Beginner Surf Tips

There are no "rules of the game" in the sport that is surfing. As a beginner, the lack of a written code may bring about lots of unanswered questions. Thankfully, experienced surfers have been passing down the unwritten "surfers code" for generations. 

Whether you’re still thinking of paddling out for the first time, or you’re making your way up the learning curve, plenty of these tips will apply to you. 

Continue reading to check out some of the best beginner surfboard tips around!

One Through Ten: Know Before You Go

#1: The Right Board

When you’re a beginner, a bigger board is better. For the average person, something between 8’0 and 9’6 would be ideal. A bigger board will give you the buoyancy and paddling power you need to learn to catch waves. Many beginners go for the foam board, namely the Wavestorm. It’s not recommended to learn on a shortboard because it’ll make paddling much more difficult.

Make sure to take a look at our main guide for a list of the best beginner surfboards on the market!

Choosing right board for beginners
Girl holding surfboard


#2: The Right Break

Learning at a soft, slow point break is going to be much easier than learning at a quick beach break. Ask around to find your local beginner surf breaks.


#3: The Right Size

A good rule of thumb is not to paddle out on a day that you wouldn’t feel comfortable swimming to the lineup and back. You don’t want to put yourself in danger by paddling out into waves that are out of your comfort zone.


#4: Finding the Right Board to Ride on the Right Day in the Right Place

It might sound like a lot to handle, but one thing about surfers is that they all love to talk about surfing. Go to your local surf shop or talk to your closest surfer friend and ask them for advice. Tell them that you’re learning, and you’ll undoubtedly get plenty of advice. 


#5: Wear a Leash

Make sure that the board you first paddle out on has a leash to wear around your ankle. This will prevent you from losing the board and swimming into shore, and putting other surfers at risk of taking a board to the head. (Don't forget to see later, tip #40: Ditch the Leash)


#6: Wear A Wetsuit?

While this may not apply to the lucky folks who live near warm water, many surf spots are in cold water. Do some research on your local water temperature and the correct gear for surfing at that temperature - this will keep you comfortable surfing your first session. 


#7: Find a Buddy

It's a great idea to find someone with some experience to paddle out with you during your first few sessions. This could be a local surfer or a trained teacher, but you won't regret having someone to ensure you're not making any crucial mistakes. 


#8: Hydrate

Make sure to eat an easily digestible meal and hydrate before heading to the beach. Like any other sport, surfing is strenuous, and you want to be prepared.


#9: Wear Sunscreen

I’m not your mother, but everyone should always wear sunscreen in the water. No one wants to be torched the next day, and the sun’s reflection on the water is a recipe for a painful morning-after.


#10: Get Down to the Beach!

Now that you have everything you need to catch your first wave step out of your comfort zone and go surf!

Tips For Paddling Out

Now you’re at the beach with your surfboard, your beach buddy, and your stomach full of water, so you think you’re ready to paddle out? Not quite. There are a few more tips to remember before paddling out into a lineup.


#11: Watch

It’s that simple: watch. Watch the way that the wave breaks. Are there surfers lined up all down the beach? Then go the farthest from the top of the peak. Beginners should sit on the “inside”- a surfing term for the inside section of a wave. It tends to be slower and gentler. Watch where the surfers are taking off on the wave, and keep an eye out for rocks or any other potential obstacles.


#12: Keep Watching

Watch where the surfers paddle out. Do they go around the whole lineup (ex. Starting all the way down the beach)? Follow them. Do they ride a small rip current out into the lineup? Follow them.


#13: Don’t Stop Watching

Finally, figure out how often the larger set waves are occurring. Once you know how long of a period of time there is in between sets, you can determine when you should paddle out. 


Great! You’re ready to paddle out and begin your first surf session. The most important thing to remember during this time in your learning process is to enjoy the ocean, have fun, and remember that learning to surf doesn’t happen overnight. 


Universal Surf Etiquette (The So-Called Rules of Surfing)

#14: Don’t Paddle Through the Wave

Say you’re paddling out to the lineup, and a surfer is riding a wave that’s about to break in front of you. Don’t panic! Just paddle towards the white-wash, aka the part of the wave that is already breaking. Don’t paddle into the part of the wave that the surfer is about to ride, for risk of being run over by their board.


#15: Priority

Once you're out there, pay close attention to this rule. The person with priority is the person closest to the peak on any given wave. 


#16: Dropping-In

Breaking the rule of priority is called "dropping-in," "snaking," "burning," and a handful of other terms. Basically, paddling for a wave that someone closer to the peak is already surfing is a big no-no, and can be very dangerous. It's pretty much the most basic rule of surfing, so don't forget this one.

That being said, don’t back-paddle other surfers.


#17: Don’t Back-paddle Other Surfers

What’s back-paddling? It’s paddling past other surfers who haven’t caught waves to get closer to the peak, and then promptly catching another wave. Surfing is about mutual respect, for one another and for the ocean. Don’t rush to catch as many waves as you can - relax and enjoy yourself in between waves.


