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Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Surfing

Written by Nick Wilhamburglar

Feeling like hopping on a surfboard and trying your hand at wave riding this summer? We have the tips for you to hit the water safely, with the right know-how, and all in a way that won’t break the bank!

Surfing can get really complicated really fast, especially when it comes to gear.  If you have little or no experience with surfing, the gear selection can be pretty daunting. But have no fear, here at Outdoor Goyo we like to simplify stuff for you so you can focus on enjoying the outdoors with ease. Let's start with the basics…

What You Need 

Deciding on a board to start out on can be a little intimidating. There are endless different designs, lengths, widths, fin configurations, and shapes out there to choose from. It is easy to drown in the information overload on this topic. So let's strip it down to some basics. 

Our advice would be to start out on a board that is relatively long and has plenty of volume. The volume of a board is a critical aspect because it determines how much the board can float.  A longer board has more volume and can float you more easily. The longer length means it can paddle faster and can catch smaller waves with less effort. For starters, we recommend something above 8' in length.  Also, for a beginner, it will not make a huge impact what type of fin set up your board has so focus more on getting a board with plenty of length. 

Short Board 


It may be very tempting as you begin your surfing journey to draw your attention to a type of board that is mostly associated with the pros and the cutting edge of the sport, the short board. These types of boards are generally under 7 feet in length and are slender and low volume. They are mainly designed for high performance surfing, generating speed, maneuverability, and carving up the face of a wave like a ballistic missile WHOOPASH!

While it may be your overall goal to surf in this way, it is not a board for beginners. Yes, they are small and are easy to store and transport. Yes, there are loads of cheap used shortboards online. Yes, tons of shortboards boast that they are great for shredding small waves and for “all skill levels”. Worst of all, all the dudes and dudettes at the beach make it look incredibly easy. There will be a lot about shortboards that will make them seem very appealing to beginner surfers. But the bottom line is that they require an advanced level of skill and speed that can only be cultivated over time in progressive steps.

Don’t be one of the many tragic cases of beginners who lose the almighty stoke of surfing all because they started out on a board that didn’t suit their skill level. But don’t be discouraged! The great news is that learning the basics won't take long at all on the right board. Then from there, the progression to a shorter board will be much easier and will be just as fun as it looks!

Fun Shapes 


Boards in this category usually range around 7 to 9 feet in length with lots of width and volume when compared to shortboards. They are designed to paddle into waves easily yet still maneuver on the wave face due to their medium length. They can be referred to as "fun Shapes" or "Mini longboards" and can offer a lot of variety to newer surfers that want to access numerous types and sizes of waves. They usually come with three fin setups that allow for easy turns. To the newest surfers, this category of board may still be a bit of a challenge. Lighter surfers may be able to start out on boards of this length. As for heavier surfers, fun shapes may serve as a great next step after you have mastered a larger board.

Longboard 


This leaves us with the incredibly versatile longboard, or "Log" as they are sometimes called. These are commonly in lengths of 9' and up and have loads of volume. Their length allows them to be paddled fast and catch and ride very small waves. They are made of thicker and tougher material and can be remarkably resilient. This will allow beginners plenty of time and stability when standing or "popping up" on the board. But don’t let their large size and old school styling fool you, longboards can be TONS of fun to ride. And although they may be easy for beginners to learn the basics, mastering the art of longboard surfing can take decades and supply a lifetime of fun wave riding!

Longboards traditionally come with single fin setups allowing for more stability and slower deliberate turns on a wave, but can also come in three fin configurations to allow for performance surfing. Either can be sufficient for beginners. Their extra size and weight makes them more difficult to maneuver. However learning to carve on a longboard will give you a remarkable edge if you ever want to move to a shorter and lighter board.


