April 26, 2022 9 min read

Reading Surf Reports

Man on a surfing board

Surf reports are a godsend when it comes to determining where the best waves will be. You don’t want to waste a journey traveling out to your favorite beach or surf spot, only to find it flat with no chance of ever catching a wave. 

This is where surf reports come in. Checking the surf reports for your local area can help you determine the perfect surf or SUP surf destination for you and your abilities. 

At first, surf reports may be confusing to understand, so we’re here to break down the key elements so you can better process the information and apply it to your next surf outing. 

What Is a Surf Report?

Surf report chart

Surf reports essentially show a visual representation of the surf conditions at your local breaks. 

They’re usually broken down into tables or graphs and include vital information about the swell direction, wave height, swell period, tide, and wind forecast. 

Combining these factors together gives you a good indication of what the surf forecasts for the next week or so will be. 

Numerous websites offer information about coastlines all over the globe, so no matter where you surf, you’ll always have informed decisions before heading out.

Why It's Important to Be Able to Read Surf Reports

If you’re a surfer or SUP surfer, you’ll want the best waves possible. There is no point wasting your time traveling to breaks that won’t even supply you with one good wave.

By checking the surf reports before you even pack up your board, you’ll be able to figure out where in your local area is experiencing the best waves and head there accordingly. 

As the surf reports usually show information for the upcoming week, you can also plan your surf trips in advance and won’t be left with unorganized last-minute plans. 

Besides telling you where the best surf is, surf reports can also tell you where might not be suitable for your specific capabilities. 

If you’re new to surfing or SUP surfing, you won’t want to head to locations with extremely large and unmanageable waves. Riding waves that are out of your comfort zone can result in tragedy, so it’s important to stay in your league and stick to the smaller waves until you gain more experience. 

The Best Websites for Surf Reports

Website showing a surf report

We mentioned before that numerous websites supply you with all the relevant information you’d need to gauge whether the surf in your area is worth heading out to. 

There are a few surf report websites that stand out above the rest, and although no websites can truly be 100% accurate, they get it right the majority of the time. 

Whether you splash out and pay for a surf report website membership, or use a free version, here are two of the best websites to consider. 

Surfline

Surfline receives over one million visitors each month, making it one of the most popular surf report websites out there. 

They not only have reliable and fairly accurate reports, but they also have HD surf cams. The surf cams allow you to see the waves for yourself before even stepping foot out of your front door. 

No matter where you are in the world, Surfline will have cameras and all the information so you’ll never miss a decent wave again. 

The basic features of Surfline are free, or you can pay a premium to watch the surf cams indefinitely. 

MagicSeaweed

The next mentionable website is MagicSeaweed. MagicSeaweed has a team of oceanographers and meteorologists who create free 7-day comprehensive forecasts. Like Surfline, you can also pay a premium which unlocks live surf cams in thousands of destinations worldwide.

One thing we love most about MagicSeaweed is its star rating system. Each day they rate the waves in your particular area, with one star being poor and five stars being the most epic waves that are totally worth gearing up for. 

How to Read a Surf Report

There are four main elements to surf reports, and these include wave height/swell period, wind direction/speed, swell direction, and tides. 

We are going to break down each individual element so you can better understand what all the information means and how it will affect the waters around you. 

For decent waves, all four of the elements need to align correctly, so it’s essential to remember that none of the elements are more important than the others.

Wave Height and Swell Period

Man riding on a wave

The first element is the wave height and swell period. If you’re wondering if there will be strong winds, big waves, or ideal weather, you’ll want to pay close attention to the information here. 

Surf reports categorize the swell period and wave height together because the size of the waves ultimately depends on the swell periods that day. 

The wave height is determined by the average wave height of waves in a 20-minute period. If there were 5 x 5-foot waves and 5 x 4-foot waves, the average swell height would be 4.5 feet. 

Swell periods are measured by how long it takes for a wave to pass a certain point. Swells come in short or long periods.

Short periods range from 1 - 9 seconds and produce poor waves known as wind swell. Long periods of 10 - 20 seconds create fantastic waves known as ground swell. 

Short period swells usually aren’t worth going out in, so it’s best to hold out and wait for decent height waves with extended swell periods. 

Wind Direction and Speed

Wind can be your worst enemy when it comes to decent waves. If the wind happens to be blowing at high speeds in the wrong direction, it can ruin the surf conditions and make surfing near enough impossible. 

Winds on surf reports are labeled as onshore winds and offshore winds. Onshore wind blows towards the shore from the ocean. Winds of this type cause poor water conditions, thus creating poor surf conditions. 

Offshore winds, however, blow in the opposite direction, from land to water. These winds create ideal waves that are perfect for surfing

The next job after mastering the onshore and offshore winds is the wind speed. Mornings tend to see lighter winds which gradually pick up as you reach the afternoon. Ideally, you want as minimal wind as possible, so that’s why surfers are usually awake at the crack of dawn catching the best waves. 

Light winds: 0 - 7 mph

Heavy winds: 8 - 20 mph

Swell Direction

Aerial view of a beach

Swell direction plays a big role in whether your local area will have good waves or not. The direction on a surf forecast is shown as N, E, S or W. 

