Learn How to Surf Step by Step [Guide]
Updated: Apr 6
Why should you learn to surf?
For starters, it's incredibly fun.
Though the process of learning may be a little frustrating, once you get the hang of it, it could be your new favorite hobby.
Apart from the excitement of surfing itself, you get to be out in the beauty of nature.
Being on a beautiful sandy beach and diving through crisp refreshing water, there isn’t a much better way to start off your day.
Along with this, there are positive health benefits that can come with this activity.
Exercise alone improves your mental health, but learning to surf will also help better your balance and improve your strength and endurance.
Learn How to Surf: A Step by Step Guide
Step 1: Decide when and where to paddle out
As we talked about earlier, the conditions of the waves vary depending on swell and wind direction.
Because of this, having an app like surfline can be extremely helpful.
This app will show you how big the waves are, if the conditions are good, and what direction the wind is going. As you are starting out, look for breaks that have 1-2 ft waves.
These smaller waves will be easier to balance and stand up on.
Even though every spot is different, almost every break performs best in the early mornings before the wind picks up, so paddle out as early as you can wake up!
Step 2: Master the Paddle out
While paddling out, you always want to be aware of your surroundings and keep your eye out for oncoming waves.
The key to getting past waves is to turn your body sideways and have your feet staggered. In doing so, less of your body will come into contact with the wave and you will have better balance.
As you continue to walk out with your board, point the front of your board out towards the waves and upwards.
This will allow the wave to go under your board as you continue to walk out into deeper water.
Once you are in deep enough water, you can hop on your board and start paddling.
As you paddle, always face forward towards the wave.
If you start going sideways, you can easily be knocked off your board if a wave comes your way.
However, if you do come into contact with a wave that is too big enough to go over, flip upside while holding onto each side of your board and let the wave pass over you.
This is something we talked about a little bit earlier called turtling.
When the wave passes over you, you can flip back over and keep paddling until you are past the point where the waves are breaking.
Step 3: Paddle for a wave
Once you have paddled out into the lineup, you should be a couple feet past where the waves are actually breaking.
This means that when you see a wave that you are attempting to catch, you will want to start paddling towards the shore.
First, you will want to identify the highest point of the wave, the peak.
Then, see which way the wave is breaking. If there is white wash to the right of you, you will want to paddle more to the left. If there is whitewash to the left of you, paddle to the right.
As you paddle, slightly bend your arms and cup your hands so that you can move the water behind you as efficiently as possible. As you are first beginning to surf, it is very common to just surf the whitewash.
This means that as any wave is crashing towards you, you can turn your board around towards the shore and paddle as hard as you can.
Keep paddling until you keep feeling the force of the wave pushing behind you.
Step 4: Attempt to Stand
Now that the energy and force of the wave is pushing you onto the wave, it is time to stand up.
You will first want to place your hand flat on the top of the board and begin to lift your chest up.
As you do this, more pressure will be placed on the back of your board to ensure that the nose, or front of the board doesn’t dive under the water.
Next, you can bring your front foot forward, left or right, and leave your back foot towards the back of the board.
As you do this, make sure that your knees are bent, your stance is wide, and your body is angled.
Your front foot should be relatively in the middle of the board while your other foot still stays towards the back.
You can even place your arms in the typical surfer position that you are used to seeing in movies.
Believe it or not, this actually does help you balance a bit. We recommend that you practice standing up on your board many times on shore before paddling out.
On shore, you can find out which foot feels most comfortable being in front and how to properly position your feet on the board before being faced with the challenge of balancing above water.
Step 5: Stand and Ride
If it is your first time ever riding a surfboard, you will typically just stand up and ride straight with the help of the whitewash.
As you do this, make sure you continue to bend your knees and maintain a wide stance. Many people fall off their boards because their legs are too close together, which causes them to lose their balance.
With that being said, if you stick with the form you practiced on shore, your ride should be smooth and steady.
Once you become more comfortable riding these waves straight, you can practice going right and left of the peak of waves.
This means that once you have already stood up, if the peak is to the right of you, angle your board to the left and continue to go down the line of the wave.
The same goes for if the peak is to the right of you, except this time you will angle your board to the right and continue in that direction.
When you are done riding the wave or are close to the shore, you can simply jump off your board or sit back down on it before paddling back out into the lineup.
Step 6: Don’t Give Up
Learning how to surf for the first time can be extremely difficult and discouraging as is picking up any new hobby, but don’t give up!
