Globetrotter: The 12 Best Winter Surf Trips

Jan 31, 2019

Category: Living

While the rest of us are hunkering down and hibernating in response to frigid temperatures and winter storms, there’s a small group of coastal acolytes somewhere plotting their next move. When to strike, where the target will end up next, and which country to invade in the process. No, these aren’t assassins, they’re dedicated surfers. Keeping a close watch on storms developing around the world and how those winds and weather systems will conjure up significant swell that will eventually reach beaches and reef passes thousands of miles away. It really is an art. One that involves impeccable timing and armchair meteorological knowledge of weather systems, wind fetch, direction, and coastal bathymetry.

And for us here in the Northern Hemisphere, winter just so happens to be the most active time of year for both the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. So, it only makes sense to that a winter surf trip to the right destination is in order. Especially with all the holiday madness now in the rear view, airports back to normal and, who knows, maybe even a deal or two left over from the holiday hangover. You just have to know where to go. So while we won’t dive into specifics out of respect of preserving local spots and surfers, we’re comfortable enough to guide you in the right direction. The rest, of course, lies in your hands.

Photo: Hawaii

Caribbean Coast – Panama

Much like the majority of Central America, the Pacific side is relatively dormant during the winter months. However, if basic geography serves us right, this narrow landmass is blessed with two coastlines — opening the likes of Panama up to the gloriously active Caribbean during the winter months. Exact spots redacted, we can say with confidence that with the right storm system and/or wind fetch gracing the Caribbean Sea, some serious juice can be found at both the beaches and reefs along this stretch of coastline.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 80°F-83°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NE
Watch Out For: Sharp Coral Reefs, Oppressive Heat.

Central Coast – Nicaragua

Yes, we know Central America is primarily exposed to southerly swell (i.e. summertime surf). However, if you time your trip accordingly, Nicaragua’s accessible Central Coast can offer North Pacific wrap and the occasional off-season Southern Hemi swell. The result will be uncrowded lineups, warm water, and fun surf for a trip that won’t break the bank. It is worth noting the political environment in the country isn’t very stable but with a little caution, you could very well reap the rewards as a wave-riding carpetbagger.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 74°F-80°F (though stronger offshore winds can cause upwelling)
Ideal Swell Direction: NW; WNW; off-season S-SW swells
Watch Out For: Upwelling, Political Turmoil, Heavy Beachbreak

Galapagos Islands – Oceania

They don’t call them Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles) for nothing. With over half the small archipelago reserved as national parklands, surfing here is focused primarily in and around the more accessible islands in the chain. Not to worry though, there’s still plenty of variety as this chain comfortably sits 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Meaning, they’re plenty exposed to consistent surf generated by North Pacific storms. Plus, depending on where you surf, overhead reef breaks to more playful peaks are present.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 75°F-77°F
Ideal Swell Direction: N; NW
Watch Out For: Difficult Travel, Sharp Coral/Rock Bottoms,

Micronesia – Oceania

In an effort to explore a destination less traveled, we’d suggest looking into Micronesia. This is one section of Oceania peppered with more than 2,100 islands that are all exposed to both NPAC and SPAC storms and surf. But for our purposes, the wide window of exposure to North Pacific swell makes Micronesia a key region to begin exploring for winter surf trips. On top of that, multiples exposures signify a high variety in waves — from world-class back-breaking reefs to more mellow and playful passes that aren’t in direct line of an incoming swell. Not to mention tropical weather and water temps to boot.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 83°F-85°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NE; N; NW
Watch Out For: Difficult Travel, Sharp/Shallow Reefs, Typhoons.

North Coast – Peru

Down into the Southern Hemisphere lies what’s known as the “land of the lefts.” Ideal for goofy footers, Peru’s North Coast is blessed with headlands and rock reefs that morph any incoming long period swell from the North Pacific into perfectly groomed waves half a world away. Best part, this is Peru’s summer, so mild temps and relatively warm water can be expected during the Northern Hemi winter months.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 68°F-74°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NW
Watch Out For: Lengthy Travel, Localism, Heavy Surf.

