If you want to start surfing, you’re probably wondering if you can learn to surf on your own or if you should start with a surf instructor. The answer depends on quite a few factors, including your age and fitness level, your familiarity with the ocean, your board sports experience, and the type of beaches you have access to.
It’s completely possible to learn surfing on your own provided you are a persistent person, you have decent arm and leg strength and balance skills, you are willing to learn the surfing etiquette, and you have able to learn in a safe, beginner-friendly beach spot with small waves and low currents.
There are some key things you must know and do before getting out in the water with your surfboard, however. If you’re not taking lessons, you need to learn these things on your own in order to learn to surf.
By the way, if you’re learning to surf, you should also check out this post about the best sunglasses I’ve found to actually go surfing with – as opposed to hanging out on the beach!
UPDATE: check out my new 15-step guide for learning to surf – no-BS, based on my own experience!
Learn surfing on your own: know the risks
The first aspect to consider when teaching yourself surfing is how to stay safe. Before going out into the water, you have to know about the tides, rocks, any rips that exist at your beach, dangerous animals (sharks? Jellyfish? stingrays? sea urchins?) and so on.
The best way to learn about them is to ask other surfers (if any), fishermen, or even local swimmers who hang out at the spot.
Learn surfing on your own: pick a beginner-friendly beach
There are basically two things to take into account when picking the right spot for learning to surf on your own: the waves and the surfers. The waves should be very small, like 1 or 2 feet high, breaking into mellow whitewater. Even if you’re used to swimming in bigger wave, going out with a surfboard can be scarier as you can’t easily dive under the wave.
The other thing is surfers, sometimes an even bigger hurdle than rough waves. Surfers are often very protective of their waves, and can be hostile to beginners, particularly in crowded spots where the waves are good. Thus, when learning to surf on your own, make sure to choose a spot where the waves are not so good, so that surfers won’t care so much if you mess up and get in their way.
You can also choose a normal swimmer beach with no surfers – provided it’s not too crowded and you’re allowed to surf there – for your first trials. Having surfers around to observe and imitate is better for learning later on, but initially you can start practicing paddling and popping up on your own anywhere.
Teach yourself to surf: choose the right surfboard
This is an important aspect that can make or break the outcome of your self-learning efforts! In short, you need a big enough surfboard for your size. Too small a board will be harder to paddle and stand up on. Too big, on the other hand, will be cumbersome for paddling across whitewater and, down the road, waves. The best is to start with a “foamie” (soft-top board), one that’s a few inches taller than you.
Some people start surfing on a large windsurfing board or stand up paddle board. While these can be fun to paddle and pop up on, they’re typically way too wide for surfing, impossible to duck dive on (when you learn that eventually), and too easy to nosedive on and get hit by.
Learning to surf on your own: surfing rules and etiquette
One of the most critical skills you’ll need to have if learning to surf on your own is knowing how to avoid getting into other surfers’ way. There are basically 2 golden rules in surfing that must become second nature if you don’t want to get cursed at, banned, or even beaten up:
- Don’t drop in on someone, aka don’t take off on a wave that a surfer is already riding
- When paddling back out after getting out of a wave, don’t get in the way of the surfer riding down the next wave
- Hold on to your board even when a wave crashes on you, don’t let go with your board go and risk hitting someone
Sounds easy? It’s not always so clear cut who got into the wave first and hence gets right of way. You need to understand where the peak is and if the wave is a left or right hander, you must have a good eye – almost an instinct – to know if someone is already on the wave, even if the wave is breaking right next to you, and you must know how to instantly pull back if that’s the case without letting your board crash in the wave and onto someone’s head!
Fortunately, there’s a lot of information online about the surfing etiquette and right-of-way rules, so you can be prepared before paddling out.
Teaching yourself to surf: paddling your surfboard
While a surf instructor will give you useful pointers, you’ll pretty much on your own for learning to paddle on your board anyway. This involves finding the right position and body balance when lying prone on your board in the water, and using the right amount of reach, pull, and pace with your arms when paddling.
