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Last updated: 17 August 2020

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Learn to Surf: Top FAQs for Beginner Surfers


Surfing is about connecting with the ocean and embracing the elements in all their forms. Surfing requires adaptability and resilience, and in return provides a euphoric feeling of freedom and independence. Although the world has changed a great deal recently, with Covid-19 and travel limitations. The best thing about surfing is that we are naturally social distancing in the water and as long as we surf responsibly, we can still enjoy this great sport.


Why should I take up surfing?


Surfing is possibly one of the most liberating, exhilarating sports, requiring strength, patience, stamina and keen observation of nature. Not only is it a great way to stay physically fit, it’s also recognised as an effective way to reduce stress and improve mental health. In fact, an increasing number of organizations such as The International Surf Therapy Organisation, The Wave Project, and Surf Girls Jamaica, use surf therapy to help individuals overcome mental health disorders such as PTSD, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.

Most of all, surfing strengthens our connection with nature, boosts our self-confidence, and helps us focus on what’s really important. When there‘s nothing surrounding you but sky and an alive moving and breathing ocean, the mind is forced to slow down and focus on the present moment. 

Is surfing easy?

Experienced surfers make gliding through the waves look effortless, but the truth is it requires lots of strength and skill. However with dedicated practice, patience and commitment – anyone can learn to surf. The best part is that everyday is new and different in the ever-changing conditions of the ocean.

Is surfing an expensive sport?


Like most sports, the initial cost of gear can be expensive, but you don’t need to spend a fortune. And once you’ve got the gear – you’re pretty much all set. Acquiring a board will be your biggest cost, with beginner boards ranging anywhere between $380 – $1,000 or more. However, if you’re on a tighter budget you can often pick up a great second-hand board for less. 

And if you’re planning on surfing in cold water, you’ll definitely want a good wetsuit. Whilst designer brands can be pricey, there are plenty of quality makes out there that will give you the warmth and comfort you need – without breaking the bank. 

But remember, before you buy any gear it’s important to take your time and do your research properly. And don’t be tempted to buy the most expensive gear straight-away. You may decide surfing isn’t for you after all, and the money you’ve spent will be wasted.

Learning the Basics of Surfing


Just like any new skill, learning to surf requires practice and patience. Taking lessons is the best way to master the basics, as your instructor will be there to provide useful tips and correct your mistakes. Most importantly, it will teach you how to surf safely. The majority of surf schools offer both private and group lessons, so it’s worth exploring the options available in your local area if you haven’t already done so.

What size waves are best for beginners?

As a beginner, you should start by practicing on small white water waves (1-2 feet high) and only move on to catching the bigger waves when you feel ready. Not only is this important for your safety, it will also help you to avoid hostility from other surfers if you get in their way. 

What are the best places for beginners?

Some surf spots are more suited to beginners than others, so make sure you choose your beach carefully. Look for smaller waves that roll gently, preferably over a sandy bottom. Depending on where you are in the world – or where you’re willing to travel, you may want to try some of these beginner friendly destinations listed below.

  • Kuta, Bali
  • Weligama, Sri Lanka
  • Biarritz, France
  • Cornwall, UK
  • Sayulita, Mexico
  • San Clemente, California, USA
  • Arrifana, Algarve, Portugal
  • Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia
  • Te Awanga, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Choosing Your Surfboard


When choosing your board, it’s important you select the right board for your surfing level. Learning to surf on the wrong board can be hugely frustrating and will often slow your progress.


A quick glance

The deck is made up of a large area but the “sweet spot” is the middle part of it where the centre of gravity should remain the majority of time.


Nose – The nose refers to the very tip of the board. A pointy nose is less likely to nose dive, but a rounder point provides greater stability and is easier for catching waves, therefore ideal for beginners.

Tail –  The tail is the rear-end of the board. Rounder and wider tails enable more stable turns, whilst narrower tails such as squash and pin-tail (typically found on short boards) offer more speed and agility.

Leash – The line that connects you to the board. Wraps snug on the back ankle. Avoid pulling the leash to move your board. Swim to your board. Body bruises and lost fingers can be the repercussions. In a positive yet scary light, the leash can act as a tourniquet.

