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Can you actually surf your way to a better you?
If you’re one of the many people who want to try a different approach to improving your mental health, you might know that exercise can help.
Growing up in California, my father taught me to surf. During the last dreamy 20-some years of surfing in places like California, Florida, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Oregon, I’ve tried a wide range of surf gear for a diverse range of water temperatures and surf conditions.
If the combination of exercise and time spent outside in blue spaces excites you, then you may enjoy a relatively new type of intervention called surf therapy. Below, I share some of my favorite products — based on years spent in the water.
- Best wetsuit: Buell Surf RB2 4/3 Hooded Fullsuit
- Best beginner surfboard: Catch Surf LOG X JAMIE O’BRIEN PRO 8’0
- Best adaptive surfboard: Flowt Softboard 8’0
- Best surf leash: FCS All Around Essential Leash 8’0
- Best surf wax: Sticky Bumps Softboard Wax
Surf therapy is an organized program that helps people access surfing in a safe and enjoyable way. You’ll learn about water safety, meet other people, and most importantly ride a wave.
Surf therapy may help you cope with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — no matter who you are.
For me, surfing has always been a way to set aside any troubles and learn how to focus on the moment.
If you live with a disability and think that surfing is inaccessible to you, don’t worry. “Adaptive surfing is just surfing with some modifications adapted to the needs of the participants,” says Caleb Reed, Project Coordinator at Adaptive Surf Project in South Carolina.
Many surf therapy programs like the Adaptive Surf Project offer adaptive surfing programs, which include modified equipment, instruction, and supervision for those living with disabilities of all kinds, whether they be behavioral, cognitive, or physical.
If you want to try adaptive surfing, Reed recommends that you start with a surf organization that has adaptive surfing instructors so that you can be provided with modified equipment, safe access to the water, and empathetic education on water safety.
Before you buy
If you decide that you like surfing, and want to get your own surf gear, this guide will help you find the right equipment for your needs.
But before you jump into the ocean — again, experts recommend that you first learn to surf with an organization — it’s critical to know about how the ocean moves, and how to navigate the surf safely.
Different types of gear may be more appropriate and advantageous for a given climate and oceanic swell, so picking the right surf equipment can be hard.
This list serves as a starting point for those new to surfing. Once you have a solid base of surf gear, you can build out your “quiver” (a surfer’s personal collection of surfboards or gear) to match your needs.
Mind you that while these products work well, nature is powerful and unforgiving. According to Ryan Buell, founder of Buell Surf, wetsuits break down, especially when you use the same one day in and day out.
It pays to own multiple sets of equipment so that your gear can perform when you need it most.
Take care of your gear, and your gear will take care of you.
Surf gear glossary
- Surfboard: A specialized board and flotation device that enables the user to paddle in the water and ride waves from either prone, kneeling, or standing positions.
- Adaptive surfboard: A modified surfboard that fits the specific needs of the user. It may have more volume in the middle, or have adjustable grip-handles placed strategically across the board.
- Leash: The cord that secures the surfer to the surfboard.
- Wax: A bar of wax that’s applied to the top (deck) of the surfboard to provide traction and prevent slipping.
- Wetsuit: A snug rubber body suit that helps keep you warm. The wetsuit traps a layer of water inside the suit, then your body heats the water.
Not all surf gear is created equal. The price for a bar of wax or a leash is going to differ dramatically from a wetsuit or a surfboard. With that in mind, here’s our pricing guide for our surf gear essentials.
- $ = under $100
- $$ = $101–$449
- $$$ = over $450
- Price: $$
- Purpose: helps retain body heat in the water; provides flotation; and protects from cuts, scrapes, and sun
This wetsuit’s one-sided water seal and chest and back insulation keep you warm on a cold day.
It’s also supremely cozy. The Embossed Supratex Tuff knee pads are by far the most comfortable material I have ever felt in a wetsuit. Plus, the smiley faces featured on the inside of the knee pads remind you that surfing is for fun.
The suit runs on the hotter side, so it’s not ideal for warmer days.
Above all, Buell has been a trusted name in surfing since 2008. It boasts a rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars on Trustpilot based on 616 reviews. It offers discounts for first responders, healthcare workers, military, and students.
Buell offers international shipping.
Best beginner surfboard
- Price: $$
- Purpose: a flotation device that helps you navigate the ocean and ride waves
This softboard is fun, colorful, and functional. It comes in colors like hot pink and sky blue — the bottom has a tropical graphic design.
