There are the six difficulty classes in American Whitewater's rating system. Rapids that are near the bottom or the top of a particular category are additionally designated with a minus or plus sign.
Class I: "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." An example: Ramcat rapid, Middle Youghiogheny River, Pa. [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater, Class I Rated Rapids].
Class II (Novice): "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." Example: Staircase rapid, Shenandoah River, W.V. [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater , List of Class II Rated Rapids].
Class III (Intermediate): "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." Example: Yankee Jim's Revenge, Yellowstone River, Mo. [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater, List of Class III Rated Rapids].
Class IV (Advanced): "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." Example: Ned's Gulch, Merced River, Calif. [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater, List of Class IV Rated Rapids].
After Class IV, the system changes a bit, because we're getting into waters that only virtuoso paddlers should dare to attempt, and some that even they might want to stay out of:
Class V (Expert): "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." Class V rapids range in difficulty more than other rapids, so they're on a scale of increasing difficulty - eg. 5.0, 5.1, and so on. Example: Damnation Alley rapid, Encampment River, Wy. [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater , List of Class V Rated Rapids].
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 apppropriate Class 5.x rating." Example: Whirlpool rapid, Niagara River, during times of higher flow [sources: Safety Code of American Whitewater, Niagara FAQ].
In the next section, we'll talk about how to use the ratings when selecting a rapid to run.