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How To Surf: A Beginner’s Guide

Everything From The Gear To The Lingo

Your first wave will definitely be one you’ll remember forever, and chances are it’ll cement your desire to keep chasing more. Here’s everything beginners need to know to get into proper form for surfing, from gear and exercise to locations and etiquette. First, there are a few terms to get familiar with: 

Basic Surf Terms


When ocean swells begin rolling over, turning into waves and whitewater. 


This is the area where the waves normally begin breaking, and where surfers line up on their boards and wait for their turn to ride a wave.  


The highest point of a breaking wave, generating the surfable sections. 


A series of waves that are approaching the lineup. 

Get The Right Surfing Gear


A board that floats and a suit that insulates are the main items you’ll need. If you’ve never been surfing before, or you’re relatively fresh to the sport, you’ll want to start with a foam board—they’re softer, safer, more buoyant, and generally the best place to start finding your footing. A board that’s at least a couple of feet taller than the rider is usually a great place to start. 

If you’ve already spent some time on a board and in the water, you’re probably ready to take a deep dive into other board options. Check out this post on how to choose a surfboard.  

Types Of Boards

  • Shortboard: Six and a half feet or shorter, usually with a tri-fin setup and minimal volume. Shortboards are designed for high-performance surfing with fast turns and speed for large waves.
  • Funboard, Fish: These boards typically fall between five to eight feet. They are shaped with slightly more volume to make it easy to paddle into smaller waves but remain more maneuverable than a longboard.
  • Longboards: Generally nine feet and up with either a single-fin setup or a tri-fin set up. Single-fins are great for nose riding or hanging ten (a classic style of surfing). Tri-fins are easier to turn and offer a more high-performance style of longboarding.

Not sure what board is best for you? Our Gearheads can help you pick out everything you need for the waves. Call anytime, 24/7, at 1-800-409-4502.


As far as your wetsuit is concerned, the best options depend on the water temperature. Generally, thicker wetsuits offer more warmth, while thinner wetsuits are more suitable for warmer temps.   

There are several different styles of wetsuits. Check out our post on how to choose one for a detailed drop on all your options. And for more info on gear, you can visit our Surf Setup 101 article 

Choose The Right Surf Spot

If you’re anything like us, you’ve watched a few surf films and seen how effortless the pros make surfing look. (And also felt how contagious the surf bug is.) While it’s easy to feel like you can jump straight into big wave barrels, it’s best to find a beginner-friendly beach until you feel confident on your board.  

Start on a shore with long, even sets of 1–3-foot waves. Smaller waves like these make it easier to paddle out and read the water and lineup. This will also keep you from getting pummeled and sent back to shore before you’ve even had a chance to try riding. Breaks like these also let you get a feel for how a wave impacts and affects your board—there’s less danger of being held under after an inevitable wipeout, too.  

However, conditions will always be weather-dependent, so be sure to check up on the reports in your area. Just because a spot was firing one day doesn’t mean you can always rely on those same conditions.   

Word-of-mouth in your area is always the best way to find out where to go. If you know a surfer or where to find them, chances are they’d be happy to point you toward beginner beaches (and answer specific questions about your area). 

Practice On The Beach (Or At Home)

Experienced surfers usually start with the same advice for everyone: practice popping up and mastering your stance on land before water. Even just a few minutes will pay off massively once you try standing on your board in the water. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown on how to start building that muscle memory.  

Step One

Place your board down on the ground without your fins attached to it. Lay face down on your board and situate yourself on the bottom two-thirds of the board.  

Step Two

Place your hands under your shoulders as if you’re doing a pushup. Thrust upward and straighten your arms, and drag your knees beneath your body, all in one motion.  

Step Three

As you bring your knees forward, place your feet below your body. Keep your center of gravity low and your vision forward, with your front foot in the center of the board.  

Step Four

Drop back down to your chest and do it again! Properly popping onto your feet on a board is the biggest barrier beginners face when learning to surf. Give yourself some grace and know that every fall you take brings you one step closer to the mastery you’re looking for.  


Learn How To Paddle & Navigate Wavy Water

Paddling may be the most overlooked and underappreciated aspect of surfing. It’s strenuous and requires more strength than you may think. However, it’s essential for getting into the lineup and ultimately catching a wave.  

You’re looking for long, smooth strokes with your fingers together, alternating your arms like in freestyle swimming. Think marathon, not a sprint. Maintain forward momentum, but save some strength for later on, too.  

It’s not a bad idea to practice in a pool or an area without waves just to get a feel for things before heading into wavy water. You’ll also want to get a feel for resting and balancing on your board (you’ll probably get tired at some point, and treading water will only make you more tired).  

Try straddling your board and sitting upright. Move your body around until you find the sweet spot (you’ll know). You can still shimmy yourself around with your hands, and this resting position will also give your neck a break from looking upward while you’re paddling. But be careful, windy weather may blow you back toward shore and you’ll just have to work harder to make it back behind the break! 

