How to Surf a Crowded Lineup: Tips and Tricks

Last Updated January 27, 2023

Gone are the days when we could rock up at our favorite surf break and be one of, if not the only person in the water.

With over 20 million surfers worldwide, and a surf population growing at 12% per year, secret spots are slowly becoming less secret, and popular surf breaks are often too crowded to catch a wave.

Although it is never ideal when the lineup is full of people, it is often something we need to deal with if we want to catch a ride. By remaining patient, visual, friendly, and willing to put in some extra work, a crowded day does not need to be a bust.

Crowded breaks are undeniably annoying, but the following tips will help you better navigate overpopulated surf lineups and make the most out of your day.

What Are the Downsides of Surfing in a Crowded Lineup?

No one likes to surf in a crowded lineup, and for good reason. Once you have read the downsides of crowds in a surf lineup you will begin to understand why.

High Competition

Unlike snowboarding or skating where you can constantly ride your board, in the ocean, even when surf conditions are perfect, you still need to wait for a wave to break.

Furthermore, in most cases, the rule goes that only one surfer should ride a wave at a time (although there are exceptions to this rule), which makes waves even rarer.

Add a bunch of people to the lineup and it is easy to see how a relaxing surf can quickly turn into a fierce competition for the few available waves.

Fewer Waves for Time

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a crowd that respects how a surf lineup works, you will be able to avoid the savage competition for the waves, but this comes with a disadvantage.

If everyone is waiting their turn, there are five waves per set, and twenty people in the water, it is easy to see how you will be waiting a while for your ride.

This can of course be an advantage of its own but is not ideal if you just paddled out for a few quick waves.

People in Your Way

When there are too many people in a lineup you will constantly find yourself dodging someone.

Unless everyone in the water is a good surfer and follows surf etiquette to the tee, you will constantly find people paddling out through the middle of the break, throwing their boards away, or falling off waves at the peak.

As you will need to maneuver around them, you will not be able to ride the wave as you wish.

This can become frustrating, especially when you have waited so long for your turn.

Crowds Are Dangerous

Having a few people in the water makes surfing safer as there are people around if something goes wrong.

When a few people become a big crowd, the opposite is true.

The more surfers there are in a lineup the higher the chance you have of running into someone else.

This can, in extreme cases lead to concussions, lacerations, and loss of consciousness, or if you are lucky, a broken or dinged surfboard.

In a large crowd, if someone was to lose consciousness it would be a lot harder to notice them missing.

Tension in the Water

When there are a lot of people in a lineup tensions always seem higher. 

Everyone is on edge waiting to charge the next set, constantly on the lookout for other surfers, and slightly annoyed that they are not surfing as much as they wish.

This, of course, is not always the case but will happen more times than not.

Although some lessons can be learned from this, it does take away from the relaxing, nature-immersing experience that surfing can be.

Are There Benefits to Surfing a Crowded Lineup?

No one will choose to surf a crowded lineup over an empty one because the benefits do not come even close to the downsides, but this is not to say that there can’t be any upsides at all.

Teaches You Patience

One of the greatest lessons a crowded lineup can teach you is patience. Both for the waves and the people around you.

While you wait for your wave, instead of becoming annoyed with the waiting, practice patience, and you will find yourself enjoying the waiting as much as you enjoy the surfing.

Teaches You to Work for What You Want

Surfing in a crowded lineup means that you cannot simply sit and wait for a wave to come to you, you need to work for it.

This lesson, taught through a non-ideal surfing situation, remains true in all aspects of our life and should be contemplated while in and out of the water.

Competition Makes You Better

Fierce competition can be off-putting, but healthy competition provides an amazing platform for improvement.

As you will be fighting for your waves, you will need to surf better than those around you. This will likely mean pushing yourself to the max and learning a thing or two in the process.

Teaches You to Deal With Pressure

A crowded lineup can become a stressful situation, especially when a set forms further out and breaks on top of the lineup.

Although crowds can cause a lot of pressure, learning to deal with this in a somewhat safe environment will begin to prepare you for larger, faster swell and harsher conditions.

15 Tips for Surfing a Crowded Lineup

To successfully surf a crowded lineup you need to be prepared for what is to come and pay close attention to details. Finding a balance between respect and fighting for your wave is important.

1. Study the Break

You should never go for a surf before you have assessed the waves, currents, weather, and lineup.

Doing so can put yourself and others at risk. This is even more important when you will be paddling out into a crowded lineup. 

Before paddling out, take a moment to watch the way the break works, as well as how the crowd acts in the water.

Take note if everyone is taking turns or if it is a chaotic free-for-all. Look for sections of the break with fewer or no people, and keep an eye out for surfers that are behaving recklessly.

By doing this before you enter the water you will have a good idea of where you want to sit, who to avoid, and how to act around other surfers.

This will limit your chance of upsetting others while maximizing your chance of catching a wave.

2. Paddle Around the Shoulder

Paddling directly through the break is disrespectful at all times, but becomes particularly dangerous when there are a lot of surfers in the water.

Instead of paddling directly to the peak of the break, take a walk down the beach and paddle out wide.

Once you have passed the backline you can return to the back of the lineup. This will prevent you from getting in the way of surfers riding a wave, and protect your head from a nasty knock.

