Learning how to surf can be one of the most important, rewarding decisions you’ll make in your active life; it can also be a painstakingly arduous process for a beginner surfer.
You not only have to perfect the pop ups, paddling, balance, dives and rolls that come, but you also have a wealth of lessons to learn about surfer etiquette, the right equipment to use, safety and the ocean itself.
But don’t worry, we’re here to make the learning curve just a little bit easier on you. We’re breaking down all things surfing and the best ways of learning how to surf to ensure your continued success and many killer wave sessions to come.
Let’s take a closer look and discover the rich world of surfing.
To begin your surfing journey, let’s start with a step-by-step guide for catching waves and beginner surfing tips and tricks – but before learning how to surf, you need to have the correct equipment.
Get The Right Equipment
Getting the appropriate equipment is crucial for beginner surfers to set themselves up for learning how to surf in the most sustainable, safe and comfortable way.
You’ll need a surfboard, wetsuit, a leash, board wax and sunscreen.
Shortboards Vs Longboards
For your first surf session, get yourself a big board—or longboard—of at least 8-9 feet. Many novices choose a shortboard as their first based on aesthetics or peer pressure from more advanced surfers. If this sounds like you, you’re missing out on learning the proper foundation to optimize your performance.
With minimal volume and board length when compared to big boards, shortboards don’t provide enough stability for inexperienced surfers to find their balance while also offering less paddle power. The result is you will be catching way fewer waves and leaving yourself less room to practice.
During your first surf lesson and really from your first year with a surf coach, your time will be mostly spent on positioning, ocean knowledge and paddling, with only a small portion of your lessons dedicated to actually riding your new board.
Once you’ve mastered paddling, takeoffs, going down the line and once you understand how and what to expect from the ocean, you’ll start focusing on your performance on the board of your choice.
After your first year, then you can decide whether to stick with longboarding, short boarding or ultimately both (that is, depending on the conditions you’re surfing in and your comfort level). This is the point at which you can start asking yourself, “what size surfboard should I get?”
Only from there should you consider expanding to include different board types and performance characteristics, like a funboard or fish board. But, from the jump and from your first lesson, you should be sticking with a big or longboard.
Choosing Your Surfboard
Take a look at the chart below for what would be our dream pick for beginners to learn on; surfboard reviews tend to favor the following attributes for beginner boards:
Why It’s Best For Beginners
More durable and forgiving than traditional fiberglass boards
High volume (i.e. thicker design) of at least 26 gallons or 100L
Adds more buoyancy and stability for beginner surfers to train with
Soft fin and flexible
Helps prevent injury when you fall and when the fins make contact with you
Wide nose and tail that’s rounded or squared
Easier to learn on than narrow or pointed noses/tails
8-9 feet in length
Catch waves easier while staying on your feet
Wetsuits are crucial for surfers to enjoy more waves and cutting off big surfs while doing so in gear that allows for the most comfortable and supportive performance.
Wetsuits provide the all-important temperature regulation a surfer needs to enjoy hours on the beach. Neoprene or silicone-coated neoprene wetsuits come with thermal insulation that keeps the body warm in cold water.
Wetsuits protect surfers by providing a protective layer of materials that prevents the cuts, scrapes and stings that come from marine life along the reef.
Meanwhile, the synthetic rubber materials are flexible, allowing for a full range of motion and supporting the maneuvers you’ll need to execute safely on your board. The added buoyancy of neoprene makes it perfect for surfers to float and paddle.
Choosing Your Wetsuit
You’ll be able to find wetsuits in any surf school or surf shop, but what should you be looking for if you’re a beginner?
1. Fit: Should be snug but not too tight; too tight and your suit will restrict your movements and be uncomfortable; too loose and your suit will invite too much water flow making it harder to regulate body temperature.
2. Thickness: Look for a wetsuit with 3/2mm or 4/3mm thickness; they are suitable for most surf spot conditions while giving you a nice balance of warmth and flexibility.
3. Entry System: Look for a back-entry zip system as this will be easier to put on and take off for less experienced surfers than a traditional, chest zip or front-entry system.
A leash, also known as a leg rope, is the cord that attaches the surfer to their board via the ankle.
The leash is used to keep your surfboard close to you in the likely event of a fall. This also prevents your board from potentially hitting other people surfing in the water. The leash allows you to quickly and easily regain possession of your board and get back on it to catch the next wave.
