Whitewater Rafting 101

Never been rafting?

Planning your first rafting trip can be intimidating.  As a beginner you may have many questions: Where do I find whitewater? What do I need to know? Is rafting safe? Do I need to be experienced?

The best way to experience rafting for the first time is sign up for a trip with a reputable and professional rafting company armed with a little bit of rafting knowledge.

Rating the Rapids

First, not all rafting trips are created equal. Rivers can be relatively calm and benign or be raging maelstroms of whitewater and it is important to be aware of different rafting classifications for rapids and how the various trips are actually marketed to the public.

Rapids are rated on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the easiest and 6 the most difficult. Any rating system is only a rough approximation of what you may actually encounter as rapids are greatly affected by river flows (volume) and other factors. Basic definitions for each class of whitewater are presented below:

Class 1:

Moving water with a few riffles and small waves but no major obstacles.

Class 2:

Bigger waves but no major obstructions in the channel.

Class 3:

Longer and more difficult rapids, hydraulics are bigger (waves, holes, currents). Some technical maneuvering is required but usually for a limited number of moves.

Class 4:

Steeper, longer or more heavily obstructed than Class 3 rapids. Usually, more technical and require many maneuvers. Scouting of rapids may be required prior to running. Swimming Class 4 is challenging.

Class 5:

Strong currents, big waves, boulders, restricted routes and powerful holes that can hold or flip rafts. Scouting is mandatory. Portaging around rapid may be required depending on river levels. Swimming Class 5 rapids is extremely challenging.

Class 6:

Considered unrunnable such as a large waterfall or an extremely violent section of whitewater with severe hazards. Risks include injury or loss of life. Commercial rafting outfitters do not provide rafting trips on rapids with Class 6 ratings.

River volume, water temperature, gradient and river hazards all play a role in determining the appropriate rating of a rapid. High water flows can easily increase the river class one or two levels so rapids that are normally Class 4 could increase to Class 5 or 6 levels.

For those unsure how exciting or dangerous a river may be, try using the standard symbols for downhill skiing as follows:

  • Green Circle=easy (Class 2)
  • Blue Square=Intermediate (Class 3)
  • Black Diamond=Advanced (Class 4)
  • Double Black Diamond=Extreme (Class 5).

Doing a double black diamond ski run or a Class 5 river is not a safe proposition for a first timer. Try starting at a comfortable level and moving up the scale. Always remember that high water can increase a rating so if you are going rafting during the high water season, plan accordingly when choosing your river run.

Finding the Best River

Although rafting is available world-wide, certain areas are recognized as premier rafting locations:

  • Western United States: California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Arizona
  • Western Canada: British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon
  • Southeastern United States: West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee
  • Northeastern United States: New York, Maine, Pennsylvania
  • Eastern Canada: Ontario, Quebec
  • Mexico & Central America: Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras
  • South America: Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina
  • Africa: Zambia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda
  • Europe & Asia: France, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Turkey, Nepal, India, Japan
  • South Pacific: New Zealand, Australia


Length of River Trips

In addition to river difficulty and location, you also need to know the different types of trips available and the length of a trip. In general, rafting trips can be divided into short-duration trips of 1-2 days and long-duration or expedition trips of 3 or more days.

Short duration trips include day trips and overnight trips, typically 1-2 days in length. A day trip is typically a rafting trip of 3 to 5 hours duration, though many trips are shorter or longer. An overnight trip includes one or more nights camping or lodging and one or two days rafting. Short duration trips can feature anything from Class 1 to 5 rapids, but most whitewater day trips provided by professional river-rafting companies feature Class 3 and 4 rapids.

Long duration or multi-day expedition trips are typically 3 to 14 days in length. Many rafting expeditions feature big whitewater whereas others may consist of slow-moving Class 1-2 water and the main highlight is the scenery. Others provide a mix of floating and whitewater. For example, the legendary Grand Canyon of the Colorado is 90% Class 1-2 rapids interspersed with huge Class 4 rapids.

Price of River Trips

How much should you pay for your rafting trip? As expected, pricing varies greatly by region and is subject to a number of factors such as permit restrictions (fewer the permits, generally the higher the price) and other market factors. In general, companies price according to their level of experience and quality of trip. If an outfitter is charging much less than others in the market, it may indicate price competition, fewer frills provided, and possibly a lower standard of customer care.

Because safety is so important, ask your prospective outfitter how long they have operated, how many trips or years have they operated on this river, what kind of safety record do they have and do they employ any special safety features on the trips. For example, on some rivers, companies provide full-body wetsuits for protection from the river temperature and hazards and safety kayakers that follow the trip and look out for swimmers. Helmets are generally recommended on Class 3 and above rapids but some companies do not provide them even on Class 4 or higher whitewater. Standards do vary significantly among companies and by country.

If you need ideas on what to wear white water rafting check out our clothing guide.