Once you learn how to stand up and ride a wave for the first time, it gets easier and easier each time.
The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel on top of the board, and the more control you will gain over your maneuvers.
Just keep paddling out there and putting in the time and I promise you’ll see improvements each time.
Equipment Needed to Surf
The most essential piece of equipment you need is a surfboard.
Whether you are buying one for the first time or just renting one out for the day, you should steer your eyes towards longboards.
The most typical beginner boards range from 8-9 ft long and have a soft top.
This is simply because these types of boards have more buoyancy and therefore are easier to paddle into waves and balance on.
Once you begin to surf comfortably and consistently on your beginner board, then you can start looking at shorter boards which may be a bit more difficult to get used to.
A surfboard leash is a cord that attaches to the back of your board on one end and to the ankle of your foot on the other end.
This piece of equipment ensures that you do not lose your board in the waves in the case that you fall.
If you are renting a surfboard, many stores will provide you with a leash.
However, if you purchase your own beginner board, make sure you grab a leash suitable for your length of surfboard.
You can purchase leashes at any local surf shop around the break that you are planning to surf at.
Wetsuit/ Rash Guard
Next, you will most likely need a wetsuit or rashguard depending on where you are surfing and what time of year it is.
If the water is 65 degrees or colder, you will probably be most comfortable in a full suit which comes in different thickness including 3/2mm and 4/3mm.
Otherwise, you can go surfing in just a bathing suit or with a rashguard. Many beginner boards are made with a foamy material that can be a little coarse.
With that being said, a rashguard can minimize any pain from rashes that could be acquired from laying on top of these boards.
Wetsuits and rashguards can also be purchased at most local surf shops or you can purchase one online.
Surf wax is meant to be applied on the top of your surfboard to add some additional traction so you do not slip off the board while paddling or attempting to stand up.
Since beginner boards have that coarse foamy material on the deck of the board, wax isn’t always necessary, but it can always help out.
So my recommendation is to always add a little bit of wax on top of your board before paddling out, so that you have no chance of slipping and are as secure as possible on top of your board.
The two most popular brands for surf wax are Sex Wax and Sticky Bumps which can be found at almost every surf shop and are deemed to be some of the best amongst the surf community.
Best Places to Learn How to Surf in the USA
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Cocoa Beach is one of the most popular surf spots in Florida because it has waves that are good for both beginners and more experienced surfers.
There are also plenty of surf schools located along this beach that are known for assisting many surfers as they learn how to stand up on their board for the first time.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
The Outer Banks has a vast selection of waves that are known to be pretty consistent all year long.
The waves here do tend to gain some size, so research which spots are best for beginners and the size of the waves each day before deciding whether or not to paddle out.
Southern California has one of the widest selections of waves to choose from.
All along the coast you’ll find surf city and surf city with access to both beginner and expert waves to choose from.
It’s no surprise that Hawaii is the place to be when it comes to surfing.
Completely surrounded by water, there are so many different waves to choose from.
Specifically, Waikiki is well known for its beginner waves that are easier to catch and stand up on.
Although these places are put on the map for their amazing waves and surf communities, you don’t need to live near these places to learn how to surf. If you have a beach near you, do some additional research on what kind of waves there are and if they are suitable for beginners.
If they are, you can paddle out there and learn just as well as any other place.
Plus, your local break will most likely be more empty than any of these other popular spots.
Explanation on Conditions Needed to Surf
Each beach and wave is different from the next, which means they each work best under different conditions.
One way you can navigate this is by knowing which swell directions create the best waves at your local beach.
A helpful tool for this is to look towards resources like Surfline.
These two sources provide day to day conditions and information on almost every break that the US has to offer.
Here, you will find which swells this spot works best under and what swell direction the spot is currently getting.
Offshore vs. Onshore Winds
The best wind direction for surfing is almost always offshore winds.
This means that the wind is blowing away from the beach and out into the ocean.
Offshore winds will typically calm the surface of the waters and reduce any ripples or texture on the water.
Many spots will switch from offshore winds in the morning to onshore winds in the afternoon pretty quickly. This is why many surfers will wake up early in the morning.
Different Types of Breaks
Different beaches have different wave formations (breaks) that come from what lies beneath the surface of the water.
These different breaks can include reef, beach, point breaks.
Reef breaks occur over rough bottoms that consist of rock or coral.