Choosing Your Leash
When choosing the best leash for beginners just learning to surf, you should be considering the following factors:
1. Length: Choose a leash that’s roughly the same length of your board, if not slightly longer. This way, the leash won’t be too short and restrictive, but not so long that it could become tangled and thereby difficult to control.
2. Width: It’s recommended that beginners start out with a leash at least 7mm wide. This will give you the strength and durability you can depend on while withstanding the falls and rigors of surf lessons.
3. Strength: High-quality, UV-resistant material engineering is a must to withstand the sun and saltwater.
4. Connector: Depending on your accessibility and ease of use priorities, you can choose between two possible connectors: a key lock or a double-swivel. Key locks are easier to attach and detach to your board, while double-swivels reduce tangling.
5. Comfort: Choose the most comfortable and secure fit that’s tailored to you. A snug leash will prevent slipping and shifting in a comfortable, sustained way; you can catch waves, fall and get back up again over and over without worrying about injuring your ankles.
Your surfing performance is directly related to the amount of care and maintenance you put into your board. Like any sport, proper cleaning and upkeep is tied to reliable performance.
Surfer traction, also known as deck grip or surf wax, is the material applied to the deck of a surfboard to provide a non-slip surface for the surfer to stand on (not to be confused with ski wax which is applied to the bottom of the board).
Board wax is typically made from a mixture of paraffin and other materials like beeswax while also being available in a variety of different temperatures to match varied water temps.
With board wax, you’re getting a dependable, grounded hold on your deck, which will, in turn, help you stay upright and maintain proper form, especially while popping up, all while navigating wave breaks.
How To Wax A Surfboard
For an in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to wax your surfboard, click here.
We’d recommend investing in a wax comb to rough up your wax before you start surfing, especially if it’s in colder climates. You can find a wax comb at any local surf shop or anywhere board wax is sold.
If you’re a hands-on surfer who loves waxing, caring for, and maintaining your board but wants to get a little creative, you can check us out here for a guide on painting your surfboard.
Hard Vs Soft
The best board wax for you will be based on the conditions you’re catching amazing waves in. Warm formula board waxes have a harder consistency, whereas cold formulas have a softer one. Soft waxes melt in warm water, while hard waxes become slippers and unstable in cold water.
You can buy board wax that’s specifically designed to be a base coat or opt for tropical wax, which is a close second. Afterward, apply your main wax based on the appropriate temperature of the surf spots you’ll be shredding in.
We can’t emphasize enough just how important it is for a beginner surfer to wear sunscreen. The sun’s intense UV rays can be incredibly damaging to your skin, especially when reflected off the water. Without proper sunscreen, you’re looking at an increased risk of sunburn, skin damage or, even worse, skin cancer.
Look for sunscreens that are labeled as “broad spectrum,” meaning that they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens with physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, can be especially effective for surfers as they provide protection immediately upon application.
Choose The Right Spot & Conditions
One of the most important decisions you can make as a surfer is where you’re going to surf. For beginners looking to their local surf, it’s best to choose a spot with small, slow-moving waves and a sandy bottom. This will provide a safer and more forgiving environment to learn for beginners.
Another must-have for beginner surf spots are some form of beach break. A beach break is a type of surf break that occurs when waves break over a sandy bottom. Beach breaks are usually found near the shoreline and can be affected by sandbars, reefs or other features along the coastline.
These types of breaks have smaller, more consistent waves that are suitable for beginners navigating the learning process. For wave breaks, their style and force depend on the seabed.
What’s more, you should be mindful of the wind direction and tide conditions of your surf spot. Generally, a low tide with light offshore winds is ideal for most, whether you’re a professional surfer or just starting out. This combination creates a longer, more powerful wave that is easier to ride.
Beginner waves will break at a slower rate, leading to a larger takeoff zone; more advanced, unbroken waves will have condensed takeoff spots based on abrupt breaks.
What To Avoid:
1. Strong currents or rips as they can make it difficult to paddle out and can be dangerous for first-timers.
2. Overcrowded spots where you’ll have a greater chance of injury and/or colliding with other surfers as there will be less space when the wave hits.
3. High tides with strong onshore winds create shorter, choppier waves that are great for breaking waves and performing tricks but are for more advanced surfers.
4. Spots with no on-duty lifeguard: especially for your first time, and if you’re not a strong swimmer, having a trained lifeguard on site can make a world of difference (better to have one there and not need them than need them and not have one).
