Ah surfing, the sport of champions. It provides incredible exercise, a raw immersion in nature, and a lifetime of challenges. The best part is there are no lift tickets, tee times, or club fees. All you really need is your body, a wave, and a board. That being said, there is a lot of gear that is made for surfing that will make your experience a lot more comfortable, especially if you live in colder climates. Innovations in surf tech have grown by leaps and bounds in the last decades, and so we’re presenting to you our favorite stuff for riding the waves.
There is so, so, so much gear out there that even a large team of surfers could never hope to test all of it. I am but one human surfer, who can only surf so much in any given week, and only when the waves are cooperating. I did absurd amounts of research to narrow down which gear I would test, and I made sure I had enough time with each item to put it through its paces. There are still plenty of bits and pieces that I am eager to try, and I hope to pit those against this year’s picks when I revisit this piece in 2023.
It must also be said that different equipment will be better and worse for different people and different conditions. I’ve been surfing for about 17 years, but would call myself intermediate, as I’ve gone through long periods out of the water. These last few years have been my most active, though, and I’ve seen the most progression in that time. I’m 42 years old, male, 6’1”, about 170 pounds, and I primarily surf beach breaks, reef breaks, and point breaks in and around Los Angeles and Northern California. What is right for me may not be right for you, but I did my best to cover a broad cross-section of surfers.
OK, let’s get to the goods.
This is absolutely the toughest category on this list, because there is just an infinite variety of these things. Dozens of boards from hundreds of brands, often with more than 10 options for length, width, thickness, materials, etc. I tested a lot of boards for this, many of which did not make the cut, and to simplify things, I broke my picks down based on what will best fit specific needs.
It’s also worth noting that while these are all new boards, and new boards are expensive, if you’re just getting into surfing, or are evolving toward being an intermediate surfer, it’s probably a good idea to start with a cheap, used board. You can find these on Craigslist, OfferUp, or your local surf shop. That will help you experiment with what does and what doesn’t work for you. Demo days at local board shops are also great for that. You’ll want to have a good idea of the basic dimensions you like to use as a starting point before you commit to spending a bunch of money on a new board. Length and volume are typically the most important metrics to pay attention to, but nose and tail rocker, shape, and general outline will be a big factor, too.
Best All-Around Shortboard: Pyzel Phantom (round tail) — $795
A lot of pro surfers use Pyzel boards, and so for years I stayed away, thinking they were too advanced for me. That may be true of some of their shapes, but the Phantom (6’1” round tail version) surprised me by being one of the most user-friendly boards I’ve ever tried. It paddles incredibly well and is very stable under-foot. It has a ton of drive to get down the line, but it also turns effortlessly.
I used this board in everything from 2-3-foot beach break slop to racing 6-foot+ right-hand point-breaks, and the board didn’t blink. In other words, it can grovel (i.e. catch small, weak waves) decently well but can still hold a line when things get critical. It’s good with steep, late drops, too. I went with the five fin-box version, so I could ride it as a thruster (three fins) or quad (four fins). It’s so versatile that if I could only have one board, this would probably be it. When things start getting in the double-overhead range (8-foot plus) you’ll probably want to have a step-up, and I actually found a 6’ 6” Pyzel Tank for $300 on Craigslist that I use for those big days. But for everyday conditions, the Phantom is dreamy.
My one concern is that the version I got is a traditional polyurethane board, and it’s lightly glassed, which provides great flexibility, but it does make it a bit more delicate and susceptible to dings. For that reason, I’d hesitate to take it on trips where it might get banged around. That said, you can also order (or maybe find) this board in epoxy or even carbon, which will add strength but also some stiffness.
Best Travel Board: Lost + Lib Tech Quiver Killer — $850
The idea of a “one-board quiver” gets bandied about a lot, and I generally think it’s bullshit. If that term confuses you, think of it like Hawkeye– just like he has a quiver of highly specialized trick arrows, a surfer will have a quiver of surfboards, each best suited for a particular task. Typically, trying to slim your quiver down to one board results in a board that tries to do everything, but ends up not doing anything particularly well.
