The Ultimate Guide To Learning How To Surf

As rewarding and fulfilling as life in the water as a surfer can be from time to time, learning the ropes – so to speak – can be a frustrating experience. So much so, that many a prospect have either given up or gotten hurt before being adequately bit by the surfing “bug.” Truth is, we totally understand the hesitation to learn. From the latent learning curve you may experience amongst your friends to the perceived unfriendly marine life that lurks below the surface, this new environment can at times intimidate newcomers to the sport. Which is why, of course, we’d like to offer a bit of advice to those interested in learning how to surf on a regular basis.

And just like any other sport out there, we’d like to round off some tips from the top based on our earlier experiences as novice waveriders – some “expectations” if you will. There’s also form and etiquette to consider as well as understanding how the “read” the incoming surf – something that comes with time in the water. From here, we also worked to put together a sort of starter pack as well to get you in the water paddling around before too long. Just the basics of course, but enough to keep you from looking too much like a beginner (gear wise) while working to ensure you start catching waves as soon as possible. So, with that in mind, let’s starting things off with some general knowledge to keep in mind as you make your way into the local lineup.

The Basics

10 Tips to Get You Started

As you may have garnered from the title, we put our heads together to come up with ten surefire tips that serve as best practices both in and out of the water. Following these will 1) ensure you don’t find yourself in any sketchy situations in the water and 2) get you progressing as quickly as possible in the short term. Some, of course, are more utilitarian than others. However, collectively, following these tips should prevent any premature frustration from deterring a continuation of this pursuit.

1. Use the Buddy System

An obvious tip no doubt, surfing with a buddy – especially as you’re learning – is crucial for both protection and advancement in the sport. Meaning, not only will surfing alongside someone who is better than you at the sport act as a motivational tool, but they’ll be there along to way to offer pointers and advice in real time. Nothing beats a free lesson, right? Additionally, surfing with someone who knows the local area, breaks, and your skill set helps mitigate any potential pitfalls you may encounter from not following any of the subsequent tips in this list due to sheer naïveté.

2. Pick the Right Spot

This is a crucial pointer. We’ve seen many a beginner get over their head in surf conditions they’re simply not equipped to handle. These include shallow reef breaks, heavy beach breaks, and crowded point breaks where high-performance short boarding and longboarding are the norm. It’s also too easy to misjudge conditions as a beginner since you have yet to know how to read a surf spot, know where to paddle out, and where to sit. Instead, we suggest picking a spot where gentle crumbling waves are the norm. It’s also here where you’ll be amongst other beginner surfers as well – taking the pressure off performance and mellowing the overall vibe of the lineup. Not sure where to begin? Simply ask someone at the local surf shop. Odds are they’re happy to help.

3. Get Your Hands On the Right Surfboard

When learning, nothing beats equipment that sets you up for success. And for beginner surfers, entering into the diverse world of surfboards can be a daunting task indeed. Therefore, it’s key to scoop up the right boards per your skillset. Here, you want to steer clear of high-performance models and more towards surfboards built for small, mushy waves – ideal learning conditions. These include boards with lots of volume (equating to enhanced buoyancy) that are often wide and thick. Picked properly, these larger beginner boards will get you into waves with ease – necessary for beginners with little to no paddle power – and facilitate an all-around easier learning experience.

12 Best Surfboards For Every Rider

For both starters and experienced waveriders, we’ve outlined a handful of the 12 best surfboards for every rider for you to bookmark when the time comes to scoop up something a bit more performance-friendly down the road.

4. Don’t Rush

As a beginner, learning how to surf should be a slow burn and not rushed. Rushing this process can often lead to negligence and therefore unpreparedness in the water. For instance, did you stretch before getting in the water? Is your board waxed properly? Are you at the right location? Do you notice any trends with the surf? Are you comfortable enough to stand up on your board yet? All these and more are questions that should be carefully thought out and addressed before paddling out.

5. Watch Out for Experienced Surfers

No matter how good the waves may appear to you from the beach, as a beginner you’re going to get in the way and not surf as well as you think. This is just the tough reality all novice surfers have to face. With that said, it’s imperative to pay attention to what’s happening in the water before paddling out. Is there a particular spot where a handful of experience surfers are catching waves? If so, we recommend paddling out elsewhere down the beach in order to keep out of the way. Remember, they’ve been doing this a long time, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting burned on a wave by a beginner who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Trust us, it’ll make your session that much more relaxing and stress-free.

Key Terms to Know:

Set: Incoming swell trains of two or more large waves at a time.

Left: A wave that breaks from left to right from the beach.

Right: A wave that breaks from right to left from the beach.

