Come summertime in the Centennial State, there’s no shortage of creative ways to get on the water. Tubing, SUPing, rafting, kayaking, boating—they all provide that refreshing ahhhhh you want when temps creep up into the 90s. But there’s one lesser-known way to get wet that’s worth checking out this season: river surfing. Never heard of it? You’re not alone, which is why we put together this quick FAQ primer.
What is river surfing, and how did it come to be?
While river surfing has only gained in popularity in Colorado over the past decade or so, the sport originally caught on way back in the 1950s in Europe. Germany was one of the first places where river surfing on standing waves—essentially stationary waves that persist until water flows becomes too low—was documented, and it is now considered one of the world’s largest urban surfing spots. River surfers rely on waves created either by a naturally occurring obstacle in a river or by man-made technology installed in a whitewater park. So, for a river surfer, the surf is almost always up, and “catching” a ride is the easy part.
“The biggest carryover from ocean surfing to river surfing is that you’re making turns on a wave and loving it,” says Brandon Slate, co-owner and instructor at Buena Vista’s Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, which offers guided recreation trips plus lessons for pretty much any outdoor activity. “The biggest difference is that the waves on a river are seasonal, but once the wave is there for the season, it’s always there. You don’t have to compete for the resource.”
There’s also no timing the swell or paddling like hell to put yourself on a wave. Instead, there’s just intense whitewater rushing all around you as you swim out to the wave with your board, situate yourself just right, and then (hopefully) pop up to a standing position. But once you’re there, you’re there—carving and playing on the wave until your muscles give out.
What gear do I need?
Rivers are not oceans, so the equipment is entirely different. Slate emphasizes the importance of wearing all of the safety gear, no exceptions. Here’s what you’ll need:
Although people have been known to try nearly any buoyant watercraft on Colorado’s rivers, including ocean surfboards and stand-up paddleboards, Slate says it’s important to have the right tool for the job. Compared to ocean boards, river surfboards are generally shorter, slightly less buoyant, and more durable so they can withstand rocks and fast rapids. Chase Jones, retail sales associate at Montrose-based Surf & Cycle, recommends larger, thicker boards for beginners because they’re more stable and easier to stand up on.
Active Release Leash & Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
Ocean surfers might be more familiar with a leash that attaches the board to a rider’s ankle with a Velcro strap, but in the river you need to be able to release quickly from your surfboard when you swim out of a wave. Outfitted with a three-inch carabiner and a snap shackle (like a clip you’d see on a dog leash), an active release leash detaches when you pull on a small ball attached to the snap shackle. It’s often attached directly to any one of the straps on the PFD—essentially a life vest—wherever is most comfortable for the rider, allowing for easy access when one needs to abort the board.
We know: No one loves the noggin protector, but helmets are always in fashion on a river. With constantly changing flow patterns, seen and unseen obstructions like boulders and submerged logs, and other recreationists wielding paddles, a helmet is a must.
Wetsuit, Booties & Gloves
Depending on water temperature, riders might opt for neoprene wetsuits, booties, and gloves. While not mandatory, a wetsuit will keep you warmer and add a little more buoyancy to your body when you’re swimming. Booties provide an added layer of grip as well as protection from rocks and other debris in the river. All of these items come in different thicknesses of neoprene, so you can tailor them to the river and ambient temperatures where you’ll be surfing.
Where can I buy gear in Colorado?
Yes, you can certainly buy all the gear you need online, but you can’t get expert opinions and help with fit on Amazon. Check out one of these local retailers instead.
Where can I learn how to river surf?
“If you don’t have a background in surfing or wakeboarding, instructions are always helpful,” Jones says. “Plus, there are a few tricks to the trade when you’re in a river.” Both Montrose Surf & Cycle and Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center offer one-on-one lessons for river surfing. In a typical beginner lesson, rookies shouldn’t expect to stand up on their first go. In fact, Slate says his beginner lessons focus mainly on river-specific safety, plus drills on how to release your leash and swim in and out of rapids, both on and off the board. After you’ve mastered those skills, Slate says, then it’s time to experience the wave. You’ll enter the water upriver from the wave and, prone on your board, begin paddling downriver to position yourself within the pocket of the wave. Once there, timing isn’t a factor like in the ocean, but balance is; you’ll have to push yourself up onto your feet and keep your knees slightly bent. Once you’re standing, you’re surfing! It’s easier said than done, but learning from an instructor will almost certainly speed up the process.
When is the best time to catch a standing wave?
As with all river sports, your level of stoke will be dictated by the flow of the water. In Colorado, the river surfing season usually runs from May to September, with peak flows often hitting during the second week of June. This is, of course, dependent on several factors, including snowmelt, drought conditions, and which river you’re on. Online resources like SnoFlo and Endless Waves offer real-time updates on the surfability of waves across the state.
Where are the best waves in Colorado?
River surfers have their favorite spots just like ocean surfers dig certain breaks. Half the fun of the sport is checking out different locations to play in the waves. Both Slate and Jones recommend a whitewater park for beginners because of the more controlled environment. These five parks, scattered across the state on multiple rivers, are engineered with strategically placed rocks and concrete structures to simulate real whitewater conditions, including standing waves.