Figuring out what equipment to use is, among other things, one of the main challenges when learning to surf. Leashes, wax, boardshorts and bikinis, rash vests and wetsuits can be considered secondary. But your performance is directly related to what you have under your feet, so choosing the right surfboard determines how you will progress. Which, in the case of beginners, can make or break the surfing experience – and we all know, the old cliche, ‘the best surfer is the one having the most fun!’
More often than not, someone new to surfing will borrow a board from a friend, dig an old plank out of the depths of the garage, or take the cheapest offer they can find online. Fair enough – you may want to ride a few waves before forking out for a proper surfboard. But paddling out on any given piece of foam can also make it harder for you to learn, consequently decreasing the amount of fun you have.
In this article, we give you a rundown of the main elements to look out for when buying a beginner surfboard. We also provide you with a list of the four most recommended models for novice surfers.
So, to find out what you need to know about the best beginner surfboards, read on, and stay stoked!
First Things First…
There are five main personal factors every surfer should consider in order to pick the right surfboard, optimise their performance, and therefore make the most out of the experience:
- Skill Level: Being aware of and honest with yourself concerning your skill level will allow you to improve organically, minimising moments of frustration. Choose to ride a board that requires more ability than you have, and you won’t be able to tame it. Choose a board that presents no challenges or restrains you, and it will quite literally weigh you down.
- Height & Weight: Your height and weight will help determine the volume (see below) your board of choice should have. Your measurements should be proportional to the length, width, and thickness of the surfboard – otherwise, it will either sink or not respond to your movements.
- Wave Type: Whilst beginners should focus on small, broken waves only, being conscious of the type of wave you will surf with a given board will directly impact your performance. Just as Formula 1 drivers select rain tyres for wet days, you should be mindful of the type of break and conditions of the sea when selecting a surfboard. For example, using too small a surfboard in a day with large, hollow waves will impair control and likely result in bad wipe-outs.
- Fitness Level: This factor may not play as important of a role as the previous three, but it does matter, and you will feel it – especially when you start using smaller, lower volume boards. The level of fitness of a beginner will impact mainly his/her paddling, which can be compensated by choosing a larger and more buoyant board.
- Performance Type: We may assume that everyone who surfs is in it for the aerials and barrels, but many people enjoy the feeling of cruising smoothly down the face of a wave more than turning sharp and flying high. Although this will not influence your first steps, thinking of what type of surfing you want to be doing will help you understand which moves you want to practice as you evolve and, consequently, what kind of surfboards you want to purchase.
Getting your head around the basics of a surfboard
There are countless models of surfboards. They are classified (usually but not solely) according to their design – from Shortboards to Longboards, Bonzers to SUPs, Fishes and Mid Lengths – each of which suiting a particular level of surfing and/or riding style and/or type of wave. At the same time, each model encompasses a range of dimensions and a series of features (rail, nose, tail, rocker, concave, foil, volume, etc.) which, in turn, determines how a particular board is likely to perform on a given type of wave.
Say What Now?
For instance, two surfboards with the same length, width, and thickness can feel completely different under your feet if one has a pointed nose, a round tail, a pronounced rocker with thin, sharp rails and the other has a rounded nose, a swallow tail, a flatter rocket and softer rails. The first will respond better on faster and hollower waves, while the latter will be suitable for point breaks where the waves are chubbier and the board needs more planning surface to generate its own speed.
Fortunately, beginners don’t have to boggle at these specifics. The main components to keep in mind when looking for a learners surfboard are
Length Width Thickness Volume Material / Type of Construction
So long as these factors are taken into account, and the board is in good condition, it doesn’t even matter whether it is brand new or second-hand. After all, it also has to match your budget.
Choosing the right surfboard size
The standard dimensions of a surfboard are length, width, and thickness. These are usually displayed in that exact order on the bottom surface of the board, near the tail section, in feet and inches, e.g. 7’6” x 23” x 3”.
The length refers to the measurement from the tip of the nose (the front) to the tip of the tail (the back).
The width is taken from the widest part of the shape of the board (wherever that may be). The thickness is calculated from the thickest point between the deck (the top where you put your feet) and the bottom (the bit which touches the surface of the water).
These measurements are important on their own because they will determine the overall surface area of the board, and thus how stable it will be. But they are also important when combined to calculate the volume, which will give you an estimate of how well the board will float in relation to your weight.
