Learn river classifications

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If you’ve ever spent some time on rivers, you know that whitewater is rated from Class 1 through 6 to identify it’s degree of difficulty.  Increasing classes of river mean increased skill required to maneuver them. 

Places like the Bowron lakes canoe circuit have a small rapid section that is likely class III with a bend at the end of the river, but places on the Bow river in Alberta, and much of the mountain rivers, like the Red Deer or Ram river, are consistently III or IV over long sections.

These are an important classification of whitewater safety, but there are a few more factors that you’ll need to consider. 

Water temperature

If the rapids are really technical, and going for a swim is quite possible, consider also the water temperature to assess whether you should try them or not. If it’s really cold, and you are far from help should you need it, hypothermia becomes a real factor.

Remoteness of area

If you’re unsure if you can handle the rapids and you’re far from help, portage around them just in case. If you do go for a swim and need help you may prolong or increase the level of danger to an undesirable level. 

Can you walk out?

This consideration coincides with remoteness of area. Even if you can call for help or are with another party and can self-rescue, consider the impact of being far away from your vehicle. If there is a possibility you may have to overnight, be prepared to do so. Of course, take safety gear with you

Is portaging an option?

Portaging is usually available on known routes, so always consider it as a safe option if you choose not to run the rapids.  When planning the route, make sure you know where the take out spots are so you can look at the rapids and portage if necessary.

Now here they are, river classifications and what they mean. Our team often canoes in the summer and we can handle rapids to about class III, which is exciting enough for us. But if you work at it, and take a swift water training and rescue course, you can safely try higher classes of rapids. 

River Classifications

Class 1 – Easy

These rapids include some fast moving current with small waves and some obstructions (like rocks) that are easy to avoid. The risk is low, and self rescue is easy.

Class 2 – Novice

The rapids in class 2 are straightforward and have wide open channels that are easily evident. You don’t have to assess them beforehand, they are easy to see from the boat. Some manouvering around obstacles may be required, but trained paddlers can avoid rocks or medium sized waves. If you do go for a swim, the water isn’t technical enough to injure you. 

Class 3 – Intermediate

athabasca river rapids

Rapids on the Athabasca river in Alberta. These rapids are probably class II or III.

It starts to get a little more technical here in class 3. You’ll encounter rapids with moderate, irregular waves with strong currents and some eddies, or swirling pools of water that can push your boat around. Major hazards, however, such as big rocks, are easily avoided. But if you’re inexperienced, assessing the river beforehand is recommended. Self rescue is usually easy and injuries if you do end up in the river are rare. 

Class 4 – Advanced

You’ll definitely need to assess the river before trying class 4. It’s absolutely necessary here. Here, you’ll find large, unavoidable waves, turbulent waters, powerful and unpredictable waves that you’ll have to paddle through, as well as holes and constricted or narrow passages. Advanced, precise boat handling skills are required to safely navigate through eddies. You’ll need to know when and how to turn your boat to navigate eddies. Technical rapids mean certain moves must be made to safely navigate them, and knowing how to eskimo roll is highly recommended. Injuries can happen here and self rescue is difficult, so you need to think about group assistance.

Class 5 – Expert

Violent rapids, which are extremely long, obstructed and violent involve substantial risk. You’ll encounter huge, unavoidable waves, holes, confined, steep chutes. Eddies may be difficult to reach, or small and turbulent. A high level of fitness, advanced and practiced rescue skills are essential for survival. If you swim it can be very dangerous and rescue difficult. Though scouting the river beforehand is very important here, the terrain on which the river flows through means it’s very hard to do so.

Class 6 – Extreme

I’m stressed out as I’m thinking about class 6 rivers! This is the cusp of difficulty, unpredictability, danger and risk. Most have actually never been attempted, as the consequence of errors are severe and rescue can be impossible. Obviously, only expert teams and professionals with extensive support and safety systems should ever attempt these types of waters.