That in mind, I went into testing this board, a so-called “Quiver Killer,” with low expectations, but I was absolutely blown away. This board is so damn fun. It’s one of the fastest-paddling boards I’ve ever tried. It grovels slightly better than the Phantom (above) in really small, weak waves, but it holds up very solidly when things get head-high and slightly above (though I’d give the edge to the Phantom when it gets up into the 6-8 foot range). I couldn’t believe it. I went with the five fin-box, 6’0” and it feels great.
There are two reasons why I’m putting this down as the, hands-down, best travel board. For starters, the versatility I mentioned above means that if you can only take one board on a trip (airline fees are often very expensive), this one will cover you for the vast majority of conditions you’re likely to encounter. The other component is that, while Lost/Mayhem designed this board, this version is made with Lib Tech’s “Eco Impact” technology. This includes thermo-molding in items like the board’s high-strength carbon stringer, magnesium fiber, plant-based resin, and honeycomb panels. That may all sound buzzwordy, but the result is a board that’s generally regarded as the strongest on the market. There are videos of these things being backed over by trucks and coming out just fine. I wouldn’t try that myself, but the point is this board is very hard to ding or crease, and should stand up to the rigors of trunks and luggage compartments better than most. For that toughness, it still has a very pleasing flex. It’s borderline sorcery.
Best Groveler: Firewire Sweet Potato — $860
This is the shortest, fattest board I have ever surfed. I rode the 5’6” version (seven inches shorter than I am!), and honestly, I probably should have gone down to 5’4”. That’s because the nearly 38 liters of volume felt a bit too floaty. It’s so short that I kept popping up with my weight too far forward and sinking the nose, like a noob. Honestly, it was a bit disorienting. But once I adjusted and put myself all the way at the tail of the board, this thing came alive, and it could catch just about anything.
Because of the extreme width (and potato-like shape), the board gets on a plane with minimum effort and just glides over flat sections. On a small day, I was able to surf through a pier for the first time in my life, making me feel like I was in the old T & C Surf Designs Nintendo game. Because the board is so short, it fits in the curve of even very small waves and still allows you to do turns without catching an edge. The board is made with Firewire’s Helium technology, which could give Lib Tech a real run for its money when it comes to durability. That said, the Helium construction plus its thickness made this the stiffest board I’ve ever surfed, which took some getting used to. The Sweet Potato is most definitely a small-wave specialist, and I started to struggle once waves got up to about four feet, but if you live in a place where shin-to-waist high waves are frequently on offer, this is a fantastic tool for getting out in the water when your standard shortboard isn’t going to work.
Best Foamie/Beginner/Student Board: South Bay Board Company 8’ Verve Premium — $389
Regardless of your experience, I think it’s great to have a soft-top longboard in your quiver. For one, if you’ve got a friend who wants to try surfing, you’ve got something on-hand for them to ride. For two, these boards can be fun to mess around with when mother nature is dishing out nothing but pond-ripples. Size depends a bit on the person who’s going to be riding it, but generally you want a beginner board to be at least 8-feet long (9-feet would be better for larger folks), and you want it to be made of tough, but soft foam so your student (or you) won’t be injured when they inevitably fall and collide with it.
The South Bay Board Company’s 8-foot Verve Premium Beginner Surfboard is the best I’ve tried in this category without going too high in price. The board is very durable, and it has a tough, rubbery skin that covers the entire deck, protecting both the board and you. It’s made with EPS foam, which is lighter, floatier, and tougher than polyurethane, and it has three stringers running down the middle. It actually rides like a traditional longboard, so when you eventually do transition to the real thing, it’ll be less of a jump. That being said, this isn’t the cheapest foamie out there. I’d only go for this if you know you’re going to use it, because Costco sells foam longboards for about $100, and while the quality definitely isn’t as high, if you’re not sure you’re going to stick with surfing, it probably makes more sense to start there. That said, this board will probably last you a lot longer and take you a lot further in your development.
