Surf Etiquette: Rules Of Surfing To Not Die

Party Wave - Rules of Surfing

For decades, surfing has been increasing in popularity, thanks to old school legends such as Duke Kahanamoku, superstars that cease to fade like Kelly Slater, and the rise of social media platforms.

However, when it comes to who’s introducing a countless number of surfers to the sport, people are pointing fingers to none other than who? It can’t ACTUALLY be, wait…. Costco?!

Yep. The same place you go to get laundry detergent and the famously affordable $1 hotdog is also responsible for putting thousands of surfers in the water.

Thanks to Kirkland Signature and Team Wavestorm you’re likely to see a bunch of people lugging around the awkwardly large and difficult to carry foam soft top surfboard next time you visit your favorite beachbreak.

Getting new surfers in the water is great for the sport, but because there’s more beginner surfers now than ever before, having a discussion around Surf Etiquette is vital.

Surfing is far from a buttoned-up gentlemen’s game like golf; your skill is subjective, and an old cliche states “the best surfer is the one having the most fun“. However, that doesn’t mean you should just grab your board and paddle out willie nillie.

For non-surfers it’s understandable to assume heavy waves, strong currents, and hungry sea monsters make surfing dangerous. Although these concerns have their merits to a degree, the biggest threat comes from surfers themselves.

Location, Location, Location

Before we even paddle out, let’s first make sure we’re at the right place.

Where you surf is the most important decision you can make outside of the water. For a learning surfer, choosing a spot thats above your skill level is a good way to give yourself a difficult time.

Surfing a spot where the crowd matches your skill level will take a lot of the pressure off your shoulders and help you avoid the uncomfortable learning curves of getting in people’s way who have more experience than you.

It will also help you catch more waves since you don’t want to be competing with experienced surfers as someone who’s learning. This is the easiest step to follow and will set you up for success right out of the gate.

Next time you get to a spot, take a few minutes to watch the surfers already out and look for patterns of where people are catching waves, channels or rip currents people are using to paddle out, and see how the waves are shared among everyone.

Checking Surfline will give you a good scope of the surf spots around your area; check the cameras before leaving your house so you know exactly where to go.

Apart from location you need to take into consideration the condition of the waves you plan on surfing.

Push the limits, but don’t be that guy who has no business being out when it’s double overhead. Paddling out on a massive day when you aren’t ready only increases the odds of you getting yourself and others hurt.

Mental Note: If you’re checking a spot that no one is at, understand that without people in the water it becomes difficult to judge the size of the waves you’re looking at. You’ll sometimes find once you’ve began paddling out that the waves were actually twice the size that you thought they were. When in doubt, don’t paddle out.

Paddle Smart, Not Hard…. Well Actually, Do Both

When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, chaos ensues… The last thing you want on your Saturday morning trip to the beach is to get ran over by a surfer.

Taking a fin to the back is never fun; I’ve personally seen a fin cut through a boogie-boarder’s wetsuit, leaving him with a gnarly gash.

This is why it is incredibly important to spend some time on the sand analyzing the surfing lanes before paddling out.

A surfing lane is the field of travel a surfer passes through from the beginning of the peak to the very end of the wave. There can be multiple surfing lanes at a given break but they usually follow a similar path. Spend a couple sets watching people catch waves and you should sense a pattern.

When paddling out at most spots, you’ll more than likely need to paddle through these surfing lanes. When you do you’ll want to keep a “head in the game” mentality so you can navigate your way to the lineup without causing any roadblocks for people surfing by you. Having self awareness in the water is very important.

You DON’T want to paddle straight to the peak or straight to the center of the lineup. Instead paddle out through a channel where the waves aren’t being ridden and then over to the lineup like the diagram below. You want to stay as far on the shoulder as you can, that way you aren’t impeding on the section of the wave people are trying to ride.

A common saying among race car drivers is “never look in a direction you don’t want to go”; the same principle applies to surfing.

When paddling through surfing lanes you might find yourself staring at the people riding waves so you know where they’re at during all times.

When I was learning making this mistake got me into trouble because I would unconsciously lead myself directly into their field of travel. I found myself paddling in people’s direction rather than in the direction I should have been going.

What you want to do is see where the surfers are at but more importantly understand where they are going so you can decide if you need to paddle harder or slower to avoid a collision.

It’s also important to note that it’s always better to take a beating in the white wash than it is to try and make it past an oncoming surfer at the risk of ruining their ride or causing a collision.

Don’t Bail Your Board

Bailing your board means letting go of it, generally during heavy surf or when caught in the white wash.