When you’re at a beach, watch how other riders behave—where they’re paddling out, where they’re lining up, and where they’re catching the waves. Try your best to stay away from where the waves are breaking when you head out and stay out of other people’s way!  

How To Catch A Wave

Now that you’ve got your gear, practiced your pop-up, and feel confident in your paddling strength and technique, you’re ready to ride! Start small, expect lots of falls, and take lots of rest (and fuel up with proper hydration and food beforehand).  

Paddle out past where waves are breaking and into the lineup. When the wave you want to catch is approaching, here’s how to catch it. 

Step One

Point the nose of your board toward the shore and start paddling hard and fast! Position your weight so your board’s tip isn’t straight out of the water or dipping below the surface. Instead, let it graze on top of the water. As you gain experience, you’ll start to get a feel for where to position yourself and where to be when the wave breaks. 

Step Two 

When you start to feel the water rise behind you, peek over your shoulder (still paddling hard). When the tide starts to draw on your tail and lift the back of your board as it rolls under you, it’s time to stand up. 

Step Three  

In one motion, pop up like you practiced on land, calmly look ahead and fully commit. Any hesitation creates instability, so keep your eyes up and forward at all times. Keep your knees bent, with slightly more weight on your back foot. Your arms will naturally go out to your sides to balance. 

Step Four

Ride that sucker! If you feel like you’re losing speed, lean into your front foot. And add pressure on your back foot if you start driving too far forward.  

Surfing Etiquette & Safety

Never forget that surfing can be seriously dangerous, especially when people aren’t following proper etiquette and safety rules. Respect for the ocean and the people around you is imperative.  

1: Right Of Way

One of the most basic rules of surfing is that whoever is closest to the peak or crest of the wave has priority. So, if you’re looking to catch a right-hand wave and there’s someone to your left, they have the right of way. 

2: Don’t Snake

Essentially, don’t cut around other people in the lineup. Wait your turn, and remember, one person per wave! 

3: Stay Out Of The Way

Paddle wide, away from the rideable, breaking sections of the waves. If you happen to get caught inside, stay in the water and try your best to swim away from sections of the wave where someone could be riding. 

4: Communicate

Don’t be afraid to speak up—let someone know if you’re resting or not in the lineup. Askif they’re going for a right- or left-hand section of a wave that’s breaking in both directions.  

5: Respect The Beach And The Water

This shouldn’t need to be said, but don’t leave trash on the beach and pick up litter if you do happen to find it. 

The ocean and its waves are dangerous. Don’t try to surf when conditions aren’t permitting your level of comfort (know your limits). There will always be more waves, and no wave is worth putting your or others’ lives at risk.  

6: Wear Your Leash

Plain and simple: strap that Velcro around your ankle. You definitely don’t want to end up hunting down a stray board. And worse, a loose board could hit and hurt someone else. 

7: Be Aware Of Currents

This goes together with checking your local surf report. Know what to expect, and don’t be a liability in the water.  

8: Don’t Go Alone

It’s always best to use the buddy system. If you absolutely must ride without someone looking out for you, be sure to let someone know what you’re up to. 

9: Train Your Body

Surfing is a full-body, physically demanding workout. Effective surfing exercises like chin-ups, squats, pushups, planks, and running can help prep your body for the kinds of stresses surfing will put it through.  


Informative Links

Surfing Essentials  

How To Choose A Surfboard 

How To Choose A Wetsuit 

Surf Setup 101 

How To Take Care Of A Surfboard 

Surf Forecast Websites 

Surf Car Racks 

Need some inspiration? Check out our Outervention: Costa Rica short film!


Q: What should a beginner surfer know? 

A: Beginner surfers should know how to swim and tread water confidently. Awareness of surf etiquette (like where to paddle out and who has right of way) and safety considerations (water temperature, water depth, and possible obstructions) are also important. 

Q: How do I check my surf forecast? 

A: Many surf reports will have wave height as the most prominent aspect of their forecast, and that’s the most important thing to consider. Wind direction and speed affect how the waves will break, too. Every beach is different though, so knowing which factors affect the specific shore you’re looking to surf at is best.  

Q: How do you build strength for surfing? 

A: Swimming is the best way to build strength for surfing. Not only does it build the same muscles you need for paddling but it improves endurance as well. Strength exercises like squats, pushups, and chin-ups will all help build the muscles you’ll use when you’re surfing.  

Q: Where should beginner surfers surf? 

A: It largely depends on the conditions. Beginners should look for 1–3-foot waves. Popular surfing regions usually have a beach or break that is known as a “beginner beach.” 

Q: Do you need a wetsuit to surf? 

A: Not necessarily. When the water is warm enough, a bathing suit will do just fine. However, surfers often choose to wear water shirts or thinner wetsuits even when the water is warm to protect themselves from sunlight, board rash, and sea life.