You already know that surfable waves and swells are created by storms and winds traveling across expanses of water. The size and quality of those waves is partly dependent upon the strength of the winds and the distance they’re able to travel before meeting the shore.
Wind, storms, and weather patterns change with the rotation and tilt of the Earth. Cold air replaces hot air and wind is created. The strength and frequency of this displacement (or storms) depends on the current position of the Earth relative to the sun (seasons).
Depending on where you’re surfing, you’ll find that some places work all-year-round while other spots only work during certain seasons.
A first look at comparing surf seasons around the world begins by comparing the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
The Northern Hemisphere experiences more drastic temperature differences from season to season. This results in larger, more power, and more consistent winter swells, while summer months tend to see more lulls and smaller waves.
The Northern Hemishpere also has the most landmass – meaning winds and storms are more easily interrupted and have less ocean surface to blow over.
The Southern Hemisphere experiences less variation between the seasons. There’s also more expanse of ocean for winds to blow over. In many places in the Southern Hemisphere, you can find quality, consistent surf year-round.
Surfing Seasons in the USA
The United States is a unique place for surfing. On the mainland, you’ve got 3 very different coasts on 3 very different large bodies of water. Then you’ve got Hawaii, Alaska, and the Great Lakes.
Suffice to say, you’ve got a lot of different waves to choose from when you’re surfing in the US.
Now, with the right equipment and expectations (and maybe some creativity if necessary), you can probably find some fun “surf” whenever and wherever. However, if you’re talking about standing up on a surfboard on decent, consistent waves, you might want to align your timing with the best seasons for the region. Below is a quick rundown of the ideal seasons for surf around the United States.
Surfing on the West Coast
The West Coast of the United States offers a huge variety of waves and vastly different environments as you move from North to South.
Surfing in the Pacific Northwest
Best Seasons for Surfing: Fall, Spring
Cold water, cold weather, and rugged coastlines are what to expect in the Pacific Northwest.
Access to surf is easier in Oregon, with vast stretches of open coastline and state beaches. Washington requires some more adventure.
You’re going to need thick wetsuits, hoods, booties, and gloves to enjoy good waves up here.
Surfing in California
California itself can be broken down into distinct regions with different types of waves and ocean conditions.
Best Seasons for Surf: Fall, Winter, Spring
Northern California, which includes the areas north of San Francisco, begins to feel more like the Pacific Northwest than its southerly counterparts.
Big winter swells bring the big, cold, powerful waves. The water and weather can be harsh in the North, and the surfers are often few and far between.
Best Seasons for Surf: Fall, Winter, Spring
Central California includes San Luis Obispo up to Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
You’ll find colder water and lots of open coastline with a mix of great points and beachbreaks here.
While you’ll certainly meet crowds in SLO and Santa Cruz, you’re sure to find some waves to yourself if you go exploring.
Best Seasons for Surf: Year-Round
Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, can see quality waves year-round.
SoCal can pick up both North and South swells, making for a variety of great waves all over the region at different times of the year. The wave variety is increased with the mix of beach, nearshore canyons, points, reefs, jetties, piers, and everything in between.
In the Summer and the Fall, the water gets warm enough to forgo the wetsuit.
Surfing on the East Coast
Best Seasons for Surfing: Spring, Fall, Hurricane Season
Compared to the West Coast, the East Coast has a lot working against it in terms of quality, consistent surf. On the East Coast, the continental shelf is broader with a more gradual slope, meaning waves slow down and lose power as they approach shore. Additionally, prevailing winds tend off-shore, which can work to groom waves, but can also blow the waves away and weaken the surf.
That said, excellent waves do happen on the East Coast, you’ve just got to wait for them.
Surfing in the Gulf of Mexico
Best Seasons: Hurricane Season
You’ll need to wait for short period hurricane windswells for surf in the Gulf.
While it doesn’t happen often or consistently, the right conditions can produce some great waves in the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’ve really got a surfing itch, you can always hop into the wake of a passing tanker ship.
Surfing in Hawaii
Best Seasons for Surf: Year-round, Winter
If you’re thinking about the North Shore of Oahu, winter is the season where you’ll find perfect Pipe, among other word-class and iconic waves.
That said, given Hawaii’s multiple islands and coastlines facing all directions, you can find surf here year-round depending on what island and what side you’re on.
Hawaii, the birthplace of modern surfing, is a surfer’s paradise. Warm water, some of the best waves on Earth, and a variety of waves that can suit every level of surfer.
Surfing in the Great Lakes
Best Seasons for surf: Late Summer, Fall, Winter
Freshwater surfing on the Great Lakes requires storm activity to kick up the waves.
There’s a lot of coastline on the Great Lakes where waves will break, but the key to finding waves worth surfing is looking for wind protection. Depending on the wind direction during a given storm, piers, jetties, points, bays, and coves can be good places to find cleaner, more protected surf.
Expect surfing the Great Lakes to be cold, windy, and very different from any salt water surfing you’re used to. Conditions, weather, and temperature can tend to change rapidly, and you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the right equipment.
Surfing in Alaska
Best Seasons for surf: Spring & Fall
If you’re looking for the ultimate cold-water adventure, Alaska may just be the surf trip you’re looking for.
Expect cold water, cold water, and enduring the elements. Your best best will being finding someone with lots of knowledge and experience of the area – you’re going to need not only the surfing equipment, but also the planes, boats, and camping gear necessary to traverse and survive the cold frontier.