Cold Water Cowboys: The Rugged Surfers Of The Pacific Northwest

Where to surf in the Pacific Northwest

If you painted a picture in your mind of surfing, or even just a surfer in general, what would that look like?

Myself, along with most people will ponder the idea of a hot blonde couple with longboards resting on their heads walking towards a white sandy beach with a backdrop of palm trees, lifeguard towers, and possibly a parking lot filled with Volkswagen busses and e-bikes.

Okay, maybe not EVERYONE has the same picture in their mind but I bet you it’s something close!

Culture in popular surf towns. Photo: Tripadvisor

The prevalence of modern surf culture is hard to ignore in towns like Encinitas CA, Haleiwa HI, and Malibu CA. If you’re a cultured surf traveler maybe you think of Bali Indonesia, Teahupo’o Tahiti, or Nicaragua.

In popular barrel riding destinations such as these, surfing is ingrained into the society. It becomes a huge part of the culture if not the heart of the culture itself. This is one of the beautiful nuances of surfing; you don’t have to be a surfer to recognize and appreciate it.

Like most sports, surfing attracts a diverse crowd although it’s hard to recognize at first. Surfing isn’t all board shorts, sunshine, and acai bowls. Let me tell you about the land up north. The water is cold, the currents are strong, and the surfers who navigate this stretch of coastline are resilient.

I’m talking the PNW baby. The Pacific Northwest consists of Washington, Oregon, and the tip of Northern California if you want to be generous. Not to disregard Canada’s coastline stretching across Vancouver Island.

Surfing map pacific northwest photo: Data Basin

And where there’s waves, there will eventually be surfers. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t deviate from this fact.

It’s no secret that being a surfer is attractive, and signifies a cool lifestyle. It’s my belief that this is amplified in locations where seeing surfers is less common. In areas of the Washington and Oregon Coast when you’re putting your wetsuit on you’re likely going to turn some heads.

“You’re going out there?!”… Is a common question I receive while putting on my wetsuit in some areas of the Pacific Northwest. Especially if I’m the only one surfing at a particular spot.

On one specific occasion, the local fire department was called on me by a passerby who thought I was stranded in the middle of the ocean unintentionally. It made for a very awkward and slightly embarrassing experience.

Surfing in seaside oregon

How Did A Redneck From Washington Become A Surfer?

My name is Justin Gregory. I grew up in Eastern Washington State; most people are surprised to learn that this area of the “PNW” consists of a dry desert landscape with some areas of fertile farm land supported by the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers. This is very different from the lush pine forests and waterfalls that people think of when reminiscing about the PNW.

Being a six hour drive away from any type of ocean, the odds of me becoming a surfer were not in my favor. However, a unique set of circumstances sent my life into a new direction.

I was about 12 years old when my parents took me and my brothers to Seaside Oregon, a sleepy beach town where the rain falls in the morning, fishing boats hum in the nearby docks, and a sneaky point break secretly pumps from time to time.

We stepped into a surf shop to grab some flip flops when I took notice of a beautiful surfboard sitting on display. I’ve never put my hands on a surfboard before so I reached out to touch it. But then, the unthinkable happened.

The board tipped over with a crash; it was like breaking a wine glass at a romantic restaurant. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked strait at me. A sizable crack was exposed along the rail and it was at this moment that I realized that I F$%ked up.

The shop worker went on to explain that this was a custom board shaped by the famous shaper out of Huntington Beach, Jeff “Doc” Lausch. My dad, severely disappointed at the time, had to fork over his hard earned cash to buy my new found souvenir.

The surfboard I accidentally broke

That surfboard sat in my room for years until I turned 16. Once I secured my drivers license I immediately began making road trips back to Oregon in order to fulfill my new wanderlust for adventure.

It was during these initial trips as a young man that I got my first glimpse of what I thought was “normal” surf culture. It was quiet, sleepy, but still present to the watchful eye.

Surfing and meeting other surfers on the Oregon Coast left me feeling inspired. Something that doesn’t really happen to when I’m in Southern California.

Surf Culture In The Pacific Northwest

Speaking for the majority of people that I’ve met over the years, the surfers up north are flannel wearing, yeti thermos drinking, firewood chopping, cold water cowboys. They don’t drive cars they drive “rigs”. Their ability to find and ride good waves was an outward expression of their resilience and hard work, not just a simple hobby. It’s difficult to explain.

Up here you wont find Surfline cams. Your ability to read a report of the tides, swell, wind, and currents will directly reflect the quality of time you’ll have out in the water (Thats IF you have the opportunity to even paddle out). On top of this, the water is colder than your backstabbing ex.