North Shore – Hawaii

No secrets here. Just take a look at any surf periodical between October and March and you’ll find hollow and heavy surf, white sand beaches, and warm inviting sunshine. If you can make it, we highly recommend it. However, be wary of the danger that lies beneath of what appears to be a pristine hollow A-frame as the sharp coral found along this island chain can cause serious injuries if you’re not careful. Also, respect, respect, and respect the locals.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 75°F-77°F
Ideal Swell Direction: W; WNW; NW
Watch Out For: Heavy Localism, Sharp Coral Reefs.

Northeast Coast – United States

Despite what you may have otherwise heard, the U.S. East Coast pumps — especially in the wintertime as monstrous low-pressure systems “bomb” as they exit land and into the ocean off the Mid-Atlantic coast. These are the first surfers to see swell from winter storms on the Eastern Seaboard. Play your cards right and you could easily score some icy tubes up north, then jet down to Puerto Rico and enjoy a more tropical version of the same swell. Just like all surf on the East Coast, however, the windows of opportunity are short-lived — so in order to score, A-game planning is a must. As the saying goes, if you hear it’s pumping from someone else, it’s already too late.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 38°F-45°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NE; ENE; E; SE
Watch Out For: Freezing Temps, Ice-Cream Headaches, Blizzards.

Northwest Coast – Morocco

A little less tourist-friendly but a regular-footer’s dream, Morocco truly is the land of right point breaks. Peaking is both size and consistency during the winter months, the surf here is often uncrowded (relatively speaking) and the cost inexpensive (again relative as the flights to Morocco from the U.S. are long and expensive). However, with some research — and we recommend it — you could very well find yourself sharing a premium overhead righthander with just a few locals and fellow travelers.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 59°F-64°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NW; WNW
Watch Out For: Crime, Difficult Travel, Rocky Bottoms.

Photo: Puerto Rico

Northwest Coast – Barbados

As we know by now, the Caribbean comes alive during the winter months. Barbados, though, is one of the lesser-known destinations for winter surfing as the more exposed East Coast typically enjoys the limelight during the summer months. However, if you’re to explore the Northwest Coast of the island, odds are you’ll be pleased with surf. These spots are also less heavy than the more renowned breaks on the island but still plenty of fun. Just make sure you time it correctly as large U.S. East Coast storms will send NW swell barreling down the coastline to our delight this time of year.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 77°F-80°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NW, N
Watch Out For: Crowded Lineups, Localism, Sharp Coral Reefs.

Northwest Coast- Puerto Rico

Otherwise known as the North Shore of the Caribbean, the exposed Northwest Coast of Puerto Rico is righteously exposed to raw North Atlantic power over the winter months. It’s the best of both worlds, access to swell generated by large Nor’Easters off the U.S. East Coast without all the nasty weather and wind associated with them. Instead, you’ll find yourself pulling into overhead aquamarine tubes in boardshorts while your friends are back home shoveling snow.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 77°F-79°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NW; N; NE
Watch Out For: Crowded Lineups, Sharp Coral Reefs.

Pacific Coast – Baja Mexico

Want to get lost along more than 1,000 miles of coastline? Baja California can satiate that craving. Here, from the Norte to Sur, you can expect to find everything from heavy beach breaks to world-class reefs and points that will accept any wintertime swell with open arms. Just be sure to bring enough rations, spare tires, and some camping equipment if you’re to explore some of the more remote surf spots in the central part of the peninsula. Oh, and some spare money for military checkpoints doesn’t hurt either.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 58°F-72°F (North to South)
Ideal Swell Direction: NW; WNW; W
Watch Out For: Difficult Travel, Crime, Military Check Points.

Western Europe – Spain, Portugal, France

Similar to how Puerto Rico enjoys a tropical version of East Coast winter storm surf, Western Europe (France, Spain, and Portugal in particular) are graced with large winter swells as these systems run the conveyer belt from the Gulf Stream into the higher latitudes past Newfoundland, Greenland, and into the U.K. And while the tropical element might not be present, the punch and heavy juice of a proper winter swell are in full force. Plus, this is one of the few places you could get away with bringing a non-surfing significant other along for the ride with little issue.

Key Factors

Average Water Temp (December-March): 53°F-59°F
Ideal Swell Direction: NW; WNW
Watch Out For: Heavy Beachbreaks, Expensive Travel, Crowded Lineups.

The 12 Best Winter Wetsuits You Can Buy

Cold water demands high-performance neoprene. So, before braving the cold, be sure to scoop up one of the best winter wetsuits for surfing for both this season and next.

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