Navigating rivers has been done for many, many years, beginning with canoes and other small crafts used to travel the rivers. Today, rafting and kayaking is more of a form of recreation than a means of travel. While it can be an exciting hobby or a fun family adventure, it is not a sport you can just jump into. For one, you should have somewhat of an idea of how river rapids are classified to ensure you do not get into a situation that can be regrettable or even life-threatening.
In 1954, the American Whitewater Association was formed to help create a better regulatory system for the use of whitewater rapids. One of the first tasks the association performed was to create a classification system for rapids to help improve safety. This classification system is known as the International Scale of River Difficulty, which is used not only in the United States, but in several countries around the world.
The association updates the scale from time to time, with a major update having been completed in 1998. With this update, the association compiled the opinions of 100 expert rafters about over 3,000 different rapids. The ratings are based upon features and hazards for certain stretches of water, with the classifications being determined from comparisons to well-known rapids with already agreed upon classifications.
There are six basic classifications for how river rapids are classified, with a plus and minus system to determine how advanced within that class the rapids may be. Keep in mind, however, that these classifications are a guide, and can vary with water flow and new hazards. Class I entails slower-moving water that is flat with a few, small waves and very few obstructions. Class II waves are considered more for a novice rafter, with small waves and easy-to-maneuver obstructions. Class III is more of an intermediate classification, generally with a swift current and higher, irregular waves. The passages become narrower, and the obstacles require more maneuvering. At class IV, you get into the more advanced rapids, with faster-moving water; large, long waves; and narrow passages with more advanced maneuvering. Class IV also has a chance of holes, which are points within the current where the water may reverse flow due to obstructions, which may cause the raft to become stuck or even sink. Class V takes on a different rating system, with some rapids being classified as 5.1, 5.2, and so on , and is generally only for experts. The rapids are swift and continuous, with large, irregular waves, holes, and drops. While class V is considered complex, the final class, class VI, can be described as extreme. This classification is often given to rapids that have been rafted very little, as it can be extremely dangerous, even for experts.
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