A student smiles as she catches a wave and learns how to surf.

How to Surf: A Beginner’s Guide to Surfing

Catching waves as a beginner surfer can seem intimidating at times. Don’t worry! This is par for the course and we’re here to break down everything you need to know. Get ready for a simple, comprehensive tutorial on how to surf. You’ll be shredding in no time!


Prep for Your Surf Session

Grab Your Gear

First things first, you need a surfboard, a leash, and a wetsuit if you’ll be in cold water.

We typically recommend that beginners start on foam boards between 7-9 feet long. 8 feet is pretty standard and works quite well for most beginner surfers. Short boards are better for experienced surfers and are difficult to learn on. For more help picking the perfect board for you, read our related post on that here.

Most foam surfboards come with a leash, but if not, be sure to get one.

Wavehuggers is based in Southern California and we provide wetsuits to our surf lesson clients year round if they desire them. However, wetsuits are only really necessary in the cooler months because the cold water warms up quite well in the summer. If you want or need a wetsuit for your surf experience, check our our Ultimate Guide to Wetsuits blog to for more info. If you don’t plan on wearing a wetsuit, make sure you wear a sturdy swimsuit that won’t fall down during wipeouts.

Choose Your Surf Break

Picking the correct surf spot is just as important as picking the correct gear.

A common mistake beginners make is that they try to learn to surf during a big swell, on super crowded day or at a break that is better for experienced surfers.

This is what you should be looking for when deciding where to surf:
  • A Beach Break – These types of beaches typically have lots of whitewater waves which are perfect for beginners. Whitewater waves are broken waves that are completely white and foamy. Another reason that beach breaks are great is because the waves break at many different spots along the beach. There are tons of waves available to catch. Point breaks, on the other hand, only break in one spot so the competition to catch a wave is much greater – not good for novices. (Find out more types of surf breaks here.)
  • Sandy – You want plenty of sand to practice popping up on and to walk out into the whitewater on. Avoid beaches with rocks in the water that require dodging.
  • Minimal Crowds – You can’t always avoid crowds, but look for a section of beach where you have plenty of room to maneuver your board and won’t be worried about running into people. The nice thing for beginners is that you don’t need to go out to the lineup when you are first learning to surf. You can stay on the inside where there are less people. Just make sure you aren’t in the way of the experienced surfers in the lineup as they catch waves in – you don’t want to be the cause of any wipeouts.
  • Small Waves – 1-3 feet is the best range. Smaller waves this size are gentle, but still powerful enough to push you into shore. Bigger waves can be overwhelming and unsafe for beginners.
  • Lifeguards – It’s always best to go to a beach with on-duty lifeguards when you are learning how to surf.
  • Decent Conditions – Don’t head out into the ocean on really stormy days. You can use an app like Surfline to see wind direction and surf conditions ahead of time.

Students learn to surf at a nice, calm, flat beach.

Make Sure You’re a Confident Swimmer

You don’t need to be a pro swimmer to start surfing, but it is very important that you know how to swim well. The ocean is constantly changing and is very powerful. Even though you’ll be in smaller waves and probably will be able to touch the ocean floor, you must be able to keep yourself safe in unexpected circumstances.

Learn the Basics

Paddle Out

The first part of learning how to surf is getting out into the ocean where you can start catching waves!

First, start by walking with your board into the whitewater.

Hold your board next to you horizontally and tip the nose up and over oncoming whitewater as you walk.

Depending which surf spot you choose and your experience level, you may not need to go farther out where you can’t touch. Other breaks will require you to paddle out before you catch a wave. This is especially true if you want to ride green waves (a.k.a. unbroken waves) or if you’re planning to sit in the lineup.

To paddle smoothly, lay in the center of your board and position yourself so that your toes touch or just hang over the tail end of the surfboard. (Wondering where the tail of the board is? Read this.) Keep your head up as you paddle. Focus on digging each hand deep into the water and pulling straight back.

Oncoming waves, particularly whitewater ones, can be difficult to get past if you don’t have a short board to duck dive with. Most beginners are on long boards which can’t duck dive. However, these boards can do a turtle roll under the wave.

A turtle roll is when you hold on tightly to both rails of the board and flip completely over to one side so that you are under the surfboard.

This allows the wave to pass over the bottom side of your board instead of taking you and the board halfway back to shore. Make sure you hold on tightly to your surfboard and keep your body horizontally pressed up against it when you’re under the water. After the wave has passed, then you can roll right side up again and continue paddling.

A beginner turtle rolls when they learn how to surf.

Pick Your Wave

After you paddle out, and before you pop up, you need to choose the wave you want to catch.

Beginners should catch waves that have already fully broken – or whitewater waves – when they learn to surf.

Choose a wave that looks like it has the momentum to bring you into shore, but not an especially large wave that is going to have too much power and knock you off your board.

It’s important for beginners to only catch the wave after it breaks. If you catch a wave as it is breaking, you will pearl or nosedive every time. Breaking waves are the number one cause of wipeouts! Experienced surfers can learn to surf waves before they have broken and are able to pop up and ride the face of the wave. Beginners, this is a great thing to work towards – it’s such fun!

Choose a wave that is a few yards away from you so you’ll have time to turn your board around and get ready. Make sure your board is facing perpendicular to the shore. Get settled on your board and start paddling! It’s almost time to pop up!

Pop Up

Popping up is the most crucial part of surfing. This is the time when you go from laying down on your board to standing up and riding the wave. When beginners are learning how to surf, the pop up can be intimidating, but don’t stress! A little practice and you’ll get the hang of it!

Father instructs daughter how to pop up and how to surf.

Here are basic steps of the pop up motion:
  1. Place your hands flat on the board by either side of your chest
  2. Push your body up into a push-up position
  3. Pull one leg fully under you. This would be the foot that will become your front foot – your left leg/foot if you’re ‘regular footed’ and your right leg/foot if you’re ‘goofy footed’. Your back leg should pull up behind your front leg so you’re in a crouched position.
  4. Pivot your feet to align on the middle of the board. Keep your feet perpendicular to the length of the board.
  5. Keep your legs somewhat bent, but pop up your upper body so that you’re in a balanced surf stance.
  6. Ride the wave and have fun!!

It’s important to remember that you don’t pop up until you feel yourself catch the wave’s momentum. Popping up too early is a common mistake that beginners make when when they learn how to surf. (For more common mistakes & how to fix them, read this.) A good test is to stop paddling for a second and see if you loose speed. If not, it’s time to pop up!


Need surfing advice in real-time?

The best way to learn to surf is with surf lessons!

Our surf coaches will expertly teach you each skill needed to surf successfully. You’ll start by practicing your skills on the beach and learning about wave types and ocean safety. Then you’ll head out into the water! Our instructors will be with you in each moment, giving you tips and advice. As a surf school, we train our instructors to spot and fix common mistakes and causes of wipeouts. We especially love teaching beginners, but we coach surfers of all skill levels and ages!

Helina instructs a student on their pop up.

We also have Video Surf Coaching for those who are more comfortable catching waves and want help with their technique. Former pro surfer, Holly Beck, will look at the footage and meet virtually with you to go through each clip for ways to improve your surfing.

If you have kids who want to learn how to surf, you can also sign them up for our Spring Break and Summer Surf Camps! Join us in San Diego or Huntington Beach.

Beginners, getting into surfing is one of the best decisions you can make!

It requires practice, but learning how to surf will change your life – in the best way possible. Once you catch a few good waves, you’ll be hooked just like the rest of us 😅.