Rails –  The rails are the side edges of a board. Curved rails help create smoother, faster turns, but straighter rails are better for beginners, as they help you to hold your line in the water. 

Rocker – The curve of the underside of the board is called the rocker. A small rocker means more contact with the water, and therefore more stability. Meanwhile a large rocker (imagine a banana), is less stable, but generates more movement and speed for tighter turns.

Which surfboard is best for beginners?

Surfboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but if you’re a beginner a foam longboard is your best choice. Thick, wide and flat, they provide great stability and buoyancy. This makes it the easiest board for catching waves, popping up and maintaining balance.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to buy a shortboard for your first board. They may look cool, but shortboards are designed for speed and maneuverability and therefore not suitable for beginners. If you think you want to progress to a shortboard eventually, you could find a smaller, 7’ or bigger “Egg shape” board to explore learning on.

What is a good size board for beginners?

Choosing the right sized board for your height is equally important. As a general rule, a long board should be about 3 feet taller than you. So if you’re 5’10”, you’ll probably find a 8’6” to 9’0” longboard works best.

How many surfing lessons do I need?

For most people, between 5-20 hours is usually enough to get up and on your feet, however it’s important to remember that everyone learns at different rates. Factors such as fitness and commitment can also affect your progress, so if it takes a little longer – don’t worry.

The first step you’ll need to master is lying and balancing on your board. This usually takes between half-an-hour to 3 hours, depending on the individual. 

Next, you’ll need to learn how to paddle out and catch a wave. Typically, this takes 1-2 hours, depending on fitness. 

Popping Up


Once you’ve mastered that, you’ll need to perfect your pop-up. This is where your patience and perseverance will really be tested. A good way to master this is by practicing on the shore first. Lie down on your board and get familiar with the ‘pop-up’ action – you want to be able to land on your feet as smoothly and quickly as possible, without scrambling around on your knees.

Begin by centering your weight in the sweet spot of the board (keeping your feet and legs together), and paddling deep (water up to elbows) with long outstretched arms. Once you catch the wave, take two insurance strokes while keeping your shoulders and head up off the board, and then place your hands flat on the deck down by your chest.

Push fully up allowing your front hip to move forward, dip, twist while moving your front leg up until the foot can lay flat in between your hands. Slide the back foot up to flat and THEN you can let go with your hands and slowly rise up onto a crouched position. You want your front hip and shoulder facing off the front of the board, toes pointed toward the rail, and eyes forward looking to where you want to go. Keep your legs bent, think taking all the bumps up into the knees and legs. 

It may take a while to get to grips with it, but no matter how many wipeouts and nosedives you endure, you’ll get on your feet eventually. Every surfer has “pearled”(nosedive-diving for pearls) it’s part of the learning process. And when you do get the pop up down, it will feel awesome.

“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.” – Phil Edwards

Understanding Waves


Beach Breaks 

Where waves break over sand, this is called a beach break. Often the sandbars shift with the currents, so the shape and quality of the waves can change regularly. However, these are generally great places for beginners.


Point Break

Point breaks usually form around headlands and offer waves that either peel left or right instead of breaking towards the shore. If the waves are gentle, point breaks can be suitable for beginners, but be aware of any potential rocks and rip currents caused by the headland.


Reef Break

A reef brake is where waves break over rock, making them one of the most treacherous spots for surfing and therefore not good places for beginners. However, with their great barrelling waves, reef breaks are certainly popular spots for more competent surfers.


Left hander or right hander?

You’ll often hear surfers talk about left-handers and right-handers. This refers to the direction of the wave, and is always determined from the surfers perspective looking toward the beach. If a wave breaks to the right, it’s a right hand wave and if it breaks to the left, it’s a left-hand wave. 

Different Surf Maneuvers


So you’ve mastered the basics, but what’s next? Well, now it’s time to turn some heads with a few classic maneuvers.


Bottom Turn

This enables you to turn the board into the face of  the wave after dropping in. It requires you to transfer your weight to the inner rail, by shifting weight through your back foot. The idea is you use the momentum from take-off to generate enough speed to continue riding down the line. 