How To Paddle
First-time surfers are almost always very tense and stiff, making for slow, inefficient paddling. Try to loosen up and relax your shoulders, elbows and wrists; arch your lower back a little to redistribute weight to your board.
Proper paddling can be divided into 4 categories: the catch, the pull, the recovery and the hand entry.
1. The Catch: After your hand has penetrated the water and you’ve extended your arm, strive for EVF (early vertical forearm). EVF is where your elbow is high, and your fingertips point downwards. Imagine you’re wrapping your arm around a log each time you’re in the water.
2. The Pull: The surfer pulls the surrounding water backward to gain momentum and propel themselves forward. If you’ve done the catch correctly, you only need to make sure your hand and forearm remain perpendicular to the water’s bottom while your elbow stays high as you stroke.
3. The Recovery: An important phase for reducing drag and preventing injury, when you bring your hand out of the water following the paddle stroke bring it forward towards your head. The elbow exits the water first, lifting it up and forwards. I like to imagine it being pulled by a string as I recover.
4. The Hand Entry: After your recovery, your hand penetrates the water well in front of your head and shoulder. For beginners on a longboard, your hand should enter the water next to the rail.
How To Catch A Wave Surfing
When you’re ready to catch unbroken waves, turn your board towards the shoreline, looking over your inside shoulder towards the curl breaks of the wave.
Paddle hard and time your entry into the wave so that it’s just about to break as you enter it. Keep paddling until you feel the wave pushing you forward, accelerating your board in the process; your board should feel like the nose is lifting. From there, pop up.
How To Pop-Up On A Surfboard
To pop up, start by pushing down on your board’s deck with both hands. Next, jump to your feet.
This will take a lot of practice, and while it sounds easy enough, a proper pop-up is one of the hardest mechanics of surfing to master.
To avoid developing bad habits, it’s important to remember to commit to the pop-up – jump up with both feet at once. Popping up one foot at a time, or leading with the front foot instead of the back foot, will slow your progress.
Pop up with your feet perpendicular to the board’s stringer for the best form, with one foot forward and one back. If you’re doing so in a parallel stance, you’ll be setting yourself up for further challenges ahead as the waves get stronger.
How To Turtle Roll
A turtle roll is a surfing maneuver in which the surfer rolls onto their back while riding a wave and then rolls back onto their stomach. This maneuver is something we rely on to avoid obstacles or to gain speed.
To turtle roll, paddle into the wave, positioning yourself right in the middle. Once you start to feel the wave lift your board’s nose, arch your back while simultaneously rolling onto it. Keep your arms tucked and begin the turtle roll.
As you’re rolling, be sure to keep your head up and your eyes forward to be aware of your surroundings. Once you feel the wave start to push you forward, roll back onto your stomach, and continue riding the same wave.
How To Duck Dive
Duck diving is used by surfers to dive under an incoming wave. Do as the ducks do!
To duck dive, paddle forward, then quickly push the nose of your surfboard down into the wave, allowing you to pass underneath it. This technique is used to avoid being pushed back by the wave or to help you catch it.
How To Surf Behind A Boat
Surfing behind a boat is a great way to get up to speed quickly and effortlessly without paddling. It also allows you to practice your surfing skills in a controlled environment, as the driver of the boat can control your speed and direction.
This makes it easier for beginners to learn how to surf without having to worry about the waves or currents.
Have someone in the boat drop the tow rope into the water and then you as the surfer grab it. You hold onto the rope and lean back as you are pulled behind the boat. Once you are up to speed, you can stand up on your board and start to surf.
For safety’s sake, drivers should be going only about 10-15 mph while in a straight line. Boaters should be aware of the surfer’s positioning at all times, ensuring they’re a safe distance from them.
How To Surf Longboard
As mentioned above, longboards are ideal for beginner surfers because they are more stable and easier to balance on than a shortboard. Longboards also have more surface area, which makes them easier to paddle and catch waves.
To surf longboard:
- Paddle out to the line-up and position yourself in the right spot.
- When you see a wave coming, start paddling hard to catch it. When you’re ready, pop up.
- Once you’re up on the wave, keep your weight centered and your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lean forward and use your arms to help you balance.
- As the wave starts to break, shift your weight back and turn your board in the direction you want to go.
- Keep your arms out for balance, and use your feet to control the speed and direction of your board.
