If you’re looking for the BEST beginner surfing tips you’re in the right place! Maybe you’re about to take your first surfing lesson and want to do a little homework so you know what to expect. Maybe you want to try surfing on your own on your next vacation. Either way, we have some pro-tips to have you THINKING and acting like a pro out there in the waves!
Full disclosure….I would consider myself a beginning surfer. I’ve had professional lessons and I’ve been surfing on my own for under a year. Because I’m intimately familiar with the learning (& failing process) I think I’m a decent teacher to learn from. Plus, I will pass on to you some of the beginner surfing tips I received from my coach.
Getting beginner surfing tips & lessons from experienced surfers is always super helpful….but most experienced surfers have been surfing for a loooong time and they are a bit removed from their beginner days & what that felt like! That’s where I hope I can help you!
Because I’m a beginner surfer I feel I can provide really good advice to my fellow beginners on catching that first wave and not looking like a total newb on your first day.
Going into my first surf lessons I thought I would be well positioned because I have been skateboarding, roller skating and downhill skiing for decades now…but I was punch-in-the-face surprised how little of that applied to surfing.
While having experience in these balance centric sports is helpful (a good sense of balance is REALLY important)…it’s not a complete determinate for success in surfing.
There are many dynamic variables at play when it comes to catching a wave. The ocean is constantly changing. The waves are constantly changing. The weather conditions are constantly changing.
During my first surfing lesson, I was able to get up on a wave within a few tries! So it’s absolutely possible to surf on your first day if you heed my beginner surfing tips!.
Although it may not seem like the best time to be surfing….late fall, winter and early spring have the best waves for surfing. Not that you can’t surf in the summer…the waves are just much smaller. Having a wetsuit & booties makes surfing during the cooler months possible.
So let’s dive into my list of beginner tips so you won’t look like a complete newbie out there!
planning your first surfing trip
First, things first…pick out a beginner surfing spot. Try to seek out places that have some people (for safety reasons- in case you get in trouble) but not too many people.
If you have a few weeks to prepare before your first surfing lesson or surfing experience I highly recommend getting your arms into shape by swimming laps at your local pool or lake a few times a week, every week leading up to your trip.
You’ll spend more time paddling and positioning yourself to catch a wave than you might think. If you’re arms aren’t in shape or ready for this you’ll probably be pretty sore after just one day. Preparing your body in advance will make the ocean paddling much easier on you and you’ll be less sore and able to paddle for longer.
Being in good cardiovascular shape & having a strong core will also help too (so don’t stop going to the gym).
If you’re going to be surfing in a relatively popular surfing area you should find plenty of surf shops that will rent you a surfboard, wet suits, gloves and all the equipment that you need. Local surf shops can help you find the best beginner surf spots based on the conditions or the time of year. The local knowledge is invaluable to a beginner so be sure to stop in.
If that isn’t the case you can purchase an inexpensive., soft top beginner surfboard for about $200-$250.
When you are a beginner learning how to surf, you want to be practicing on longer surfboards. Longboards have a larger volume displacement and length which improve the overall stability of the board. It makes paddling easier, popping up easier and balancing easier. You’ll catch more waves and get more practice with this huge advantage. When you become more experienced you can move to shortboards.
Unless you are surfing in very warm weather climate you are probably going to want to have a wet suit, booties, gloves snd possibly a hood. If you are in warm water you want to have a rash guard at the very least (the helps to prevent chafing on your arms/chest as you paddle and prevent sunburn). You can rent these items from a local surf shop or your surfing school will provide them for you.
If it’s extremely cold you may want to opt for a dry suit (which doesn’t let ANY water in) and/or a hood. Wet suits not only provide warmth, they also provide extra flotation. When the sun’s out it will warm your body faster because the dark black suit absorbs the sun’s rays to warm you up.
If you’re not surfing with an instructor you need to check a few things before you head out the beach. Check the local water temperatures, tides & wind speed/direction so you’re not surprised by the conditions in the water & you can pick the best time to go. You can get current surfer conditions, live video feeds for just about any beach from surfline.com.