The cutback adds a new layer of excitement, as it allows you to change direction and return to the steepest part of the wave. If you’re riding small, weak waves your cutbacks will need to be quick and tight in order to maintain speed, whilst larger, more powerful waves require wider, smoother turns.

Top Turn

The top turn is when you ride up to the top of the wave face and turn back down. Start by making a wide bottom turn, and position your board so you’re facing the wave. Transfer most of your weight to your back foot and aim for the steepest part of the unbroken lip. Once you reach ¾ of the waves height, begin to look down. Turn your upper body back to the beach, use your back hand as a guide – pinky up will help you turn, and allow your hips and legs to follow. Ensure you bend your knees and hips during the drop to maintain balance and bring your weight forwards to keep momentum as you continue down the wave.

Turn Up the Speed

When practicing maneuvers, speed is essential. To pick up pace, throw both your arms up to shoulder level and in the direction you want to go as you make your initial lift-off; And for guaranteed speed, try making small turns using your rails and body strength to generate speed up and down the mid-face of the wave. To maintain your speed, avoid dropping too far to the bottom of the wave or going too far up the face.

Can you teach yourself to surf?


Learning to surf by yourself is possible, but we advise you to book a few lessons first – or get an experienced friend to teach you. This will ensure you learn safely, and help you to progress faster. 

However, if you are planning on going solo, just be sure you understand the risks and follow the correct safety advice. For example, you’ll need to know about the tides, rocks and rip currents, or any dangerous animals that may be present, such as sharks, jellyfish, stingrays etc.

How can I get better at surfing faster? 


Just like any new skill, the more you practice surfing the quicker you’ll improve, so try to hit the water as often as you can. Observe the ocean and get familiar with the tides, currents, and winds in your local region, online predictions and watching the ocean for at least 20 minutes before paddling out. Regular lessons will help improve your technique, but those who own a board and practice several times a week generally progress quicker than the people who only surf during weekend lessons.

Surf Fitness


When you’re not in the water, there’s also plenty of exercises you can do to improve your surf fitness. Staying balanced on your board requires strong legs and a solid core, whilst upper body strength is crucial for paddling.

So, try to focus your workouts on these areas. If you need some inspiration, our Fitness and Wellness Guide has some great ideas for improving surf fitness –  including yoga flows, HIIT workouts, pilates and more. 

Also spend time watching a variety of surfing videos to understand how surfers move their body for speed, directions, maneuvers, and observe how they read the waves.


Surfing Etiquette


When you’re in the water, it’s important to respect others around you by following the correct surf etiquette. Failure to do so will not only annoy other surfers, but can also put you and them at risk.

What are the ‘rules’ of surfing?



Right of way 

If you and a fellow surfer are paddling for a wave, the person closest to the peak has priority. So, if you’re paddling towards a right-hand wave and there is another surfer to your left, they have the right of way. Always look behind you right before you want to take off on a wave.


Don’t Drop-In

In most cases, two surfers can’t ride the same wave in the same direction. So don’t disrespect the right-of-way rule and drop in front of someone. This can easily result in an accident, and will likely spark a reaction from your fellow surfer.


Don’t Snake

Paddling around someone to get closer to the peak of the wave is known as snaking, and it won’t earn you any respect among other surfers. Just be patient and wait your turn, there’ll be plenty more waves to catch.


Respect other surfers

If you respect other surfers in the water, they’ll respect you. Try to avoid getting in the way by paddling wide, not through the peak. And if you end up in someone’s line by mistake, just smile and apologise. Most surfers are very friendly, and won’t hold it against you if it was a genuine mistake. If you see a surfer coming toward you and down the line (wave face), paddle behind them and into the white wash of the wave. By taking the wave on the head, you are showing respect to the current surfer and keeping you both safe. Same goes for while you are surfing. 

Do not ride a wave and look at another surfer sitting, look past the person and to where you want to go. This will help you navigate past the surfer and not be afraid of hitting someone.  

