River Grades Explained: Beginner to Bonkers

River grades range from 1 to 6, providing a useful guide to the technical challenges and dangers you might face. Both kayaking and whitewater rafting use the International Scale of River Difficulty to grade the complexity and hazards of rivers, the experience of tackling these grades can differ between the two sports. The grading system typically runs from Grade I (easy) to Grade VI (extremely difficult/experts only). The skills, techniques, and vessel capabilities differ between kayaking and rafting, even if the grade remains the same.

In kayaking, you’re in control of your own craft, and technical skill plays a large role, especially in higher grades. Whitewater kayaking often involves more technical maneuvers and a higher level of skill in reading the river.

In whitewater rafting, you’re part of a team, and it’s more about group coordination under the guidance of an experienced raft guide. Rafts are generally more stable than kayaks but are also more cumbersome and less agile.

So, while the grading may be the same, how those grades are experienced and what skills are required can differ between kayaking and rafting.

What Are River Grades?

Grade 1: Easy and Flat

  • Examples: The Norfolk Broads, UK; The Garonne River, France
  • River Flow: Slow-moving, flat water with no rapids.
  • What’s Different: This is the most straightforward level, perfect for beginners or a relaxed day out.
  • Skills Required: Basic paddle strokes and ability to steer, understanding of safety guidelines.
  • Skills Required: You’ll should be comfortable with the fundamental strokes such as the forward and reverse strokes, sweeps, and draws in order to control and steer your kayak. Knowledge of basic water safety rules. For all kayaking the ability to swim is necessary in case of a capsize.

Grade 2: Novice Level Rapids

  • Examples: The River Wye, UK; Sorgue River, France
  • River Flow: Clear passages, gentle rapids, and small waves.
  • What’s Different: Introduces minor obstacles and the necessity to steer, offering a bit more excitement than Grade I.
  • Skills Required: Alongside basic paddle strokes, you need to understand ferry angles for crossing the river and simple eddy turns, which help you move in and out of the current. The ability to execute a low-brace maneuver to maintain stability in choppier waters becomes crucial.

Grade 3: Intermediate Rapids

  • Examples: River Dee, UK; Dora Baltea River, Italy
  • River Flow: Moderate rapids with irregular waves, requiring good boat control.
  • What’s Different: The rapids become less predictable, requiring stronger paddling skills and the ability to roll your kayak.
  • Skills Required: At this level, you should be proficient in eddy turns and peel outs, which help you navigate more complex river features. You’ll also need strong river-reading skills to identify upcoming obstacles and to choose the most efficient and safest lines. The ability to perform a kayak roll becomes beneficial as the likelihood of capsizing increases.
Whitewater kayaking river grades

Grade 4: Advanced Rapids

  • Examples: River Etive, Scotland; Tara River, Montenegro
  • River Flow: Intense, powerful but predictable rapids. Requires precise boat handling and quick maneuvering.
  • What’s Different: Greater risk, with the potential for large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages requiring quick decision-making.

Grade 5: Expert Level

  • Examples: River Orchy, Scotland; Ubaye River, France
  • River Flow: Violent rapids, large drops, a high level of danger, requiring expert skills.
  • What’s Different: Requires a strong understanding of river features and rescue techniques. The river flow may include substantial drops and violent currents.
  • Skills Required: Advanced river-reading to pick out complicated routes is a must. You’ll also need to know how to perform a high-brace for stability in difficult water and be skilled at group rescue techniques. A reliable kayak roll, both on your dominant and non-dominant sides, is crucial for safety.

Grade 6: Extreme and Exploratory

  • Examples: Stikine River, Scotland; Vrbas River, Bosnia
  • River Flow: Unpredictable, dangerous, and extreme level of difficulty. Typically, the realms of professional paddlers.
  • What’s Different: Considered “exploratory kayaking,” with unknown outcomes.
  • Skills Required: A strong grasp of hydraulic features and their hazards is required, as is the ability to quickly scout lines from both the boat and the bank. The kayaker must have advanced self-rescue and group-rescue skills, including rope-rescue techniques. A mastery of rolling is crucial, as is the ability to handle a kayak in aerated water where buoyancy is affected.

Why Do River Grades Matter?

Understanding river grades is crucial for safety, preparation, and legal permissions. River grades help you prepare mentally and ensure you have the right equipment and skills. Whether you’re a beginner looking for a relaxed paddle or an expert seeking an adrenaline rush, understanding river grades will help you make an informed decision about your next kayaking destination. Happy paddling!

Making the Grade with Adventuro

Adventuro can help you find the right kayaking course tailored to your level across the UK and Europe. We have some excellent kayaking courses listed on the platform, check them out here.

Here are some of our top picks:

Advanced White Water Kayaking
Work on your advanced white water kayak skills with experts in Cumbria.
Advanced White Water Canoe Skills
Develop your advanced white water canoeing skills with expert leaders in Cumbria
Advanced Canoe White Water Leader Training
Train as an advanced canoe white water leader with experts in Cumbria.
Advanced Canoe Open Water Leader Training
Train for the Advanced Canoe Open Water Leader Award in Cumbria.
White Water Safety & Rescue Training
Train in white water safety and rescue with experts in Cumbria
White Water Kayak Leader Training
Train as a white water kayak leader under expert guidance in Cumbria.
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Co-founder and Chief Adventurer

I am Max, the co-founder and CEO of adventuro. We are on a mission to help you get into the sports you have always wanted to try, or develop in the sports you love, exploring new skills and locations. We do this by partnering with the best instructors, guides, and activity centres to get a great spread from beginner all the way to instructor training.

For too long, it has been way to confusing to find your next steps, or even to know where to start when getting into adventure sports. I am an experienced and/or qualified paraglider, skydiver, scuba diver, freediver, power boat driver, snowboarder, kitesurfer, kayaker, mountain biker, surfer, dirt biker, wakeboarder, and sailor.

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