Okay sheesh, enough surfboards. Let’s move on to the rest of the gear.
Best Overall: 7till8 Custom Surf Fullsuit – starting at $595
Wetsuits used to be so stiff and uncomfortable that you’d typically wait until the water was tooth-chatteringly cold before you put one on. Thankfully, they’ve come a long way. After trying dozens of suits over the years, 7till8 stands out as the best suit money can buy, and it’s not even all that close. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it uses Japanese #40 Yamamoto limestone neoprene, which has about 30% more air bubbles than petroleum neoprene. That lets it feel like a layer of butter coating your whole body. It is so soft, light, flexible, and warm, that you feel almost like you’re wearing silk pajamas. It dries quickly, too.
The second reason is that 7till8 wetsuits are custom. Using a flexible tape measure, a straight edge, and a friend, you submit about 15 body measurements online, and 7till8 whips up a suit that fits like a second skin regardless of your body type. It’s hard to quantify just how wonderful this feels. For starters, a large cross-section of the population doesn’t quite fit standard, off-the-shelf wetsuits, which can lead to bunching and chafing if it’s too loose, or feeling like you’re pulling against a resistance band with every paddle stroke if it’s too tight. This is especially true for plus-sized individuals and people with breasts or other sex characteristics often coded as female. I’ve read reports of people breaking down in tears when they put on their 7till8 because they’d never had a wetsuit that actually fit them. While I didn’t experience anything that dramatic, I will say that this suit feels better than anything I’ve ever tried, and by a comfortable margin. I went with the 4/3mm Convertible suit ($750), which has a hood that can zip on and off, which is fantastic for cold NorCal waters, and it’s so flexible that I can even use it for freediving and spearfishing. These aren’t the cheapest wetsuits, but they aren’t the most expensive either, and in my experience they last long and have one of the best warranties in the business.
We all know that rubber isn’t great for the planet, with most of it being petroleum-based. Even the limestone-derived stuff (see above) uses pretty energy-intensive processes. Patagonia uses a neoprene that is 85-percent Yulex, which is a natural rubber that is FSC certified by the Rainforest Alliance. These suits don’t skimp on performance, though. They have a thick, soft jersey on the inside for extra insulation and they are very warm indeed. I got the 3/2.5mm R1 chest-zip full-suit thinking it would be good for summer, but in retrospect, I should have gone with the 2mm R1 Lite because I get very toasty in this thing. It will be perfect as it starts to cool off in the fall, though.
Now, the R1 isn’t quite as soft and flexible as the 7till8 suit above, and of course, it doesn’t fit as perfectly as a custom suit. But it’s still very comfortable, and it’s a good deal cheaper, so if one fits your body just right, then great! Patagonia also has an excellent warranty and return policy.
Best Booties: Xcel Drylock Split Toe Boot — $95
These are the best booties I’ve ever worn, hands down. The 3mm version is nice and warm, but you don’t sacrifice any of the board-feel, which has been an issue with other boots. The bottoms are tough and grippy, so I actually find I stick to my board better than when I’m barefoot, and they’ve survived many miles of walking on concrete, dirt, and scrambling over sharp rocks to get to breaks. My last pair lasted me more than ten years, which is incredible. When a strap finally ripped off, I immediately bought a new pair, which also happens to dry off even faster than my old version. The split-toe gives a bit of extra control, but the rubber sole fills in the gap so your leash doesn’t get stuck in between your toes. Best booties ever.
Best Boardshorts: Roark Passage Primo — $89
Not going to lie, I’d never even heard of Roark before I tried these shorts, but damned if I don’t absolutely love them. They feature a light, recycled polyester that is four-way stretch and extremely comfortable. It has a conveniently-located side pocket with a zipper, which is a great improvement over the Velcro back pocket most boardshorts now feature. I think the 18-inch length works well for wearing around town, too.
