fine, if they’re the kind of family that’s looking for excitement, and are okay with a this-isn’t-Disneyland mindset.

Huge: Class V (sometimes IV).  Rivers with huge rapids are less like being at a water park and more like being in a violent sea.  A lot of people think huge rapids are fun; they’re the people that also think mountain climbing, extended backpacking trips, and skydiving are fun.  You should be on your game, physically capable, and ready for anything before you go rafting in huge rapids.

Some things to note:

I didn’t include Class VI rapids because you cannot run them on a commercial trip (thank God).  If you’re reading this and trying to decide what river to go on, be glad you don’t have the option of rafting anything that’s Class VI.

Also, remember that the scale tells you how difficult a rapid is, not how big it is (hence my own classifications).  There are tons of really giant Class III rapids that are a blast, but not that difficult.  Similarly, there are tons of Class V rapids that are super difficult (and potentially dangerous), but not that big.

And this: rapids change.  The volume of water in a river (also known as the river level) can create or expose hazards not normally seen in a given rapid.  Always take into consideration that rafting outfitters use the average optimal levels for classifying rapids.  Which just means that, if the water levels change before your trip, the rapid classifacation could change too.

I would say that the one thing to remember is that the object is to have as much fun as you can, and not necessarily to see how big you can go.  It’s an idea that many, many people ignore when booking a trip.  Don’t be one of them.

Go rafting.  Have fun.  Choose wisely.

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