Booties and hoods are the norm. And if that wasn’t enough, scoring great rides can be very rare depending on location. But when it happens… Oh my lord is it a rewarding experience.

If I haven’t made my point clear, being a successful, competent surfer in the Pacific Northwest requires a lot of effort and a little bit of luck. Because of this the surf community up here remains pretty tight.

Raph Bruhwiler surfing a remote break in the PNW only attained by boat photo: Westerly Goods

In my teenage years I routinely made the 6-7 hour road trip to the Oregon coast with nothing more than a couple changes of clothes, my surf gear, a fishing pole, and a hell of a lot of optimism. I would pitch a tent in the forest or on the beach, catch trout and pick mussels off the rocks for dinner, then pray for an opportunity to surf.

On several occasions I never even paddled out due to high winds and impossible surf conditions. But that never discouraged me. In fact, to some degree I even appreciated the fact that I got skunked so many times. It reinforced the fact that every time I embarked on a surf trip, it was going to be a MISSION.

This may not be the case for everyone, in fact it probably isn’t. But for a 16-18 year old kid with no understanding on how to read surf forecasts, this was my reality. And I loved every minute of it.

Looking for surf spots in Oregon

Surfing Conditions In The Pacific Northwest

When it’s on, it’s ON. Once the waves are working the local surf community emerges from the woodworks, bushes, and nearby caves. Covered from head to toe in neoprene and sporting colorful locally shaped boards, the surfers of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California come to life in efforts to cash in on this temporary opportunity.

Localism exists everywhere but personally, I’ve never experienced any sort of negative energy when in the PNW. In many if not all of the situations that I’ve experienced, everyone is just grateful to be out there and remain courteous to each other when trying to catching waves.

If you ever make your way up north I highly recommend bringing a laid back approach. The competitive, performance driven attitude that will get your through a session at Lowers in Orange County will likely work against you at a local PNW break.

The PNW has a lot to offer when it comes to surf. For a mountain lover like me, the landscape alone competes with many of the tropical destinations one would think of when planning their next surf trip. Jagged cliffs, lush pines, chest high ferns, and cool mountain streams accompanied by waterfalls are present at many surf spots.

Surfer getting barreled in the Pacific Northwest Photo: Isurus

Surfing In Washington State

In Washington, you’ve got a handful of options. Almost all of them are hit or miss… But mostly miss. One spot worth mentioning is La Push, located in Olympic National Park. This is the one spot that is usually mentioned in conversations when discussing the surf in this state.

It’s best in the summer months and ideal during mid tide like the majority of beach breaks. Don’t get me wrong, you can get some decent rides here. But for every decent day, theres a bunch of bad ones. That’s just what you get in Washington. Even if you just ride one wave in Washington throughout your surfing career, I consider that a victory that sets you apart from the majority of others!

It’s funny, the majority of things you’ll read about this place will warn you about the sh*rks that are “often spotted” and I’ve been warned personally while up there too but honestly, I have mixed feeling about these words of caution. Surf at your own risk I guess, regardless of where you’re at.

Surfing in Washington State Photo: Wander in RAW

Surfing In Oregon

Oregon offers the majority of opportunities found in the Pacific Northwest. From beginner friendly beach breaks to legitimate big wave spots like Nelscott Reef.

Big wave surfing Nelscott reef oregon picture: WSL

Because the diversity in locations and ample opportunities Oregon is my personal favorite destination up north and I’m not lying when I tell you that I’ve had some legitimately amazing sessions here. Amazing for any location, not just the PNW.

From the top to bottom or bottom to top, there’s plenty of stops one could make on their Oregon surf adventure. Without blowing up spots, I personally enjoy visiting the areas around Lincoln City, and when it’s working, the areas surrounding Seaside Oregon.

Get your boards, some thick neoprene, and if you’re a seafood lover bring some fishing poles, rent a crab pot to huck over the side of a bridge and “rough it” a little.

Campfire on the beach after surfing in the PNW

Tips On Surfing In The Pacific Northwest

I chatted with my friend Loren Joel a surfer (absolute ripper if I may add) and YouTuber out of Santa Barbara. He had some interesting and valuable insights he wanted to share for anyone considering a surf trip to the PNW.

Before capitalizing on the surf opportunities Loren actually lived up in Oregon working at the ski resort Mt Bachelor. Before he could get into the topic of actually surfing he went on to explain some of the reason he holds the PNW in such high regard.

Loren described it perfectly by saying; “Just the experience of being in a full wetsuit, a surfboard under my arm, walking down a path riddled with ferns and fallen pine trees, JUST to even get to the beach is an experience in of itself. It’s prehistoric.”

