How to Choose a Surfboard: 3 Specs to Consider
No matter how skilled a surfer you are, it is important to know what to look for in a surfboard. Having the right board for your skill level is crucial to ensure you’re catching waves and improving with every session. The most important specs to look for in a surfboard are:
Surfboard volume is really the basis for deciding what kind of board to get. The general rule for beginners is:
Your board volume should be at least 100% of your weight in kilograms. If you weigh 70 kilograms, your board should have a volume of at least 70 liters.
More advanced surfers may prefer a higher ratio.
I cannot overstate how important volume is. For a beginner, a high volume board will give you more buoyancy. This will allow you to paddle more easily. Easier paddling means you can stay in the water longer before you get tired, which means more time to improve. Greater volume also equals greater stability and balance, which is important once you finally catch that wave.
A more advanced surfer looking for a shorter board will appreciate less volume, because the lack of stability makes the board more responsive to small movements, making turns and cutbacks easier. Less volume also allows the surfer to duck dive (pushing the board under a breaking wave to get past it when paddling out), which gets you into the lineup in bigger surf faster.
You probably won’t be able to duck dive a high volume board, but you can still get outside by learning how to turtle (getting off the board, flipping it over, and clutching the rails for dear life while the wave breaks over you).
Learning how to surf is challenging enough as it is. Don’t make it harder by having a board with way less volume than you need.
The most common materials for surfboards are foam (soft tops), polyurethane, and epoxy. Polyurethane and epoxy boards have similar uses and performance. If you’re getting your board from a shaper, it is most likely going to be polyurethane, which is made up of polyurethane, fiberglass, and resin.
Epoxy boards are going to have a similar look and feel to a polyurethane board, with the added benefit of being a bit lighter. Hand-shaped epoxy boards tend to have a bigger price tag, but you can also find more budget-friendly mass produced epoxy boards from outlets such as Degree33 and Global Surf Industries.
If you’re a beginner, ignore the poly vs. epoxy debate and look for a soft top. A soft top is a foam board without those fiberglass and resin coatings. Soft tops are the most beginner friendly boards for a host of reasons. They are affordable, high volume, and, yes, soft. You can find soft top surfboards from popular brands like Wavestorm and Catch Surf for under $300, which you’d be hard pressed to find for a new poly or epoxy board. There are many companies that make soft tops, so shop around for a board that fits your budget.
As we’ve noted, the high volume of soft tops is important for a beginner. Another beginner-friendly component is the fact that they’re soft. As a beginner, you have to accept that you’re going to take some falls. If you don’t eat it at least a few times a session, did you even surf? Getting caught in a closeout or losing your balance on a wave means you’re probably getting separated from your board. This leads to the potential for a collision.
Having a soft top come down on your head is still going to hurt, but the risk of serious injury from a soft top is far lower than with a board made of a harder material (speaking from experience).
Safety first – if you aren’t yet confident in your surfing ability, go for a soft top. Do not fall prey to the mindset that to be a “real surfer” you have to have a poly or epoxy board. It may make you feel more reassured in your soft top to know that Jamie O’Brien absolutely rips on foamies at famous breaks like Pipeline. If he’s not too good for a soft top, no one is.
The last main spec to take into consideration when choosing a surfboard is board length. Beginners are going to want a longer board, and I would recommend an 8-9 foot soft top. The primary reason for this is our friend volume. The longer the board, the higher the volume. Longer boards also perform better in small surf, which is hopefully what you’ll be surfing as a beginner.
As you develop your skills, you may find that you want to graduate to a shorter board to begin learning how to make turns. Shorter boards allow for more maneuverability, making turns and cutbacks easier. A word of warning, it can be easy to feel confident on your longboard and assume you’re ready for a really short board (in the 5-6 foot range). There is a drastic difference in the way a shortboard rides compared to a longboard, and if you don’t yet have the skills required to shortboard, it can feel like you’re learning how to surf all over again.
Fins are another spec to consider when choosing a surfboard. The most common fin setups are single fin, thruster, and quad. If you’re a beginner looking for your first soft top, your board will most likely come with a thruster setup. The thruster setup is three fins, arranged in a triangular shape. Having three fins adds some extra stability to the board.
Single fins create less drag than a thruster setup. Single fin setups are most commonly found on poly or epoxy longboards, though thrusters are not uncommon on longboards. Quad fin setups are mostly found on shortboards and help the board generate speed.
For your first board, don’t worry about fins too much. Just ride the fins the board came with and focus on improving your skills.
My advice is to take it slow, hone your skills on a high volume soft top, and gradually reduce the volume and length of the board you’re riding. As you develop your skills, there are other factors that you will begin to consider, like board shape and fin setup.
Start with the basics and focus on board volume, material, and length. Learning how to surf is challenging, and it’s important that you have a board that works with you.
Frequently asked questions
If you’re looking to buy a new soft top, you’ll likely be spending between $200-$300. If you live in an area where surfing is popular, you can probably find a used soft top through websites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for around $100. Soft tops can generally take a beating and ride just fine. As long as it floats, getting your board used is probably the most economical option.
Compared to other outdoor hobbies, surfing is actually reasonably affordable. Most of your expenses are upfront (buying a wetsuit, a board, and a leash). The only real“maintenance” you need to do for your board is to wax it (which you can skip if you have a soft top, due to the grip of the foam).
Any. The volume of soft tops allows you to paddle into small, choppy surf relatively easily. Because they are made of foam, they can also be safer in bigger, heavier surf (see above Jamie O’Brien video).