An easy way to practice before trying to paddle in the waves is to start on flat water such as in a lake or large pool – much easier to learn on still water than a wavy surface.
In addition to paddling to get the board moving across the waves toward the peak, and into the wave at take off, you need to become comfortable just sitting on the board when waiting for the wave. Sitting is also the fastest way to turn the board around and point it toward the beach. Again, this is something you can easily practice on your own.
Learning to surf on your own: popping up into standing position
If you’ve watched surf school students on the beach, you’ve likely seen them do push-up style popups over and over. You don’t need an instructor to practice that! Get a mat about the size of a surfboard, or simply draw a surfboard on the floor using chalk. Lay down on your “board”, and practice pushing yourself up off the floor and bringing your legs and feet forward under you into your surf stance – one foot forward and another in the back, feet about shoulder width apart.
Practice the popup until you successfully get into your stance in one shot, – without your knees touching the “board”, and without having to adjust your feet after popping up.
If you’re in reasonable shape, that should be the easy part. The harder part will be to do it on the water on a real shaky surfboard while the wave begins to break and tips you off the board! This is where a larger board, small waves/mellow whitewater, and strong determination will be needed the most.
Teaching yourself to surf: starting to ride green waves
Once you feel relatively comfortable paddling in small whitewater, turning your board around, paddling with the whitewater and getting up on your larger soft-top surfboard, you’re ready for the real thing, riding a green (unbroken) wave. Most people will need at least 20 whitewater sessions before they can consider trying riding a green wave.
This is by far the hardest part of learning to surf, and that’s typically where having an instructor or an experienced friend would be most helpful. However, you can still pull it off on your own and teach yourself to ride a green wave on your surfboard – I know because I’ve done it many years ago.
The main challenge is to get the timing right, that is, know when to stop paddling – as your board starts tumbling into the wave – and to start popping up. If you get up too early, the wave will leave you and your surfboard behind. Too late and the wave will have already broken into whitewater and you’ll be stuck in it, the green part of the wave peeling away from you.
There’s no magic formula for this part, this is the real challenge of surfing. You’ll just have to try, try, and try again until you succeed.
There are, however, a couple of things you can do that can help you if you’re learning to surf of your own.
Learning to surf on your own: key tips for riding a green wave
- Observe other surfers and how they place their body on the surfboard for paddling into the wave. Beginners often lie too high up (leading to nosediving) or too low down (loss of momentum) the surfboard. When paddling in, your center of gravity should be about at your surfboard’s center point, such that the nose does not stick up very much off the water, nor be immersed in it. Your surfboard should be roughly parallel to the water.
- You can start by bodyboarding (with or without your surfboard) the wave to really feel it, learning to follow it and stay in the green (vs going straight and into the whitewater). By remaining in a prone position after takeoff you’ll be able to focus on going sideways into the green part without yet worrying about popping up. Once you’re able to follow the wave and leverage its energy to move down the line, you can tackle the challenge of popping (and staying) up.
- learning to paddle for longer durations and to pop up on your surfboard at takeoff requires a lot of energy when you’re still learning. Specific preparation exercises can help train your muscles and get better quicker. These include simple things like push-ups and squats (for your surf popup) and row pulls (for your paddling)
So can you learn to surf of your own? You certainly can, provided you’re a relatively fit and highly determined, tenacious, and patient person. Surfing is HARD and takes LOTS of time to learn, but you’ll get hooked very fast – if you don’t, you probably won’t find the patience to teach yourself anyway.
An appropriate surfboard for your size, a beginner-friendly beach and wave conditions, a good attitude and understanding of surf rules, a strong sense of observation, and an ability to build up your balance, coordination, and muscles, are all key requisites for learning to surf of your own.
Featured image courtesy of Ocean Vagabond