How Dangerous is Surfing? Assessing and Mitigating the Risks

With its graceful movements and adrenaline rushes, surfing attracts water sports enthusiasts around the world. But its alluring nature also comes with inherent hazards if proper precautions aren’t taken. So just how dangerous can surfing be? While thrilling, understanding and preparing for its risks is key to staying safe while catching waves.

Potential Dangers Inherent to Surfing

Like any extreme water sport, surfing does pose some unavoidable dangers that need to be respected:


  • Lifejackets not typically worn while surfing.
  • Holding breath underwater can cause shallow water blackouts.

Head Trauma

  • Striking reefs, boards or seafloor with heads.
  • Frequent concussions and wounds from contact.

Spinal Injuries

  • Hyperextension or compression from waves, impact or falls.
  • Potential for paralysis with spinal cord damage.

Lacerations and Contusions

  • Collisions with boards, other surfers or rocks.
  • Scrapes from seafloor abrasions.

Bone Fractures

  • Ankle, knee, neck and shoulder fractures often occur.
  • High speed wipeouts into water or boards can break bones.

Marine Life Injuries

  • Cuts from coral reefs or stings from jellyfish.
  • Very rare shark attacks are also possible.

Being aware of these risks enables surfers to take proper precautions.

Factors that Can Amplify Hazards

Certain conditions and surfing behaviors can increase inherent dangers:

Overhead Powerful Waves

  • Big wave surfing presents intense force and hold downs.
  • Only extremely experienced surfers should attempt.

Hazardous Surf Spots

  • Areas with reefs, rocks, sandbars and other seabed obstacles.
  • Hitting submerged objects multiplies injury potential.

Aggressive Wave Positions

  • Getting in front of the break where waves throw powerfully.
  • Contends with most intense wave energy increasing strike risk.

Fatigue and Exhaustion

  • Paddling strength diminishes after long sessions leading to poor form.
  • Increased potential for injury when physically exhausted.

Surfing Above Abilities

  • Attempting advanced maneuvers without proper skill level.
  • Puts body at risk when not ready.

Lack of Training

  • Inadequate knowledge of surfing fundamentals and ocean skills.
  • Being unprepared leads to higher incident rates.

Adverse Conditions

  • Surfing at night, during storms, or around fishermen.
  • Greatly amplifies preexisting hazards.

Evaluating these factors minimizes unnecessary risks when surfing.

Safety Practices to Reduce Hazards

While surfing always carries some degree of danger, smart practices can help reduce risks:

Know Your Limits

  • Be honest about your current experience and capabilities in the water.
  • Avoid conditions, break types, and wave sizes beyond your ability.

Use a Leash

  • Keeps board attached if wiped out preventing it from striking others.
  • Allows resting on board when fatigued.

Learn Gradually

  • Take lessons and work up slowly in ability before attempting advanced techniques.
  • Ensure proper form and foundational skills are solid first.

Assess Hazards

  • Scope out surf zones before entering and avoid areas with greater obstacles.
  • Watch for rip currents, reefs, boat traffic, fishing lines and other hazards.

Surf with a Partner

  • Have someone experienced with you in case of injury or exhaustion.
  • Partners can quickly summon help.

Use Protective Gear

  • Helmets guard against traumatic head wounds.
  • Booties, gloves and wetsuits protect from cuts, stings, and hypothermia.

Know Your Fitness

  • Be sure your swimming ability, endurance and breath control suit the surf.
  • Tiredness leads to sloppy technique and mishaps.

Remaining aware, avoiding unnecessary risks, using protection, and surfing within your abilities goes a long way in staying safe and having more fun.

What To Do In A Surfing Emergency or Accident

Despite best efforts, accidents can happen. Being prepared is key:

Emergency Preparedness

  • Know first aid, CPR, trauma care and water rescue techniques appropriate for surfing casualties.
  • Carry a first aid kit with essentials like gauze, tape, antiseptic, trauma shears.

Emergency Communication

  • Keep a charged waterproof phone or radio to call for help when in distress.
  • Know contact methods for lifeguards and emergency responders.

Floatation Devices

  • Have rescue tubes, life rings and buoys on hand to reach incapacitated surfers in deep water.
  • Allows safe retrieval from a distance.

Spinal Injury Precautions

  • If neck/back injury suspected, avoid moving victim and keep head/neck still and aligned.
  • Wait for emergency responders with spinal training.

Cardiac Arrest Response

  • Immediately start CPR and apply an AED if surfer is unresponsive with no normal breathing.
  • Cardiac arrest is reversible with prompt CPR and defibrillation.

Staying calm, acting quickly, and signaling for trained emergency help can save lives if surfing accidents occur.

Most Common Surfing Injuries and Treatment

Knowing first aid for typical surfing injuries assists faster recovery:

InjuryFirst Aid Treatment
Sprains and strains– Rest, ice, compress, elevate
– Immobilize with brace or wrap
Abrasion scrapes– Clean debris from wound
– Apply antibiotic ointment and bandage
Head trauma– Watch for dizziness, confusion, repeated vomiting
– Immobilize neck, monitor airway
Spinal injury– Align head and neck gently, do NOT move
– Wait for emergency responders with spinal precautions
Fractures– Immobilize suspected fractures
– Apply splints to stabilize extremities
Torn or dislocated joints– Immobilize and lightly compress
– Do not try to reduce or manipulate

Proper first aid training prepares surfers to act quickly if injuries happen.

Frequently Asked Questions About Surfing Safety

Here are answers to some common safety questions from surfing beginners:

Will surfing get less risky the more I do it?

Yes, your risk does decrease as your experience, fitness, technique and awareness improves. But always stay vigilant.

Can checking the surf report help avoid dangers?

Yes, avoid hazardous conditions like large swells, high winds, poor visibility noted on surf reports. Only surf within forecasted abilities.

Will a surfing companion prevent me from drowning?

Having an experienced partner is very helpful but is not a drowning safeguard. Wearing a well-fit leash is still vital.

Can I surf after drinking alcohol safely?

No, alcohol impairs response time, balance and judgement. Never surf under the influence.

If I get injured surfing, who should I notify?

Always report injuries to lifeguards and document in an accident report. Notify the surf school if enrolled in lessons.

Is surfing at night extremely dangerous?

Yes, low light makes it impossible to see hazards and risks compound. Only very advanced surfers should attempt night surfing.


Surfing offers a sense of grace and thrill like few other sports, but these rewards require assuming inherent risks and following safety-first practices. Preparing for potential dangers by knowing your limits, using protective gear, inspecting conditions, learning gradually, and surfing with others greatly reduces preventable incidents. Yet even skilled surfers can experience accidents, so emergency preparedness is equally key. While the dangers will never disappear completely, a responsible surfing mindset focused on risk management ensures this spectacular sport can be enjoyed safely for a lifetime.

Leave a Comment