Learn how to surf
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Ultimate how-to surf guide for beginners

If you've ever wanted to learn to surf, here is a complete list of everything you need to start learning. From equipment choices to technique and even the correct etiquette in the surf.

Table of Contents

  1. Make sure the board fits the surfer
  2. Why foam boards?
  3. But, if you’re more into maneuverability…
  4. Choose the best tail for your needs
  5. For stability
  6. For turning
  7. Do you need any additional equipment?
  8. Take some surfing lessons
  9. Basic surfing terminology that you should know
  10. Surfing etiquette and why you should follow it
  11. How to catch a wave
  12. Make sure you stay safe
  13. Protect your head
  14. Don’t resurface too quickly
  15. Learn how to turtle roll
  16. Conclusion

If you’ve wanted to learn how to surf for a while now, but aren’t exactly sure where and how to start, we might be able to help you out.

The following article contains valuable advice that every surfing newbie will find useful. We’ve covered the most vital information that first-time surfers should know before buying their first board and attempting to catch a wave. This includes everything from:

  • how to do a pop-up,
  • where to put your back foot on your board,
  • what you need to know about surf etiquette.

Simply put, we’ve covered most of the things you need to know if you want to learn how to surf, so let’s get started.

Make sure the board fits the surfer

As a newcomer to surfing, finding out just how many different types of boards there are is liable to make your head spin. Add to that the different tail shapes and surfboard brands, and it’s understandable if you don’t know where to start when it comes to buying your first board.

In actuality, all you need to know is that when it comes to learning how to surf, foam is every beginner’s best friend.

Why foam boards?

Foam surfboards are as large as your standard longboard and provide a variety of useful perks for anyone who’s new to surfing. The large, flat shape of the board allows for more volume and a better balance when you’re out on the water and paddling to try and catch a wave. The softer material is also a lot more forgiving if you fall on your board when you lose your balance (which is going to happen a lot in the beginning).

However, the biggest point against foam surfboards is that they don’t allow nearly as much maneuverability while surfing as other boards. In fact, they are even more difficult to maneuver than longboards, which are notoriously slow and cumbersome when compared to some of the more compact types of boards.

But, if you’re more into maneuverability…

This honestly isn’t a point against the foam boards since any new surfing enthusiast is going to need more stability than maneuverability. However, if you feel that you’re above the foam board and would like to skip straight to a funboard, or even a shortboard, then there are plenty of board rental places that you can visit and test your current surfing skills.

We would argue against buying a surfboard right from the start since a rental will cost you somewhere between $10 – $60 a day, while pretty much every board will cost you upwards of $1000 (except for the foam ones, which are priced at around $300).

Try out the boards that you have an eye on, and check for yourself if you’re even able to sit on the board in order to paddle it, let alone stand on it. If you do indeed decide to go for a different type of board, then that’s entirely your choice. However, there’s no shame in setting your shortboard to the side for now and learning the basics of how to surf on the foam, if you do indeed find that it’s the easier option for beginners.

Chose the best tail for your needs

The tail is more than just the back part of the surfboard where the fins are placed. The way that you apply pressure to the back of your board will allow you to change your direction and maintain your speed. However, certain waves require more control, while others require more maneuverability. This is where the shape of the tail comes into play.

For stability

If you’re trying to take on bigger waves, then you’re going to need more hold and control. This is where the pin and the swallow tails come into play. The points at the back of the board allow it to sink deeper into the water and provide the surfer with more control and the ability to perform sharp turns. Of course, these tails have their own drawbacks, but that’s a subject for another article.

For turning

The important thing that you need to know is that most beginners are better off going for a surfboard with a rounded tail. This particular tail shape is mostly used on wider boards and can provide a bit more lift on the surf, which makes it perfect for surf spots with smaller waves and less experienced surfers.

It’s also the best choice for learning how to maneuver the board, since the rounded tail makes the turns much smoother, making it less likely that you get thrown off of your board if you try to change directions.

Do you need any additional equipment?

Wetsuits are usually what comes to mind when anyone thinks of surfing equipment, but in all honesty, they’re not all that necessary. Wetsuits are primarily worn in colder climates but are also used in order to help avoid sunburn and surf rash from surfing in the sun all day.

While they are incredibly useful on colder days, a simple rash guard can provide the same protection against the other two problems that surfers face, and at a fraction of the price as well. Wetsuits can set you back between $50 – $100, while most rashguards from the same brand will only cost around $10 – $20 on average.

You might also consider investing in an ankle strap for your board as well. This will not only help you hold on to it when you inevitably fall off, but it will also stop the board from flying off and hitting some poor unsuspecting surfer somewhere down the line.

Take some surfing lessons

If you want to learn to surf, then there’s no easier way than actually getting a few pointers from a professional surfing instructor. This will ensure that you start off on the right foot by helping you develop some necessary skills even before you touch the water. Not to mention that these lessons are a good way to brush up on some surf etiquette, in addition to helping you learn to surf.

One of the things that you’ll need to know when learning how to surf is the proper way to paddle out. While it sounds simple, it’s actually quite a bit more difficult than people first assume.

  1. Firstly, you’ll need to make sure that your legs are together and that they’re not in the water behind the board since this will create drag.
  2. Next, you’re going to need to learn to keep your chest raised and not pressed to the board while you’re paddling. This will allow you to get a full range of motion with your arms when paddling and you’ll be able to perform the next step more easily.
  3. The next bit is putting your arms next to your chest on the surface of the board and pushing off. Place either your left or right foot in between your arms and in one fluid motion take your hands off of the board and try to stand up by placing your back foot near the fin of the surfboard.