- When you’re ready to get off the wave, lean back and paddle back out to the line-up.
How To Windsurf
Among the other sports on the water, there’s windsurfing, which combines surfing and sailing. This consists of a board, usually 6-13 feet long, powered by the wind on a sail. The sailor uses the force of the wind to propel themselves across the water, steering with their feet and shifting weight to control their direction.
For starters, begin by choosing the right equipment: you’ll need a beginner board and sail as well as other equipment similar to our surfing list (i.e. wetsuit, board wax, etc).
From there, you should be learning the basics, such as how to rig your sail, how to hold the boom, how to stand up on the board and how to steer. Practice and begin learning how to use the wind to your advantage and adjust your sail.
After the basics, you can move on to a few more advanced techniques like tacking and jibing.
Surfing Etiquette & Rules
While you’re tackling the learning curve that comes with many beginner surfers’ practice, it’s important to be aware of the unspoken rules that come with the surfing community.
Creates a sense of community and a larger respect for the locals and culture; respect other surfers, don’t litter and be mindful of others
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
Ensures everyone is safe and having fun
Great way to make sure you’re respecting the line-up and creating a safe, welcoming space to shred
Surf spots that suit your ability; guarantees you won’t be disrupting others or getting in their way
Surf etiquette ensures everyone’s space is respected while safety and support is at the forefront. Here are some actions to avoid when surfing with others for the first time:
Can be hazardous because you’re at a greater risk of colliding with others or marine life.
Cutting in front of surfers who are next in the line up; disrespectful and dangerous
Repeatedly paddling around someone to get the inside position of the next wave; can be a selfish way to waste other surfer’s time and efforts
Hogging The Wave Count
Doesn’t respect the others on their surf trip
Surfing Safety & Dangers
The most obvious danger associated with surfing is drowning. Even experienced surfers can be caught off guard by a strong wave or a sudden change in the ocean’s current.
Another risk of surfing can be found in the presence of sharks: a real danger for surfers, especially in areas where they are known to frequent, like in Santa Barbara, CA or on Australia’s coast, reportedly the second highest in shark attacks per capita in the world (behind the U.S).
Besides the two big, big concerns, other smaller, often overlooked risks can be associated with surfing, including dehydration and sunburn/skin damage. Surfers can also expect a variety of cuts and scrapes along the way, going as far as broken bones and concussions.
- Make sure you are familiar with the local surf conditions.
- Don’t surf alone—always have a buddy with you in case of an emergency.
- Always be aware of your surroundings and any potential hazards.
- Don’t take unnecessary risks—know your skill level and stay within it.
- Wear a leash to keep your board close to you in case of a wipeout.
- Be aware of other surfers and give them plenty of space.
- Don’t surf in areas with strong currents or rip tides.
- Make sure you have a way to contact help in case of an emergency.
Frequently Asked Questions
It can take between a few hours, to a few weeks, to even a few years to learn how to surf, depending on your dedication to the sport and your mobility or skill level. Learning the proper technique, surfer etiquette and theory without creating bad habits will make this process go by a lot faster and painlessly.
Surfing can be hard to learn, but it is also incredibly rewarding. It takes time and practice to become a proficient surfer, but with the right instruction and passion for it, anyone can learn how to surf. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the hardest, surfing ranks between a 4 and a 7.
Surfing can be dangerous because it involves an unpredictable and unforgiving ocean in its purest form. The ocean can, at times, have strong currents and insurmountable waves, even for the most experienced surfer. There is the risk of drowning or being injured by your surfboard and/or other equipment. Additionally, there are potential hazards from marine life, such as jellyfish or sharks.
You can stand up on a surfboard by pushing down on your board’s deck with both hands. From there, jump to your feet, or pop up to a standing position. This is the core mechanic of surfing and your ability to ride the best waves depends on successfully popping up. It can be difficult to master, but once you do, it’s like riding a bike!
The best surfboard for beginners is a big board or longboard. Longboards as a beginner surfboard give the novice surfer greater board volume and length, which in turn allow for a more stable experience and greater paddling power. This is the perfect board style to start with and will make catching waves with consistency the center of your practice.
Surfing is an exhilarating, rewarding sport enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels. With the right equipment, knowledge and practice, anyone can learn how to surf. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced surfer, the ocean offers endless opportunities for fun and adventure. So grab your board, hit the beach and get ready to experience the epic highs and the joys of surfing!