Guide to River Surfing

For most surfers, catching a wave is the highlight of their day. It gives them an escape from their daily routine. But if the ocean is a lot far away and they want to catch and ride a wave, surfers can go to the rivers nearest them. There is no need to take a trip to the beach to catch adrenaline in the waters!

Everyone is aware of ocean surfing , but more people live on or near rivers, making it a more accessible form of surfing to the masses.

Read on to learn the basics you need to know about river surfing.

What is River Surfing?

A group of surfers surfing the Severn Bore

River surfing is the sport of surfing in rivers, catching either standing waves, upstream waves, or tidal bores. It was not clear when river surfing originated, but one of the earliest pieces of documentation includes a ride in 1955 along the tidal bore of the River Severn in England. River surfing on standing waves has been documented in the early 1970s in Munich, Germany, which serves as the world’s largest urban surfing spot today.

Equipment for River Surfing

As a starter, you need to know the necessary gear for river surfing. Here’s a guide on how to choose when buying your first river surfing equipment.

1. Surfboard

Like ocean surfing, beginner river surfers must start on a longer foam board. However, surfboards used for rivers must not exceed six feet – river waves have less surface area than the ocean for the board to make contact with. You will want a smaller and harder board as you get better at river surfing.

The size of the board will also be affected by your body weight. You will need a board with enough volume to float your body weight. But sometimes, a low-volume board can let you surf safely even if you’re a heavier rider if you’re surfing a high-performance river.

The shape of the board matters as well. To decide on the shape of the surfboard to get, the best thing to do is to get in touch with local shapers as they know what works best for the local waves.

2. PFD or life jacket

A personal floatation device (PFD) can be super helpful in an emergency, and it can reduce the impact if you come into contact with the bottom of the river if in case you fall down. These safety layers are essential because you’re not as buoyant in freshwater, and you’ll be much easier to rescue if in case something happens. If you get knocked unconscious, PFD will allow you to float.

3. Helmet

There are plenty of things to hit your head on at the river. Your head can hit the river bottom, surfboard, or other surfers, and you can avoid unfortunate injuries by wearing a helmet. You can never know what could happen. 

4. Wetsuit and booties

A man wearing a wetsuit while river surfing

The water in a river is often frigid. For many situations, you may need a wetsuit with the right thickness to keep you warm and provide you with buoyancy. Wearing it can allow you to surf longer and prevent hypothermia. Depending on the river’s depth, you may want to wear surf booties as well. Surf booties are thick enough to offer a little protection but still thin enough so you can still feel the board beneath your feet. Even if the temperature is high, it’s usually recommended to wear surf booties to prevent your feet from getting cuts from rocks in the river.

5. Quick-release leash

Leashes are acceptable under one condition – they need to be a quick-release leash on the waist. Otherwise, it can be a death trap! The majority of recorded river surfing death was due to ankle leashes. When an ankle leash gets caught on a branch or a rock in the river, the force of the flowing water pushes the surfer to the bottom, and the surfer isn’t strong enough to reach their ankle release, causing them to drown.  

In lower and slower flow rivers, it’s best to have no leash because it’s easy to swim to and stay by your board. But in high flows, the leash becomes a lifeline, and a waist leash with a quick-release on the body is a good option.

How to River Surf for Beginners

If you’ve spent any time surfing in the ocean, you will notice some differences between ocean surfing and river surfing. First of all, you will need to paddle when you are river surfing. But you will need to assess the waves more when you are looking for your access point. If you don’t get off on the wave just right, you will be easily washed downstream, or you will have to climb out onto the banks to move back up the river.

Rivers are less buoyant than the ocean because of the smaller volume of water. This means that you will need to work harder to stay afloat above the water. It’s a tiring sport, but once you get the hang of it, it’s as exciting as surfing in the ocean.

If you’ve ever tried standup paddleboarding , you already have the edge. Here’s how you can start river surfing:

1. Start in the eddy facing upstream toward the river wave. Build up the right speed to catch the wave. Building up speed will allow you to have more control when you’re setting up to paddle to the wave.

2. Step back into a surf stance. Don’t wait until you break the eddy line to start to drop onto the wave, as it can be more difficult. Positioning into the surf stance earlier will let you ensure that the board’s nose won’t get pushed underwater.

3. Once you’re paddling up the eddy towards the wave, angle your board at about ten degrees as the board breaks the eddy line onto the wave. This will help you enter the wave easier and break the eddy line with more control.

4. Once your board breaks the eddy line and you’re dropping back onto the wave, you need to make a few adjustments. Adjust your weight to straighten the nose of the board with the wave to ensure you’ll stay on the wave because the current flowing down the river will pull the nose of your board down and off the wave. Throw a brace with your paddle to make you more stable as you adjust.

Before trying out, observe the other surfers. See how and where they enter the wave. Walk the swim out along the riverbank and see where they are getting out. Know what’s past that point in case you miss the usual takeout spot. Be aware of any hazards below and where’s the next safe spot to take out.

