10 Essential Rules of Surfing Every Surfer Should Know

Whether you’re just starting out surfing or have spent decades in the water, knowing and following the rules of surfing is incredibly important to not only your own safety, but also the safety of everyone around you. Additionally, following the rules of surfing and adhering to surf etiquette are important to everyone having a fun time, and maintaining a positive atmosphere in the lineup. This article covers the essential rules of surfing.

Not quite up to date on surf lingo? I recommend checking my surf slang dictionary before reading this post so you know what terms like “duck dive”, “lineup”, “sets”, etc mean. 

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Follow the right of way

Following the right of way, aka understanding who has “wave priority”, is one of the most important rules of surfing. 

When two surfers are paddling for the same wave, the surfer who is closest to the peak has priority, and when they catch the wave, the second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) surfer needs to back off the wave. 

Additionally, the surfer who is up to their feet first has priority/right of way on the wave. 

Don’t drop in on people

“Dropping in on someone” refers to the act of catching a wave in front of someone who is already riding it, and you should never do this while surfing. Not only is it rude and inconsiderate, but it is also dangerous and can lead to a collision. 

Surfers have been seriously injured in collisions, and avoiding dropping in makes it a safer environment for all. 

On the other side, if you’re riding a wave and someone looks like they’re about to drop in on you, whistle at them or get their attention so they see you and know to back off the wave. 

Don’t snake or back paddle

Another important rule of surfing etiquette is to avoid snaking or back paddling. Snaking/back paddling refers to the act of paddling around another surfer in order to position oneself closer to the peak of the wave and get priority. 

However, if you have priority for the wave over the person paddling next to you, and you either miss the wave or decide to pull off, priority goes to the next person in line. 

Remember, everyone is out there trying to catch waves and have fun. Wait your turn, and waves will come. There are waves for everyone! 

Don’t be a wave hog

Another important rule of surfing is to not be a wave hog, aka taking all the waves for yourself and not sharing with any of the other surfers. Just because you’re on the biggest board, and/or paddle to the peak every single wave, doesn’t mean that you should take every wave. This is  poor surfing etiquette. 

Don’t bail your board

duck dive, surf safety
Example of a proper duck dive

This one is HUGE when it comes to surf safety! When you’re paddling out to the lineup and a wave comes, do not simply toss your board to the side and swim under, aka bailing your board. If you’re on a 9 foot board wearing a 9 foot leash, then you could potentially hit someone with your surfboard from almost 20 feet away from you! 

The proper way to safely avoid incoming waves as you paddle out to the lineup is to either duck dive your board if you’re riding a smaller board, or to turtle roll your board if you’re riding a larger  board. Learning how to hold onto your board in the surf is very important for beginner surfers.

Paddle out safely and properly 

This rule of surfing goes hand in hand with not bailing your board. When paddling out, it’s important to choose the right path so as not to interfere with other surfers who are up and riding waves. A common mistake is to paddle straight out through the middle of the lineup, which is not only dangerous but also inconvenient to surfers  riding.

If possible, always paddle wide around the lineup to get back outside. Also, do your best to wait for the set to end before paddling out. 

Don’t litter

Leave no trace principles absolutely apply when it comes to surfing. If you bring anything to the beach with you, be sure to take it back home to dispose of it properly. Even further, if you see any trash in the water while you’re surfing or on the beach, take it with you to dispose of it.

Spread kindness

One of the most important rules of surfing is to spread kindness rather than negativity. A lot of surf cultures and communities have a reputation for gatekeeping surfing, being cruel to beginners, aggressive to travelers, and even being physically violent to other surfers in the water. Rather than engaging, we can combat the negativity by being extra kind to other surfers in the water, and remember-  you were a beginner once too. 

Respect the locals and the lineup

On the other hand, it’s still important to show respect to the locals and the surf lineup. While traveling to different surf spots all over the world is amazing, there are ways to be respectful about it, and show good surf etiquette. Don’t paddle out at a new break and start taking every wave for yourself, or paddle up on the locals. It’s better practice to paddle out politely to the side, watch for a while, and wait your turn to catch waves. Also, a smile goes a long way to making friends in the lineup. 


Communication is another key aspect of surfing etiquette and can help prevent accidents and conflicts in the water. For example, if you’re about to drop in on an A-frame wave with a surfer paddling right next to you, you can communicate which direction you’re going so they know, and can try to go the other direction. Additionally, if you’re riding along a wave and someone isn’t paying attention and is about to drop in on you, you can whistle at or call to them to let them know you’re coming. Kind, clear, and respectful communication go a long way in keeping peace in the lineup. 

Additionally, if you accidentally drop in on someone, or are paddling out and get in a surfers way, or cause some sort of collision, apologize! Apologizing can go a long way in de-escalating a situation, and is the right thing to do when you’re in the wrong. 

Know your limits

Another imperative rule of surfing is to know your limits, and never paddle out in conditions outside your skill level. Not only is this dangerous to you, but it also endangers anyone who needs to try to save you when you paddle out somewhere you shouldn’t. 

Have fun

Finally, one of the most important rules of surfing is to have fun. Some people take surfing so seriously to the point where they lose the joy in it. Unless you’re competing… we’re really only out here to have fun. One of my favorite surf sayings is “the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun.”

Rules of surfing- final thoughts

In conclusion, following the rules of surfing and adhering to surf etiquette is not only important for your own safety, but also for the safety and enjoyment of everyone else in the water with you.

From understanding wave priority and right of way,  to avoiding dangerous behaviors like dropping in, snaking, and bailing your board, there are a number of essential rules to keep in mind when you hit the waves. 

By spreading kindness, showing respect to locals, and communicating with other surfers, you can help maintain a positive atmosphere and ensure that everyone has a great time. So the next time you paddle out, remember to follow these rules and above all- have fun. 

Happy surfing! 

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