#18: Control Your Board

Maintaining control over your surfboard is very important. Don’t throw it and duck under when a wave comes. Instead, try to duck dive or turtle roll. Ditching your board can put you and the surfers around you in danger. 


#19: Communicate

If the wave is a split peak, meaning that surfers are riding waves both left and right, then call your waves. Saying "Left" or "Right!" loudly while you paddle for a wave allows another surfer to share the wave with you. 


#20: Respect Your Surroundings

Any experienced surfer knows that the relationship between a surfer and their environment is one of the most incredible parts of this sport. Respect the beach and the ocean by leaving no trace and collecting a few pieces of trash while you’re at the beach. 


In the Lineup…

Here are some recommendations that beginners of all levels should keep in mind!


#21: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Don't turn away from the ocean. Sit on your board and keep your eyes on the incoming waves because you never know what the ocean might send your way. This shows respect for the ocean and its unpredictable power.


#22: Choose Your Waves Carefully

Rather than paddling for any wave coming your way, choose carefully. Choose waves that are peaking directly behind you, and position yourself close enough to be able to paddle into it easily. It isn’t respectful to paddle for many waves in a row, so make sure you have a good chance of catching a wave before you choose to turn around and paddle. 

#23: Paddle Three More Times

When you think you should stop paddling, paddle three more times. Especially as a beginner, this is a good practice to make sure you’re able to catch waves. 


#24: To Go Right or To Go Left

While it’s easier for surfers to ride their forehand, it’s still important to notice whether the wave is breaking to the right or the left. Surfing a closed-out wave on your forehand will be more difficult than surfing a good wave on your backhand. Plus, going right and left while you’re still learning will help you be a more well-rounded surfer. 

#25: Kicking Out

When you decide to get off of a wave, try not to rely on your leash. Instead, try put your weight on the tail of the board and swing it over the top of the wave. This way, you’ll stay in control of your board and you can quickly begin to paddle back out.


Interacting with Your Fellow Surfers


#26: Be Friendly!

If you’re sitting a few feet away from another surfer, be friendly! You don't need to talk their ear off, but a smile or a nod never hurt anybody. 


#26: Be Considerate

There is a fine line between chatting in the lineup and causing a commotion. Many surfers paddle out to relax, decompress, and be one with their surroundings. Talking loudly and constantly isn’t very respectful to other people in the lineup who are trying to escape the hustle and bustle of their lives. 


#27: Be Apologetic

If you make a mistake, don’t worry - we’ve all been there. It never hurts to acknowledge your mistake and apologize to your fellow surfer. 


#28: Be Forgiving

On that note, you also don't need to get angry at a surfer who makes a mistake or violates surf etiquette. They probably didn't mean to, and a polite explanation is received much better than an aggravated one. Engaging in a conflict in the lineup isn't fun for anyone. 


#29: Respect Your Elders

It’s usually pretty easy to tell who has been surfing any given spot for a long time. Give locals the respect that they deserve. A surfer who has been riding the same wave for many years is usually identifiable because they will patiently wait for the really, really good waves. When those waves do come, it’s polite to allow them to catch them. This will earn their respect, which can go a long way. 


#30: Ask Questions

If you have questions about a particular surf spot, ask your neighbor. Maybe you’re wondering where the rocks are or where you should sit in the lineup… a more experienced surfer may have valuable advice on topics like this. 


Post-Surf Tips

You've had your first few sessions, and you're fully hooked. This is commonly referred to as "catching the surf bug." This consuming, addicting feeling that many beginners feel is actually really beneficial to your progress. Surfing as much as possible really speeds up the learning process. Although, surfers of all levels know how important it is to take care of your body and let it restore itself after a long surf. 


#31: Hydrate

Even though you're not sweating while you're surfing, your body is still dehydrating. Drinking lots of water after you surf allows your body to regain its normal temperature and recover from exercise. Water helps your muscles recover, which mitigates injuries and soreness. 


#32: Stretch

Stretching both before and after surfing is recommended, but keeping those muscles loose will keep you in good surfing shape. Many of these muscles are not used in normal, day-to-day activities, so they’ll feel very sore if you allow them to tighten up. 


#33: Surf Log

Keeping a surf log is a great way to track your progress. It can be as simple as where you surfed and for how long, or as detailed as wave count and specific conditions. By tracking the quality of your session along with the conditions (swell height, direction, period, etc.), you will get to know the break and predict when the best time to surf will be. 

Speaking of Conditions...

There are some basics about surf conditions that you should be familiar with. Most importantly, you want to understand the meaning of swell height, swell period, swell direction, wind direction, and tide. This will allow you to predict surf quality without having to defer to online websites, which typically use algorithms that can easily miss a perfect window. 