Wave Face: The steep unbroken part of the wave ahead that’s ridden by surfers.

Barrel: The hollow, inside section of a breaking wave. Getting covered in this section and making it out on a surfboard is an art.

Pocket: The sweet spot of the wave just ahead of where it’s breaking. This is where most of the wave’s power lies.

Lip: The thin uppermost part of a breaking wave that often feathers just ahead of the barrel.

Swell Period: The length of time it takes from the top of one wave to the next.

Swell Direction: The degree to which the waves are approaching the shoreline.

6. Get Comfortable in the Water

While this may sound a bit strange, getting comfortable in the water and atop your board will result in a better session than before each and every time. In this case, getting comfortable means balancing on your board while sitting stationary, floating over waves, and not frantically paddling around whenever you think a wave is going to break. Instead, breathe easy, exercise long and deep paddling strokes, and work to read how the ocean is behaving – working with it, not against it.

7. Paddle As Much As Possible

Speaking of paddling, odds are as a beginner you’ve never paddled around on a surfboard before. Not to worry, it’s a fairly instinctual process but one that you must constantly work at to perfect and learn how to paddle efficiently. Too often we see beginners slapping the water as opposed to paddling through it. The key here is to work long, clean, and deep strokes into your paddle, like rowing a boat, while remaining balanced and steady on your board. Easier said than done we know, but if you have the right idea from the get-go then you’re on the right track to getting yourself into waves with ease, out into the lineup without losing your breath, and working smart, not hard during your session. The only way to guarantee this is to paddle constantly and develop strength in your arms and shoulders.

Perfecting your paddle technique is the key to success for catching waves and not overexerting yourself. This tutorial, from Barefoot Surf Travel, is a great place to start.

8. Prepare to Wipeout

Another imperative to consider is wiping out. Now, we know that no one likes eating it on a surfboard. But the truth of the matter is, you’re going to. Without fail. The key to success is understanding this truth and embrace the reality that you’re going to wipeout constantly as you learn. The only bit of advice we have here, besides preparation, is to remain persistent and try to learn from each occasion. Were you leaning too far forward? Did you take too long to stand up? Was the wave already breaking when you attempted to paddle for it? These are all questions you should ask yourself while learning.

9. Bend Your Knees, Not Your Back

For when you do start comfortably standing up and begin drawing your line on the wave one important tip to prevent any bad habits from forming is to bend at your knees, not your back when attaining balance, working your turns, and acquiring speed across the wave face. While this may come across as more intermediate advice, it’s best to start early as you’re standing up on the wave and attempting to maneuver the board around in the process. Plus, bending your back rather than your knees is a style no-no for the sport as well.

10. When in Doubt, Don’t Go Out

Probably the most useful tip of all, this mantra is used even by some of the more experienced surfers out there. We’ve all been there on massive days when the risks far outweighed the rewards and thus erred on the side of caution. We, therefore, strongly recommend you do the same as you learn how to surf since the ocean can be just as destructive as it is beautiful. So, if there’s any doubt in your mind as to whether or not you’re prepared to handle the current size and conditions of your local spot, best wait it out. You’ll get there eventually.


Don't Be a Kook

Just like any other sport out there, surfing requires a bit of know-how and a lot of etiquette when in the water. This comes in the form of respecting those who’ve earned their place in the lineup, knowing how to rotate in the lineup, yielding to the surfer riding, and not burning/dropping in on others. Sounds like a lot we know. But understanding basic rules of the lineup will save you from stink eyes (or black eyes) earned from acting inappropriately in the water.

1. Know Your Surroundings

The lineup is an ever-changing and shifting mechanism that must be respected at all times. This means maintaining awareness of what waves are ridden and how fellow surfers are riding these waves. Meaning, when paddling out, you need to remain aware of your position in regards other surfers up and riding. A good rule of thumb: always paddle behind, never in front, of a surfer who’s up on a wave. Also, always duck dive out of their way if you find yourself in their line (blocking their path on the face of the wave). Some basic instructions on how to duck dive can be seen below.

Here’s a basic tutorial that helps provide insight and real-life examples of how to duck dive through incoming surf when paddling out.

2. Don’t Drop In

This brings us to our next point. Don’t drop in. And for those who don’t know what this means, remember that the surfer closest to the breaking part of the wave (whoever is “deeper”) has the right of way. So, to prevent this cardinal sin from occurring in the lineup, always look behind you before dropping in, or better yet even paddling for a wave, to ensure you don’t snake anyone or “snowball” (force the wave to break ahead of the surfer behind you) the wave.