He’s not wrong.

He went on to explain that the land is undeveloped, in many areas untouched, and when compared to the reality of living in south central California it’s a breath of fresh air. Literally.

But like many of those that have came before him, Loren had to learn some lessons the hard way. On his own.

Loren Joel on a recent surf trip to Mexico

Cold Water Surf Gear

Out the gate one thing Loren mentioned is that he only brought one wetsuit and no booties or gloves. This may seem like standard practice for 90% of places but remember the weather you will be facing in the pacific northwest is often times wet and cold.

It rains often up there and the temperatures are usually sub 60 degrees. This means after your first session the chances of that wetsuit being dry before your next paddle is slim. Is this a day ender? Absolutely not. You’ll survive putting on a cold wetsuit but be prepared to suffer for a little while. Jumping jacks help but if you have a second suit, we recommend bringing it.

Surfing in the rain Photo: Fine Art America

Unfortunately for Loren, the wetsuit he did bring was two year old 4/3mm back-zip. Wetsuits with a zipper on the back are easy to get on and off however, they offer a few downsides. Allowing water to seep through the seems of the zipper is probably the biggest con.

With each duck-dive Loren took, he experienced the stab of ice water rush down his back throwing his body into a shiver of adrenaline. If there’s one thing that will cut your session short it’s being cold. Not to mention it seriously slows your motor skills down and makes catching waves that much harder.

Ironically it wasn’t the cold water that cut Lorens last surf session in Oregon short, it was his leash. Because of the frigid water temperatures the elasticity of his leash was compromised.

What the hell am I talking about? When you take a wipeout, your leash flexes and compresses like a rubber band. It’s subtle, but it’s happening. You probably know what I’m talking about if you’ve taken wipeouts on big days.

Surfing wipeout on big day Photo: Istock

In the cold waters of Oregon, the leash isn’t able to flex as much compared to water temperatures of California or other common surf destinations. A small nick in Lorens leash was no problem for the countless sessions he’s had in Santa Barbara, but a measly three foot wave in Oregon was able to expose this weakness in the leash, snapping his leash in half almost effortlessly.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link they say. But in all seriousness he was lucky it was just a three foot day. But even then, the waters in the PNW are known for strong currents and very sneaky yet powerful rip currents.

Thankfully he was able to make the light swim back to the sand but if the circumstances were different it could have been a different story.

So when it comes to gear, pick yourself up a 5/4 hooded wetsuit and we highly recommend booties and gloves as well. In addition to that, do a thorough gear audit of your leash and bring a spare if you’ve got one.

Surfing in the extreme cold with wetsuit gloves, hood, and booties Photo: gear patrol

PS. Our 5/4mm hooded wetsuits are in production as we speak and will be available to the public soon! Keep your eyes open on future updates to get yourself one of the first ones out of the factory.

How To Prepare For A Surf Trip In The Pacific Northwest

During our conversation, Loren touched on a point that I really agreed with. The mistake many surfers make is they try to turn their road trip up the pacific coast highway into a surf trip instead of planning their road trip around good surfing conditions. c

What do we mean?

Here’s the way we look at it, the beautiful scenery and natural wonders you’re looking to experience aren’t going away anytime soon. The drive is going to be gorgeous regardless if the surfing conditions are amazing, or god awful. So why not control what you can control?

Throwing the boards in the back of your car, and heading north with simply a bit hope and optimism like Loren and I is just NOT the way to do it. I don’t care how many times you read “the secret”… Sure, you can rely on the the law of attraction to bring you good waves OR you can study the charts, read the forecast, and plan a trip based on actual data. I recommend both.

So read the charts, monitor the conditions, and when an opportunity of good surf presents itself take action and hit the road.

Example of a surf report for the pacific northwest photo: extreme hotel

The Proper Mentality and Intention For Surfing In The Pacific Northwest

As you would approach any new spot as a traveling surfer it is super important to respect the locals. If there’s a handful of people out, ease your way into the rotation and be friendly.

After your surf session you’ll probably be inclined to have a campfire on the beach to warm up. When packing snacks or spare things to last you the day remember to pack out what you pack in! Don’t leave your trash and be a good representation of the surfing community.

Camping on a surf trip in the pacific northwest

Parting Thoughts

Now even though there’s no guarantees besides breathtaking scenery, the PNW can offer some amazing surf opportunities for the proper adventurer. For anyone considering a trip I highly encourage you to keep an open mind, have no expectations and see what you can get yourself into. Maybe we’ll see you out there.

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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