Before you EVER go out to catch your first wave you will want to practice popping up on your surfboard many times if you can. You can do this on the beach before your first surf lesson or surf outing but it’s actually better to practice weeks in advance at home if you can.
It’s so important to get the “popping up” motion down pat because it can be a little awkward/difficult to execute when you’re not used to it. It can require more core strength than you might expect!
How to pop up on a surfboard- practice before you go:
- The first step is to figure out your stance on the board. You’re dominant leg will be forward on the surfboard when you pop up. If your left foot is forward you have a “regular” stance. If your right is forward, you have a “goofy” stance,
- Lay flat on the surfboard with your toes positioned around the surfboard leash area or fin area. Always keep your toes/feet on the board & do not let them create drag in the water.
- Use your arms and your core strength to press up from the board.
- Using your core muscles, bring your dominant leg forward and position your knee is under your armpit.
- At the same time, bring your back leg just behind your dominant leg while still having both hands on the board. Both legs should be positioned along the centerline of the surfboard. You want to try and bring both legs into position with one burst of motion.
- Take a moment to gain your footing/balance while you have all your arms and legs on the board.
- Slowly stand up keeping your hands below your waistline at all times & your knees slightly bent. Your feet should be shoulder width apart & positioned along the centerline of the board. Keep your knees slightly bent. You should be located near the back of the board.
- Don’t bend over at the waist. You want to have a slightly upright posture.
- Through this entire process you need to keep your head and chin up and looking towards the shore/beach. DO NOT look up, down, left or right or you will lose your balance and fall in.
- Practice this over and over on the beach with your board or at home in your living room until you master the pop up.
The video below has the best illustrations and step by step video explanation of how to practice and master the pop up. I highly recommend watching it from beginning to end (it’s really well done) to really grasp these concepts before you start to practice the pop up or head out surfing.
beginner surfing tips –WHEN YOUR IN THE WATER
Before you head out into the surf spend about 30 minutes observing where the surf is breaking and where surfers are lining up to catch the waves (the group of surfers waiting is termed “the lineup”).
Check out size of the waves and make sure that you are comfortable with them. Beginners should look for long waves, breaking on shore that 2-3 feet max. Time the wave sets so you know what’s coming and when. Looks for fellow beginning surfers to line up with so you aren’t getting in the way of more experienced surfers.
Look for an area where waves aren’t breaking to paddle through to the lineup. When paddling out, stay out of the way of surfers on a wave AND the lineup. If you see someone riding a wave and coming towards you, paddle in the opposite direction of that surfer. Lastly, always hold on to your board.
Surfing is 95% padding and positioning yourself to catch that wave and 5% actual surfing. After you actually catch a wave, you have to expend a lot of energy to get back to the lineup (where you were before) & catch that next wave.
Surfing takes a LOT of energy and it can be tiring. So try and do everything you can to conserve that energy & rest a little before catching the next wave.
When your ready to catch that wave make sure that the front tip of your board is just slightly out of the water…not below the water and not pointed too high. If you keep your weight towards the back of the board like we discussed earlier your board should be at the right level.
Your board needs to be completely perpendicular to the wave so make sure that you are positioned that way. Not all waves break parallel to the shore so you need to peek back and see what the wave is doing before you paddle to match the wave speed.
In order to catch a wave…your speed has to match the speed of the wave. You have to paddle to meet the wave and paddle even harder to match it and catch it.
When you finally catch that first wave RELAX and TAKE YOUR TIME GOING THROUGH THE STEPS OF POPPING UP ON THE BOARD. If you’re anything like me you will think to yourself that you don’t have much time to pop up and still surf the wave- therefore you must RUSH. Don’t do that. Take it slow, you have more time than you think. Takes things slow and enjoy catching the wave.
After you pop up ALWAYS look up at the shoreline and keep your eyes/focus there. DO NOT look left. right, down or at other surfers. This will have you heading straight for wherever you are looking (usually in the water).
Always keep your hands down below your waist and balance from there. Hands flailing way above your head will cause you to lose your balance lightning fast.
If you find yourself losing your balance, bring your hands slowly down below your waist. If you still need more stability you can crouch down on the board (putting both hands down) and get into a four-point stanch until you have regained control…then try to stand up again.
