surfers gathered around a surfable river
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The OMBE Guide to River Surfing: Is There a Surfable River on Earth?

River surfing provides a nice thrill for those who have no access to the ocean. Learn all there’s to know about it with our guide.

You surfed all the nautical nooks and crannies of Australia, you know the waters of Indonesia like the palm of your hand, surf camps in Nicaragua are now bored of your sight, and they gave your name to a certain beach on the North Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

So, what’s next for you? Unfortunately, space travel doesn’t provide us with the opportunity to surf the waves of distant planets as of yet, either. For the moment, we are stuck with Earth, and the next best thing to making a name as the first interstellar surfer ever is to be able to claim that you’ve surfed in some godforsaken corner of Idaho, Wyoming, or Colorado. At least, that’s what some surfers thought and came up with the concept of a surfable river.

So, the answer to our initial question is pretty clear: yes, there is a surfable river, and yes, there are many river surfers, too. Now, let’s see how this idea was conceived, how it’s performed, where the best surfable rivers are, and what you need to have in mind should you ever engage in river surfing.

A Brief History of River Surfing

river surfing in germany

There are many locations on Earth that don't have any access to the ocean but do entertain their fair share of rivers, some of which are quite huge as well. River surfing might have found its beginnings in any of these locations at any point in history. Similar to the history of stand-up surfing, we really don’t know who first came up with the idea, where, and why.

However, one of the first rivers we know to have been surfed is located in Germany. The Eisbach river at the Englischer Garten in Munich has what river surfers call a “standing wave” or “stationary wave,” which enables one to ride it. 

In the 1970s, a group of surf travelers, who probably couldn’t find much to their liking on the few shores of Germany, decided to try their luck on this particular standing wave. And you know what? It was a success.

Nowadays, this particular surf spot even holds an annual river surfing competition, and Munich is a deserved candidate for the title of the most famous river surfing spot on Earth.

In addition, there were also some rivers in countries like Austria, Canada, and the United States, which surfers deemed to be surfable. The Snake River of Colorado is another one of those rivers, and the surfing history on its wave (quizzically named as Lunch Counter) is said to date back to the 1970s as well.

So, it’s fairly a new branch of sports and subgenre of surfing, yet it has only gained some recognition as of late. We cannot predict whether its popularity will keep on increasing, but it surely is a nice little break from the ocean, and all of us can benefit from such breaks every once in a while.

How Do River Waves Occur?

person surfing on a river

There are two main types of river waves: standing waves and tidal bores. Although there are also other types, like upstream river waves, which are the result of the tidal movement of the ocean at the river’s estuary, and synthetic waves, which are man-made, the best river surfing waves in the world are either standing waves or tidal bores. So, that’s going to be our focus as well.

Standing Waves

You probably know how ocean waves occur: either due to wind, earthquakes, or tides. One way or another, the vast waters on the surface of the ocean start moving, and if the force behind them is strong enough, these waters will move along long distances, getting bigger and bigger. However, one thing to note here before moving on to describing river waves is that the water of the ocean is quite stationary in the first place.

A river, on the other hand, is in a state of constant flow. In other words, it’s already like a wave, but the pace of its flow is quite bigger and less consistent than that of an ocean wave. So, how can a wave occur in a body of already-moving water? Well, with the help of an obstacle that disrupts the flow of the river, right?

That’s at least how a standing river wave occurs: the fast-moving water encounters an obstacle mostly in the shape of a big rock, which causes some part of it to abruptly rise, fall behind the main stream, and create a wave. For this phenomenon to occur without slowing down or a change in direction, the water should be shallow, and it should move at a supercritical flow speed.

Some of the most famous surfable rivers operate on this principle, and some synthetic river waves are created with this principle in mind.

Tidal Bores

Tidal bores might not be as common as standing waves, but they’re even more of a fascinating phenomenon, regardless of whether you’re a river surfer or not. It occurs in rivers that have a wide tidal range and only on flood tides.

When the incoming tide reaches a narrow section of the river, the tidal range is amplified, and the duration of the tide is decreased. Therefore, although tidal bores are rarer than standing waves, they provide river surfers with a lengthened surf time. One of the most famous tidal bores on the planet, the UK’s Severn Bore can allow surfing for 35 minutes until the wave loses its power, which is an incredible number for a river.

Where You Can Find the Best River Waves

We cannot possibly give you a list of the best waves for ocean surfing without reaching encyclopedic lengths, but luckily, that’s not the case for river surfing. There’s already a handful of surfable rivers, so giving you a list of the best will be quite an easy task.

The Eisbach River, Munich, Germany

surfer on a standing wave on eisbach river

We already told you that the Eisbach River is one of the first rivers to have ever been surfed, but what we didn’t tell you is that the Eisbach is actually an artificial river. Okay, that might not be a problem or an interesting piece of information by itself. After all, we’re building all these skyscrapers, fuel-drinking jets, and football stadiums in Qatar, so why not do some good and build a river, too, right?

