Badfish's Intro to River Surfing Guide

Badfish's Intro to River Surfing Guide

Colorado and other states have been getting hammered with snow all season. Our home state is currently at an average snowpack of 143%! If you're reading this you probably know what that's going to be one heck of a river surfing season! So, to help you get ready for it we've put together a little intro to river surfing guide. Like in the ocean there is a certain protocol to follow when surfing a river wave. But don't worry the river surfing culture is still, in our opinion, a bit more relaxed. This is simply to ensure you stay safe, don't put someone else at risk, and have a positive experience out in the water.

We're going to break it down into four categories; safety, gear, wave assessment, and etiquette.

Safety Gear

1. No Ankle Leashes
We've put this at the top of the list because it is the most important. Every recorded river surfing death was due to an ankle leash. The above image demonstrates precisely why ankle leashes are a hazard on the river. There are many alternatives to ankle leashes out there should you choose to use a leash...all of which will have a quick release mechanism on them. 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. Check out our Re'Leash system which allows you to connect to any pfd or lifejacket.
2. PFD or Lifejacket
We know finding a PFD that is low-profile for shortboard river surfing can be tricky. Although it may take some time to get use to paddling on your stomach wearing a PFD you will get use to it. PFDs are important for obvious reasons you're not as buoyant in fresh water, it's must easier to rescue someone with a pfd, and if you're knocked unconscious you will still float. A life jacket could be the difference between life or death. Our team riders really like the Astral YTV as a low-profile river rated pfd.
3. Helmet

There are plenty of things to hit your head on at the river. Don't be the one that sets a no helmet trend.

The Wave and What to Look for

1. Observe

From the bank, watch the other surfers. See how and where they enter the wave. Pay attention to what they do when 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. Walk the Swim Out

Walk the swim out along the riverbank. See where the surfers are getting out and whats past that point in case you miss the typical take-out. Are there any hazards below there and where’s the next safe spot to take out

3. Getting into the Wave

Pay attention to how the surfers are entering the wave. Are they jumping from the bank? Are they paddling up the eddy? Are they dropping in from above?

River Surfing Etiquette

1. The Line-up

  • 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. Wave Time

The beautiful thing about river surfing is the wave isn't going anywhere (in most cases), so if you wanted to you could surf it for hours. But, unless you're the only one at the wave there's a reasonable amount of time a surfer should stay on a wave. If you have a long line-up be conscience of your wave time. Two minutes is the maximum amount of time we would recommend surfing a wave...but one minute is ideal. Maybe you're wondering how you will know when you've been on the wave for too long. Two minutes may not sound like a long time but it sure feels like it when you're on the wave. You'll know when you've been surfing for too long; and if not, those waiting in line will let you know with whistles or by slapping their boards on the water. So don't overstay your welcome.

3. Downstream Traffic

Crafts traveling downstream ALWAYS have the right of way. You’ll notice approaching kayakers and stand up paddle boarders holding their paddles up in the air to confirm whether or not the path is clear despite having the right of way. This is because it is easy for them to eddy out and stop their craft until the channel is clear. They do this by holding their paddle vertically (good to go or all clear) or horizontally (not clear or stop). These same signals can be communicated to those upstream using your surfboard, paddle, or arms. See illustrations below…

4. Throwing your Paddle

Swimming with a paddle can be challenging. Some people turn to throwing their paddle into the eddy so they're able to aggressively swim into it. We discourage this act, especially if the line-up or eddy is crowded...nobody wants to get hit in the face with your paddle. Also, don't do this expecting other people to catch your paddle for you, even though they most likely will because lets face it river people are the nicest. Your gear is your own responsibility.


1. Look out for Each Other

On the river, we are a team, a collective. Always check to make sure your fellow surfer made it out of the river safely before hoping into the wave, especially if you're the only one in the line-up.

2. Standing up in the River

Standing up in the main current of the river can result in what is called a foot entrapment. A foot entrapment is when your feet become wedged between rocks and the unyielding current pushes you under water. If the water level is above your knees the possibility of this becoming a life threatening situation increases. Swim (keep your feet up) until you can touch the river bed with your hands while still keeping your head above water.

3. Fall Flat

River depth is constantly changing so it's important to always prepare for more shallow depths by falling flat. Falling flat will lessen your chances of hitting rocks and injuring yourself.

4. Don't go Alone

If this your first time to a wave don't go alone. There may be some hazards that aren't visible from the river bank. If there aren’t any other surfers there, wait until there is. Ask a local surfers if there are any hazards that you should be aware of, they will be happy to help.

5. Educate

Some people will show up not knowing anything about the river. And by no fault of their own, there isn't a lot of resources out there. If you see someone who isn't practicing river safety, kindly inform them. Some people will be so grateful you took the time to help them and others may not...but at least you tried.We hope you found this useful and informative. And if you have anything you'd like to add or feel like we missed please feel free to leave it in the comment section. Be friendly out there surfers, we're all in this for the same reasons, and everyone deserves to experience the joy of river surfing. - Brittany Parker
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