#34: Swell Height

It’s important to understand that the swell height is not the same as the wave height. The swell height is the average height of the largest swells. There can be multiple swells in the water at once, so swell height tends to be much larger than actual wave height. 


#35: Wave Height

Wave height is the measurement of the actual face of the wave. A wave breaks based on its size in relation to the depth of the water, so waves that are bigger will usually break farther out from shore. Many surf forecasts will estimate wave height, not swell height. It’s essential when trying to formulate your own surf forecasts to understand the differences between these two measurements. 


#36: Swell Period

The swell period, which is commonly synonymous with wave period (or wind-wave period during wind swells) is the amount of time in between swells. The longer the period, the more energy in each individual wave. Basically, a wind swell will have a short period and choppier, more fragmented waves. A groundswell, which is usually more desirable for surfing, will have a longer period. 


#37: Swell Direction

The direction of the swell is important when gauging whether or not a certain surf spot will be breaking. Most spots have "swell windows," or a certain range of angles that will allow them to break. For example, a swell coming from the north is not going to hit the south side of an island. 


#38: Wind Direction

Similarly, each surf spot will have desirable and undesirable wind directions. Based on the direction that the wind is coming from, it may be called "onshore," "cross-shore," or "offshore." Offshore winds are the most desirable for surfing. The wind would be called offshore if it was coming from the direction that would blow directly from the land into the sea. 


#39: Tides

Tides are very important to understand as a surfer. Some say that any real surfer will always know at least a rough estimation of the current tide, even if they’re not surfing. Pay attention to the tide when you surf and see how it affects the conditions at your local breaks.

So how do these pieces of information actually apply to surf forecasting? It takes practice and time in order to understand how each applies to your local breaks, as every beach is different. But, for example, my favorite conditions at my local break would be high tide, ten foot swell with a fifteen to twenty second period, offshore winds, and a 275-300 degree angle. I know this because I always check the conditions, regardless of what Surfline says. This is a great habit for any surfer to develop.


Once You’re Progressing…

Hopefully, you're following these tips and becoming a more advanced surfer. Certain rules that don't apply to a newborn surfer may be useful when you're finally getting the hang of it. Since by now you've probably caught the bug and are hopelessly addicted to surfing, you'll want to keep these things in mind as you move forward. 


#40: Ditch the Leash

My favorite tip of them all: ditch the leash. While a leash is really useful for a beginner, controlling your surfboard without the help of a leash has tons of benefits when riding larger boards. It allows you to cross-step, teaches you how to maintain control of your board, and keeps you accountable for only surfing conditions you can handle. On top of all that, you don’t have a pesky thing stuck around your ankle.


#41: Start Your Quiver

A quiver is surfer slang for a collection of surfboards meant to surf various conditions. Owning different sized boards allows you to have fun in different conditions. A standard quiver will have a shortboard, a mid-length board, and a longboard. 


#42: Meet a Shaper

Most local shapers will have a surf shop that they shape out of, or at least sell their boards to. Talking to a local shaper about the type of board you want and getting their input will really help you build a quiver suited for your local breaks.


#43: Explore New Places

It’s easy to get comfortable only surfing the one spot that you love the most. Many beginners find themselves coming back to the place that they learned at. It’s great to have one wave that you know and love, but exploring other places will expose you to different conditions that will help you progress.


#44: Plan a Surf Trip

Take #43 to the next level and plan a surf trip! Surfing all day in a new place will definitely bump up your progress.


#45: Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

All this talk of new boards and new surf breaks is really pointing at one goal - pushing out of your comfort zone. Surfing can be an intimidating sport, but exploring uncharted waters (pun intended) is how you make progress in just about anything.


#46: Follow Your Intuition

That being said… following your intuition in the ocean is essential. Don’t ever let outside pressures force you to paddle out, or to go for any wave that your gut is telling you not to. All you have out there is yourself, so listening to your mind and your body is key to having safe sessions. 


#47: Watch a Surf Film (or Twenty)

Watching surf films will expose you to different surfing styles, which you can observe and try to emulate yourself. There is an abundance of films out there, ranging from old school longboarding (Thomas Campbell, Bruce Brown) to modern high-performance shortboarding (Ryan Thomas, Kai Neville). 

The Endless Summer
Riding Giants


#48: Ask Someone to Film You

While you probably won’t end up in a surf film, you will be able to observe your technique and critique yourself. Reinforcing good habits early on will make your surfing much better down the road.


#49: Don’t Stop Smiling

Never forget that the best surfer is the one having the most fun. Don’t let competition and pride get in the way of enjoying each and every wave you catch (or miss).


#50: Never Stop Learning

While these tips are meant to provide a helpful basis for beginners, there will never be a point where you master the art of surfing. Socrates said, "Wisdom is knowing that you know nothing," and even though he didn't surf, I think that he was onto something. 

Sophia Cancelmo

written by

Contributing Author