From never standing on a board to recreational surfer takes time. Going out a few days at a time makes progression slow. Instead of learning a few days at a time across many trips to the beach, you should dedicate a month or more living in a surf town. In this post we’ll explore what it takes to go on a surfing expedition and return a skilled surfer.
Choosing your destination
Part of your success will be in choosing the correct destination for your trip.
Some key features in a destination for this trip will be:
- Low cost of living
- Consistent waves offering various levels of breaks
- A supportive community of surfers
- Ease of surfboard rentals
More than a few surf towns around the world that offer all this and more. Here are some of my recommendations.
My ultimate choice and where I chose above all other options to learn surfing. The island of Bali is loaded with great surf options. Cost of living is low and the surf community is stronger here than nearly anywhere around the world. Board rentals are as little as a three dollars. A three day lesson package going for a couple hundred dollars at most. You can often find lessons for a lot less. There’s always a local on Airbnb offering cheap lessons. If I was going to learn all over again, Bali would be my first choice.
Morocco’s surf scene is not nearly as well known as other top surf destinations, but with fantastic breaks, Morocco is a secret surfing paradise. Being lesser known means less crowds, a great benefit to learning. Cost of living is very manageable. The only big downside to Morocco is the water is chilly during surf season. This means wetsuits. Not a deal breaker, but something to factor in.
Panama isn’t highly known for surfing, but the lifestyle in Panama is the big selling factor. Because the surf is not well known, it means you’ll have the surf largely to yourself. This also means the surf community here is more tight nit. If you’re looking to get in close with a community of passionate surfers, this might be the place for you.
If you’re looking for the cheapest location with great surf and access to modern living in the Americas, Peru absolutely needs to be on your radar. Culture in Peru is rich and the food alone is enough reason to make this your spot to learn.
The surf break in Portugal is legendary. The surf community is explosive. If you want to be smack dab in the middle of big surf, this is the place for you. After a little progression you’ll be bumping shoulders with pro surfers as you wait for your next set.
Before you go:
What to do
Learn how to swim and be comfortable in the water
Being comfortable in water is absolutely critical! When your surfing, especially when you start, you’re going to get exhausted. You’re going to have bad timing and get pushed into rough surf. It’s times like this weak swimmers start to panick and things go bad. Many of us grew up swimming, other of us have never been in more than waist deep water.
While working for a tourism company in the Florida Keys, I realized ocean water freaks some people out. We would get mid-westerners who never swam in anything but a backyard pool. The moment they jumped in the ocean, panic set in.
Get comfortable with being in the water.
Getting comfortable swimming in big water is best. If you can only get access to a pool, train by treading water for long periods of time, and holding your breath under water for long periods of time. A minute or longer is a good start.
Build up your surf body
It’s true anyone can become an accomplished surfer, but part of your progression will be physical transformation. You could work on that as you go, but if you have the right physical foundation, you’ll progress faster.
Ever notice how surfers all seem to be obsessed with healthy eating and physical health activities like Yoga? It’s because those activities support surfing and surfing supports them.
Activities like yoga promote strength and flexibility. When I first started surfing, I quickly learned my stocky inflexible body was holding me back. I had strength but in all the wrong places. Getting up on a board was difficult. I struggled to get my lead foot stretched up under my body. Paddling exhausted me because a lifetime of weight lifting had locked up my shoulder mobility.
Surfing is full of complex movements and repetitive movements (paddling). Just because you have the surf board, don’t think paddling on a board is easier than swimming. They are equally physical
As an active person, a few changes to your daily routines will speed up your progression in the water.
The top areas to focus on are:
- Mobility in your shoulders
- Flexibility in your hips
- Strength in your lower back
- Strength in your core
- Cardio endurance
Activities like yoga are a great way to attack most of these areas. A quick YouTube search will give you a good idea of popular surfer exercises.
Learn to read surf reports
Places like Bali have loads of surf breaks all around the island. Every break has an instructor ready to teach you whether the surf is good or bad. They’ll be happy to take your money either way.
To get the most for your time and money you’ll want to pick the right spot at the right time of day every time you go out.
All good surfers spend their mornings reading the surf reports. Magic Seaweed is a popular one. In general, surfing tends to be best between high and low tides. There are exceptions but you can learn those from spot to spot. Surf breaks are heavily influenced by weather, and tides.
The popular surf spot in town might have larger than usual swells one day (not good for beginners), but the spot around the cove with normally terrible surf is just right thanks to a southerly storm blowing in.
