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River grading in the UK

River grading is a scale which allows canoeists and kayakers to rate the relative difficulty of a stretch of river, or of a specific feature like a white water rapid. Rivers in the UK are graded from one to six.

Most of the waterways in London are flat or Grade 1. Weirs and other features on these waterways cannot easily be graded, and some can be extremely dangerous. Fortunately such features can usually be easily avoided. If in doubt, always avoid.

The following river grading system is the one used on the UK Rivers Guide Book – the leading kayaking forum in the UK.

The UK river grading system

Grade 1

Moving water, unobstructed and without technical difficulties. There may be small waves and riffles to challenge the paddler.

River grading. Five kayakers on flat, moving, grade one water

River grading: grade one water on the River Wye – small ripples and waves.

Grade 2

Waves, small stoppers and other minor obstructions such as rocks to avoid. Eddies and cushion waves may be strong.

River grading: A grade two rapid at Symonds Yat on the River Wye is crowded with kayakers and canoeists.

River grading: Kayaking at Symonds Yat in Herefordshire , a classic section of grade two water.

Grade 3

Waves, stoppers and technical difficulties are more severe. There may be drops and powerful constrictions. The main distinguishing factor of Grade 3 water is that the paddler will have to follow a recognisable route to avoid obstacles and hazards.

River grading. A kayaker paddles down a large wave on a grade three artificial white water course

River grading: Grade three water at the Lee Valley Legacy course, just outside of London.

Grade 4

Severe waves, drops, stoppers and other obstructions. The route is not easily recognisable and will usually require careful inspection from the boat or bank. Grade 4 encompasses a wide range of rivers, from those with pool-drop rapids to those with extended continuous rapids; so there is a huge variation in difficulty. It is common to distinguish easier grade 4 rapids by grading them as 4- and harder rapids as 4+ (or in some cases, 3/4 or 4/5).

A kayaker paddles down a very large wave and hits a large cushion of water at the bottom of the wave. Grade four water at the Lee Valley Olympic White Water Course.

River grading: Grade four water at the Lee Valley Olympic course.

Grade 5

Extremely difficult rapids with precise and technically demanding routes to be followed. Stoppers, currents and waves will be powerful and inspection is essential.

A kayaker paddles over a very large wave into a maelstrom of white water, as water pours from the gorge walls beside him. Grade five water in the French Alps.

River grading: Grade five water on the Middle Guil in the French Alps.

Grade 6

All of the above carried to extremes. Grade 6 usually means unrunnable rapids, which may just be possible in certain conditions.


Image credits: G1,2 & 5 courtesy of Dan Tattersall, G3 courtesy of Bobby Chen and G4 courtesy of Marie Czajkowski.



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