whitewater class question from a novice

It seems to me from reading these forums and living in the real world that there is a pretty significant discrepancy regarding what constitutes the whitewater stream classes - i.e., what is truly Class II, III and so on. Is this true?

I originally had the same understanding as raftergirl, that even Class II was nothing to mess around with, but reading the numerous posts of what people think they can paddle in a given boat, now I’m not so sure.

Am I alone in this?

it can be pretty subjective
here’s a link from a private commercial rafting company that sums it up for their customers


so the current system addresses the difficulty and danger of rapids.

both can be pretty subjective based on your own skill level and knowledge base. It helps to know who is giving the rating.

in the end every rapid should be evaluated for what it is- a unique set

I think one thing I have noticed over the years is that whitewater ratings were largely based on open canoes many years ago. So Class II could be significant for novice paddlers in an open canoe. As people have pushed the envelope in large rafts and kayaks, and moved to extreme risk taking the grading scale has shifted a bit. When I was kid many stretches of western creeks and rivers were not rated, as being too difficult to paddle safely. Now they are class IV and V. The other factor is grading is different in the Eastern US and in the Western US; and not in a uniformly explainable manner.

yes, interpretations vary

– Last Updated: Sep-22-16 2:07 PM EST –

Class 2 seems to be the most contested level. The linked article gives the impression that class 2 is fairly easy and safe.

Just to give two specific personal examples of how deceptive this can be, there is a class 2 rated section of the Youghiogheny River in SW Pennsylvania that has a deceptively simple rapid that capsizes people so regularly that it's called "Flipper". I've been upended in it myself (in a whitewater kayak) and had a real struggle to get to a cluster of rocks at the near shore to empty and re-enter my boat. While I was doing this I witnessed two others capsize.

And the lower section of the Red Moshannon Creek in northern PA, which feeds the Susquehanna River is rated Class 1 yet has several nasty fast and narrow rocky sections (which I would classify as Class 2). Far worse is one where a sharp and visually obscured right hand turn in the river has a large standing wave rapid that sweeps under a massive overhung boulder on the left bank that is a clear pinning hazard. I barely missed being swept under it a few years ago when I was too far into the middle of the stream, having to drive my kayak with every ounce of strength I had into a tiny eddy and gravel shoal behind the boulder and then, being trapped behind the water plunging into the undercut, I had to drag my boat up a steep bush-tangled hillside to portage around the rapid. That section definitely is beyond the American Whitewater groups definition of class 2 (quoted below):

"Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class II+”."

And it definitely exceeds the Class 1 rating of this part of the river. Ironically, the upper section of the Red Mo is classified as "Class 2" yet we used to regularly run it tandem in an Old Town Guide 146 canoe with no problems -- the rapids there are short, clear and open with easy to spot paths through and no major drops, hydraulics or standing waves. In fact I would call that section Class 1 all the way.

So, IMHO, the notion that Class 2 is easily defined and always consists of "easy water" and something that can be safely tackled by unpracticed novices or people in rec boats is a false premise. And even on Class 1 rated streams, people with limited skills should seek the opinion of someone actually familiar with the route before attempting it.

I've had a lot of fun on Class 2 streams, in both canoes and kayaks, but I would not send newbies on them lightly.

average vs. local
Another part of it is that some people think that if they have done a river with one or two class II rapids, they have done a class II river. To me, a striking example of this would be the Nantahala with its two class III rapids. I don’t think most people would call it a class III river. Even further, as I am constantly reminded of personally, there is a vast difference between surviving to the bottom of a run and truly using the features of a river in a controlled fashion.

Deadly Class II - Delaware River
When I lived in PA many years ago it seemed like every year a few people died at the wing dam near New Hope. I believe the rapid there is rated class II, and check out this contradictory invitation from the state of PA to come paddle there:


Just my opinion…

– Last Updated: Sep-22-16 2:47 PM EST –

Lots & lots of rapids have been downgraded in difficulty level during the past 25 years

Because many rivers/rapids have been successfully run so many times, by so many paddlers; shazam! it magically goes from class 4 to class 3.

Some paddlers who successfully negotiate a class 3 rapid "on occasion" start thinking they're a class 3 paddler. They're not really a class 3 paddler, especially on a river that was downgraded from class 4 to class 3 by highly skilled paddlers. Especially if the river is not pool/drop, but is actually a river with multiple/continuous rapids. Long, nasty swim if you capsize; gonna need someone skilled with a throw bag.........

The truth sets in for novice whitewater paddlers pretty quick, shortly after a good ass kickin'.

My moment of truth came in a hydraulic, with my boat on top of me; was unable to quickly get out from under my boat. Luckily, I finally did, and a good paddling buddy laid a throw bag right on top of me. On shore I couldn't catch my breath, was coughing up water, whipped; took me the best part of 20 minutes to recover. Rapid was a class 3 downgraded to a class 2.