Showing up to the beach at noon might be a bad idea if the tide is too low, but show up for an early morning or late afternoon and the waves are breaking just right. It all depends on the tide. Tides aren’t on a 24 hour clock either, so noon might be bad today, but it will be perfect two days from now.
Plan your experience
Buying a one way ticket for the beach and figuring it out when you get there is one way to do things. It’s risky. End up in a surf town at high season and getting the best instructors on an empty surf break might be impossible.
A little planning to figure out your first few days of learning will go a long way. I’m all about the vagabond free spirit lifestyle, but the first few days learning to surf might not be the place for it.
Find a trustworthy school to start with and plan a few days there before you go all “Into the Wild” on your surfpedition.
What to pack:
- Rash Guard
- Wet Suit
- Water bottle
- Rash guard – some schools provide them, but when you go out on your own, you’ll want one. Board rash is especially harsh when you start out since your usually sprawled out on a foam board and haven’t learned how to paddle efficiently yet. A full body rash guard might be the ticket for starters.
- Wet Suit – For some locations, a wet suit is critical. Rentals can be uncomfortable and fit weird. For the best experience you might want to take a day at surf shop and find a new suit with a good fit. Wet suits are expensive but a good suit will last you a long time.
- Sunscreen – Lots of sunscreen. And don’t forget the back of your legs. You’ll spend a lot of time in the water face down with the backs of your legs exposed. Chances are the sun don’t shine there much. Lather up those big hams so you don’t end up with roasted chicken legs and ruin the next week of surfing.
- Water bottle – Ironically you’re surrounded by water while surfing, but the biggest way to ruin your day is dehydration. Make sure to hydrate before you go out, take breaks to re-hydrate during, and drink up afterwards. Water that is.
- Surfboards – You’ll notice surfboards are not on my list. When you start out, you’ll want to rent boards. Mostly because you’ll be moving through several board shapes and sizes to start.
How to structure your time
The first three sessions on your trip should be with an instructor. The same instructor, or at least the same surf school ideally. Learning the basic mechanics of getting up on a board, navigating through the surf, and the cadence of a session is awkward for all new surfers. Three sessions is enough to learn the basics and be comfortable to go practice on your own in small surf. By the end of the third session, most surfers are able to stand up and ride white waves on a foam board.
*White waves are waves that have already broken. Green waves are waves that have not.
The next few days you should practice paddling out and in to waves. Focus on catching a green wave. At this point you’ll probably still be on a foam board. By the end of this period you’ll start to realize the stiffness, flat nose, and buoyancy of a foam board is difficult to use on green waves larger than 2 ft.
At this point you’re ready to start with a good old fashioned long board. Long boards are between 8-10 ft, and relatively stable compared to smaller size boards. Long boards have different shapes and sizes to them. As you learn how to surf larger waves, you should also rent out different long boards to learn how tail shapes and rocker affect the feel of a board. At the end of the 9-20 day phase it’s not uncommon for surfers to be able to surf 4-5+ good waves in the 3-5 ft range per session.
If you are spending more time riding waves than you are chasing them, and if you are comfortable, now is the time to start experimenting with “Fun boards”. Fun boards are in the 6.5 -8.5 ft range and are where most surfers looking to just enjoy the sport spend their time. Others see it as a progression to short boards. That’s also an option, but the world of fun boards is so vast, with so many shapes and sizes, that you can spend a lot of time getting to decide your style of surfing, and what board best fits that style. Many surfers are perfectly happy to not progress beyond this category.
Taking another lesson at then end of each week will help you progress faster. As you progress, you’ll be able to pick up new tips from an instructor to keep your progress moving forward.
Take Days Off
Surfing can be physically exhausting. Especially while learning. Don’t feel bad about taking a day off here or there on your trip. There are going to be some amazing day trips you’ll want to attack while travelling. Go do them.
Hire Someone to film you
One of the hardest things to grasp is what mistakes you’re making when you can’t see yourself doing them. Find someone with a camera or drone and ask them to film your session. Some surf schools offer this as well. When you go back and watch the film you’ll often recognize bad habits you’ve built up. Now you can address them.
Learning to surf for the first time is a great experience, but you’ll remember the relationships you made while traveling more than the activities you do. Make friends with your instructor. Make friends with the other students in your surf school. Or just chat up strangers at the local beach bar.
I had no idea I would love surfing as much as I did. I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t realize how addicting in can be. Choosing to spend a couple months in Bali to learn how to surf was the best decision I could have made. By dedicating myself like I did I was able to progress quickly and build a strong foundation I can take anywhere I travel.
Was I a pro at the end?
But, I can hold my own and given an invite to go surfing I’ll be more than excited to say yes.