How to Begin Surfing
Surfing can be intimidating if you’re just getting started. It’s hard to learn how to surf and let’s be honest, surfers are scary.
Whether you’re looking to take lessons or figure it out on your own, you’ll want to know the basics of what equipment you need, where you should learn, and what to do when you’re actually out in the water. Having this knowledge before even paddling out should give you a bit more confidence as you embark on your surfing journey.
Choosing Your Board
For starters, you’ll need a board. A beginner should be riding an 8-9 foot soft top surfboard. Longer soft tops have more volume than other types of surfboards. This volume gives the board more buoyancy, which makes the board easier to paddle and more stable to stand on.
Another important thing about soft tops is that they’re soft. You’re going to take a lot of falls as a beginner, and it is much better to get whacked by a soft top than a hard top. It’s also safer for those around you, should your board hit another surfer (but let’s hope that never happens).
You may be tempted as a beginner to get a super cool shortboard. Don’t do this. Trying to learn how to surf on a shortboard is like trying to learn how to ski on a black diamond. You won’t have a good time. Shortboards have way less volume than a soft top longboard, which makes them more difficult to paddle and more unstable. As a beginner, you won’t have the paddle strength or balance to ride a shortboard. You will improve much faster if you start out on a board that’s right for you because you’ll be able to catch and stand up on more waves.
Depending on where you’re surfing, you may want to find yourself a wetsuit. In cold water, a wetsuit is going to make you much more comfortable and allow you to stay out longer.
The type of wetsuit will depend on how cold the water is. If you’re surfing in water that is 75 degrees fahrenheit or warmer, you’ll be fine without one. For water that is 63-70 degrees, a 3/2 millimeter wetsuit is probably your best bet. A 4/3 millimeter wetsuit is suitable for water that is in the 55-63 degree range. If the water is on the colder end of that range, you may want to add booties and/or a hood.
These are general guidelines, and what type of wetsuit you choose will depend on your personal preferences. I generally surf in water that is 57-63 degrees, and I always go for a 4/3 millimeter wetsuit with 2 millimeter booties.
A leash attaches you to your board. You should always wear your leash on the ankle of your back leg. You need a leash as a beginner. You may see more advanced surfers on longboards without a leash, but that’s because they are skilled enough to not lose their board (or at least confident enough in their swimming ability to chase after it).
Leashes are important for beginners because it keeps you from losing your board in the water. It also will prevent your board from hitting other surfers as it washes onto the beach. Generally, the length of your leash should be about the same length as your board.
Where to Surf
There are beaches that are beginner friendly, and there are beaches that are not. Do some research before paddling out to determine if the break is beginner friendly. If you live in an area where surfing is popular, you can probably determine this simply by doing an online search for something along the lines of “Best beginner surf spots in ___.”
If you’re looking to surf in an area where surfing is less popular, you may have to do some recon of your own. Go to the beach you’re considering learning at and take mental notes of some of its features.
As a beginner, you want to learn at a beach that has a sandy bottom and good whitewater. A sandy beach is going to be much safer for you. When you wipeout, you won’t run the risk of colliding with rocks or reefs, which can be extremely dangerous for beginners.
Your first few times out, you’ll be surfing whitewater on the inside. Whitewater is the foam created after a wave has broken.
Learning in whitewater allows you to focus on the basics – paddling and popping up. It’s much easier to catch whitewater than a breaking wave. You’ll get more opportunities to catch and pop up in whitewater. It is also easier to access, because you won’t have to navigate breaking waves paddling to the outside, which can be very challenging as a beginner. This is why you want to find a beach that has consistent, knee-high whitewater.
You also want to evaluate the other surfers in the water. If the only surfers in the water are on the outside ripping on shortboards, it may not be a very beginner-friendly beach. If you see some beginners working on their pop up in the whitewater, that’s a pretty good indication it’s a beach that is beginner-friendly.
Beginner Surfing Technique
As a beginner, you’ll mostly be focused on paddling and popping up.
Paddling sounds simple, but there are a few nuances you want to keep in mind. First, you need to make sure you’re in the right position on your board.
To find the right position horizontally, imagine a line running straight down the middle of your board, from nose to tail. You want to center your body directly over that line to prevent tipping your board over.
Finding the right paddling position vertically can require more trial and error. You want to be forward enough to ensure you are paddling efficiently, but not so far forward that you are driving the nose down into the water. Generally, you want the nose of your board to be 1-2 inches out of the water while paddling. It will probably take some time to find the right position, so make note of where you are on the board once you’ve found it.
