Things to Know When Whitewater Rafting in Tennessee

East Tennessee’s mountain rivers offer plenty of great spots for whitewater rafting. Before you head out for an exciting adventure, you should learn how rivers are classified and some safety tips for whitewater rafting in Tennessee.

Rapids are classified by experience level, so boaters know which rivers they can travel safely. You’ll find all five classes of rapids on Tennessee’s rivers.


The easier classifications are great for novice rafters who are just learning to ride a river. Class I rapids are just fast-moving water with a few small waves. The few obstacles are easy enough to spot and avoid.

You might need to maneuver around rocks and slightly bigger waves with Class II rapids, but with a bit of training, they’re pretty easy to miss.

In Tennessee, you’ll find Class I and II rapids on many waterways, including the Hiwassee River, the Watauga River, the lower Pigeon River and the lower Nolichucky River.

Find out more about water recreation in Tennessee.


Intermediate rafters can tackle Class III rapids, which have moderate, irregular waves that might not be as easy to dodge. These rapids can include stronger currents, especially on large-volume rivers.

You shouldn’t attempt intense Class IV rapids until you’re an advanced rafter. These involve precise boat maneuvering, large waves and sometimes constricted passages.

Class III and IV rapids can be found on the Ocoee River, Obed River, upper Nolichucky River, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and upper Pigeon River.


Only expert rafters should attempt Class V rapids. These could take you through large drops with unavoidable holes and waves, steep, tight chutes and long series of rapids between pools. Rafters need to have extensive experience before attempting Class V rapids. You’ll find Class V rapids in stretches of rivers and creeks, including the Chattooga River, Deep Creek, the Elk River and the Doe River.

When whitewater rafting in Tennessee, it’s important to remember these safety tips:

  • Know how to swim and be able to handle yourself underwater.
  • Always wear a life jacket and a solid helmet that fits correctly.
  • Stay in control of your boat. Do not enter a rapid unless you are fairly certain you can navigate it safely or swim it without injury.
  • Learn to look out for signs of hazards like high water, water colder than 50° F and submerged brush and trees.
  • Get trained in CPR, first aid and self-rescue techniques like the Eskimo roll, especially if you boat in rapids rated higher than Class IV or in cold water.
  • Carry emergency gear like a knife, a throw rope, a whistle, waterproof matches, and some footwear to protect you when you walk out.
  • Refrain from wearing bulky or baggy clothing or shoes that can make it harder to swim.
  • Know what to do if you fall out of the raft. Grab the outside safety line or look for a passenger to extend a paddle or a throw bag.
  • Hold the T-grip on your paddle securely to avoid hitting other riders in the head.
  • Wear sunscreen, even on overcast days. Sunlight reflects off the water and can easily cause sunburns.

Whitewater rafting in Tennessee is an enjoyable way to spend a day with your family and friends, but make sure you know how to be safe while shooting the rapids.

Most outdoor activities have some level of risk, and you may need to consult an expert before engaging in the activity. Always check the current weather conditions before embarking on any outdoor activity.

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