If you fall DON’T dive in head first! Try to fall on your backside to avoid potential head injuries or collisions with hidden rocks.
Always keep your knees bent & shoulder with apart in a ready for anything position. This allows your body to be fluid and react to anything that may be coming your way.
Ignore other surfers around you while on your surfboard. There is surfer etiquette which will talk about shortly but you need to focus your attention And your eyes on the shore. If you look at other surfers surfing nearby this can throw your balance off and send you off of the board in a heartbeat.
When you are at rest or waiting for a wave turn your board (pointy end first) into the waves. When a wave approaches press up on the board so that you can take the impact of the wave and not tumble over sideways into the wave.
Time the wave sets so you know what to expect. Sometimes wave sets will be five or six minutes apart sometimes they’ll be 10 minutes apart so it’s good to know when you can expect your next surfable wave.
There is surfer etiquette that you should be aware of. The rider closest to the break (at the long end of the line or wave) has priority. The best way to think about this is the person who can enjoy the longest amount of time on the wave has the priority. If you see them at the end of the line approaching you you need to stop paddling and get out of their way.
Remember not to look at them…observe from the corner of your eye. Make sure there is enough distance 2 surfers can technically surf the same wave if it’s long enough or it’s breaking in two direction (it’s more about a safe level of spacing). You just want to avoid collisions. Use your best judgement here.
It’s very important when you are a beginner to seek out beginner surf spots with lots of people around. You don’t want to get into a situation where you are hurt or injured and need help and there’s nobody there to help you. Ideally, when you are new you should surf with a buddy much like SCUBA.
If you feel that you are getting tired and can’t paddle it’s time to go in. You don’t want to have a situation where you tire yourself to the point where you can’t safely swim in. Ride a wave back to the beach…you know…to conserve that energy.
As a beginner you want to look for swells that are no bigger than 2-3 feet high. Swells that are bigger than 2 feet high can be rough & punishing and potentially dangerous for beginning surfers.
The hardest part of surfing (as a beginner surfer) is actually timing and catching a wave. In order to catch a wave your paddling speed must match the wave speed. This takes the most energy in the entire process so really push hard when you’re paddling to catch the wave.
When you’ve caught that first wave & successfully pop up on the board keep in mind that weight towards the back of the board acts like a brake. Walk to the front of the board in order to put on the gas and get more speed from your board. Walking to the front of the board will take several outtings to master. I wouldn’t expect this for your first surfing experience.
Always keep your feet on the board when paddling. Toes should rest near the surf leash and fins area of the board. Hanging your feet off just creates more drag and sucks away your energy.
To turn when you are up on the board, look to where you want to go and follow with your shoulders. This takes a little practice but eventually this will allow you to turn your board gradually.
The goal is to try and ride the entire line or wave to get the most bang for your buck. Surfing involves a lot of paddling and you’ll spend far more time paddling then you will surfing. This can be very tiresome so try and get the most out of every run.
If you’re focused solely on surfing (and not partly focused on socializing- as many surfers out there are) realistically you’ll catch only a few waves an hour (probably 4 or 5 max). There is plenty of paddling back, resting, paddling to position and waiting for a good wave that sucks up a lot of time. If you want more time in the water then pace yourself accordingly.
All that in mind, realistically if you’re in decent shape you’ll be able to surf for about two hours before tiring out completely. Unless you have trained for this well in advance, you will be sore the next day. I do longboard paddling a few times a week which kept my arms in shape prior to my first surfing lesson. So the arms were not a problem…however…
I was not prepared for how sore my skin would be from laying on the board and pressing up (I did have a full wet suit on). Any area where bone came into close contact with the board was sore (hip bones, ribs etc). I had a neck ache from looking up, left, right when paddling on the board. There’s not much you can do about that besides take a bottle of pain reliever with you and keep practicing!
beginner surfing tips faq
how long does it take for a beginner to learn how to surf?
Technically, you can be up and surfing on your first day. I was able to to do it and I know plenty of people who have. BUT to be surfing well, with confidence takes much more time, practice and commitment. That’s because the time actually spent surfing ON THE BOARD is measured in seconds! Compare these seconds to all the time spent paddling, positioning & waiting for the wave! When you can at most catch 4-5 waves an hour you can start to do the math on how many hours it might take to be a confident surfer.
