Whenever someone goes rafting or kayaking on whitewater rapids it is vital that they have a good idea of what to expect from the river. To clarify and simplify this process, all whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. The rapids receive ratings based on a combination of difficulty and danger.

The classification system for whitewater rivers is not an exact science.

As with any rating system, there is an element of subjectivity. While most commercial outfitters and experienced paddlers are able to agree on the rating of particular rapids, there will always be discrepancies.  For example, someone believes a certain rapid should be Class III, while another person believes it should receive a class IV rating.

Here’s the disclaimer: the classification system is only a guide. Most rivers are a combination of the classifications and have varying degrees of difficulties based upon water levels.

The most important thing to remember with the classification system: it has nothing to do with how much fun a rapid is. The system is based on difficulty and danger, which do not always equate with the “fun factor” of a rapid. There are plenty of class III rapids that are more fun to raft than many class IV rapids.

At Wet Planet, we use the following internationally accepted rating system:

Class I:

Moving water with a few riffles and small waves. Few or no obstructions.

Perfect for day one of our Beginner Kayak Courses.

Class II:

Easy rapids with smaller waves, clear channels that are obvious without scouting. Some maneuvering might be required.

Day two of our Beginner Kayak Course progresses to class II on the Lower Klickitat River. 

Class III:

Rapids with high, irregular waves. Narrow passages that often require precise maneuvering.

The Upper Klickitat River raft trip epitomizes the class III rafting adventure.  At certain flows, the Middle White Salmon River trip can also fit in here.  Our multi-day Rogue River kayak and raft trips are also class III. 

Class IV:

Long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require complex maneuvering in turbulent water. The course may be hard to determine and scouting is often necessary.

Adding in our exclusive upper river stretch, the White Salmon River is one of the best class IV adventures in the country.  For multi-day class IV, we recommend Hells Canyon of the Snake and the Owyhee River

Class V:

Extremely difficult, long, and very violent rapids with highly congested routes, which should be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult, and there is a significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. The upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft.

High adventure of class V rafting can be found on the Wind River, West Fork of the Hood River, and the Farmlands stretch of the White Salmon River.  The famous Husum Falls drop on the Middle White Salmon is a class V option on our popular day trips as well.

Class VI:

The difficulties of Class V carried to the extreme. Nearly impossible and very dangerous. For teams of experts only. Involves risk of life. Class VI rapids are not commercially raftable.

What can change a river’s classification?

First, the class designation may vary with fluctuating water levels. Typically, high water levels increase the difficulty of rapids. However, this is not always the case. Some rapids become more technical and more difficult at lower water levels. Second, the classification system does not take into account the type of boat being paddled. Some rapids may present particular challenges for rafts, while other rapids may be more difficult for a whitewater paddler in a kayak. Finally, major events like landslides, ice storms or floods can change the shape of rapids, thus altering their classification.

The bottom line is that assigning numbers to rivers is inherently subjective.  Rivers are a natural force subject to change at anytime.  Luckily, that change doesn’t happen too often, allowing us to enjoy their whitewater more!

Please call us at Wet Planet if you have any questions about which rivers are appropriate for your group.