Beach break waves roll over shallow sandy bottoms and usually have different surfably spots all along the beach.
Unlike these two breaks, point breaks can really have any type of bottom. One thing that sets this type of wave apart is that its wave breaks at one specific location whether it is randomly placed or it’s next to a rock or jetty.
Surf Lingo: Terms to Know When Learning How to Surf
A word used to describe surfers who stand up with their RIGHT foot in front.
This term is also used amongst skateboarders and snowboarders.
A word used to describe surfers who stand up with their LEFT foot in front.
This term is also used amongst skateboarders and snowboarders.
If a wave is described as a left it means that it is breaking to the left if you were looking at it from the direction of the water.
This confuses many beginners because it may appear like it is breaking to the right if you are watching it from the shore.
Just like a “left”, a wave is described as a right if it is breaking to the right from the perspective of a surfer in the water.
The peak of the wave is the highest point of the wave and where many people will wait so that they can get the longest possible ride.
The pocket of the wave is where most of the power is stored. It can be visually seen as the part of the wave that is closest to the whitewash.
Many surfers will turn on waves to get back into the pocket to have enough energy to stay on the wave.
The shoulder of the wave is the portion that hasn’t crashed yet. This part of the wave is usually slower and has less energy.
A set is a sequence of waves that roll in.
When a surfer states that a set is coming in, they are usually implying that a series of bigger waves are about to come in.
Whitewash is the part of the wave that has already crashed.
You can identify this part of the wave because of the white water and jumbled water that shows.
The lineup is a place in the water where all the surfers are sitting and waiting for waves to crash.
This will often be past the actual breaking point of the waves, and where you should aim to paddle out to.
Learn How to Surf: Surf Etiquette
There are a few unspoken rules that apply once you are out in the water.
The most important being to respect the rules of priority.
As explained earlier, the peak of the wave is the highest point of the wave, or the center of it.
With that being said, the surfer that is closest to the peak has what surfers call priority.
Once they stand up and start riding the wave, no other surfer should try and catch the same wave.
Those who do often get called by the name “snakes”.
A snake is a surfer who will start riding a wave after a surfer closer to the peak has already stood up and was riding the same direction.
While learning to surf, you may slip up or make a mistake in regards to this rule.
If this happens, it is no big deal, just make sure you apologize and explain that you are still learning.
Everyone had to go through the beginner phase of surfing, so many surfers will understand.
Another thing to be mindful of as you paddle out is knowing how to go under waves.
We will go into more detail later, but if a wave has already crashed and is too big to go over, don’t ditch your board.
Even though you have a leash, ditching your board could result in other surfers getting injured or hit.
To avoid this, you will want to do something called turtling.
This means you will grab your board and just turn over.
Then, the wave will roll over the underside of your board and you can turn back over once the wave passes.
Carrying Your Board
The easiest way to carry your surfboard is under your dominant arm with the fins forward.
As you walk with your board, make sure your leash is wrapped around your board or you are holding it.
The last thing you want to do is drag your board or leash along the beach.
How to Surf Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Can I teach myself to surf?
Yes! Many people learn how to surf just by doing research, watching videos, and seeing the surfers at their local beaches.
Some of the best learning comes from experiences and putting yourself out there.
Q. How long does it take a beginner to learn to surf?
The time it takes to learn how to surf varies for each surfer according to the time they put into it, prior knowledge, and balance.
If you are paddling out every morning and trying to improve, you could get the basics down in a short month.
However, if you only try to surf once a week or once a month, it will take much longer for you to master surfing.
The key to getting the hang of surfing is consistency and practice, practice, practice.
Q. Is it hard to learn how to surf?
Yes and no. I think that anybody could learn how to surf if they really put their mind to it.
With that being said you need to be able to persevere through the difficult learning process and be patient if you don’t catch on right away.
It can take surfers many years to get to a more experienced level, so it truly takes a great deal of dedication and passion.
Q. How do beginners learn to surf?
Many beginner surfers will attend a surf school or purchase surf lessons where instructors can help push them into waves and give them pointers.
Others will paddle out on their own and use trial and error to learn how to surf on their own.
The Bottom line: Learning How to Surf
Learning to surf may seem difficult at first, but don’t lose hope!
After just a few sessions, you will start to feel more comfortable and see more and more improvements.
Now that you have reviewed this guide, it’s time for you to go out and try to go catch some waves of your own!