"Whitewater Rafting on Tara River Canyon, Bosnia-Montenegro border" by SarahTz via Flickr Creative Commons

Whitewater Class System

Whitewater has a fairly uniform class system that tour operators across the world use to rate a river:

Class I:
Few rapids, minimal waves, and no obstructions.
Class II:
Still very mild, yet more frequent rapids with few obstructions.
Class III:
Waves under four feet with some obstructions.
Class IV:
Long, difficult rapids. Scouting is a must from here up.
Class V:
Large waves, complex rapids in succession, and difficult routes.
Class VI:
The maximum difficulty. Should only be done by expert paddlers and risks are extreme.


Although rain has never been known to prevent whitewater enthusiasts on its own, its affect on water levels has. Torrential downpours can turn a relaxed Class III run into a raging Class VI in a matter of minutes. Following weather reports before setting out on your rafting trip is important, especially in tropical areas where heavy rains are known to pop up, although any good tour operator should know this the day before. Similarly during droughts water levels can fall so much that rivers become just a trickle between rocks, making once vicious rapids non-existent.


Emergency situations do occur while rafting and many who have been careless have lost their lives. Some attempt to tackle a rapid or fall that is too long or too rough for them to handle and tipping occurs. There are a few safety precautions to take that will help save your life in an emergency situation. First, always paddle in a group, even if you are kayaking. Second, let someone else not on the trip know where you will be paddling and the approximate time you will be back.

A waterproof cell phone or a waterproof container to put a cell phone or communication device is a great safety device. Walkie talkies, which are often waterproof or styled toward rugged and extreme conditions, are another cheap and easy way to contact the police, park rangers, or the coast guard in a dangerous situation.

Food and Water

Even in Class II-III rapids paddling can be strenuous, therefore lots of energy is necessary. Eating foods high in carbohydrates are recommended. Energy bars are an easy snack to keep with you that you can quickly eat if you need immediate fuel. If on an extended trip where you will be doing a lot of camping you will need to bring your own food the same as you would if you were hiking. Plenty of bottled water or a water filtration system of some sort is a necessity as well.


The most important safety feature when rafting or kayaking is wearing a life vest and a helmet. If you fall into the water this will not only keep you afloat, but can help other kayakers or a rescue team to see you. Most local laws actually require kayakers to wear a life vest.

Paddling in polluted waterways is also a concern. The world’s growing pollution problem often affects rivers and streams, which can cause infections in those in close contact. Often swimming in infected water is prohibited by local bylaws, so always be on the lookout for signs. Be sure to wash and clean all cuts and scrapes immediately after kayaking, including washing your clothes and gear, if you believe you may have paddled through polluted water.

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