What is River Surfing?

River Surfing is just that, surfing on the river. Surfers find a standing wave and drop in facing the board upstream using the gravity of the wave slope and the flow of the river to carve out turns. Surf-able waves however are quite rare. They can be found on just about any river or stream but it takes just the right combination of river bottom shape, water flow and depth to create a ride-able standing wave. Lunch counter near Jackson, Wyoming is probably the most famous naturally occurring surf-able wave in the U.S. but it is a rare gem indeed. Luckily science has provided us way to shape the river as we see fit. Over the past few years Whitewater parks are popping up in cities across the nation engineering epic surf breaks thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. It is an exciting time for the geographically challenged inlander who still feels the call of the surf. Check out some of these man-made breaks throughout the nation:

Reno, Nevada: Truckee Whitewater Park, Truckee River
Pueblo, Colorado
Boise, Idaho: Boise River Whitewater Park
Cascade, Idaho: Kelly’s Whitewater Park
Missoula, Montana: Brennan’s Wave, Clark Fork River
Bend, Oregon: Bend Whitewater Park

What type of gear do I need to River Surf?

The overall equipment required to surf the river is basically the same as ocean surfing. You need a board, wetsuit, booties, positive attitude etc… That being said river waves have a slightly different feel requiring a little more balance and buoyancy to make the most out of each turn. The waves are also typically smaller in size so I prefer a thicker, rounder “fish” style shape with a skatey twin fin or quad fin setup. This of course personal preference but the industry shapers seem to be moving in the direction making short extra thick boards that can float the rider at the top of the wave when the current is trying to push you out.

For your wetsuit it’s a good idea to check the average river temperature for your local break as it can very wildly throughout the year. Just get one middle of the road thickness leaning on the warm side for your particular river when you’re just starting out to avoid dropping a ton of dough on multiple suits. Do invest in good booties with strong traction souls. You’re going to spend a lot of time hiking up river and rocking across slippery rocks your feet will thank you for it.

As far a safety is concerned if you can help it skip the leash. A few people have died when their leashes got caught on underwater debris and they were pinned down by the current. It can be a pain swimming for your board but you’ll get better at holding onto it over time and it’s not worth the risk. Should you choose to use a leash wear one with a quick release pull tab and attach it to your wrist instead of ankle for easy detachment access in the event of an underwater snag. A helmet and or life jacket might not be a bad idea depending on the river depth and your swimming skills.

Where do I find surf-able river waves?

There are natural river waves all across the United States. Over the past few years man made whitewater parks have been built in several river towns. Boise Idaho, Cascade Idaho, Pueblo Colorado, Missoula Montana, Reno Nevada and Bend Oregon all have surf-able man made waves.

How do I learn to surf the river?

If you have ever surfed before it should come pretty naturally. Any town with a good river wave should have at least one surf shop that can provide all the river surf equipment and instruction you will need to surf the river.

How much does river surfing cost?

When first starting out it’s always a good idea to rent your surf gear and try out the sport before you commit to buying your own equipment. Once you’ve got the surf bug a complete setup for your own river surf board, wetsuit, booties, helmet and life jacket should cost anywhere from $500-$1,000. But once you’ve purchased your gear river surfing is free.

What is the best time of year to surf the river?

The more water flowing down the river the bigger and stronger the waves will be. But the flow on every river is different depending on damns, irrigation, snow-pack and temperature changes. As a general rule the first few months of spring after a warming trend will provide the most CFS (cubic feet per second) which translates to the strongest flow of water down the river. If you are lucky enough to live by a man made wave with underwater pneumatic bladders like we have here at the Bend Whitewater Park professional wave shapers can manipulate the flow to make great surf waves year round.

Is river surfing dangerous?

Like any sport on the river, water safety should be a top priority. As long as you take the proper precautions river surfing is a fun and safe sport. Check with your local river surf shop to rent or purchase life jackets, helmets, wetsuits, booties and anything else to make your river surfing experience fun and accident free.

What kind of surf board do I need to surf the river?

When first starting out I would recommend a thick, short foam board. A short thick board provides good flotation and maneuverability. For my size and weight (5’9″ 170lb) and ability a 5’10” twin fin fish 3 inches thick and 22 inches wide is perfect for surfing the Deschutes River. Foam is a good idea at first since it’s softer to bump into when you crash and less prone to get damaged on river rocks in shallow water. As you progress in skill and personal preference you can then move on to a fiber glass or epoxy board with your ideal shape and fin setup.

What thickness of wetsuit do I need to surf the river?

Check on your local rivers average temperature as they vary throughout the year. Unlike ocean surfers who spend the whole session in the water, river surfers spend more time on the shore or half submerged. Keeping that in mind I would recommend going a bit lighter on thickness so your not sweating on the shore waiting for your turn. Recommend wetsuit thickness chart based on river temperature: 62°- 68° 2mm-3/2mm, 58°- 63° 3/2mm-4/3mm, 52°- 58° 4/3mm-5/4mm, 43°- 52° 5/4mm-5/4/3mm, 42° and below 6/5mm-6/5/4mm.

Do I need more then just a wetsuit and surf board to surf the river?

I highly recommend booties for warmth and to protect your feet from river rocks and debris. A neoprene hood and gloves will also provide comfort and cold days. River waves also tend to be in shallow water, a helmet and life jacket are strongly advised as well. All these items can be rented or purchased at your local river surf shop.


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Lunch Counter – Jackson, Wy

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Waimea River – Oahu, Hi

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Boise Whitewater Park – Boise, Id

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Whitewater Park – Pueblo, Co

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Brennan’s Wave – Missoula, Mt