Can you teach yourself how to surf?
Yes, absolutely. There are so many helpful YouTube videos & step by step guides that you could learn on your own (lots of people have). I personally wanted a lesson from a professional so I could get started on the right foot and have someone to point out my mistakes so I didn’t learn any bad habits from the beginning. It was worth the cost for me but you might be able to get the same help from someone who is an experienced surfer willing to help you.
what is the hardest part about surfing?
Hands down it’s the paddling out to position yourself to catch the next wave. The actual time spent surfing is measured in seconds but you’ll paddle and battle oncoming waves for several minutes to get back into a place where you can catch the next wave.
When a good wave comes along you have to match the wave speed (with more paddling of course) and pop up onto the board (using those tired arms and your core muscles) to surf again. Of course you rest in between wave sets but THAT whole process between the waves is tiring.
In a close 2nd, I would say is getting the whole popping up on the board sequence down pat. Mentally, you have a tendency to overthink the process OR work through the transition too quickly which causes you to lose your balance and fall (which wasted all that paddling energy!).
do you need to be a good swimmer to surf?
Yes, you need to know how to swim and be a good swimmer to surf in my opinion. There are so many variables with the waves, changing conditions and the potential undercurrents or undertoes. Usually, you’re not going to be surfing in an area where you can stand up to rest either.
is surfing better at low tide?
Yes, surfing during low tide is better. The best time to surf is anytime between an hour after low tide to an hour before high tide. This gives you a fairly large surfing window. This is because the rip currents are going out to sea and good waves are much more likely on an outgoing tide.
I hope you found our beginner surfing tips to be helpful. Remember, that you can practice tons of surfing skills at home before you ever head to the beach or your first surfing lesson. If you do this your first surfing experience will be far more productive & successful!
if i can skateboard, can i surf?
I’ve been skateboarding for many years and I would say it’s easier for a surfer to become a skateboarder than it is for a skateboarder to become a surfer. Having a good sense of balance (which most skateboarders have) will definitely help you find the centerline quickly & stay up on the board longer. That’s basically where the similarities end. Surfing is so dynamic , with MANY more variables than skateboarding.
You don’t have the same unlimited opportunities to hone your skills in surfing like you do with skateboarding. The surfing learning curve is much steeper. With surfing you have to find the right conditions and the right spot. You don’t get to ride every wave and practice as much as you could skateboarding.
Surfing is a rewarding challenge…there’s nothing like catching that wave and riding it all the way to the end of the line. I would equate it to the thrill of bombing down a hill with a skateboard or longboard.
do i need surfring lessons?
ARE surfing lessons worth it?
You don’t HAVE to have surfing lessons BUT it can really help you learn how to surf more quickly. With lessons you get all the best information from a pro and you won’t ingrain any bad habits. You’ll have someone to watch you and see where things are going wrong & coach you. I personally think everyone should start out this way. It can really save you a lot of heartache down the road.
My first surfing experience was with Rick (who I highly, HIGHLY recommend) at Club Ed which is headquartered in Santa Cruz California. The owner of Club Ed (Ed of course) is a surfing and skateboarding legend and you can even get surfing lessons direct from him.
We surfed at a beginner spot known as Jack’s (or Jack O’Neill‘s place) near Pleasure Point, CA. Jack O’Neill passed away in 2017 but he was best known as the inventor of the wetsuit which made wintertime surfing (the best time of year to surf) a real possibility.
If you’re looking for the best beginner surfing spots in the Santa Cruz area it has to be around Jack’s Place (also known as the 38th Ave Beach, Pleasure Point or The Hook). You can park at the Pleasure Point parking lot and walk across Cliff Dr. to the beach area below.
You can check out my short video of the Pleasure point surfing area.
If the surfing is good you’ll see lots of surfers in wetsuits walking around with their surfboards. Even if you aren’t surfing you can park yourself on a bench on the overlook and watch all the surfers below.
I hope you were able to on-board a few beginner surfing tips and get an idea of how to surf.
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