“These boards are so diverse. I ride them out at Pipeline [a perfect, deadly wave] and also rent them out for my surf school,” says Jamie O’Brien, professional surfer, and founder of the North Shore Oahu Surf School.
The fins on this board are excellent for plastic fins. Plus, the soft top makes the board safer and provides grip.
Customers give this board a 5 out of 5-star rating based on 177 reviews. One customer says the softboard is great for “days you just want to go have fun and catch every wave.”
If you want to save a few dollars, you can also check out the LOG BASIC X JAMIE O’BRIEN PRO 8’0. It’s a comparable board, minus the bottom graphics.
Catch Surf only ships domestically. Notably, Catch Surf offers products like surfboards on its international websites for Europe and the United Kingdom. Prices and product availability may vary on international sites.
Best adaptive surfboard
- Price: $$$
- Purpose: modified flotation device that helps to navigate the ocean and ride waves
This adaptive surfboard is one of the only ready-made boards on the market.
Designed by Flowt Surfboards co-founders Diogo Areia and Francisco Bello, in collaboration with the founder of the Portuguese Adapted Surfing Association and Parasurfing European Champion Nuno Vitorino, Flowt’s adaptive surfboards help people who live with paraplegia or quadriplegia experience surfing for the first time.
The adaptive surfboard has “four side handles on the back for the instructors to hold the surfer in place, while the two handles on the front enable the surfer to grip and turn,” says Diogo. The middle and back of the board are ergonomically designed to stabilize the chest and legs of the prone surfer.
This board does not have a leash plug because many adaptive surfers use an arm leash. A larger board can cause injury when it pulls away from the surfer.
The 8’0 board is best suited for beginners. But the 7’0 Softboard comes with a leash plug on the front of the board, which enables “more intermediate level surfers to be able to catch waves on their own,” says Diogo.
“Whoever has these boards has a premium product to be able to have great fun surfing,” says Vitorino.
Flowt offers international shipping.
Best surf leash
- Price: $
- Purpose: keeps surfboard secured to your leg for easy retrieval
This surf leash combines comfort and security. The extra strength Velcro keeps the leash secure, while the contoured horn molds nicely to the ankle.
It comes in a range of colors like black, camo, and red.
Generally, a surf leash can be roughly the same length as the surfboard, or even a bit longer. The leash featured here is the 8’0 — but you can get leashes with lengths that range from 6’0 to 8’0.
If you want a 9’0 black colored leash, you can find it on Amazon.
FCS only ships domestically. Notably, FCS does offer products like leashes on its international websites for Australia, Europe, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Prices and product availability may vary on international sites.
Best surf wax
- Price: $
- Purpose: provides traction on the surfboard to prevent slipping
This wax comes available for any water temperature range you need. It also has a fresh coconut scent.
International shipping is available for select products. You can also find the Sticky Bumps softboard cool / cold water wax and warm water / tropical wax on Amazon. Both products have 4.8 out of 5-star rating based on over 50 customer reviews.
Sticky Bumps has been in business since 1971 and is a trusted name in surfing.
|Buell Surf RB2 4/3 Hooded Fullsuit||$$||Keeps you warm, protects you from the sun, and provides flotation.|
|Catch Surf Plank Single Fin 8’0||$$||Provides flotation and a safe way to catch waves.|
|Flowt Softboard 8’0||$$$||Provides flotation and a safe way to catch waves for those who need a modified / adaptive surfboard.|
|FCS All Around Essential Leash||$||Keeps you and your board attached at a safe distance to enable easy retrieval after falling.|
|Sticky Bumps Softboard Wax||$||Provides traction and prevents slipping when surfing.|
Choosing the right wetsuit can be tough. The water can get as cold as 48°F (9°C) around San Francisco, but I’ve never needed anything thicker than a 4/3 millimeter (mm) wetsuit.
Some of my friends use 5/4 mm suits in the winter months. It’s important to note that your ideal wetsuit thickness will differ based on your weight, the make of the wetsuit, and your tolerance of environmental conditions.
If you need a wetsuit for warmer or colder conditions, Buell offers a wide selection of wetsuits and spring suits for men, women, and juniors. There’s surf wear for temperatures of over 80°F (26°C) to below 39°F (4°C). The website has a handy how-to choose a wetsuit guide.
You can even get a wetsuit for your toddler. “I believe in a full range of wetsuits: from your 2-year-old to surfers in their 80s,” says Buell. Buell Surf also offers booties, hoods, and gloves. A wetsuit and booties can also protect you from the sun and any rock or reef.
When it comes to surfboards, experts recommend that you start with a softboard, or foam board. “A foam board is great for beginners because you can fall on it and it won’t hurt you as much as a hardtop board,” says Matt Rockhold, professional surfer, Buell Marketing Team.
You might start with a softboard in the 8’0 to 9’0 range, and go from there. O’Brien agrees, adding that a bigger board can give you more time on the wave.
Catch Surf offers a wide range of softboards that come in different lengths.
No matter who you are, the best place to start with surfing is a lesson. If you want to take an adaptive surf lesson, Reed recommends that you start with a surf organization that has adaptive surfing instructors.
O’Brien also notes that you want to be selective about who you learn to surf from, “If someone feels uncomfortable for their first time, maybe they will never surf again. Make sure the instructor who takes you surfing is there to show you a good time and not scare you.”
Buell, O’Brien, Reed, and Rockhold all agree — surfing should be fun.
Before you even leave the house to go surfing, it pays to check your local surf and weather forecasts. The National Weather Service can give you alerts on coastal flooding, high surf advisories, rip currents, storms, high winds, and more.
Some sites like Surfline may even offer surf wear recommendations for the given conditions. It also can tell you about the bottom of the ocean at your local beach so you can avoid cutting your feet on reefs and rocks.
While many of these services are free, others come with a paid membership. You can also try to ask a lifeguard any questions when you get to the beach.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a rip current is a strong and concentrated channel of swift-moving water that may move along the shore and eventually head out to sea.
A rip can be anywhere from 15 to 100 meters wide and can range offshore for 100 to 400 meters, says Dr. Greg Dusek, National Ocean Service Senior Scientist.
To spot a rip current, look for relatively flat areas in the breaking waves. You may also notice seafoam and discolored water going out to sea.
It can be easier to spot a rip from a higher vantage point, so take a look from the dunes before you head to the shore.
If you find yourself caught in a rip current, do not try to swim directly to shore. The rip may move faster than you can swim. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you escape the rip.
Then angle back to shore and avoid re-entering the rip current.
While surf therapy may help everyone, many programs specifically help people with:
- acquired brain injury
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- chronic pain
- physical disabilities
- substance use disorders
Surf therapy may also help with mental health issues. A 2019 study found that surf therapy, when used as a complementary intervention with traditional approaches, may help treat symptoms of mental health conditions like:
As previously mentioned, surf therapy may work well when used in addition to traditional treatments.
Talk with your doctor or therapist if you want to try other treatment approaches like surf therapy in addition to your current plan.
How do you put on a wetsuit?
Take a deep breath — putting on a wetsuit is tricky and takes some time. Depending on who you ask, this may be the most complicated part of surfing!
But with practice, you’ll be able to do it in 1–2 minutes.
The wetsuit should fit comfortably but tight enough to be a second skin.
- Unzip the wetsuit and start by placing your legs into the suit. Wearing socks will make this step much easier. Be careful not to place your legs into the arm holes.
- Guide each leg toward the suit’s leg holes like you would with any pair of pants. Then you’ll want to grip the waist of the suit and pull it up over your hips and torso.
- Once your legs and torso are in the suit, place each arm through the sleeves then pull the rest of the suit up over your shoulder.
- Most wetsuits will have a long pull on their back zipper that will allow you to zip it closed on your own. You can always ask someone to help.
- Pull out any wrinkles and make any adjustments until you feel comfortable.
How do you apply surf wax?
Make sure the board does not have any grease on it and move it out of direct sunlight.
Apply the wax evenly with gentle strokes using the skinny edge of the bar.
You can make small circular motions, patterned lines, or just rub it everywhere. It’s all personal preference.
Just don’t press too hard, the wax will smear and you’ll lose traction.
How do you put on a surf leash?
A surf leash attaches to the surfboard via a string that’s tied to the leash plug (a small metal bar in the tail of the board). The Catch Surfboard featured in this article comes with a pre-tied string.
Undo the flatter, multi-leveled Velcro mechanism, or rail-saver, on the back end of your leash and secure the base layer over the pre-tied string. Then redo the Velcro mechanism until secure.
Attach the ankle strap around your ankle so that it’s firm, but not too tight — an overly tight ankle strap can easily come undone.
If you use a standard ankle leash, your surf leash should always be on your back ankle relative to your surf stance.
Surfing stances are referred to as regular foot and goofy foot (like snowboarding stances).
A regular foot stands on the board with their left foot on the middle/front of the board, and their right foot on the back. A goofy foot stands with their right foot on the middle/front of the board and their left foot on the back.
So, a regular foot secures their leash on the right ankle, while a goofy foot does so on the left ankle.