But the interesting bit is that it’s an artificial river that runs just over a mile through the large public park called the Englischer Garten in Munich, and it’s still able to provide us with a surfable wave. Not only that—only experienced surfers are recommended to surf on it due to its shallow depth and fast-moving character.

Nowadays, entry to the park is free, and everybody can enter and surf. However, that wasn’t always the case. Surfing in the Eisbach was illegal between the 1970s and the 2010s. Thankfully, the German government legalized surfing on the river in 2010.

Severn Bore, Bristol, The United Kingdom

the river severn, largest river of the united kingdom

The River Severn is one of the longest and largest rivers in the UK. It’s also an interesting one that starts in North Wales, goes inland to cities like Shrewsbury and Gloucestershire, and spills into the Celtic Sea from the shores of Bristol, which is slightly south of Wales. There surely are shorter ways to travel between its starting and ending point than its current route, but who are we to judge rivers?

We aren’t really interested in its journey either, as long as it provides us with waves, and as we mentioned in the segment on tidal bores, it’s quite generous in that respect. You can surf the Severn all the way from Gloucestershire to Bristol Channel when the tidal bore is large.

However, we should warn you that the tidal bore sometimes gets so large that it may create waves that reach eight feet! Due to the sheer force of these bores, the river also carries many foreign elements, like large chunks of trees, decrepit fridges, and even some dead pirates. As all these can turn out to be quite dangerous, it’s better to proceed with considerable caution.

Pororoca Bore, Amazon River, Brazil

The tidal bore of Pororoca might even get wilder than that of the River Severn, and it makes sense as well. While the Severn welcomes tides from the Celtic Sea, the Pororoca Bore hosts the tides of the Atlantic Ocean. The waves can reach up to 15 feet and allow rides that might last longer than 30 minutes, especially during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

Yet, only skilled river surfers should challenge themselves on the tidal bore of the second-longest river on Earth. Moreover, they should be accompanied by medical teams on water scooters and boats, as the wildlife of the Amazon is no joke. There are piranhas and poisonous snakes waiting for you to fail, and similar to the Severn Bore, the quantity of the debris the river carries might pose many threats to your wellbeing.

Boise River, Boise Whitewater Park, Idaho, United States

boise river, idaho

The Boise River Park in Idaho deserves a special nod simply because it was literally designed for those who wanted to be able to surf in Idaho. To that end, they placed a wave-shaper in the water that creates surfable waves for river surf enthusiasts. Furthermore, this wave-shaper allows you to adjust the speed and height of the waves.

Lately, Boise’s Parks and Recreation department even thought that some additional wave-shapers, all with different settings, would be better to accommodate river surfers from all skill levels. Although knowing that you’re on an artificial wave might reduce the thrill of your ride, it’s still nice to be able to surf in such unexpected corners of the world.

Waimea River, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

a stormy day in waimea, north shore, oahu, hawaii

The North Shore is already notorious enough for ocean surfing, whether it’s the tube rides on the Banzai Pipeline or the magnificent thrills of big wave surfing. After all, it’s the place where surfing in its modern sense was conceived, developed, and flourished. So, it’s no surprise that the Waimea Bay also provides opportunities for river surfers, albeit only for the most experienced of them.

Local surfers created the surfable wave of the Waimea by digging trenches so the floods caused by heavy rainfalls could turn into surf—and it worked! On the best days, when the river explodes with floods, the waves can reach up to 30 feet. Hawaii certainly doesn’t suffer from any shortage of waves of all kinds, but if you want to try something different, it’s surely a good option.

Honorable Mentions

the river deschutes, bend, oregon

There are also other river waves that certainly deserve mention, although they’re not as unique or crazy as the ones we mentioned above. Now, let’s give you some brief info on them.

  • Bend Whitewater Park, Oregon, United States

It’s another artificial wave, built on the Deschutes River and inspired by the Boise. Although surfing in Oregon isn’t as cool as surfing in Idaho, it’s still a nice one to have.

  • Qiantang River, China

This particular tidal bore is strictly for pros as it can reach up to 30 feet during autumnal full moons, and the wave travels at a staggering pace most of the time.

  • Kananaskis River, Alberta, Canada

The Mountain Wave is the most famous wave of the Kananaskis, but there are also some beginner-friendly options along the stream.

  • Kampar River, Indonesia

The tidal bore known as Bono on the Kampar always creates a surfable wave on a full moon, and the surf might continue for even 10 miles on a good day.

A Few Words Before You Go…

Whether you somehow find yourself far away from the ocean yet crave surfing, or you’re simply looking for a new taste, thrill, or adventure, river surfing presents a good option for all kinds of wave enthusiasts. However, if you’re not planning a trip to a river with artificial waves, the timing might be a problem. So, catching good river surf is mostly down to good trip planning and a bit down to your luck.

Also, we need to warn you that it might get a bit more dangerous than ocean surfing due to foot entrapments caused by debris, the unpredictable nature of the depth of the river, and the difficulty of swimming in such fast-moving bodies of water. Therefore, we urge you to be careful as safety must come first!

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching