Surf Gear | Essential Surfing Equipment For Learning to Surf

A beginner's guide to basic surfing equipment

You often hear people say that surfing requires nothing but one’s person, a surfboard, and the ocean. Such a simple sport, surfing. So in touch with nature. Surfing gear? What surfing gear?

Leaving aside the fact that most surfboards are made on the other side of the world, out of materials that are hardly environmentally friendly; and the fact that the ocean is a long way away for many surfers, and in any case is capricious and difficult to predict and only any good for surfing under very specific conditions in very specific places — it’s still a dirty pestilent lie. If you want to start surfing, and particularly if you want to start surfing in the UK, you’ll need a good deal of additional equipment.

Surfing Gear: Surfboards

But let’s start with the most essential item of equipment you need to learn to surf: the surfboard. There are several different basic types of surfboard, each one designed with a different standard of surfer and/or style of surfing in mind. Making sure you have the right surfboard both for your ability level and for the conditions you’ll be using it in is paramount; investing in the wrong one will be a severe impediment to progress, and could even kill your surfing aspirations dead in the water… so to speak.

A classic learner surfboard, known as a mini mal, with a tri-fin set-up. This one was made by Cornish shaper Adams.

As a general rule, particularly towards the beginning of your surfing career, foam is your friend — the bigger the surfboard, the faster you’ll be able to paddle on it and the more waves you’ll catch. It will also be considerably easier to stand up on.

The perfect beginner board is known as a mini mal, and is usually between 7 and 9 feet long; any longer will be too unwieldy and become dangerous both for yourself and others. Longboards, or mals, are upwards of 9 foot, round-nosed like mini-mals, relatively hard to manoeuvre due to their size, and ideally suited to smallish, gentle waves, which isn’t to say there aren’t highly skilled surfers who simply prefer surfing longer boards. The shortboard by contrast is pointy-nosed, has a far tighter turning arc, and comes into its own in slightly steeper waves; it’s also much less stable, and is therefore only suitable for an intermediate surfer. Any board shorter than 7 feet tends to be considered a shortboard, although this is hardly a strict rule, and many surfboards are hybrids of the aforementioned types or fit more neatly into separate, more specific categories.

Methods of construction also vary greatly. Many beginner surfboards, which have a tendency to be used as projectiles, are simply made out of foam — a far safer option than the traditional combination of foam with a hard fibreglass outer layer.

A soft foam surfboard, ideal for learning to surf on, made by UK brand Swell.

Surfing Gear: Essential hardware

A surfboard on its own though is insufficient: without fins fixed to the bottom it will have no purchase on the wave face and slide uncontrollably. Fins are usually, though not always, detachable; most surfboards have between one and four of them, though the most common number is three. And it’s not only your board that must be prevented from slipping; special surf wax is applied regularly to the deck — or upper side of the surfboard — for traction, usually in combination with a grip pad positioned over the tail. Gone, meanwhile, are the days when a bad wipeout meant a lengthy swim into shore to retrieve one’s board. A leash (leg-rope or “leggie”, as the Australians have it) strapped round the ankle and attached to the surfboard is now considered obligatory not only for the convenience’s sake but also, more importantly, for safety’s.

Surfing with a leash helps prevent both dangerous accidents and long swims back to shore. Photo: iStock

Surfing Gear: Wetsuits and other surfwear

Unless you’re lucky enough to live near a coast where the water’s warm year round, you’ll want to put at least some distance between yourself and nature: that means a wetsuit that’s suitable for surfing, and probably several to accommodate for changes in water temperature across the different seasons. If you live in the UK or anywhere else where the water gets below around 13° C in winter, you’ll also be needing wetsuit boots, and in many cases a wetsuit hood and wetsuit gloves too, which become necessities for even the hardiest surfers around the 8 or 9° C mark, if not before.

Wetsuits themselves come in various different lengths and thicknesses. Full-suits, often called “steamers”, have long arms and long legs and range in thickness from 2mm up to 7mm or so. So-called spring suits — you won’t wear one until summer, if at all, in the UK — have short arms or short legs or both. Find a more detailed guide to the best wetsuits for different water temperatures here.

Water temperatures in the twenties open up the possibility of a neoprene-free and thus vastly superior existence. Board-shorts and bikinis vary not only in their cut but also in their suitability for surfing, and can be worn in combination with a rash vest, a wetsuit top, a t-shirt, a wife beater, yoga pants, a button-up shirt, a Norwich City away strip, pyjamas, or simply shitloads of suncream.

Surfing Gear: Accessories

Of course, in addition to the fundamentals described above there’s a myriad of accessories available, ranging from the virtually indispensable (the fin key, the wax comb, the board bag) to the entirely superfluous, via safety gear such as helmets and ear plugs and numerous more or less useful fripperies that most surfers invest in to some degree.

Steven prepares to become one with nature by boarding a long-haul flight to Indonesia equipped with 6 surfboards made in America, an assortment of leashes (two of which with built-in shark-repellant), four pairs of board shorts, a wetsuit top, two rash vests, multiple sets of fins, a dryrobe, sixteen bars of wax, reef boots, a GoPro, a ding repair kit, his GPS watch…

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