River Rafting Class Ratings Explained

When choosing a Vail rafting trip, it’s helpful to know how Timberline Tours rates the difficulty of each section of river according to a river rafting class ratings system. Simply put, we follow the American Whitewater Association’s International Scale of River Difficulty, which rates river difficulty on a I to VI scale, ranging from Class I at the easiest end of the spectrum to Class VI, the most difficult.

For each whitewater rafting trip description offered on the Timberline Tours website, notice that the details section lists the rating of each trip according to its class. Knowing what each section is classified can help you pick the most appropriate trip for your group’s abilities and also help you decide what to wear rafting.

Timberline Tours rafting trips range from Class II to Class V:

Class II: Scenic, splashy float

Timberline’s Class II rafting trips include the Upper Colorado River and Dinosaur Discovery trips. These rafting trips are great for adventurers of all ages who want to experience a relaxing and scenic day out on the river. At lower water levels, guides will paddle oar boats, making it possible for those in the raft to sit back and enjoy the float through Colorado’s majestic mountain scenery. If you are hoping to go rafting with very young children, please check in with our office to ask about appropriate ages and weights for Class II trips. We do not require guests on Class II rafting trips to wear helmets, but be sure to bring a cap for sun protection. PFDs (also known as life jackets), are provided as well as required for all trips–regardless of difficulty level.

Timberline Tours offers guided Whitewater Rafting trips on the Upper Colorado River near Vail Colorado - photography by Doug Mayhew | WhiteWater-Pix.com
The Upper Colorado River is a Class II rafting trip. | photo by: Doug Mayhew, WhiteWater-Pix.com

Class III: Intermediate Intensity

Timberline’s Class III rafting trips include Shoshone and Browns Canyon. These family-friendly trips mingle rapids that require some athletic paddling with calmer river sections. Minimum ages and weights apply to our Class III trips; see each trip’s details section for more information, and also know that minimum ages and weights may vary for your safety according to water level. We provide helmets for guests on all Class III and higher river sections. Wetsuits may be provided at the discretion of guides, based on water temperature and water levels for Class III trips. Be prepared to paddle on a Class III trip; guides do not use oar frames on these sections of river and depend on your paddling involvement for a successful trip.

Class IV: Advanced, high intensity

Timberline’s Class IV rafting trips include Dowd Chute/Upper Eagle and The Numbers. These rafting trips require athletic paddling that can be continuous for extended stretches of river. Large wave rapids, holes, and constricted passages will be encountered on these river sections. Minimum ages and weights apply, so see each trip’s description for more details. Wetsuits and helmets are provided—as well as required—on our Class IV trips.

River Rafting Class Ratings by Timberline Tours who offers Whitewater Rafting trips down Dowd Chute on the Upper Eagle River in Vail Colorado - photography by Doug Mayhew | WhiteWater-Pix.com
Dowd Chute/Upper Eagle is a Class IV rafting trip. | photo by: Doug Mayhew, WhiteWater-Pix.com

Class V: Expert, high intensity

Timberline’s rafting trips that include Class V river sections include the Pine Creek/The Numbers trip and the Gore Canyon trip (offered seasonally at appropriate water levels). While The Numbers is a Class IV trip, the Pine Creek section of the combined Pine Creek/The Numbers trip adds an additional level of intensity. Class V trips require a high level of fitness and also demand high-intensity paddling from each person on the raft for long stretches of river. As with Class IV trips, large wave rapids, holes, and constricted passages will be encountered on these river sections. Minimum ages and weights apply; each guest will be outfitted with required river rafting gear including a PFD, wetsuit, splash jacket, and helmet.

At Timberline Tours, your rafting safety is our first priority. For this reason, it’s important that you choose the most appropriate trip for each person in your group. For each individual, consider physical fitness and comfort level with various risk factors present on any rafting trip. If you have any questions about what to expect on the river, please speak with our office staff prior to your trip and also consult with guides on the day of the trip to ensure that your chosen itinerary is a good fit for all members of your party.

For more details about the river class rating system and the risks involved with each level, see the American Whitewater Association’s International Scale of River Difficulty, and consider this organization’s final good advice:

“As river difficulty increases, the danger to swimming paddlers becomes more severe. As rapids become longer and more continuous, the challenge increases. There is a difference between running an occasional class-IV rapid and dealing with an entire river of this category. Allow an extra margin of safety between skills and river ratings when the water is cold or if the river itself is remote and inaccessible.”


Timberline Tours is Vail’s premier whitewater rafting and backcountry jeep tours outfitter. We offer rafting trips on Colorado’s Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers, and we also guide duckie river trips. All of our guided trips are open to Vail visitors, locals, families, and corporate groups.

To book your Vail, Colorado, adventure, call Timberline Tours at (970) 476-1414, or email us at info@timberlinetours.com.