One of the most unique- and exciting- aspects of surfing is its unpredictability: no two swells, days, or waves are the same. As a beginner surfer, all the variations of wind, tide, swell, and crowds can be downright confusing. At times, surfing seems more like a mind game than an athletic endeavor.

But the same unpredictability that frustrates us to no end is also what makes surfing such an incredible and rewarding experience. Learning when and where to go surfing is a challenge, but one that can, in fact, be conquered.

Reading the Report

Unless you live across the street from the beach, it’s a good idea to check out the surf report ahead of time. Use one of the many online surf report sites available to get a general idea of what the waves are like, or check the online buoy data. Keep in mind that each individual surf spot will be different depending on swell size and direction as well as tide and wind. If you’re a beginner, look for waves in the 1 to 3 foot range – anything bigger will offer you little more than discouragement.

Spot Check

Once you’ve located a surf spot that’s offering small, 1 to 3 foot waves (about chest high and below), make sure the wave quality is suited to the type of surfing you want to do. Usually the best waves for beginners are slow, mushy waves that are nice and soft but still offer a decent shoulder to ride. Closed out waves will work if you’re really new to surfing and still working in the white water, but just make sure they’re not heaving too hard top to bottom, as that will prove extremely challenging. Generally speaking, good longboard spots are excellent waves for beginners, although advanced longboarders in the lineup may disagree.

The Crowd Factor

Before you paddle out and join the fun at the spot you’ve chosen, it’s important to assess the crowd. If you’re completely new to surfing, it’s generally best to avoid crowds entirely, unless you’re in a group lesson setting or everyone else in the water seems to be a beginner too. The reason you don’t want to paddle out into crowded conditions is that you run the risk of getting in the way and endangering more experienced surfers, who will not treat you kindly for doing so. Also, the logistics will not be in your favor: if there are 30 people competing for just a handful of waves every few minutes, chances are you’re not going to bag any rides anyway.

Safety First

Always make safety your first priority. If the crowds are too thick, or the waves are too big, do not paddle out. If you’re completely in the dark about where to surf, try asking an employee at a local surf shop where he recommends you go for a few beginner waves. Generally, fellow surfers are more than happy to help direct you to a preferred wave zone – and away from theirs.

See Waves, Go Surfing

One of the golden rules of surfing is never drive away from good waves. If you’ve found fun waves that aren’t too crowded, stay there! More often than not, if you continue driving the coast, you’ll only find less desirable situations.

The old adage works well. If you see good waves that fit your criteria for size, quality, and crowd – go surfing. You’ll have fun and you won’t spend the morning wasting time and gasoline. Now that you know what to look for, it’s just a matter of being patient and getting out there when the green light says go.