I'm looking for a simple classification of rivers according to their width. In which size categories should I split them? This may usually be done according to catchment area but I'm more interested in the width at one spot of the river. I'm interested in the width at a given spot and point in time, not in the variability in width along the river or in different seasons.

Ideally this classification would make some sense (e.g. rivers smaller than x meter width are usually not used for ship traffic, rivers larger than x meter are commonly not crossed by bridges, etc.) or is commonly used in official documents (preferably in Europe).

Intuitively I would classified them according to the following but without much reasoning behind it:

  • below 2m (can be jumped)
  • 3-10m (may be used for leisure water sport)
  • 11-25m (smaller commercial vessels?)
  • 26-50m (large commercial vessels?)
  • 51-100m (may still be bridged)
  • over 100m (very large rivers, close to flowing into the sea)
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ One flaw I see with such a classification system is that some rivers don't have a uniform width. Some may be navigable by large ships in the lower reaches but not in their upper or middle reaches. The other aspect that affects navigability is the depth of the river. Some rivers can be wide but shallow. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Nov 3, 2017 at 11:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'd say a larger question is how variability in river width is handled. Even the smallest river can become engorged by heavy rainfall and greatly widen. Many rivers, particularly in drier areas are extremely variable, going from nonexistent to extremely wide after a strong monsoon downpour. I presume you're interested in sort of a typical max over like a decade? $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2017 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred: And some rivers can be wide and shallow at one point, but deep and narrow a short distance upstream or downstream $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 3, 2017 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ This question is fine here, but the opendata.SE people might find it interesting too. $\endgroup$
    – user967
    Nov 4, 2017 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred I'm more interested in the width at a given spot and point in time, not in the variability in width along the river or in different seasons. I have sampling spots at different rivers and it is important for me to classify river width at that very spot, regardless of whether the river may be navigable further up- or downstream. $\endgroup$
    – Stockfisch
    Nov 5, 2017 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


The Rosgen river classification contains - besides slope, entrenchment and sinuosity - the width. But it is mostly applicable to natural rivers, not so much artificial waterways ...






I'm not aware of any classification of rivers by width, per se.

But something that you might find of interest is the classification of European inland waterways, as per Wikipedia or this map:


(beware large PDF map, don't try to open on a cellphone)

There are a range of classifications that dictate what size of vessel is permitted on (or possibly what size of vessel is guaranteed to be able to navigate) that part of that waterway. These are nearly all concerned with the size of the vessel, and so will relate to the width, depth, and bend radii of the rivers, as well as the minimum bridge clearance and perhaps some other considerations.


I've never heard of rivers being classified by width before, especially as the same river can vary tremendously in different parts of its length. They are usually classified by length or by volume of water delivered to the sea. There are two contenders for longest: Amazon and Nile. It is generally agreed that the Amazon delivers the greatest volume of water, and it is usually held that the Nile is the longest. "Rivers" a few metres wide or less are usually referred to as streams or brooks.

As for suitability for ships, depth is more important than width, and where a river has the depth it usually has the width as well. There is no river that can't be bridged, but perhaps you mean bridged in a single span. There are suspension bridges which span about a mile, rather more than your 100 metres! You don't say how you would choose the spot where the width of the river would be measured from. I doubt whether your scheme of classifying rivers by width is practical. Perhaps classifying them by navigability would be better.


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