Foam Boards

An increasingly more tempting option is in the wonderful world of foam or "soft top" surfboards. These boards can be a beginner's dream since they are fairly durable and usually price around the $150-$300 range for a brand new board with fins. Lots of companies make these and offer excellent designs with more on the way. They even make shorter boards. It should be said that these boards usually don't stand the test of time very well. Though they are good at bouncing off from impacts in the lineup, the wear and tear usually catches up with them before long. Between the bumps, dings, and straps on the roof rack foam boards usually end up falling apart faster than any other type of board.  We still believe foam boards are a great option for beginners and that the benefits outweigh any possible downsides. Yep, the foam board revolution is in full swing bringing a wave (pun intended) of possibilities with it and we couldn't be more excited about it!  Check them out!

Buy Used

Another thing you may notice as you browse boards online will be the price. New boards can be expensive... shockingly expensive. Many boards can easily exceed the $1000 range.

If that makes you uneasy there is hope! The internet is loaded with tons of used boards. For just a few hundred bucks, you can find plenty of really nice older boards out there. Just check to make sure there are no holes in the board for water to get in. Also, take a look at the fin, wiggle it around side to side, make sure it feels sturdy . If the board feels solid, it is probably good to go!   

Surf Leash

These things keep the board attached to you and keep the board from hitting other people in the lineup. While surfing without a leash is popular in certain circles, we highly recommend that beginners use them while they are learning. This will keep everyone safer and let you focus on carving up waves instead of chasing your board. 

Wax

Surf wax is rubbed on the board and creates a surface that is slightly tacky and will help your feet stick to the board. Wax comes in different temperatures and needs to be paired according to the water temperature you will be surfing in. This can easily be addressed by your local surf shop. Just keep in mind that wax wears away over time. If it is left on a board for too long, it may have to be removed and replaced with new wax. So always have a bar or two handy in case you need it.


What To Wear                

  

Warm Water 

If you live in a place where the water is warm then you probably already own the dashing wardrobe you need to hit the water. The swimsuit can make or break your surf session. it should be comfortable, stretchy and, as countless internet videos have shown us, snug fitting. Nothing conveys inexperience like busting a move on a wave only to find your boardshorts around your knees and a captive audience on the beach. Keep in mind that the latest trends in swimwear may not be conducive to staying on against even the most humble of waves, I'm talking to you ladies!


Cold Water 

If you happen to live in a place with cold water then you may need to consider purchasing a wetsuit. Wetsuits vary tremendously in style, material, and thickness and could easily take up their own blog post. The wetsuit that will fit your needs and the conditions you are wanting to surf would best be discussed with the friendly folks at your local surf shop. Wetsuit design has come an awesomely long way in recent years and there are plenty of deals to be had. Keep in mind that a wetsuit that doesn't fit can cause way more problems than it solves.


Sun protection

No matter if you are in the hot sun or a cold overcast day the sun's rays are always doing a number on your skin, so cover up! Rash guards, T-shirts, surf hats, surf tights, and good old fashion sunscreen can all maximize your time in the water and keep you from getting deep fried between wave sets. Be mindful of how harsh chemicals in sunscreen effect the planet. Many places around the world are finally enforcing reef-safe sunscreen to save the local underwater ecosystem. Do your part. Check out our full review of sunscreens. 


Pick the spot

Now that you have the gear sorted out, it’s time to find a spot to get into the water.  The spot you choose can easily be the most influential part of your surfing success. 

There are lots of factors that go into picking the right spot, and keep in mind that the wave conditions can change quickly. A spot with perfect waves one day, can have very dangerous conditions the following day.  

Since there are so many different factors that affect each spot differently, we urge you to once again check with your local surf shop to get their recommendation on which spot is best for beginners.

In general, you will want a spot with small rolling waves which will make it easier to paddle into and allow time for you to stand up. 

Tide & Wave Conditions 

Knowing when the conditions will be ideal is nearly as much of an acquired skill as surfing itself. Luckily, there are some tools at your disposal to help to take the guesswork out of it. 

Resources 

Tons of websites exist to help you decide whether or not to go out. These along with others take information compiled from weather forecasts, wind modeling, and buoy data to make predictions on what the surfing conditions will be like in a given area. 