Beginners should get their hands on large, wide boards as these are less likely to sink the nose/tail and wobble from side to side. As such, you will be able to paddle with more ease, consequently catching more waves. You will also feel less shaky when popping up, thus improving your chances of riding the wave for a longer period of time.
Unless you’re a very short person or a child, you shouldn’t start surfing with anything less than 7ft in length. Although there are no definite guidelines, the taller and heavier you are the longer and wider the board you will need, so try to keep the board at least 2ft taller than you. Width is proportional to the length, so you don’t have to overthink it – anything between 22 and 24 inches should be enough.
But, in the end, as a beginner surfer, volume is what will affect your performance the most.
The role of volume
The volume of a surfboard is the interaction between its length, width, and thickness; it is measured in cubic litres and represents the total amount of space it occupies. As a rule of thumb, those who are starting out should look for boards that provide the most volume. Things can get quite technical when it comes to volume, but as a beginner, the main thing to understand is: more volume means more buoyancy; more buoyancy means less drag; less drag means that you will catch waves much more easily, and therefore catch more waves, and have more fun. Got it? Right!
That said, the amount of weight you apply on the board also influences how much it will float. So even if two people have the same height, it is their weight that will determine how much volume their board should have.
Why think of material and construction types
For newcomers, the construction type of a surfboard is a mere detail when compared to its dimensions; one that will impact your overall experience more than your performance. Since most beginners start with relatively bulky boards, the influence of material concerns mostly durability/maintenance, weight/transportation, price, and safety.
- Foam / Soft Tops: If you have taken a lesson at a surf school, you probably used a foam (soft top) surfboard – as opposed to a hard-topped one. ‘Foamies’ are made with an EPS foam core sandwiched by a soft sheet of foam on the top and a layer of plastic on the bottom. Besides being cheaper to purchase, they are safer (they hurt less if they hit you) and tougher to break or ding, which makes them more durable. Back in the day you could only buy 7ft and 8ft foamies, but nowadays you can get foamies from 5ft for kids up to 10ft in length in all manner of shapes too. I have always said, if you buy a foamie to learn to surf on, you can always use it, even after many years of surfing they’re still super fun to ride.
- Fibreglass / Polyester: This is the most common type of surfboard construction. It comprises a soft polyurethane core covered by a cloth of fibreglass laminated with polyester resin. This creates a hard “shell” around the board, making it hard to the touch but also slicker, faster and more manoeuvrable. The upside is that it is lightweight and flexible. The downside, which beginners should keep in mind, is that it is a hard material and, as such, it can crack/ding very easily and hurts when it hits you or others – which is often a matter of when, not if!
- EPS / Epoxy: Although the construction is similar to its polyester counterpart above, epoxy boards have a core made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam and are coated in epoxy resin. They are lighter than the above-mentioned, which makes them easier to carry around and paddle on. And whilst they are more durable than traditional fibreglass, they are still hard, so they crack/ding and hurt.
Recommended beginner surfboard models
Anyone who doesn’t know how to paddle out to the lineup, or physically cannot get out to the lineup should consider themselves a beginner surfer. If you cannot position yourself in the line-up, catch a wave and pop-up with stability and ride down the ‘green face’ of the wave, you should also consider yourself a beginner.
If that is you, take a deep breath and look away from those sexy, futuristic shortboards at your local surf shop…at least for now 😉
Instead, keep your eyes out for boards that:
- You will be able to transport to the beach and carry under one arm or on top of your head;
- Have enough volume (in relation to your weight) to keep you afloat;
- Are long enough (in relation to your height) so you can paddle and catch waves easily;
- Have a wide, rounder outline (nose/tail) to give you extra stability;
- Feature a soft rocker (bottom curvature), thus increasing the contact surface with the water and, consequently, your speed;
What I’ve always said in terms of which size of board to go for is this.
Kids and small adults (5’4 or shorter in height) – 7ft foamie
Regular adult (5’6 – 5’11 in height) – 8ft foamy
Large adult (6ft plus or heavier than average) – 9ft foamie
Below you’ll find a list of the best beginner surfboard types and some models we like.
Soft Top (Foamie) Longboard
Soft top surfboards, also known as foam boards (“foamies” for short), were specially designed for beginners – hence their popularity among surf schools. Characterised by a soft shell and no sharp edges, this type of surfboard allows novice surfers – who are often afraid of injuring themselves or others when falling – to feel more confident. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but particularly longboard models of 7’0 – 9’0 in length with three fins, are ideal for first-timers.
