I've been whitewater rafting (and inadvertent whitewater canoeing ;) a couple times, and I'd like to get a bunch of friends together to go with me. I'd bring enough people to fill a raft (5 or 6), but the problem is, everyone will have different levels of skill and experience.

What should I consider when choosing which class of rapids we paddle? Are there any rules of thumb for how the ratio of experienced to new whitewater rafters corresponds to the rapid class we can safely manage?

For example, if three people are experienced whitewater rafters and three people have never been before, would class IV rapids be unsafe for the group as a whole?

  • Experienced whitewater rafting guides can take an entire raft full of beginners through class III rapids, with a class IV near the end of the day trip. But, they also know their river, and have other rafts and guides for backup if one gets dumped. Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 21:00

2 Answers 2


Yes. Class IV would be unsafe for the group as a whole, if it occurs in the first couple of days of the trip. If you have 1 or 2 experienced people in the paddle raft and you keep one at the back to set the pace and call commands you should be fine in class III, with a good riverside training the morning you leave.

I frequently do 4 days on the upper salt river in Arizona. During high water 1 of the rapids on day 3 is a class IV. We have taken people who have never paddled before in paddle rafts and they usually do fine because they have a couple of days of paddling rough class 3 rapids. Anyone new we take gets an hour long or so training riverside the morning we leave, and in any calm patches of water we practice spinning the raft, high-side, and rescues, so when it needs to happen in a rapid they are prepared.

Also, remember to take into account the swimming capability of the new paddlers. If they are not strong swimmers or not confident in their ability, even Class III might be too much.

Honestly they would probably be fine, especially with experienced people to help them, but it would not be a risk I am willing to take.

  • 2
    +1 especially on the swimming capability - a very important thing to take into consideration!
    – berry120
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 18:02
  • If you fall into the water in rapids, it doesn't matter if you can swim or not. There is too much air to swim (and too much water to breathe). That's what the life jacket is for. (Knowing to keep feet pointed downstrean and breath in the troughs helps too.) Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 20:56
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    @thursdaysgeek Where have you been whitewater rafting? Ever gone without a guide? Your swimming ability is definitely a factor. Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 22:26
  • @MaskedPlant: I'm a perfect adequate swimmer. I've only gone on guided tours, but after flipping the raft in class III+, swimming was not something I could do in all the froth. Just breathing was a challange, and life jackets save lives. Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 21:32
  • @thursdaysgeek I'm not saying life jackets don't save lives. What I am saying is swimming ability is a huge factor, and a life jack is not enough to save you. Without a guide carrying you, you have to be able to swim for the rescue line because the throw will not be perfect. You need to be able to swim out of the way of a hazard (wood or other strainers can kill you in your life jacket very quickly). Or through the under-toe of a strong eddie, a non-swimmer can do none of these things. Also, for excitement factor, many guide companies overstate the Class of rapids. Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 13:28

I'd start with class II or III. In addition to the good points MaskedPlant laid out, also be aware of the length of the rapids. A long class II can be every bit as exciting as a short class III, and can also provide a more safe opportunity for the inexperienced paddlers to gain some confidence.

Another important tip: be sure to assess attitude of everybody throughout the trip. Paddling rapids sounds exciting and is one of those things many people want to do/think they can do. However, I've run into a handful of people who, when they get out there, realize exactly what's going to happen and are not looking forward to it. If you don't recognize that early enough you could be in trouble -- relying on them when panic-struck is trouble, or seeing them get upset and literally jumping out of the boat and possibly into more danger.

  • Definitely good points. To a new paddler a longer II does seem more fun than a short III. Attitude and confidence are also huge factors. We usually explain before had that this is an all day roller-coaster, if you don't like the upside down loops you can't get off in the middle. Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 14:50

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