River Surfing Guidelines for the Ocean Surfer

What if I told you in many parts of the country and world there are waves that never end? They go on and on, you can surf all day, the locals are friendly, and the biggest fish you’ll encounter are the size of your forearm. Sounds perfect right? Now, what if I told you they exist in places like Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon? Yup, these seemingly utopian places exist on many rivers all across the country and the world.

River surfing is fairly new and as more people become aware of it’s existence the harder we’ll have to work at maintaining the essence of what makes river surfing so damn good. Just like in the ocean there’s a certain protocol to follow when surfing river waves. Each wave presents it’s own risks and those risks are very different from that of the ocean.


Think of this as your ocean to river surfing transitional guide. I’ll include all the basic guidelines you need to know before jumping into the river. This will make sure you stay safe, you don’t get lectured by a local, and you don’t put someone else at risk.

I’m going to break it up into three catergories…


    River Surfing Hazards
    Compliments of Surf Anywhere

    This is at the top of the list because it is the most important. Every river surfing death has happened due to an ankle leash. See the picture below as to why they are a hazard. Make sure you have a quick release leash or no leash at all. In lower/slower flow rivers no leash is usually best (easy to swim to and stay by your board). In high flows your board tends to be your life-line, quick-release leash is highly recommended.

  1. Lifejacket (aka PFD), you probably won’t need something bulky but a little float won’t hurt. Especially, since you’re new to river currents. The Patagonia R1 Padded Big Wave Vest tends to be one of our favorites as it is low profile, adds extra float, and there’s absolutely no foam under the stomach.
  2.  Helmet: you’ll see more and more surfers wearing a helmet these days. Not only are there plenty of rocks you could hit your head on but your board can and will come down on your head from time to time.

The Wave & What to Look For

  1.  Watch the other surfers for awhile. See how and where they enter the wave. Watch what they do once they swim. Do they get right back on their board and paddle to shore or do they Michael Phelps it to shore while dragging their board behind them?
  2. Where are the surfers getting out? What happens if you miss that take-out? Are there any hazards below there and where’s the next safe spot to take out?
  3. Is it shallow?
  4. If there aren’t any surfers, wait until there is, if this is your first time don’t go alone.

River Surfing Etiquette

  1. The Line-up
    River Surfing Lineups
    Photographer: Heather Jackson
    • Surfers will form a line along the bank, they may have different starting points, you could be getting into the wave on one side of the river and someone else could be getting in on the other side. Making eye contact and communicating with each other is key.
    • Take into consideration the kayakers. They are unable to wait in line on the bank like we can. Make sure you pay attention to who’s turn it is and communicate with the kayakers as to who is up next.
  2. Time on the wave: the beautiful thing about river surfing is how long of rides you can get! If you have a long line-up be conscience of your time on the wave. Don’t spend anymore than a minute on the wave. If you overstay your welcome you’ll hear whistles from the bank, you’re cue to get the hell off.
  3. Downstream traffic: Crafts traveling downstream always have the right of way. You’ll notice rafters and kayakers will ask you if it’s clear by holding their paddle up in the air these same signals can be communicated to those upstream using your board. A vertical paddle means all clear (good to go) and a horizontal paddle/board means stop (not clear). See illustrations below…
    River Communication Horizontal Paddle Means StopVertical Paddle Means Good To Go



  1. Standing up in the river: Do not stand up in the main current of the river. This can result in what is called a foot entrapment. Your feet become wedged in between some rocks and the current proceeds to push you under water.
  2. Look out for eachother: On the river, we are a team, a collective. Always look out for one another, make sure your fellow surfer made it out of the river safely.
  3. Fall flat: If you’re in a shallow river fall as flat as possible so as to not hit any rocks. Stay as flat as possible until it is safe to flip over onto your stomach and swim to your board or to the shore.

Just about any wave you go to you’ll find that the surfers are friendly and inclusive. Especially if you follow these very simple guidelines…they won’t have any idea you’re new to the scene. Take a break from the salty crowded breaks and surf a river.

-Brittany Parker



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