There’s two scenarios where you especially want to avoid doing this: when its super crowded, and when there’s people paddling behind you.

When there’s people around or behind you during crowded conditions bailing your surfboard can be a huge risk. Surfboard leashes range from 6-9 feet and when you let go of your board, anyone within that circumference from you could easily eat your board like it’s a fiberglass sandwich.

They certainly wont be happy with a broken nose and you wont be happy taking your board to the ding repair shop to replace the face plant made on your deck. It’s best practice to hold on tight, if you can help it.

Pro Tip: If you’re worried about holding onto your board when paddling out on bigger days, understand that letting go of your board actually works AGAINST you. Without the floatation from the surfboard you’ll be held down longer and receive a harder beating compared to if you didn’t ditch it. It will also mean you have less time to get yourself together before the next wave comes. Watch the video below for proper duck dive form. Learn this technique and you shouldn’t have to ditch your board under 12ft waves again 👍🏼

If you’re riding a larger board with much more volume you’ll have a hard time duck diving. Here’s a video you can watch showing you how to get past the breakers on a longboard using three techniques.

Exceptions To The Rule:

  • I can’t picture a scenario where you’d want to ditch your board unless you’re surfing by yourself with no one else out or you’re surfing waves 20+ ft high… Best practice is to hold on tight.

Get Your Priorities Straight

Not all spots are the same but generally speaking, there’s a method to the madness when you’re watching a group of ten or more strangers share waves.

The peak is the wave’s highest point and usually the section that breaks into whitewater first. The quicker you’re able to identify the peak as waves roll toward the lineup the more time you’ll have to get in position.

Developing a good eye for finding the wave’s peak will help you catch a lot more rides and progress much faster as a beginner/intermediate surfer.

When a surfer has priority it means they’re either the closest surfer to the peak and/or it’s their turn in the lineup to catch the next available wave.

Sharing priority is important because without it you would have multiple people going for the same wave which causes confusion and disorder in the lineup.

Exceptions To The Rule:

  • If the person with priority makes no attempt to catch an incoming wave, feel free to claim it as yours.
  • If the person with priority falls on the takeoff, take the rest of the wave.
  • If the person with priority happens to be a close friend who won’t hold a grudge………… BURN ‘EM! But you didn’t hear it from me, okay 😉

Mental Note: When at a busy spot with other surfers, if you fall on the takeoff your priority goes to the back of the line. Sorry, no re-dos allowed… usually.

Don’t Be Greedy

Once you’re navigating the lineup with ease and positioning yourself right you’ll be catching waves way ahead of other surfers in the water.

This is especially true if you’re riding a longboard or soft top surfboard with more volume where you’ll be able to paddle faster and catch waves much sooner than surfers riding shortboards.

But just because you’re the best surfer out there and/or can catch any wave you want does not mean you should.

If your goal is to make as few friends as possible, hogging all the waves to yourself is a route worth recommending.

However, a better approach would be to let some waves go by to be ridden by the other surfers in the lineup. If you’re not sharing waves with the other surfers in the water don’t be surprised when someone tells you to; which brings us to our next point.

Be Vocal

This is where so many people fall short. When it comes to surfing in crowded lineups communication is super important!

When paddling into a wave, giving the quick shout “GOING LEFT!” will accomplish the following:

  • Fewer waves will go unridden – now that you’ve announced “going left” the right side of the wave is up for the taking.
  • Reduces the likelihood of any collisions or uninvited drop-ins.
  • Being vocal instills a bit of order in the lineup and keeps things running smoothly.

All in all, being vocal in the water is a good habit to develop. Giving a “yeewww” when someone catches a wave keeps the vibes high and will help you make friends out in the water and if you’re a traveler visiting a new spot, it should help keep the locals off your back as well.

Pro Tip: Even an introvert like me sees the benefits of talking with people out in the water. If you have trouble getting out of your comfort zone I recommend surfing with friends until you gain the skills and confidence to go out there alone.

Don’t Cut People Off

Cutting someone off means you’ve dropped in on a wave that someone else is already riding. This is one of the most common yet biggest no-no’s a surfer can make.

Any experienced surfer has had this happen to them more times than they could count and let me tell you, it’s very frustrating. This is yet another reason why communication is such a big deal.

Accidents happen.

If you don’t notice the other surfer until it’s too late, make sure you kick out of the wave ASAP so the person with priority can finish their ride. A simple “my bad” goes a long way… if you screw up, say sorry.