It doesn't have to be a class 5 to kill you; quite a few people have died in farm ponds.
If your "inner voice" tells you don't run that rapid; get out & portage....... You have someone you need to impress?
I don't.


Class II

– Last Updated: Sep-22-16 3:52 PM EST –

Class II whitewater can be pretty easy, or it can be pretty tough. Consider a single, relatively short, fairly straightforward Class II rapid on a drop/pool river that has a nice recovery pool below it. Something like Skinner's Falls on the Delaware at normal summer flow, or Owassee Rapid on Pine Creek in PA. All the boater might need do is dodge a couple of rocks. Put a beginner boater at the top with a modicum of boat control and there is a pretty decent chance they will make it down upright, and no real consequence if they do not.

Now consider a relatively long stretch of somewhat technical Class II "boogie water" with no large eddies that are easy to catch. I am thinking of something like "Hell's Half Mile" on the Ocoee River between Double Suck and Double Trouble. A paddler might need to be able to maneuver almost continuously in that type of a stretch to avoid rocks and holes. Open boats need to maneuver very judiciously to avoid taking on too much water and becoming uncontrollable. A beginning boater would quite likely be in for a long and painful swim.

You can't call the latter type of rapid Class III because there is nothing about it that warrants a Class III designation.

There are some variations

– Last Updated: Sep-23-16 7:12 AM EST –

Local knowledge is huge here. To start, each class is really a range and the water levels and difficulty can be at the bottom or the top of that range. White water runs are often relatively shallow, so how challenging the same set of rocks can be to manage can change a lot based on small changes in water level by long boat standards.

Then there is the length of those conditions. The class 3 stretch at Zoar Gap is quite short, I think 100 feet or maybe a little under, followed by a quick change to a shallow easy area. So even if you do end up in the wrong relationship to the water getting thru Zoar Gap, if you keep your wits about you and have a decent helmet you will end up coming out on the other side OK.

At the other end of this is the Hudson Gorge, which is I think officially class 4. But there is no way to get out of the water for a very long distance due to the cliffs. And the conditions are unrelenting when it is in spring run - unless friends have misrepresented it, there are no easy places to grab a rest. So in cumulative effort and preparation, it should be done with the work someone would do to be ready for more like class 5 than a shorter class 4.

That is before you get to regional differences. Others here can speak to this better, but I have heard early and often that what the southern or western states call a class 2 is much closer to the usual northeastern definition of class 3. I suspect this is because the "average" within the range of each class condition tends to set to the harder side in those areas.

Finally, the fact that people get thru a lot of class 2 poorly prepared does not mean that they were never at risk. It means that the class 2 they were in had its worst risks distributed in a way that a less skilled paddler will more likely end up running the green line rather than being upside down against a rock.

Having been in exactly that state myself, I can assure you that even in an easy class 2 the paddler feels pretty pinned by the water current. And, as occurred to me, it is not usual to hit another rock with your head in the process of exiting the boat. I have never done major WW, but my helmet has still taken a couple of hits that had it been my head could have resulted in a different outcome.

ww rating system is a lot like skiing
you’ve got your greens- beginner runs, intermediate blue runs, and black diamonds. When I picture those runs in my head I draw upon runs from the past to develop a conceptual picture of what constitutes a green, a blue, or a black slope. I do the same in paddling. I can look at an aw web page of ratings for different rivers and develop some general idea of difficulty and hazard level without ever having seen the river. I can get a general sense based on past experiences of what is a class II, III, or IV

Paddling and skiing are both subject to changing local conditions-On the slopes you consider if the run is a sheet of ice, soft liquid mush, an ungroomed mogul field ,or a beautiful groomed surface with a thin layer of new snow on top? So the local conditions matter in a dynamic way on the river as well as the slopes.

Is class I flatwater ever really flat? It certainly can be but it can also become deadly with the onset of a sudden storm. Conditions matter, along with what boat your paddling, how you feel, and who you paddle with.

Water levels are a big deal with ww paddling. One of the reasons why dam release rivers are so popular is that they allow large groups of users to experience identical conditions on a scheduled basis. You can get “dialed in” on that type of run.

So the ultimate goal is to be able self evaluate individual rapids on the fly. We call this boat scouting- looking ahead, picking your own course, and finding a path to safety, usually the next eddy. That’s how more complex and dangerous IV and V rapids are run. If you can’t see what’s ahead then it is time to get out and scout.

Before you run any rapid you should be able to: visualize yourself having a successful run. That means having some boat control. You should also be able to assist others if difficulty arises.

Your decisions should be based on judgement that isn’t driven by fear, peer pressure, or ignorance. ww boating is a very mental sport that demands your attention on the here and the now.