How to Catch a River Wave

A woman in Boise river surfing

Catching a river wave is the hardest part about river surfing. Techniques may vary depending on the kind of wave you’re trying to catch. Basically, here are the techniques on how you can catch a river wave:

1. Dripping in

Dropping into a river wave is like paddling into an ocean wave. To perform this, you have to enter the river at some distance above the river wave. Hop into the water and paddle up the river to position yourself with the pocket of the river wave. Once you start to drop onto the river wave, continue paddling up until you feel the board catch the wave.

2. Jumping from the side

To jump into a wave from the side, put yourself next to the wave on the rocks or in the water. Before jumping, make sure you have a solid foundation to jump from. Face up the river next to the wave, then glide out onto the wave on the board in a prone position. Once you’re on the wave, take a few paddle strokes to make sure you catch the wave.

3. Acid dropping

This is one of the most fun yet hard ways to catch a river wave. To do this, you’ll need to position yourself on a solid platform or rock next to the wave. Face up the river holding the board in your hand with the deck facing your body. Then, glide onto the board with your feet smooth as possible and a forward momentum onto the wave. Once you hit the pocket of the wave, put some pressure on your front or back foot to straighten out on the wave.

River Surfing Safety

A man surfing in the river with other surfers and observers on the river banks

Since you’ll be in a river with flowing water, be aware of the significant risks involved in this sport. Make sure you’re familiar with the dangers and safety measures, so ask local surfers, check the river at low flow, and look for any potential dangers downriver and upriver before you go surfing.

Here are some risks and safety measures you must be aware of:

1. Drowning

As with any water sport, drowning is a real danger associated with the activity, especially in a river with fast-flowing rapids. Lack of swimming skills can put you in danger, so anyone who wants to try river surfing must be a strong swimmer. To reduce risk, a surfer must be trained on swimming techniques for rivers. You need a little bit more stamina and force as compared to swimming in a pool.

2. Foot entrapments

Standing up in the river’s main current can cause foot entrapments, which is the number one cause of injury in rivers. This can happen if your foot gets wedged between rocks or other concealed debris and the unyielding current pushes you underwater. It can be challenging to free because of the power of the river. If the water level rises above your knees, the possibility of foot entrapment can become a life-threatening situation.

To be safe, never put your feet down in the river until the current is below your knees. Swim and keep your feet up until you can touch the river bed with your hands while your head is above the water.

3. Rope entrapments

Rope entrapments are also equally as dangerous. Unlike when surfing in the ocean, you must not use ankle leashes or tow ropes as they can get caught on rocks or other debris in the water. Don’t use a foot leash, and as much as possible, don’t attach a leash to your body while going into the river unless there’s a high flow.

4. Hitting the river bottom

The depth of the river is constantly changing, so it’s best to prepare for more shallow depths by falling flat. Whenever you feel you’re going to fall, try to fall as flat as possible so as not to hit rocks on the bottom of the river and injure yourself or damage your equipment.

River Surfing Etiquette

A group of surfers waiting for their turn at the riverbank while one is surfing

When surfing in the river with other people, make sure you follow proper etiquette for your and everybody else’s safety and enjoyment.

1. Respect the lineup.

Surfers usually form a line along the river bank. They may have different starting points – you may be getting into the wave on one side, while someone else could be getting in on the other side. Communication with other surfers is vital to make sure your boards won’t collide.

Also, consider the kayakers if some are around. They don’t wait in line at the bank, so make sure you pay attention to whose turn it is and communicate with the kayakers who are going next.  

2. Be conscious of your wave time.

The good thing about river surfing is that the wave doesn’t go anywhere – it keeps ongoing. So if you wanted to, you could surf for hours. Unless you’re the only one at the wave, there’s a reasonable amount of time a surfer should stay on the wave. If there’s a long line of surfers, be conscious of how long you ride the waves. Two minutes is the maximum amount of time recommended, but a minute is ideal. It may not sound like a long time, but it feels like it when you’re on the wave.

3. Know the river traffic signals.

Kayaks and other crafts traveling downstream always have the right of way. You will see approaching kayakers and standup paddleboarders holding their paddles up in the air to confirm whether or not their path is clear because it’s easy for them to eddy out or stop until the channel is clear.

When they hold their paddle vertically, it means “good to go” or “all clear.” On the other hand, when they hold their paddles horizontally, it means “stop.” As a river surfer, you can communicate the same signals using your arms, surfboard, or paddle.

4. Don’t just throw your paddle into the eddy.

Swimming while holding a paddle can be challenging, so some people tend to throw their paddle into the eddy so they can swim faster into it. Don’t do this if the lineup or eddy is crowded with people – no one wants to get hit in the face with a paddle. Also, don’t do this expecting other people to catch your paddle for you unless you are really close friends with them and you had an agreement. Though, most people will likely catch it because river people are generally nice. But keep in mind that your gear is your own responsibility.