3. Yield to Whoever Is Up and Riding

This tip is fairly self-explanatory. If a surfer is already up on a wave and riding, they have the right of way. No matter what. This refers to paddling out, paddling for a wave, or even attempting to drop in. If there is someone already on the wave, let them have it, for there’s nothing more frustrating than dodging someone in your way or having to pull out of the wave because someone dropped in on you. It also won’t forge any friendships in the water as well.

4. Know How A Lineup Works

For more established surf spots, think of a lineup as somewhat of a conveyor belt in which a line of surfers slowly gain access to the main peak of a wave as those who are “deeper” in the lineup catch waves and return to the back of the line. That being said, there are those who’ve gained the notoriety and respect to “cut” the line so to speak but for the most part, it goes against surfing etiquette to catch a wave, then immediately paddle deeper (again closer to the breaking point of the wave) than someone who just let you go on a previous wave. Of course, the strictest lineups are reserved for reef breaks and point breaks (both of which we advise against for beginner surfers) so at least on the outset, you won’t be beholden to these rules.

5. Respect. Respect. Respect.

Probably the most import tip when it comes to surfing etiquette is respect. Respect for those who’ve been surfing a particular spot for decades, or who grew up there and have earned their place in the lineup. Especially when traveling or surfing world-renowned spots, it’s important to understand the locals here have to deal with people from all over traveling and crowding their local break. So, it goes without saying, a little respect is in order. Let them have their waves, stay out of their way, but don’t be afraid to crack a friendly smile or hold a conversation if the opportunity presents itself.

  • Surf Mud ($24)
  • Roark Revival Savage Boatman Board Shorts ($60)
  • Nixon Base Tide Watch ($100)
  • Future F4 Quad Fins ($120)
  • Almond Surfboards R-Series ($359)

The Gear

Start Well, End Well

Because surfing is such a gear orientated sport, we also felt it necessary to guide you in the right direction in terms of a basic setup for beginning riders. Basically, you’re going to want a board with a bit of volume that will float you, get you into waves with ease, and is versatile enough for larger waves once you start progressing. Also, some sun protection is in order, as is a pair of quality board shorts that will outlast those summer sessions, and a fresh surf watch so you can begin understanding how tide swings affect different spots – a key to knowing when to go.

Surf Mud

It’s no secret you’ll need some skin protection while out in the lineup. And with the sun’s reflection off the water enhancing its strength, we suggest getting your hands on some reliable sunscreen before it’s too late. This option, inspired by Mayan chocolate masks, contains Zinc for UV sun protection, chocolate for deep hydration, and antioxidants that work to fight free radicals. And no, it’s not edible.

Purchase: $24

Roark Revival Savage Boatman Board Shorts

Even though it’s just surfing, a pair of sturdy high-performance board shorts will go a long way in keeping you limber and rash free throughout your session. This pair, in particular, was designed by Roark Revival for Jamaican Orcabessa Sanctuary Fishing Wardens. Meaning, these Savage Boatman board shorts are meant to last. Each pair comes complete with a Nylon Supplex construction, side zipper pocket, forward angle seaming, 4-way stretch, and a side utility tool pocket.

Purchase: $60

Nixon Base Tide Watch

Complete with a simplistic retro design and a basic tide chart, Nixon’s Base Tide is a fantastic introductory watch for the beginning surfer. Naturally, each of its many colorways come with a 38mm 100-meter water resistant case as well as a custom molded silicone band and locking looper so it remains both stationary on the wrist and comfortable while out in the lineup.

Purchase: $100

Future F4 Quad Fins

Despite what you may assume, fins make a huge difference in how the board rides, maneuvers and develops speed. Knowing this, a pair of all-around durable fins for your board would be the best look as a beginner. This set from Futures features a small balance fin to help up board’s stability, a Honeycomb subtle flex for a versatile range of maneuvers, and a fuller tip to give you a bit of assistance in developing speed and holding your line.

Purchase: $120

Almond Surfboards R-Series

For both beginners and experienced surfers looking for a low maintenance yet super fun board, Almond Surfboards’ R-Series is an all-in-one “soap bar” board ideal for soft waves and beginning riders. It’s all thanks to a high-density copolymer foam construction – and no fiberglass – meaning its durable as hell so there’s no need to worry about dings and cracks. Also, it’s adaptable Futures quad-fin setup works with any beginner Future fins you have lying around, and with their super-grip dimpled deck pad across the entire board, there’s no need to even wax the thing. Talk about your grab n’ go stick.

Purchase: $359

10 Best Places to Learn to Surf

Need some recommendations on where to begin? Check out these best spots to learn to surf where the waves are mellow and filled with fellow learners.