Best Women’s Surf Swimsuit: Hurley Oasis Long Sleeve Retro — $95
Full disclosure: I didn’t try this suit myself, for probably obvious reasons, but I did ask a bunch of female surfer-friends what they preferred to wear, and Hurley’s suits received high marks from several of them. This suit is made of 84-percent recycled nylon and 16-percent Spandex. It’s SPF 50, and the long sleeves should keep you covered (though they make plenty of sleeveless versions, if you know you’re going to be wearing a wetsuit over it). My friends report that they’re comfortable, quick drying, look-good, and provide a good amount of support and coverage.
Best Sandals: Bedrock 3D Pro II Adventure Sandals — $140
These sandals have a cult-like following and I was hesitant to be inducted. I’d been a Chacos person for decades, and Teva before that. That all ended the moment I put the Bedrocks on. They are so damn comfy. The straps keep them perfectly attached to my feet, but they’re easier to clear of rocks and sand than my Chacos. They’re also zero-drop, so my lower back feels good even if I wear them for hours, and they have a burly Vibram tread on the bottom. I’ve worn these on long asphalt walks to the beach as well as while clinging to ropes and backing down steep, rocky cliffs to access some semi-secret spots. I also wear them on long, non-surf-related hikes. They’re expensive, but I basically haven’t taken them off all summer.
Best Surfskate: Waterborne Taurus ($242) and Carver Kai Lenny Dragon C7 ($285)
These might look like regular skateboards, but don’t be fooled. The front trucks swivel and twist in a very different way, and the result is a board that rides much more like a surfboard. Instead of kicking with your foot, you twist your body and pump, which is how you turn and generate speed in the water, too. The result is a board that helps you practice proper technique even when you’re landlocked or the waves are flat.
There are two boards I tried that stood out to me while testing, though they feel very different. Carver is kind of the OG surfskate brand, and its C7 truck is designed to replicate the feel of surfing. These boards actually cruise decently well, and pumping generates a fair amount of forward movement, so while I wouldn’t want to go a long distance on any surfskate, this would be the closest to fitting the bill. The wheels are nice and fat, too, which helps glide over imperfections in the pavement. I’ve had a blast taking this board around town.
That said, to me, the Waterborne setup feels like a closer analogue to surfing. Both the front and rear truck accommodate way more tilt, but there’s a limiter on the front truck to prevent the dreaded “wheel bite” (i.e. catching an edge and going flying over the nose). This board sits higher off the wheels, and dives way more from side to side, which may be trickier for beginners, but to me it feels more similar to sinking a rail in the water when going for a turn. Waterborne also sells its adapter kits pretty cheaply (starting at $60), so if you have an old skateboard deck lying around, you can just throw these on there and see if you like it. Waterborne has more side to side action than front speed generation, and it turns a lot sharper, but I found myself gravitating to this board over the carver.
It’s worth noting that there are two other highly-regarded surfskate brands: Yow and Smoothstar. Both receive high marks from surfers, but unfortunately they’re very difficult to get in the U.S., so I wasn’t able to try them. Maybe next year…
Best Surf Backpack: Dakine Mission Surf 30L — $95
For four out of five of my surfs, there’s a bit of a trek involved. Dealing with loose items and a dripping wetsuit (especially on the way back) really sucks, especially if it’s cold. This pack is fantastic. It has a massive, waterproof compartment that easily holds my fullsuit, booties, gloves, hood, and beach towel, and there are plenty of small pockets (some of which are padded) for organizing gear like sunglasses, wax, sunblock, and the like. This pack has never dripped on me, it’s comfortable to wear, and it’s easy to clean and dry off. A+.
