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How to Do A Surf Check in 4 steps


Board, check.

Wax, check.

Leash, check.

Sunscreen, check.

Super cute surf suit, check.

Surf Check in Lombok
Audrey and Pua checking the surf in Lombok

You’re at the beach and you’re all set to rip, so what’s next?  Is there anything left to do besides charge out into the ocean and catch a few waves? Easy there, Gidget. If you want to stay safe, avoid situations beyond your skill level, and have a blast surfing, you need to know what your getting into before you go.  Even without ever looking at a surf report or surf forecast on the Internet, a few minutes of visual observation can give the experienced surfer volumes of information about what to expect from the ocean.  

First and foremost, knowing how to do a surf check will allow you decide whether it’s safe for you to go out.  Whether your at your local beach break or a remote reef break in Indonesia, every surfer has limits.  Understanding yours will not only help you stay out of danger but will allow you to push your boundaries slowly and safely to improve your skills as a surfer and Water Woman.

A proper surf check will also help you catch more waves, take fewer sets on the head, and feel yourself get “in sync” with the ocean.  If you struggle surfing in crowds or always feel like you’re just not in the right place to catch a wave, learning how to do a surf check properly will turn your sessions around for the better.

Every time you arrive at the beach with the intention to surf, you should go through the same steps in doing your surf check. 

Surf Check Step 1: Check the surf Before You Leave the House

I wake up early everyday and one of the first things I do is check the Surfline app to get a feel for the waves and weather of the day. Surfline has a camera on the beach down the street from my house and gives me a 14 day forecast. Besides Surfline, there are several surf forecasting websites that are popular among surfers for providing accurate and up-to-date information about surf conditions. I also love Windy for more remote locations. Here are some examples, along with what makes each one different:

  1. Surfline: Surfline is my favorite surf forecasting app because it offers detailed surf forecasts for all my favorite surf spots around the world. What sets Surfline apart is its high-quality surf cams, which provide live streaming video of surf spots, allowing surfers to check the conditions in real time. I’ve always had a premium membership because I hate ads and use this more than almost any other app on my phone daily.
  2. Windguru is known for its detailed wind and wave forecasts, which are particularly useful for kite surfers and wind surfers. It provides information about wind speed, wind direction, wave height, and swell period. Windguru also offers a variety of forecast models, allowing users to choose the one that best suits their needs.
  3. Windy: I used Windy heaps on my recent trip to Southern Oaxaca has the wind would completely change throughout the day and it would open up a whole bunch of new spots. Windy is a comprehensive weather forecasting website that provides information about wind, waves, and weather conditions worldwide. It offers a variety of forecast models, including ECMWF, GFS, and NAM, allowing users to compare different forecasts and make informed decisions about their surfing plans. Windy’s user-friendly interface and interactive map, makes it easy to visualize the forecasted conditions and feel like I’m a proper sailor or pirate when I do so.

Checking the surf cams before you go down to the beach can save you a lot of time and hassle. If it’s massive or super windy, you can stay in bed.

Surf Check step 2: Evaluate the Conditions

If you’ve checked the surf on the cams or are rocking up analog, you need to spend some time analyzing the break you want to surf. No matter what level you are, you need to watch for 10-15 minutes, especially on a day that may be challenging for you. If you check too quickly, you may be watching a lull and paddle out as a monster set rises from the horizon. Start by checking the conditions including swell, tide, wind, spot set-up (it can change day-to-day).


Begin with the waves.  Use other surfers as indicators of both wave height and difficulty.  Measure waves compared to your body rather than in feet or meters. Use visualization to put yourself in the position of the surfers in the line-up, would you be uncomfortable at that size? Could you imagine yourself taking off on a wave or being held under by one of the sets? When you ask yourself, “how big are the waves today?”


  • Ankle-high
  • Knee-high
  • Waist-high
  • Head-high
  • Double overhead (you could stack a clone of the guy surfing that wave on top and be at the height of the lip)
  • Triple-overhead


The tides fluctuate from low to high every 6 hours. Both the timing and height of the tide follows the cycle of the moon and varies day to day.  The state of the tide plays a major role in the shape and the strength of the waves.  Certain breaks favour certain tides.  For example, on a very low tide, you may find your local beach break nearly unsurfable with dumpy closeouts every where you look.  Return a few hours later and you may find much better conditions with nice peaks, long walls, and easy exits.  Likewise, at a reef break, low tide can mean barrels and not much water between you and the reef.  You can usually identify the tide by looking for the high tide mark and how much beach or reef is covered by water.  As a general rule, high tide means softer and more forgiving waves than low tide.  


The direction and strength of wind seriously affects surfing conditions.  No wind or light offshore winds will mean glassy conditions.  Onshore, side shore or heavy offshores can ruin the waves or make surfing nearly impossible.  The golden lining is that, if you’re willing to search, you can often find another surf spot that just loves the prevailing wind of the day.  

How to do a surf check
Do you see what I see?

Surf Check Step 3: Surf Spot Set-Up

Once you’ve had a look at the conditions, it’s time to analyse the set-up at that particular break.  Understanding the layout and structure of a break will help you paddle out more easily, be in the right spot to catch waves, and avoid taking sets on the head.  

  • Structure:  Are you surfing a beach break or reef break?  Where do the waves break most consistently?  Can you guess what the bottom looks like?  Take time to understand the layout of a break and you’ve got a golden ticket to an excellent surf session.
  • Rips: Recognizing rip currents is an important skill for the safety of any beachgoer, but for surfers, a rip can be a bullet train to the outside.  As you should know, rip currents are channels in the ocean floor where water is drawn.  The pull along the beach and eventually out to sea. Just where you want to go if you are catching unbroken waves.  Use a rip to avoid duck dives and long paddles. 
  • Channel:  In places like Indonesia, if you flew a drone above a break, you’d like see a channel or deep spot through the reef.  Knowing where the channel is can protect you in case of big sets.  If you see waves looming on the horizon paddle away from the peak and into the channel. Deeper water will prevent the waves from breaking.  
  • Impact Zone & Peak: While on the beach, take time to identify where the waves are breaking, the best place to catch a wave, and the worst place to be when a set comes.  Use landmarks on the beach or cliffs to mark these spots.  

Surf Check Step 4: Other Factors to consider as part of your surf check

  • Crowd:  Another element of doing a proper surf check is reading the crowd.  Can you see from the beach how tough it is to get a wave?  Watch the crowd.  Are they sitting to deep?  Are guys paddling each other out of position?  Where is the best place to sit to catch waves with the fewest people? Learn more about using a crowd to your advantage here.
  • Equipment:  Think about the equipment (ie surfboards) you have available when watching a surf break. Certain waves require specific boards (check out our article about choosing the correct surfboard).  For example, for very small waves or high tide rollers, you’ll want a longboard or fish with a bit of extra volume.  For big, hollow waves, you want a performance board with a lot of rocker and slightly more volume than your usual shortboard. 

Tip: Using Landmarks

It’s a good idea to get in the habit of using landmarks or markers on the beach and cliffs at the break you are watching.  Use a tree or umbrella on the beach to mark where you see the wave you want to surf breaking.  You can also mark a horizontal point if there is a cliff near by to tell you how far out to paddle.  This way you line up your markers and paddle directly to that spot each time you want to catch a wave.  Takes the guess work out of being the right place.

At the Sea Hearts Surfaris, we will do a Surf Check every day, every time we paddle out, and at every single spot in Lombok and beyond.  You’ll build your ability to recognize whether to surf, where to surf, and how to catch the best waves from the beach. 

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