Depending on the spot you surf, some “superlocals” will take any wave they want. But for the most part, surfers aren’t intentionally stealing waves. If someone’s cutting you off and it becomes an issue, don’t be afraid to let them know. Like I said, most of the time it’s because they didn’t see you.

Not feeling ready to compete with experienced surfers at the peak of the wave? Try sitting on the inside shoulder and picking up the leftovers! Sitting on the outside/inside shoulder will keep you out of everyone’s way and when someone falls you should be in a perfect position to catch the remaining section of the wave.

Sitting “on the inside” is a strategy I recommend to any surfer who isn’t quite ready to be catching waves in the middle of a packed lineup.

Exceptions To The Rule:

  • If you asked 1,000 surfers, many will say if someone snakes your wave, you have a free ticket to drop in on them however, I wouldn’t always recommend this practice. Depending on where you surf, some surfers wear the “entitled local” badge with honor, and dropping in on them can potentially escalate a negative situation.

Not sure what snaking a wave is? Let’s get into it in the next section.

“Thy Shall Not Snake” – Psalm 17:68

Snaking a wave means there’s an incoming wave and before it breaks you paddle around, in front, or behind the person who has priority, putting yourself in position for the wave ahead of them.

Snaking is different than cutting someone off because it is usually done deliberately and seen by others as an intentional act.

Without further explanation, it is pretty clear to see why snaking waves is not something you want to be doing. It’s a blatant sign of disrespect and sends a bad message to everyone else in the water.

But what if someone snakes me?!

As we mentioned earlier, dropping in on the person who snaked your wave is generally considered fair game. And even though I’ve dropped in on people who have snaked me before, what I prefer to do instead is get vocal as we talked about earlier. When paddling into a wave someone is attempting to snake from me I’ll say “mine, mine!” or “going!” . 90% of the time the other person will back out and everything is cool.

What about the other 10%? Well if it’s a good wave, prepare to get dropped in on my “friend”.

If it’s subpar surf conditions I’ll just let it go and accept that some people can be kooks, rude, and sometimes both.

Exceptions To The Rule:

  • If you’re at a beach break that doesn’t have a defined peak (meaning waves are breaking in many different spots and/or breaking inconsistently) paddling around people in hopes of hunting down a lucky shoulder is a safe practice. Just make sure you aren’t doing it to specifically catch the very next wave coming for your guys’ direction!
  • If there’s a wave about to break and the person with priority makes it clear they aren’t going to make an effort to catch it, by all means, go take it.

Other than that, take turns!

Leave No Evidence

Surfline made an instagram post recently with a video captured off one of their cameras showing a surfer picking up trash after his session. As acknowledgment for the good deed, they gave him a premium subscription free of charge.

Picking up some garbage on the walk back to your house or car is your way of showing appreciation to nature and will work as an offering to the surf gods who’ll bless you with good waves.

But surf gods and free stuff aside, leaving the beach in good condition is simply the right thing to do. Having the surfing community on board goes a long way towards preserving our coastline.

The only exception to this rule is being a Jabroni… Which isn’t an exception. So pack it up pack it in, now let us begin… our final two sections!


Some surf spots get so crowded on the weekend that these rules fly right out the window. When busy, some places adopt a free-for-all policy and when it applies, the only rules that prevail are the Don’t Drop In and Don’t Snake rules.

What Do Surfers Value Most? RESPECT

Many surfers preach “give respect to gain respect”, if you understand this and follow the rules in this article you’ve set yourself up for success the next time you hit the water. But before we send you on your way there’s one last thing I should warn you about…

A local is someone who has a long history of surfing a particular break or area. And just like the card you needed in order to walk out of Costco with a new surfboard, some spots operate on a “members only” approach as well.

If you’ve never heard of “localism” before, you’ll likely be a little thrown off experiencing it yourself. But don’t worry, we wrote this article on how to navigate the crowd at these places too.

But besides all that just have fun, keep an eye out for the surfers around you, follow these surfing rules the best you can, and keep the stoke alive.

Justin Gregory is an old-fashioned redneck hillbilly from Washington State who tripped over his shoelaces and found himself carrying a surfboard. For a dude in his twenties, he's seen it all. He lived among natives in Alaska, worked as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea, commonly paid off bribes to the Mexican police, and sold luxury real estate to foreign millionaires in Southern California. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to read and write (barely) which lead him to write surf content to keep all of you ungrateful kooks entertained. Of course, when he's not blowing off emails to catch waves in Baja or track Mule Deer in the mountains. You can read his stuff here on our blog and follow him on Instagram @Justin5Gregory.



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