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White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

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06 Oct 2016

White Water Rafting Classes 

Which Whitewater Rafting Tour Is Best for Me?

When it comes to adrenaline-pumping and nature-exploring adventures, travelers may be surprised to learn that some prefer white water rafting Panama Rivers to those of its northerly neighbor, Costa Rica.  Panama absolutely tops the list for Central America’s (and some would say the world’s) very best whitewater rafting rivers.  The Chiriqui Province alone boasts 7 different rivers which contain Class II, III, IV, and V whitewater rapids!  We’ll take a look at each of these rivers, the types of classes and what they have to offer for our whitewater rafting beginners and experts (and everyone in between) out there.

What is the Difference Between the White Water Rafting Classes  

In my commercial white water rafting experience in Costa Rica, Peru, USA and Panama, I have found the most important key to a successful river run in any country on any river is the balance between a good, safe and confident guide who gives clear instructions, and your team’s ability to listen and follow those instructions.  Most river-rafting guides have gone through years of strenuous rescue and safety training and want to stay on top of the raft just as much as you do, but most tourists have not.  Unless you are a group of 6, most likely you are at the mercy at the skills of your commercial white water rafting tour mates…or more accurately their ability to follow instructions.  

So, in my personal opinion choosing the correct river rafting tour for you may not depend on your previous experience, but more your sense of adventure and your ability to follow directions.  It is always best to understand the science or physics when attempting any new adventure sport, so let me break down the universal river classes so you at least have a heads up of what to expect. Knowledge is key!

Breaking Down the White Water Rafting Rapid Classes

Class I- Class 1 rapids are typically small “rapids” (more like little ripples of water) best suited for young families, canoeing and wildlife viewing.  Your rafting guide will be doing most of the navigation, your paddling will merely move you down the river. Basically there is very little risk of ever falling out of the boat. If you did, the water would be so calm that you could easily find your way to shore. Recommended Level: Novice 

White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

Class II- Class 2 rapids offer some small waves and drops so a bit more fun. Recommended for the more timid first-time rafters and children starting age 9 or 10.  Class 2 rivers typically have big clear channels with easy to maneuver waves and very readable rapids so little risk. Your rafting guide should be able to maintain the course with very little help from paddlers, however the waves can reach up to 3 feet high so important to listen to your guide’s instructions. Recommended Level: Beginner

White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

Class III- Class 3 rapids have medium waves that are irregular and have sometimes hidden obstacles which require a well-experienced professional guide to lead.  A bit more challenging, class 3 river runs are still great fun for all ages.  Class 3 rapids would be difficult in a canoe, but on a river raft they are fun and moderately easy to maneuver. So long as you remember the safety procedures, listen well and follow your river guide’s instructions, you should be able to remain inside the raft with only a mildly moderate risk of going for an unexpected swim. Recommended Level: Intermediate

White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

Class IV- Class 4 rapids are quite technical with a high level of difficulty and will require a well experienced guide, scouting team and safety kayaks.  Although this is still a good option even for a beginners who are in good physical condition and are comfortable in the water, the recommended minimum age is 12 years old as they need the strength to paddle hard when necessary. This can be a combination of narrow canyons and rapid drops.  This means your chances of bouncing out or flipping the raft are much more likely. Pay close attention to your safety instructions while they are briefing you at the beginning of your rafting tour, listen and follow all of the guide’s instructions on the river, be prepared to paddle hard when necessary…and if you fall out don’t panic! Your safety team is already maneuvering to get you all safely back inside the boat. Recommended Level: Advanced

White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

Class V- Class 5 rapids considered very difficult and technical. Class 5 rapids run through narrow canyons with gradient drops that are just one step away from being classified as a waterfall. Class 5 rapids are recommended only for professionals who are in good physical condition and very knowledgeable about that particular river run.  For those who have a lot of white water rafting experience and are in great physical shape it is possible to run a class V river commercially, however be sure to go with an experienced local before trying a new river on your own.  The operator should have a safety kayak team, rafting or kayaking guides very familiar with the run and many years of experience, and a safety team on shore in case of a failed execution on some of the more challenging and violent canyons.  In other words…prepare to get wet…again and again. Recommended Level: Experts Only

White Water Rafting Classes: What Is The Difference And Which Is Best?

Class VI - There is technically Class 6 rapids, but I doubt you would need to concern yourself with that unless you are a professional lunatic.  Recommended Level: Crazy Experts with A Death Wish Only

Which River Rafting Tour Should I Choose?

Well, here is the kicker.  Now that you have all that knowledge about classes and such, I am going to tell you it really just depends on a lot of other factors.  Although the International Scale of River Difficulty is the best guideline, each river is unique. Sometimes a Class III white water rafting run is more fun than a Class IV due to the topography of that particular river. Think about it, more danger does not always mean more fun…right? 

The other major factor is the level of the water in the river. Water levels change dramatically throughout the year.  Some rafting destinations maintain pretty stable runs, while others fluctuate the number of runs available depending the time of year.  Fortunately, rafting in Central America means lots of rain, lots of mountains and a variety of different runs to choose from no matter what time of the year you plan your vacation. During rainy season, a Class III can pick up speed with a lot of swoops and larger waves, while a Class IV may fill up so that it actually covers up the rocks so well that you no longer feel them and the speed of the flow may be dangerously fast.  Water levels are extremely important to the outcome of your experience

So, which river rafting tour is best for you? Well, the best advice I can give you is to trust in your river rafting operation to choose the best route on the day of the river rafting excursion.  They are the professionals and they will want to size up the skills of the group before narrowing down their choices.  They run these rivers daily and want to have the most fun they can on the river just like you.  So whichever river rafting tour you choose, you can be sure you will have the best whitewater rafting in experience in Central America possible. Just grab a paddle and let’s do this!!

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