Once you’ve found the right paddling position, you can focus on paddling technique. Keep your back arched with your chest up, extend one arm far out in front of you, scoop straight down, and repeat with your other arm. Do this over and over again, and you’re paddling. Your arms should be going through the full range of motion to maximize paddling power. Perfect practice makes perfect, so always keep paddling technique in mind to learn good habits.
Popping up is the thing beginners struggle the most with. The pop up is the transition from lying down to standing up on your board once you’ve caught the wave. To make things more complicated, everyone has a slightly different method of popping up.
Some people tell beginners to get to their knees, then stand up. Personally, I don’t like this method, even for beginners. Transitioning from lying down, to your knees, to your feet is going to make for a much slower pop up. You can take your time popping up in the whitewater, but once you get outside and start surfing waves before they break, you’ll want to pop up fast. It’s best not to get into the habit of going to your knees during your pop up.
So if you can’t transition to your knees to pop up, how do you do it?
Once you’ve caught the wave, place your hands on your board on either side of your chest. Then, push down on your palms to lift your chest and shoulders up.
Lift the knee of your back leg and center your back foot on the board.
Now, your back foot should be centered on the tail of your board. Using your palms and your back foot, push your body up, bring your front leg forward, and place your front foot in the center of the board, a couple inches lower than your hands.
Then, take your palms off your board and stand up, but don’t shoot straight up. You want to keep your center of gravity low, so make sure you have some bend in your knees and hips.
The thing that was the most beneficial in my learning how to pop up was practicing at home. Using something like a yoga mat as your “board,” do some pop up reps, and focus on proper technique and not using your knees. Practicing on land will make popping up come more easily in the water, and help you build more confidence in your pop up.
Scary Locals, Kooks, and Etiquette
My advice to beginners is to not let other surfers intimidate you, but also be respectful of other people in the water. If you’ve found yourself a good, beginner-friendly beach, you shouldn’t have much of a problem.
It’s important to understand some basic surf etiquette before paddling out. First and foremost, stay out of other surfers’ ways. As a beginner spending most of your time in the whitewater, you shouldn’t have too much of an issue with this.
Once you get past the whitewater and start surfing outside, you’ll want to understand who has priority in the lineup.
The surfer that is deeper always has the right of way. This means that they are closer to where the wave is breaking. If you and another surfer to your right are paddling for a wave, and the wave is breaking next to the other surfer’s right shoulder, then she has the right of way and you should pull out of the wave to get out of her way. An easy way to think about it is to ask yourself: who would have the longest ride on this wave? That surfer would have priority.
Don’t be a wave-hog. Let others take their turn and slowly move into position to get priority. Back-paddling is when a surfer paddles around another surfer to get into priority position. It’s basically cutting the line. As a beginner, you may find that people back-paddle you, especially if you aren’t catching many waves. It’s rude, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced surfer.
If someone is consistently back-paddling you, don’t pick a fight. Most breaks have multiple takeoff spots, so your best course of action may be to paddle to a less-crowded area.
You may have heard the term “kook” before. A kook is a surfer who doesn’t know what they’re doing. If you’re just starting out surfing, you’re probably a kook. That’s okay!
Accept that you have a lot to learn, and embrace the learning curve as part of the fun. The great thing about trying something new is the satisfaction of progressing rapidly. Maybe last time you paddled out you couldn’t catch a wave, but today you’re catching waves and popping up consistently – progress!
You may clearly be a kook, but as long as you keep surf etiquette in mind and respect other surfers, no one should give you a hard time. Everyone was a beginner at one point, maybe even more recently than you realize.
Now you’re armed with the knowledge of what equipment you need, where you should learn to surf, some basic beginner surfing techniques, and how to behave in the water.
I said it in the beginning of the article and I’ll say it again: surfing is hard. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t ripping within your first session.
Surfing is a skill that takes time to develop, and the best way to improve is by paddling out consistently. If you can’t make it to the water as often as you’d like, you can still improve by practicing skills like popping up on land.
Find the right beaches for surfing near you and get out there.
Be safe, have fun, and go shred.
Frequently asked questions
Absolutely. With enough consistency and determination, you can learn how to surf without taking a lesson. There are also tons of online resources with tips for beginners (like this article!). I taught myself how to surf by consistently paddling out and learning as much as I could about surfing.
Surfing is difficult because it is such a unique sport. It requires muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and balance. Most of the muscles used in surfing are ones that you don’t use in other sports. On top of the physical demands, you also have to have an understanding of how the ocean works.
When you’re just starting out, you’ll be more focused on the whitewater than the actual waves. Knee-high whitewater is ideal for beginners. Once you start paddling outside and catching breaking waves, you should focus on honing your skills in manageable 3-5 foot waves. For safety purposes, I wouldn’t recommend a beginner surf anything bigger than 5 feet.