Also, if you are going to paddle out at a beach break, avoid paddling directly to the peak where other surfers are already sitting. Finding a peak to yourself a bit apart from other surfers will give you space to practice comfortably and earn you the respect of other more experienced surfers for not crowding their peak.


Respect the beach and the ocean

We know that Plastic pollution is a huge problem that’s affecting marine life on a global scale. By way of showing gratitude and giving back to the ocean, why not spend a few minutes picking up plastic after your surf? At SLO active we call it the #PostSurfBeachClean challenge, and we encourage all surfers to make this part of their post-surf ritual. Simply spend 5 minutes collecting small pieces of microplastics (like you would beachcombing for seashells), take a photo and share it to help spread the word.

Share more waves and enjoy the moment. We’re all spinning way too fast. – Lisa Anderson

Surf Safety

Is surfing dangerous?

Surfing isn’t a sport without its risks. The ocean is unpredictable and conditions can change quickly. Strong tides and dangerous rip currents aren’t always obvious, yet they can be extremely dangerous, even for the most competent swimmers. Surf accidents can also cause serious, or even fatal injuries. But provided you’re careful and take simple precautions, there’s no reason why surfing can’t be enjoyed safely.


Avoiding Danger

To minimise your risk, you should always check the conditions before you enter the water and don’t go out into waves above your skill level. If you’re not a strong swimmer or strong paddler, stick to shallower waters until you feel more comfortable. Even if it looks calm further out, you can quickly find yourself in trouble if conditions change suddenly.

When you know you are falling down, try and fall shallow, cover your head with your arms, elbows touching and covering your face with your arms and hands over your head. Come to the surface with one hand reaching for the ocean surface and board. Once breaking the surface, open your eyes while keeping your mouth closed to survey the scene. 

To get an idea of the waves, wind and swell, you should check the surf forecast and swell reports where you are. You can do this online, or alternatively there are a number of handy apps available – the Windy app, Magic Seaweed and Surfline are few good places to start. Or talk to local lifeguards or surfers before entering the water.

Is it ok to surf alone?

Surfing with a friend or in a group is much safer, as they can help you if you get into trouble. And if you’re a beginner, we definitely recommend taking someone with you. Not only will it keep you safe, but it will also help to improve your surfing, as they can offer tips and correct your mistakes.

Can you surf at night?

Surfing at night is possible, but if you’re a beginner we recommend waiting until you’ve gained some more experience. However, if you’re considering a night surf in the future, always choose a well-lit area, and never go alone. You should also choose a spot you’re familiar with, so you can steer clear of any hazards such as rocks, reefs, or jetties.

Shark prone areas should also be avoided. Although it’s unlikely you’ll be attacked, sharks and other marine life feed at night and may mistake you for food! And it’s also best to avoid wearing shiny jewellery or bright contrasting colours – just in case.

Enjoy Yourself

Learning to surf isn’t easy. At times you’ll feel you’re making real progress, and other times you’ll feel you’re going backwards. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get on your feet, or the size of the wave. The real stoke comes from feeling the spray on your face and the salt on your skin. It’s about feeling alive and in the moment. So, if you’ve had a bad day and you’re feeling frustrated, slow down. Breathe in the ocean, exhale, and remind yourself why you’re there.

Plan Your Next Adventure

Learning to surf isn’t easy. At times you’ll feel you’re making real progress, and other times you’ll feel you’re going backwards. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get on your feet, or the size of the wave. The real stoke comes from feeling the spray on your face and the salt on your skin. It’s about feeling alive and in the moment. So, if you’ve had a bad day and you’re feeling frustrated, slow down. Breathe in the ocean, exhale, and remind yourself why you’re there.

Here are our top 10 beginner-friendly surf retreats:


Ocean Soul Retreat, Bali

The Modern Honolulu, Hawaii

Soul & Surf, Kerala, India

Talalla Retreat, Sri Lanka

Tropicsurf, Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, Maldives

Bannisters by The Sea, Australia

Papaya Wellness Retreat, Nicaragua

Chill In Ericeira Surf House, Portugal

Paradis Plage, Morocco

Pura Vida Adventures, Costa Rica


This guide was co-written with the team at Changing Tides Foundation and SLO active.

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