Skip to main content

How to Surf: A Beginner’s Guide

how to surf surfboard
Robert Bye

In order to ride a wave, one does not need to be Kelly Slater, because even the least coordinated folks can enjoy a good offshore set.

Karlee Dahlin, who’s a therapist by trade but a surfer at heart, surfs weekly. As part of the third-generation of a Venice, California family, she’s always been close to the water. And it only further piqued her interest when her big brother taught her the ropes when she was young, initially on a boogie board.

“Surfing can feel really complicated and scary for a beginner but it’s actually the most peaceful thing I do and makes me feel like I’m connected to something much bigger than myself,” she says, admitting that there are still butterflies now and again.

The right gear certainly helps. In California, that means the proper wet suit for extended stays in the water. In the warm currents across the Pacific in Hawaii, that might mean moisture-wicking, sun-repelling surf ware, or a solid longboard. “My dad always told me to never look like a tourist,” she adds. Meanwhile, fashion usually falls secondary to mindset.

“In my opinion, the most important thing it is to be a very strong swimmer and love the ocean,” Dahlin says. “And don’t be ashamed of riding a foamie because when you hit someone with your board, it won’t hurt!”

Here are a few other tips for getting up on a board, whether it’s your first time or it’s just plain been a while:


Surfing requires a lot of patience. By default, the sport demands stamina and a certain brand of fitness. If you’re going out as an amateur or even intermediate wave rider, some prep work will only help your chances. You’ll be able to stay in the water longer and pop up when you need to.

Surfing is a full-body activity with acute demands on your shoulders and a call for balance. Swimming is a fantastic way to tune your body up beforehand, getting you all the more acquainted with water while waking up some of those muscles you may not use as much. For balance, try single-legged squats and some time on a hemisphere ball. Even a few minutes, while you’re listening to music or bingeing Netflix shows, will help.

how to surf prep
Miguel A. Amutio

Moreover, start holding your breath. You don’t need to train like the big wave riders (and be able to go minutes at a time underwater). However, adding a couple of seconds to your personal best will help you feel more comfortable after, inevitably, your first wipeout. And dusting off your old skateboard beforehand is another solid way to wake up your surfing legs.

Read the Water

Waves come in sets and the more time you spend in the ocean, the better you’ll be able to understand these rhythms. Soon, you might even be able to predict the next batch and about how many waves it will produce.

First, see which way the waves are breaking. If they’re crashing down all at once (a type of wave called a closeout), you’re likely not surfing this outing. But in reliable spots, the waves will often break right or left. Find the wave’s peak and get out ahead of it, not unlike a relay runner waiting for a baton.

Reading the water also means detecting dangers. Watch for coral (it’s sharp), shallow water (time your outing with the tide tables), and other obstacles such as fellow surfers, rocks, and big critters like sea turtles. And practice good etiquette. Surfers are stereotyped as being protective and hostile of their favorite spots. That may be true for coveted big wave locales and secret beaches but you’re not going to encounter that in most places — especially if you pack some common sense and basic courtesy.

Know How to Bail

Your first few rides will likely be brief. Knowing how to pull the plug safely is key. Fall flat, if you can, or butt first, never leading with your head. Once you’re in the water, more waves may be on their way. Relax, get back on your board when you can (chest down), and either wait until the set is over to paddle back out or head out right away, duck-diving beneath the surf en route.

how to surf bail
Austin Neill

A helmet might seem silly (and you may look like a tourist) but it isn’t a bad idea, especially if you’re trying out one of Hawaii’s coral-strewn beaches or working your way up to bigger waves. 

Take a Lesson

A lesson is always advised, especially for first-timers. In Hawaii, there are some great options, like Hawaiian Surf School and Maui Surf Lessons. With the latter, you can even canoe surf. Ask around during your stay as word-of-mouth recommendations can make all the difference. And in most cases, avoid hotel or resort-sponsored outings. They tend to be overpriced and less informative.

For those looking to keep the training wheels on, so to speak, try starting out on a longboard or a stand-up paddleboard. The latter, especially, can be a bit easier as you’re already upright and you gain the added stability of a paddle in hand. As aging surfers will testify, this is also a great option for those with bad backs or a body that doesn’t quite bounce like it once did. 

Hang ten!

Read more: Best Places to Surf

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
Skiing vs. snowboarding: A beginner’s guide to these amazing winter sports
Skiing, snowboarding, or both? There's no bad way to spend a thrilling winter day on the mountains
Man powder skiing, Alps, Zauchensee, Austria

To ski or snowboard? It’s a valid question for outdoor lovers itching to get into a new winter sport. In reality, there’s no wrong answer. They're similar, of course, but with marked differences. Both skiing and snowboarding deliver the unrivaled rush of carving a path down a mountain slope through a blanket of fresh snow. And, of course, both snow sports offer the chance to fully savor a perfect winter day. But, each one requires a unique set of skills. So there's no simple answer to the question, is skiing or snowboarding easier?

Most people tend to prefer one sport over the other. Maybe it's genetic, who knows? You might even be part of that rare breed who enjoys both equally. But, if you’re one of those outdoor lovers trying to decide if you should take up skiing or snowboarding, here’s a quick breakdown of the two sports.

Read more
A beginner’s guide to bikepacking: How and what to pack for your first overnight on two wheels
Learn to pack only what you need and nothing more. Travel light by leaving the "just in case" gear at home.
bikepacking bicycle gear

You’re probably familiar with backpacking, and you’re almost certainly familiar with biking. But have you ever tried bikepacking? As you might guess, it combines the best of hiking, biking, and backpacking into a unique outdoor type of adventure. That means it’s all the fun of a traditional overnight backpacking trip but with the added convenience and fun of having a bike in tow.

For packing purposes, the list of essential bikepacking gear is similar to what you’d bring on a typical extended backpacking trip. That means you’ll want a good camping tent and an outdoor sleeping system, plus a backpack, bikepacking bags, or both (depending on your packing preference), for starters. If you’re familiar with camping and hiking, you probably have a handle on the outdoor gear you need to bring.

Read more
How to pack a tent in a backpack: A pro guide for beginners in 6 easy steps
Tents take up more room in your pack than almost anything else. That's why knowing how to pack one is key
Big camping green backpack and yellow tent in the mountains.

When you’re out for an overnight hike in the wilderness, you need to be amply prepared for the experience. At a minimum, that means having a map for self-navigation, plus packing water, food, a good tent, your best hiking boots — you get the picture. You’ll also want to make sure you pack things properly so you don’t create an overly cumbersome pack, which can lead to a miserable slog along the way, or worse, injury and strain that can bring your planned outdoor adventures to a sudden end.

Learning how to properly pack a camping backpack is just as important as what you put in it. And learning how to pack a tent inside a backpack will allow you to focus on the things that really matter, like spotting wildlife along the way, not tripping over tree roots, and keeping your Instagram stories fresh with new videos from the backcountry. Here's the low-down on how to pack a tent in a backpack like a pro in six easy steps.

Read more