If your particular area has a beach that faces east, then swells coming from the east will create bigger and better waves than if the swell was to come from any other direction. 

Swells that come in at different angles, will produce poor waves. So, as a rule remember that, swells that come in at the same direction your beach is facing, will be surfable and worth getting your board out for. 

Tide Chart

The tides that are best to surf in really depend on your individual surf spot. Some breaks are better during high tide, some low tide, and some during mid tide. 

Trial and error is one of the ways you can figure out the best tides to surf on, or you can ask other local surfers or surf shops in the area. 

Surf report websites aren’t usually able to give you the best tides for your area, but once you’ve discovered the answer, you’ll be able to monitor the swells and hit the waves when they’re at their peak. 

The tides change numerous times throughout the day. Each day experiences two low and two high tides and surf reports show the times when the tides will change, along with the depth of the water during said tide. 

As the phases of the moon change, so do the tides so what's classed as high tides and low tides on one day, will be a completely different time from the next.

For more information about tides and when the best time to paddle board would be, check out When is the Best Time to Paddle Board?

FAQ’S

🏆 How do I read a surf report?

Reading a surf report comes down to four key elements. 

Wave height and swell period:Wave height is as it sounds and is the average height of waves in a 20 minute period. The swell period is measured on how long the waves take to reach a certain point. The longer the waves take, the better. For example, if the waves at your beach break are 3 feet and take 5 seconds to reach this point, the waves will be poor. If they’re 3 feet and take 10+ seconds to reach this point, they'll be worth grabbing your board for. 

Wind directions and speed:Ideally, you’ll want as minimal wind as possible while surfing. Mornings tend to see lighter winds than the afternoon so heading out for an early morning surf may see the best conditions. Offshore winds, that blow from land to water, will provide the cleanest and best waves at your local beach breaks. 

Swell direction:As a rule, swells that come in the direction that your beach is facing will ensure the most powerful waves. 

Tide chart:Each beach differs when it comes to high and low tides. Some have better waves during low tide, and some, when it’s high tide. It’s best to ask local surfers which tide works best in that particular area.


👍 How do you know if waves are good for surfing?

Waves are good for surfing if their wave height and swell period is 3+ feet and 10+ seconds. Ideally, the swell will be coming in the direction your beach is facing and the wind will be offshore and minimal. 

Surf websites will usually tell you the ideal surf conditions for that area, or give you a star rating on whether or not the waves are worth heading out for. 


🏝️ Can reefs affect the waves?

Water surrounding reefs can be fairly deep. The coral formations under the water create breaks that are also known as reef breaks. Reef breaks do occasionally provide fantastic waves, however, they can be dangerous and result in injury if you’re not careful. 


❓ How do you read a swell chart?

Swell charts are fairly simple to read once you understand what you’re looking for. Swell direction is shown as N, E, S, or W. 

The direction you want the swell to come in, will link up to the direction your beach is facing. If you have a westerly facing beach, swells coming in from the west will provide the best surf conditions.

The day sees primary and secondary swells. The swell chart usually shows you with an arrow which way the swell is coming from. You can also hover over this arrow for a more detailed measurement. 


📦 How do I read a surfline chart?

Surfline first shows you the wave height throughout different points of the day. The numbers at the top of the bars are the wave heights in meters. 

Next, they show you the swell direction. You can hover your mouse over the arrows and it will inform you of which direction the swell is heading in. 

Again, with the wind, hovering over the arrows will not only show you the speed of the wind on that particular day, but also if it is onshore or offshore. 

Scrolling down to the bottom also shows you at which point of the day your particular beach will experience high tide or low tide and also the predicted weather, sunset, and sunrise. 

Surfline has an added feature of telling you the ideal surf conditions in your area. It shows you which swell direction, wind direction, wave height, and tide are best for your local surf spots. 


📦 What are popular websites to read surf reports on?

The two most popular websites to read surf forecasts are Surfline and MagicSeaweed. Surfline has an option to pay a premium and receive unlimited access to HD surf cams all over the world.

MagicSeaweed also has this feature, however, it has fewer cameras across the globe. Both websites give detailed reports on everything you’d need to know about the local waves for that day, and the coming week.


📦 What things will improve my surf experience?

Checking the surf conditions in your local area is the first step in improving your surf experience. Heading to beaches with poor waves will result in a waste of your time. Learning to read a surf report can give you all the crucial information you’d need before visiting your desired surf spot. 

Waxing your surfboard correctly will also aid in your surf experience. Boards with not enough wax can cause poor grip and make it difficult for you to balance while catching a wave. For more information about surfboard wax, check out our article How to Wax a Surfboard.

Dressing appropriately will also enhance your surf trip. Surfing without adequate gear in cold temperatures will cut your outing short. While surfing in the blistering sun without sunscreen, a hat, or UV protective clothing can leave you with a nasty sunburn that you’ll regret in the morning.

Megan Bryant
Megan Bryant

Based in Bali, her favorite SUP spot is the GILI Islands themselves. Travel is another passion of hers - she dreams to see the entire world one day.


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