Classes of Whitewater – A Brief Reminder

With the spring whitewater season just around the corner, it can be helpful to revisit the different classes of whitewater rafting and what they mean. The New River Gorge is home to the New and the Gauley Rivers, meaning that there is a trip suitable for every level of rafter – from first-timers, to world class whitewater veterans who are looking for a challenge.


The New River is home to some of the most popular trips – with a straightforward, but still engaging trip. One of the most memorable parts about this trip is that it finishes under the infamous New River Gorge Bridge – one of the longest single span bridges in the United States. The Gauley River is perfect for the intermediate or advanced rafter, and it is also dam controlled. This means that come “Gauley Season” in the fall, the water levels rise and make for an unforgettable trip!

The grading scale for whitewater rafting has been determined by the American Whitewater Association in order to ensure that rivers could be fairly and consistently graded, resulting in a scale that reflects the technical difficulty and skill required to raft safely and successfully. There are 6 classes of whitewater rafting, with Class I being the lowest level of difficulty, and Class VI being the highest.

Class I: Suitable for beginners. There are a limited number of obstructions, and the water is flowing but it is not rough, or only has small periods of roughness. If you’ve never rafted before, you might want to start here!

Class II: Suitable for novice rafters. This type of whitewater may require some maneuvering, but rocks or other obstacles are relatively easily avoided. Rapids that are on the higher end of this difficulty can be recognized as Class II+, and are a great option for the rafter who is considering stepping up to the next level.

Class III: Considered to be “intermediate”, these rapids may contain moderate or irregular waves that can pose more of a challenge to traverse. At this level, it is starting to become important to have better control over the raft in order to navigate challenges not present at the easier levels. Whitewater trips in this class can be further separated into Class III- or Class III+ depending on which end of the range they fall into.

Class IV: Advanced level – not for the new or nervous rafter. In this class, water can be turbulent and powerful, requiring more precise control over the boat. At this level, it may become necessary to complete maneuvers in order to prevent injury or accident. Like other classes, rapids at this level can be further classified as Class IV- or Class IV+ depending on many factors, including the skill level required to complete some actions that may be required by the water, and also other conditions that can be present.

Class V: For experts only! Long and violent whitewater may be present at this level, in addition to drops, waves, holes, and other difficulties. Another factor that makes this more complicated is that a higher level of physical fitness is required as there may be rapids that continue for a long period of time without pools of calm water. Before attempting this type of rapid, rafters often undergo many years of training in specific techniques and also in rescue skills. Unlike some of the lower classes of whitewater, the Class V scale is further graded by magnitude – Class 5.0, Class 5.1 and so on through the levels of difficulty.

Class VI: Whitewater of this type is uncommon and not found on commercial rafting trips as it is considered to be “exploratory”. What this means is that it has been attempted a limited number of times, and has shown a difficulty level that is unpredictable and dangerous. Over time, if a rapid in this category is scouted sufficiently, it may be downgraded to Class V, but this is no small decision.

Some other factors to remember about classes of whitewater:

-The level should not change depending on the flow of the water, and if it does, it should be noted as such.

-It is important to honestly consider one’s practical whitewater experience when choosing a whitewater trip based on grade.

-If you are unsure if you are ready for the next level of whitewater, it is generally recommended to stay at your current level, as being over-faced can be dangerous for everyone on the trip.


If you’re unsure about what level of whitewater to attempt, make sure to speak with an experienced guide who can properly explain what is required at each level in order to have a safe and fun time. As time passes and your experience increases, it will be easier to tell what levels are appropriate and what you’re ready for, but in the meantime, it is definitely better to ask and perhaps, lean on the side of caution… For now at least 😉

To learn more about different classes of whitewater rafting, check out these resources:

Classes of Rapids, as explained by the American Whitewater Association:

River Search:


Have a question about whitewater classes or want to add something to the list above? Leave a comment below!

Related Content:

About the New River

Top 5 Misconceptions about Whitewater Rafting

Different Whitewater Vessels