So is class II a big deal? That all depends on the local conditions and who is doing the paddling.

gauge considerations

– Last Updated: Sep-22-16 5:59 PM EST –

We also haven't really mentioned that a river at low flow can be a pleasant and entertaining Class II only to turn into a Class III + or worse after a stretch of heavy rain or spring melt. We've lost several paddlers around here, in both canoes and kayaks, over the past few years ago when they dropped into moderately rated rivers running in some cases at enormous volumes, some 8 to 10 times the average cf/s.

At the other end of the level spectrum, unusually low levels due to drought can make some of the rockier streams more problematic with more exposed boulders, fewer lines with enough water to negotiate rock gardens.

Besides checking ratings and gauges, paddlers entering an unfamiliar stream should also make sure to determine how accessible the shoreline it. In mountainous PA and WV with all the deeply cut canyons there are some rivers where you literally don't have the option of bailing out along the route or even finding a place to regroup and empty a swamped boat.

Class I does not equal flat water
Class I water is easy whitewater but for it to be Class I it has to have rapids. The rapids may be no more than riffles or trains of small waves. If there are no rapids then it is moving flat water.

American Whitewater has graded moving flat water as A, B, or C. Class A moving flat water has current that the average paddler can easily paddle upstream against. Class B has current that the average paddler can hold their place in relative to the stream bottom, with vigorous paddling. Class C moving flat water has current that is stronger than the average paddler can maintain position in even paddling all out.

Class C moving flat water can be much more dangerous than a lot of whitewater if there are strainers and other obstructions. Most streams only develop current strong enough to rate Class C after heavy rain when they are in flood, and those are the conditions in which newly fallen trees and other strainers can be expected.

learned something
didn’t know aca broke it down that much- assumed everything below class II was class I. Obviously need to learn my abcs of flatwater. I didn’t even know all that existed. I’ve just lumped it all together- small riffles, current, flatwater as class I.

The point I was trying to make was that conditions can change even on benign stretches of water and make them more challenging and dangerous.

ice shelves make me nervous
when they extend out from the shorelines on a river. I did a winter paddle below bluestone dam (Hinton WV) because it was the only place I could find that wasn’t totally frozen up after a cold spell. This is only a class II stretch of water but I took it real seriously. Again, local conditions can change things.

That would produce a nasty low head dam
That’s a hazard that people shouldn’t be running, no matter what class the rest of the rapid is.

Class is just a guide
Agree that the class designation is just a guide, and that there is a whole range of rapids from easy to difficult that fall in the same class. Also agree that flow makes a huge difference, sometimes making a rapid more difficult with bigger holes and waves, and sometimes washing it out and making it easier.

At the end of the day, the difference between flatwater paddling and whitewater paddling is one of emphasis. A flatwater paddler can run a class I or II rapid with little more skill than a good brace, and can do it in just about any boat. Once you start playing in rapids though, you need a different set of skills and equipment.

That’s not to say that you can’t get yourself in trouble in a class I or II rapid. I pinned my boat in an easy rapid a few years ago, and it took 4 of us 3 hours to get it out.


Yup, but they do.

you are not alone

– Last Updated: Sep-23-16 9:37 PM EST –


go to 2:05

the bridge is a 3 ... dissension ?

normal flows a 1+

looks like a 2/2+ but wait for the last run.....

in basic reality at this flow the run is a 4...see the lurking strainer ?

If your course was forced to do the eddy turns then the rapid is a 3+ or 4

if there's a drop with obstacles below here then maybe a 5 at this flow level.

the classifications are relatively based on experience in that a ONE is judged for ONE intermediate paddlers

whereas a 3 is judged for paddlers who are capable running 3's

3 then is a relative number used in relation to flow and experience/skill

a 2 on the Rio is ? based on flow and wilderness character for aid if you break a leg.


Class II

– Last Updated: Sep-24-16 6:13 AM EST –

Heavy flow, but wide clear channels and no big waves or holes. The strainers are a real hazard, as are the trees when the river flows though the woods, but they are relatively easy to avoid. I’d say class II, but a good example of a very dangerous class II if you end up in those strainers.

People do it all the time, but you need to be extra careful paddling a river in flood. That is not technically difficult, but still a dangerous river - especially with big strainers floating downstream.

Bad example
That particular video is a bad example for two reasons. First, the placement of the downstream camera makes it look like there is very little clearance between the bridge pier and the log jam, but the brief upstream go-bro footage shows a wide, flat tongue that would require little or no maneuvering to stay on. Secondly, this is flood water, so you get current speeds and eddy lines/eddy fences that are more typical of class 3 without any of the other features that compose a class 3 rapid. So, do you go with the move only and call it a 1, or do you call it a 3 because of the pushiness and the risk of getting shoved under a tree if you swim? Or do you average it out and call it a 2?

In a boat like that Rendezvous, sticking those eddy turns/s-turns/ferries requires solid class 3 skills, but that doesn’t make the location class 3. It also doesn’t magically turn the Rendezvous into a whitewater boat.