– Paddles and catches waves with ease;
– Affordable and durable – less likely to ding/crack;
– Soft to the touch, thus safe to use;
– Low maintenance, no need for wax;
– Not very responsive when turning;
– Cumbersome, hard to transport and travel with;
– Unsuitable to paddle out in bigger surf and duck dive/turtle roll;
- Difficult to perform high-performance manoeuvres;
Here are our favourite foamies for beginners…
Traditional longboards are either made with polyester or epoxy and, as such, provide more of a feeling of glide than foamies. Strictly speaking a longboard has to be 9ft or longer in length, but for arguments sake, the type of surfboard we’re describing ranges between 8ft and 10ft. They have a lot of bouyoancy, so super easy to paddle and catch waves. Their characteristically wide, rounded nose also assists in paddling and their generally wide template provides great stability for beginners.
– Can stay in your quiver as it is used by beginners and advanced surfers alike;
– More versatile and responsive than foamies, thus easier to turn and ride the face;
– Great board to practice footwork and refine style;
– Relatively easy to buy/sell for a good price;
– Good paddle and wave-catching properties;
– Difficult to transport, especially on airplanes;
– May wobble if/when riding the whitewater;
– Usually more expensive than a foam board;
- Its hard coating is more susceptible to dings and cracks, and will hurt more than a foamie if it hits you;
- Cumbersome to get ‘out back’ into the lineup and very difficult to duck dive;
A mini-mal surfboard looks like a slightly shorter longboard. Beginner sizes range between 6ft 6 and 8ft 6. Initially named “mini Malibu”, this type of surfboard was designed to ride small, long waves (the likes of Malibu in California) but more progressively with more aggressive turns and manoeuvres. It features the same rounded nose as a traditional longboard, but their outline tends to be rounder, their tail thinner, and they usually come in a tri-fin setup – as opposed to the classic single-fin. The thruster fin set up allows you to turn more easily putting the board ‘on rail’ instead of steering it like a boat!
Mini Mal surfboards are popular amongst beginners because they provide enough volume to paddle and catch waves whilst allowing turning and progression. This extra manoeuvrability, in turn, makes it an excellent stepping stone board, and many surfers opt for training on a mini mal straight from the get-go and then purchasing a shorter board down the road.
– Easier to carry around and transport than the aforementioned longboard;
– Good stepping stone as it allows a bit more manoeuvrability;
– Easier to duck dive and paddle out into bigger surf;
– Not as stable and more difficult to catch waves than longboards or foamies;
– Hard material prone to cracks/dings and potential injuries;
The term funboard encompasses a bunch of surfboard models with an average length of 6-to-8ft, such as eggs, fishes, midlengths and hybrids. Like mini mals, funboards borrow both from longboards and shortboards: its wide and round outline and full rails providing the floatation of the first and its tapered nose/tail, along with a versatile fin system, the responsiveness of the latter. Quick learners, as well as those who are migrating from snowboard/skateboard, often jump on a funboard right after learning how to paddle and pop up as it allows you to turn more easily and surf a wider range of waves.
– More compact than the aforementioned, easier to carry and transport;
– Faster and better suited for bigger surf than all of the above;
– Progressive, versatile designs which can be used by beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels in a wide range of conditions;
– Hold their value when reselling due to high demand;
– Generally has the least volume of all of the above-mentioned, making it more difficult to catch waves;
– Not suitable for white water surfing;
There is no ultimate formula to define when you’ve reached an intermediate level, nor an objective assessment of your skills that greenlights you to move on to a shortboard. You’ll likely feel when the craft is hindering more than helping; and you’ll almost be too comfortable.
That said, the common threshold between beginner and intermediate tends to be wave face riding. Once you are catching white water by yourself, can paddle and pop up almost without wobble, and have ridden a few walls already, you can start looking for a new surfboard.
A tip I often like to give, if the wallet allows, is to buy your intermediate board and keep your original beginner board, that way you can choose which one to ride depending on the conditions – as we all know, there are no bad waves, just a bad choice of equipment!
Whichever board you decide to ride, the key is to get out there and keep riding waves. Surfing is not an easy skill to master, and it takes years to get really competent. In my time selling surfboards not once did someone say, oh, this beginner board was too big for me and I was catching too many waves! So, if in doubt, get a bigger board, ride more waves and progress with your surfing ability much quicker… Oh, and have a much bigger smile on your face! 🙂
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