Best Traction Pads: Slater Designs 5 Piece Action Pad ($48) and Firewire Front Foot Four Piece Traction Pad ($42)
Almost all the steering on a surfboard is done by the back foot, so grip back there is especially critical. I’ve tried dozens of back-foot traction pads over the years, and the 5 Piece Action Pad from Slater Designs is my favorite so far. It’s extremely lightweight, durable, very grippy, but it’s not so abrasive that it shreds your knees if you’re surfing sans wetsuit. The five-piece version lets you spread the pad out to cover the tail of your board just perfectly. On top of that, it’s made with Bloom foam, which is derived from harvested algae that is clogging up freshwater channels. It has just the right texture and it’s arguably good for the environment.
Front foot traction pads are a bit controversial. They were a staple of shortboards in the 1990s, but they’ve made a resurgence in recent years, particularly among those who do a lot of airs. I most definitely do not do airs, and I probably never will, but I’m hooked on front foot traction anyway. First off, it provides better grip than wax, and it adds a bit of cushioning without sacrificing stability. Second, it doesn’t rub off like wax, so you don’t have to reapply before every session (and it doesn’t get into the waterways), plus it doesn’t melt in a hot car and get all over your stuff. You might still need a bit of wax around the edges that it doesn’t cover, but it dramatically reduces the amount you need to use. You just put it on once and forget it, basically, and that’s very worth it to me. This four-piece version from Firewire is made with the same Bloom foam as above, and it provides the best coverage of all the models I’ve tried.
Best Three-Fin Set: Captain Fin Co. Dane Reynolds Fins — $110
While the properties of your board are the biggest determiner of how you can ride a wave, the fins are a close second. Do you want a lot of drive to get down the line in a hurry, or do you want tons of pivot so you can turn on a dime? For most, especially in the beginner to intermediate range, I’d suggest a balanced profile that leans a bit more toward speed generation, since getting around sections is typically a greater concern than doing fancy turns. These fins fit the bill. They provide excellent hold and stability when waves get steeper, and they’re fast but they still turn without having to force it. To me, they strike the right balance between hold and looseness.
Best Five-Fin Set: Futures Pyzel 5 Fins — $178
If you have a surfboard with five fin boxes (something I generally recommend), you should have enough fins to fill them. Not all at once, mind you, but so you can alternate between riding your board as a thruster and a quad. I tend to set my boards as thrusters when the waves are steeper—as I’ll want a little extra hold and stability—and I go for a quad setup when I need as much lateral speed as possible. As above, I really like a balanced profile that leans toward drivey, and this five-fin set from Futures/Pyzel is the best I’ve found so far. These fins have a great balance of stiffness and flex, and you can get a ton of variety from this set alone. I’ve also played with using the front fins from the Dane Reynolds set up above and the quad-rear fins from this set and have had fantastic results.
Best Leash: Dakine Kainui Plus 6ft X 1/4in — $40
I once thought of leashes as pretty interchangeable, and as long as they didn’t break, then I didn’t really care about them. But over time I came to realize that some tangle more easily than others. Some stretch so thin, you’re sure they’re going to snap. Some have more drag in the water than others, too, if only slightly. This leash from Dakine has tangled less than my others. It doesn’t stretch as thin when I get separated from my board in big waves, and it has little speed pockets all over it, so it slips through the water like it’s not even there. Reasonably priced, and super reliable.
Best Changing Robe: Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve — $215
Okay, this thing is overkill for just a changing robe. I mean, it’s voluminous inside, and it gives you plenty of wiggle-room to change in and out of your wetsuit without flashing the general public, but it goes beyond that. It’s rain and windproof, plus it has tons of insulation, pockets, two-way zippers: the works. Basically, it also doubles as a warm, post-surf coat for your spring, winter, and fall surfs, and I’ve loved hanging out in it on those late afternoons when the fog and wind rolls in. That being said, you will roast in this thing during summer. If you don’t need it to double as a coat, I’d recommend the Organic Towel Dryrobe, instead. It’s lightweight, it’ll dry you off while you change, and it’s a way more reasonable $70.
All right, that’s my list for now. There are already boards and other sundry items coming down the pipe I’m excited to try, so I’m hoping to be back next year with an updated list. In the meantime, if you have some favorite items you think I need to try, leave ‘em in the comments below.