But even these high tech helpers cannot perfectly predict the conditions for a specific spot. Perhaps your spot has an island that blocks waves from a specific direction. Or the shape of the seafloor means the waves will only be good at a certain tide. It is important to be able to interpret forecasts and understand how they will affect your surf spot so let's dissect it a little bit. There is a lot of info on today’s surf forecasting websites, but we are going to focus on the 3 that can be the most consequential. These include swell height, swell period, and wind.

Swell Height

Wave height is derived from floating buoys that are anchored far out to sea. They detect the height of the swells and the time in seconds between the peaks (swell period). This info is plugged into an equation and it produces the wave height prediction. The best size for beginner waves are under 3 feet, 2 feet is usually ideal.  

Swell Period

Even though the swell period is factored into the wave height prediction, it is still good to look at it individually. Let’s spare you the math, and just say that a longer swell period will mean bigger waves, even if the swell size is relatively small. Yes, it's confusing, but just keep it in mind as you tune in your surf preferences later on. 

Wind 

The wind can have a larger effect on the surf than you may realize. Obviously, wind can blow in any direction but surfers are usually concerned with 2 in particular: onshore and offshore. 

Onshore wind 

Onshore wind blows towards the beach from the open water. This is not that great for surfing since it creates small waves called chop. Chop can interfere with the wave shape and make it inconsistent and difficult to ride. It doesn't necessarily mean you can't surf a spot with onshore wind, it just means the waves may be a bit bumpy. 

Think of it like offroad surfing, but it's not as fun as it sounds. The wind speed will determine how bad the chop is, generally anything less than 5mph wind is not a big deal. 

Offshore Wind 

Wind that is offshore means it’s blowing from the shore to out to sea. This is what surfers love to see. Since the wind only travels a short distance before reaching the point where the waves break, chop does not have the chance to form. Instead of causing chop, offshore wind actually smooths out the water.  

But too much of anything is bad, if offshore wind gets too strong it can slow your board down as you paddle into the wave, even blow you off the top!  At its worst, heavy offshore wind can also blow you and your board...well…offshore.  So be weary of wind, if it feels like it is getting much stronger, PADDLE IN!  

That being said, the best kind of wind for a beginner surfer is little to no wind. That is most likely to happen in the early morning. Something surfers call “Dawn Patrol”. It's a beautiful thing!


Know The Moves


Ok, so we got the gear and we have a good spot picked out, all that is left is to know how to dance the dance! 


Step 1: Watch & Observe


Before you hop in, it is important to get a feel for where you want to sit in the lineup of people already in the water surfing. Do this by watching the waves for a few minutes. Notice where the waves break and where other people are sitting.


You may notice that no two waves are identical, nor do they break at consistent intervals. Waves come in sets, every few minutes a set of approximately 3 to 8 waves will roll in. Once you are comfortable, wait for a time between sets when the waves are at their most calm.


Step 2: Paddle Out


The goal of the paddle out is to get you and your board out past the point where the waves are breaking quickly and efficiently so you can safely choose which wave to take. This also puts you in a better position to paddle even further out if a larger “outside” wave set shows up.


To start, walk your board out into the surf until it is about waist deep, set the board in the water and hop on. Make sure you are lying along the centerline of the board, then scoot yourself forward or back accordingly so that the front of the board is angled just above the surface of the water. A common beginner mistake is to sit too far back on the board while you are paddling with the nose of the board up in the air. This makes the back of the board sink and slows you down to a crawl no matter how fast you paddle.


Now that the board is level, start to paddle out. Paddling a surfboard is a similar motion to a freestyle swimming stroke. Arch your back and lift your head up. Reach your hand forward and dig deep into the water along the rail of the board.


The paddle out should be slow and efficient to conserve energy. Beginners usually run out of paddle power pretty quickly. Don’t feel bad, you are using muscles you don't use often. Surfing is a journey, it has to start somewhere.


