Boaters all over the world have agreed upon a common rating system for rivers/rapids and this is called the International Scale of River Difficulty. The system combines actual difficulty along with consequences from a mistake. Individuals rating rivers and rapids can be very inconsistent. What is easy for a world class paddler can be downright difficult for the average intermediate boater. The standard classification descriptions do provide a number of features to help ensure consistency. When planning a river trip on a river you haven't paddled before, I highly recommend researching the AW site: AW River Database. The AW ratings have been vetted by many paddlers and are generally very consistent. Guidebooks are another great source and often provide a great deal more information on the actual streams. For a humorous version, check out the following link: AMC Whitewater River Ratings - Humor.

Another system that is used locally is the Novice, Practiced Novice, Low Intermediate, etc. rankings. This ranking system is described nicely on the following link: MCC Novice, Practiced Novice, etc. Rankings.

I also like the Keel Haulers rating system: Keelhauler River Ratings.  If you want to determine your skill level for this system, check out: Keelhauler Self Rating System.

I have copied the AW section on River Classes here:

Class I Rapids

List of Class I thru III Rated Rapids

Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.

Note: A great local example is the Feeder Canal

Class II Rapids: Novice

List of Class I thru III Rated Rapids

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+”.

Note: A great local example is the Z Channel and Muddy Creek

Class III: Intermediate

List of Class III Rated Rapids

Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class III-” or “Class III+” respectively.

Note: A great example of this class river is the Lower Yough at summer flows.

Class IV: Advanced

List of Class IV Rated Rapids

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. A strong Eskimo roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class IV-” or “Class IV+” respectively.

Note: A great example of this class river is the Cheat Canyon at 3'

Class 5: Expert

List of Class 5 Rated Rapids

Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain** large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. A very reliable eskimo roll, proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential. Because of the large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV, Class 5 is an open-ended, multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc... each of these levels is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. Example: increasing difficulty from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1 is a similar order of magnitude as increasing from Class IV to Class 5.0.

Class VI: Extreme and Exploratory Rapids

These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapids has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.





This topic is also covered in more detail under the Equipment section. As an instructor, I will provide guidance on how to inspect gear and demonstrate common issues I have seen leading trips. Students will inspect each other with instructor guidance. Start from the top down. The helmet comes first. I like to use the two finger test - gently lift the helmet brow with two fingers, if rollback is evident - the helmet needs further adjustment. Rollback is a lading cause of nasty headshots resulting in concusions. Next, check to see if the helmet is reasonably solid on the head - fit is crucial. Inspect the foam on the inside of the helmet. Many helmets these days use bicyle foam and essentially no paddling. This tends to transfer all the energy directly to the neck causing injury. In general, thick multi-density foam is best. The helmets goal is to dissipate energy over a distance so it doesn't feel like you head-butted a brick wall. Foam should also bounce back. This is really crucial in whitewater helmets since we often take more than one good hit.

The next check is the PFD. Grab the shoulder straps and try to lift them. If a jacket is loose, it will probably slip off the body or obstruct vision. A loose helmet and PFD form what I call the "Clam Shell" effect making paddling all but impossible. If they are wearing carabineers, check to see if they are locked - they should be. Since we are working with ropes, students should have a rescue knife of some sort.

When getting ready to launch, verify that the spray skirt release loop is on the outside where it can be readily grabbed. Also check to see if their drain plug is secured. Repeat after each break or rescue.

Optionally, ask if they have water and food on board. In our class, everyone must bring their own throw rope.

Everyone must wear some sort of foot protection - this is crucial for rescue work. Make certain everyone has adequate clothing to stay immersed for 30 minutes at a stretch.

Rescue will be covered in far more detail under Rescue Philosophy. A few rules of thumb are in order:

  • Look out for number one - yourself
  • Equipment can be replaced, poeple can't
  • Use the KISS principle - Simple is generally safer
  • Think, plan, then act
  • Practice using your rescue skills, especially throw ropes

Safety is a combination of using good judgment, knowledge, and proper gear. I feel the most valuable portions of this course are how to recognize and avoid incidents in the first place. You will learn a great deal about various river obstacles and avoiding unsafe paddling techniques. Trip planning makes a huge difference in safety. Get recent weather reports, check gauges on your run and upstream. Check the water temperature as well as air temperatures. Dress to rescue and pack a bit extra on cold days.


Shoulder dislocations are unfortunately common in our sport. This injury takes a while to recover from and is downright painful. Fortunately, this common inury can be prevented as is discussed in the sections below. Another cause of injuries is inefficient paddling technique. Learn to use your larger muscles, work on technique, try not to muscle your way down the river. If you become tired, pick easier lines and take more frequent breaks. Stop to grab a bite to eat and hydrate! Tired paddlers make more mistakes and generally swim more often.

Effective Body Usage and Bio-Kinetics

Many new to the sport think paddling is all about the arms. Although you can paddle pretty much with the arms, you will tire very quickly if you do so. Seasoned paddlers use their torso as much as possible to take the load off their arms. They also push off the foot bulk head with the same side foot with each paddling stroke. Most of the body works together to get the maximum power out of each stroke. Here is a good video demonstrating torso rotation: Torso Rotation Demonstration.

Use of larger torso muscles

In the previous section, we talked about using the whole body. In this lesson, we will concentrate on the core muscle groups. Beginning paddlers use their biceps more than any other muscle group. They tire very quickly, especially on long flat water paddles. Racers and experienced boaters use the arms more like struts and pull the paddle blade through the water with their abdomin, pectoral, shoulders, and upper back muscles. Compare the size of those muscle groups against the much smaller biceps and you can easily understand why seasoned boaters can paddle all day and make it look effortless. Here is a good article on an efficient forward stroke from a racer's perspective: Racer's Efficient Forward Stroke.

Arms as struts connecting paddle to torso

A good way to think of paddling is to compare it to ballroom dancing - the man's side if he is doing it right. When dancing, we maintain a nice erect posture. We use our arms pretty much like struts to signal to our partner where we want to go. We don't crush her hand, we have a nice relaxed grip. We try to keep an eye on where we are going so we don't run into other obstacles (dancers for instance). Although we are sitting in a kayak, the basics are pretty much the same. This approach makes good use of our core muscle groups instead of pulling with just our arms. Here is a great article on paddling posture and the Paddler's Box: Paddling Posture.

Avoidance of positions that contribute to shoulder injury or dislocations

Many kayakers experience shoulder injuries at some point in their paddling hobby. Most of the time, this injury can be prevented. The best prevention is strong adherence to the Paddler's Box. The Paddler's Box uses the arms like struts and ALWAYS keeps the center of the paddle shaft visually in front of their face. If you can't readily see the middle of your kayak paddle shaft, you are risking injury. Another good rule of thumb is to never let the center of the paddle shaft rise above your eye balls. Paddlers that violate this rule often separate their shoulders when a paddle blade gets caught on something like a rock. A loose paddle grip also helps to avoid injuries. When executing a draw or sculling stroke, watch where you are going. This requires you to turn the upper part of your body to your side (twisting your torso). When you perform a kayak roll, your head follows your lead paddle blade. Here is a great video demonstrating weight bearing exercises you can use to strengthen your shoulder muscles: Gym Exercises for Shoulder Strengthening. Here is the Davey Hearn shoulder Rehab article: Davey Hearn Shoulder Rehab. Watch the following video on a kayaker performing a seal launch - sort of and dislocating his shoulder. Watch closely and you will notice that his paddle shaft is way above his head - a big no-no: Kayaker dislocating their shoulder. We wrap this up with a very extensive article on shoulder dislocation.