Like most sports, river surfing is tough to learn for beginners. Things get tougher – and far more dangerous – if you’re not using the right gear. This primer gives you an outline of what river surfing gear you need to get started and stay safe.
To the chagrin of many spouses and boyfriends/girlfriends of river surfers, there is no single board that will surf well on all waves in all conditions. Instead, most surfers develop a quiver of boards that work well in their area. Now you can certainly start with a traditional ocean surf board you pick up off of craigslist, but odds are that you’ll have made things harder on yourself. It’ll be easier to learn if you start with something with higher volume and more planing area than most ocean shortboards, and less length than the long soft top boards that most ocean surfers start out on so you can fit onto the wave. The Wavestorm Taquito, a kids stand up paddleboard, works pretty well for first timers, particularly on flatter waves:
Another cheap option is the California Board Company 6’2″ Fish; its thruster setup will give you more options on the water, but the lower volume makes popping up tougher:
Longer review here; and a few other reviews can be found over here. Something like the Bic Paint will also work well. Save fiberglass boards for when you have your feet under you a little better, and don’t drive your board into the rocks quite so often.
Wearing a helmet is mandatory, or should be, at most waves in Colorado. The rocks are close, and all it takes is one bad fall to brain yourself on either the rocks forming the feature or the rocks under it. Though you’ll occasionally see surfers out there with bike helmets or climbing helmets, you’re better off with something designed for whitewater. It’s not a huge investment, and it’s way cheaper than lost wages or attendant care. WRSI helmets stay low over your forehead — one of the biggest dangers is a helmet slipping back and exposing the front of your noggin — and they’re reasonably priced to too:
If you’re coming to river surfing from ocean surfing, your first instinct is probably to want to wear an ankle leash. Wearing an ankle leash is the easiest way to kill yourself while river surfing. When ocean surfing, the force of the waves and the water comes in sets, with breaks in between. If you get an ankle leash hung up river surfing, the relentless force of the water shoves you downstream without any respite, and if your ankle leash is hung up on a rock, you won’t be able to reach your leash in anything but the gentlest of currents. If nobody can reach you in a manner of minutes, you’re dead.
That’s why many river surfers won’t wear a leash, or if they do, it’s on a quick release around their waists. If you’re wearing a PFD, a rescue vest is the best way to go, since it comes with a releasable hard-point built in. The Astral Green Jacket is a popular choice, but there are a lot of good rescue PFDs out there.
Another option is to wear a releasable waist belt, like the Badfish Re-Leash.
A PFD is a good idea, particularly in any high-volume waves where currents will try to hold you down for a while. If you’re interested in wearing a leash, you’ll want a rescue vest like the Green Jacket or something similar, like the Kokatat Ronin. But if you want to ditch the leash and go low profile, a wakeboarding vest like the Hyperlite Indy can work well.
Many whitewater rivers in Colorado are creatures of blast rock, thanks to either roadway or railway development. Urban rivers like the South Platte have broken glass and other trash to deal with. So some foot protection is probably a good idea. Thinner booties like the NRS Frestyle give you a better feel for the board but give less protection than something thicker like the NRS Paddle Wetshoes.
Unless you’re restricting your surfing to low elevation summertime surfing, board shorts aren’t going to cut it for very long. A shortie or a 3:2 wetsuit (3mm chest, 2mm arms and legs) like the O’Neill Reactor or Epic work well for late spring and early fall. Later into the cold season brings time for a 4:3 wetsuit. If you want to ride year-round somewhere like Colorado, do yourself a favor and invest in a drysuit for when things turn bitter; Kokatat’s GMER is the gold standard.