Step 3: Pick The Right Wave


Once you have made it past the point where the waves are breaking, it’s time to choose a wave to ride! Yes, just like all the other aspects of surfing we have discussed, wave selection is a key skill that is acquired over time and will become second nature after plenty of experience. It really is a skill that can only be learned by doing, but that makes it fun.


From watching the waves before you paddled out, you probably noticed that the waves get taller and steeper as they approach shore and finally break and roll all the way to the sand. For starters you will want a wave that is fairly small and not too steep; however, the wave will have to be a little steep in order for you to catch it. This will also depend on how fast you paddle into it.


Step 4: Catch It


Once you have selected a wave you want to try and ride, turn your board and face it directly towards shore. Lay on the board and paddle HARD. Get the board moving as fast as you can until you feel the wave lift the back of the board and push you forward. This is one of the many sensations in surfing that you will quickly become addicted to, but the fun is only just starting!


Step 5: Pop Up


It is now time to stand up and ride this baby! The “Pop Up” is the critical move that takes you from lying down to standing up on your board. It is key to getting on the wave and probably the biggest hurdle for most beginners. A good pop up requires speed and precision and, yes, takes time to master.


With the board being pushed by the wave, no need to keep paddling. Place both hands palms down on the board just below the level of your shoulders and lift up your upper body. With the upward motion of your upper body, lift your lower body off the board and pull your knees towards your chest. Plant your feet on the centerline of the board and stand up quickly.


This is a motion you should practice several times on the beach to get used to the feeling. For most beginners, the pop up is a slower process that starts by popping up to your knees first then to your feet. It is ok to do that, but try to keep with the aim of popping up quickly in one motion. Even if it may be a bit scary, it's only water!


Step 6: Ride


When you finally stand up on the board and hear the wave rolling in behind you there is truly no better feeling in the world. Enjoy it, the coolest part about being a beginner is that each ride is one of the best waves of your life! How cool is that?


Ride straight in towards the shore and stay up for as long as you can. Just keep in mind that the fins stick down from the bottom of the board. Our rule of thumb is to hop off once you get into water that is less than 2 feet deep.


Experiment with turning the board, figure out how it moves and feels. Bust out a Goyo pose and don't forget to tag us! #goyopose


Safety Tips


We have hit a lot of safety points so far but here are a few more things to keep in mind: 

  • Share the stoke: It is never a good idea to surf alone so bring a buddy along, you can challenge each other and keep an eye out incase of trouble. 
  • Let someone know where you are going: The ocean conditions can change in the blink of an eye, which can get really scary. Let someone know where you are in case you can't make it to shore. You have a much better chance of getting rescued.
  • Don’t surf into crowds: Even if the perfect wave comes, be aware of your board and how far the leash extends. If it's likely the wave will push you into a crowded spot, then let it go and wait for the next one.  
  • Don’t put the board between you and the wave: This is especially important in the surf zone, where waves can pick up the board and knock you off your feet.
  • There is a right way to wipe out: If you feel like you are about to fall off the board, try to push it away from you and jump into the water. You don't want to land on your board, that thing is hard! Also, cover your head with your arms if you are getting tossed around in the white wash and when coming up from below the surface. Keep that noggin protected!
  • Know the motion of the ocean: Water is, well...fluid. It is constantly in motion and so are you when you are in it. Pick a point of reference on the shore and keep an eye on it to avoid drifting too far down the beach or out to sea. 
  • Know your limits:  It is great to challenge yourself to learn and increase your skills but it is important to know when to stop. It is easy to get caught up in all the fun and find yourself completely exhausted without enough strength to get back to shore. Know when to call it a day so you can live to surf again. 
  • Pay attention to posted warnings: Many beaches have a flag system or signs posted to alert swimmers of dangers. They are there to keep you safe, but they only work if you listen to them! 

Conclusion

If you got all that, then you have what you need to discover the thrill of wave riding! We know there is a lot of information here, we expect to make more specific articles in the future. Let us know in the comments if this guide was helpful. Surfs up! 








Tags: beginner - guide - surf - surfing - how to
Lead Photo: Adam Ripplinger
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