At the start these surfing lessons will most likely take place on the beach or at least on firm land, meaning that you’ll be able to get into a standing position very easily while the board is grounded. However, once you actually try to do all of these actions on the surface of the water, you’ll find that you won’t even be able to handle the gentle swaying of the water, let alone rip currents. After a bit of practice, however, you should be able to do the pop-up in one fluid motion even on water.

Basic surfing terminology that you should know

We’re not going to be covering any surfing slang in this section, so if you were hoping for a full etymological exploration of the phrase “wipe out”, then we’re sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not what this part of the article is going to be focusing on. Neither are we going to be covering basic phrases such as “paddling out”, since it’s pretty obvious what they mean.

Instead, we’re going to talk about waves.

Here are a few terms that you might come across when you’ve just started learning how to surf:

Peak – This is the highest point of the wave and the part that breaks first. Locating the peak of an incoming wave is the key to finding out which way the wave will break when surfing.

Lip – The topmost part of the wave that crashes downwards as the wave is breaking. Experienced surfers use the power of this section of the wave in order to pull off some more advanced tricks.

Shoulder or face – This is the part of the wave that hasn’t broken yet. Surfers ride the wave from the breaking point towards the shoulder as the wave breaks behind them.

Barrel or tube – The inside of the breaking wave, also known as the cylinder that the wave makes as it’s crashing down. Riding into the barrel as the wave is breaking is the dream of every surfer.

Curl or pocket – The steep concave part of the wave between the breaking point and the shoulder. This is where 90% of surfing happens.

Impact zone – The point where the waves break down onto flat water and create foam or white water

Surfing etiquette and why you should follow it

As with any other sport, surfing has its own set of rules that everyone is expected to abide by. While there is no surfing referee that will enforce these rules, breaking surf etiquette is a good way to get on the bad side of every surfer in your immediate vicinity. But what is surf etiquette in the first place?

Surf etiquette is exactly what it sounds like – a few simple instructions that should be taught to every beginner as part of the basic learning process so that they know what rules they should follow while at the surf spots.

  • As you paddle out to the lineup of surfers that are waiting to catch the next wave at the surf spot, be mindful of which way the incoming waves are breaking, and paddle the other way towards the opposite shoulder.

This will ensure that you stay out of the way of any surfers that are trying to ride the waves and will help you avoid getting into an accident.

  • Sit somewhere close to the surf spot and besides the line up for a while and simply observe what the other surfers are doing.

This will give you a feel for the level of expertise that your fellow surfers have, as well as allow you to find your bearings as to where the waves are breaking, how tall they are, and the timing that you’ll need in order to catch one.

  • When you feel confident enough to enter the lineup, make sure that you don’t crowd the other surfers.

Respect the lineup and make sure that you’re not cutting anyone off when you start paddling towards a wave, as that can lead to either an accident or at the very least some insults being thrown your way.

How to catch a wave

  1. As soon as you’re at the front of the lineup in the surf spot and see a wave that you want to catch, you’re going to need to start paddling towards the beach, while also keeping an eye on the direction that the waves are breaking behind you.

Try to match the speed of the wave as close as possible, until it picks up your surfboard and starts carrying it.

  1. Make sure that the nose of your surfboard is above the water as the waves start carrying you and your surfboard gets angled downwards.

If the nose isn’t above water, then simply move back a bit on your surfboard before attempting to do a pop-up and actually start surfing. Raise the nose too high and the wave will simply pass you by, allow it to dip too low and you’ll most likely get flipped by the wave and end up in the impact zone. When you’re just learning how to surf It’ll take some practice to get the balance just right, but you’ll get there through a bit of trial and error.

  1. The pop-up maneuver is exactly how we explained it earlier.

If you manage to stand up on your board and keep your balance, try not to turn too sharply towards the shoulder, or let your board get swept up by the wave curl and aimed towards the flat water. Both of these scenarios will result in a wipeout, the only difference being whether you fall to the side or to the front of your board.

  1. Everything from the timing of the pop-up to the speed at which you need to paddle and the angle of the nose of the surfboard needs to be just right for you to be able to ride the waves.

This isn’t as impossible as it seems, and in time it’ll get very easy to do. However, you’re going to fall off of your surfboard quite a few times before you actually learn to surf.

Make sure you stay safe

Wiping out is a very common occurrence when you’re learning how to surf, and it’s more than likely that you’re going to spend a lot more time in the water after you fall off, than you’re going to spend on your board surfing. This is not to say that a wipeout while surfing is something to be taken lightly, because it can actually lead to you getting hurt pretty badly in certain situations.

Protect your head

If you fall off of your board while you’re surfing close to the beach, make sure that you put your arms over your head and tuck your head close to your chest as you’re falling, and try to hit the water surface on your back. This is meant to minimize the chance of you hitting your head against the sand or rocks in shallow waters.

Don’t resurface too quickly

You’re going to want to stay underwater for a few seconds before coming out of the water. The reason for this is because as you fall off your board, that same board can sometimes fly upwards and hit you on your head if you resurface too quickly. So just in case, give the board an extra second or two to come back down and hit the water before sticking your head back up.

Learn how to turtle roll

The turtle roll is when you head straight towards a wave, grab your board by the rails, and flip yourself over so that you’re underwater, and the bottom of your board is above the water, and then simply turtle roll again after the wave has passed. This will help you avoid the impact zone of certain waves and will help you avoid having your board flipped by the wave.


Pretty much anyone can learn how to surf. All you really need is the willingness to learn, the patience to keep trying until you develop the skills that you need, and a lot of SPF 50.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching