The AAA+ ATPase Vps4 disassembles ESCRT-III and is essential for HIV-1 budding and other pathways. Vps4 is a paradigmatic member of a class of hexameric AAA+ ATPases that disassemble protein complexes without degradation. To distinguish between local displacement versus global unfolding mechanisms for complex disassembly, we carried out hydrogen/deuterium exchange during Saccharomyces cerevisiae Vps4 disassembly of a chimeric Vps24-2 ESCRT-III filament. EX1 exchange behavior shows that Vps4 completely unfolds ESCRT-III substrates on a time scale consistent with the disassembly reaction. The established unfoldase ClpX showed the same pattern, thus demonstrating a common unfolding mechanism. Vps4 hexamers containing a single cysteine residue in the pore loops were cross-linked to ESCRT-III subunits containing unique cysteines within the folded core domain. These data support a mechanism in which Vps4 disassembles its substrates by completely unfolding them and threading them through the central pore.