3. Be Prepared to Chase the Waves

You have to put the work in if you want all the best things in life. This is also true for surfing in an overcrowded spot.

If you decide on a spot and simply sit there hoping for a wave to break on your head, then you are not likely to catch much.

Surfers need to constantly move around the break to find the best position for an incoming wave, and because you are competing with so many others, you better come ready to paddle.

In a crowded lineup, if you do not constantly chase the waves, you are not likely to have a successful surf.

4. The Fitter You Are the Better

As you will be paddling like your life depends on it just to get to a competitive sport, and then paddling even more to be the first on the wave, you will need to have good endurance.

The fitter and stronger you are, the further, faster, and longer you will be able to paddle (providing you are using good form).

Even if you are not the fastest paddler in the water, if you are the fittest all you need to do is wait for everyone else to tire, and then the waves are yours for the taking.

5. Give Other Surfers Space

No one likes that person who decides to paddle right up to you, stop a few feet away, and claim that as their spot.

It is uncomfortable enough in the water when it is overcrowded, but that does not mean you need to sit right on top of someone else.

Make sure to give other surfers enough space to turn around, duck dive, and safely fall without hitting you.

It will make everything more comfortable for everyone.

6. Give Locals and Better Surfers Priority

Yes, it sucks, but in the surfing world, locals and the best surfers get preference.

It might not seem fair, as no one owns the waves, but many people believe that they do.

If a break is busy, keep an eye out for surfers who are catching all the waves, but are being left alone to do as they please.

These are likely the highly respected individuals of the break and should be given space.

If you do this when it is crowded, there is a good chance they will remember you on a day when the waves are empty, and before you know it, you may be surfing with them.

7. Be Patient

Patience is key when it comes to successfully surfing a crowded lineup. You are not going to catch every wave, people are going to steal your waves, and when you finally catch a wave of your own you are going to fall, just to rub it in your face.

But be patient. Work hard to find the perfect take-off spot, paddle for your waves, and out endure the other surfers.

If you are patient in crowded lineups you will be rewarded by surfing more waves than you would have thought.

On top of this, there is nothing wrong with waiting

Look around, smell the ocean, listen to the wind, and appreciate surfing for its entirety, not just for riding waves.

8. Take What You Can Get

You can’t be fussy if you want to ride a lot of waves in a crowd. This means that you shouldn’t always wait for the best wave of each set.

Instead, you should consider taking the smaller set waves or surfing away from the main break where there are fewer people.

The waves might not be as good, but it is sometimes better to catch fifty average waves than only a single bomb.

9. Get Used to Sharing Waves

Family waves can be fun, but not for every wave. As a general rule of thumb, there is one surfer per wave, but this quickly changes as the crowd grows.

If you are surfing in a particularly packed lineup you are likely going to need to get used to sharing your waves with other surfers.

Some surfers will get angry about this, but try to appreciate the fact that you at least got to ride a wave, even if it was not all to yourself.

10. Don’t Be Selfish

There is a fine line between working hard for your waves and being selfish in the water.

Yes, you will likely need to compete for your waves, but that doesn’t mean you need to paddle for every wave.

If you allow others to paddle for waves they are best suited for catching, it is likely they will do the same for you.

11. Be Friendly and Encouraging

Tensions are often high when there are a lot of people surfing in a single spot. 

Between people not getting enough waves, beginners making mistakes, and locals who think they own everything, it can become rather uncomfortable.

The best thing you can do in this situation is to be friendly to those around you and encourage those who catch waves.

This will help lighten the mood and change things from a tough competition into a fun, well-balanced surf.

12. Don’t Kick

Kicking your feet to boost yourself onto a wave is messy, looks clumsy, but if done correctly with the right timing, can provide some extra propulsion.

Although it could help, doing this in a crowd is simply rude. 

From your perspective, all you are doing is putting in some extra work to catch that wave you have waited so long for, but everyone around you is experiencing a face full of water.

Before you begin splashing around, take note of your surroundings.

13. Use a Bigger Board to Catch More Waves

If you are struggling to catch a wave with all the competition, then increasing your surfboard size could do wonders for you.

A larger, more buoyant surfboard will allow you to catch waves from further out. If you can sit further out than the crowd then your wave is technically not crowded.

This will give you the first choice of every wave. Just remember not to be greedy, and to let waves pass by for the rest of the lineup.

14. Stay Constantly Aware

Awareness is key to staying safe in a crowded surf lineup. 

Although you should always be aware of what is happening around you when you surf, this is especially true in a large crowd.

The more people there are around you, the higher the chance is of something going wrong.

You should always be having fun when surfing, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of yourself or others’ safety.

15. Avoid Crowded Lineups if You Are a New Surfer 

If you are a beginner surfer or have yet to master the skills of duck diving, paddling, popping up (and staying up), and turning, then you should avoid extremely crowded lineups.

If you can’t properly control your surfboard then you become a huge danger in a crowd

On quieter days, other surfers will simply give you distance, but a crowded lineup may not allow for this.

If you have not mastered the above skills then you could try to find a quiet wave away from the main break, or come back tomorrow in hopes of quieter water.

What Is the Most Crowded Surf Break?

It is hard to accurately say which surf break is the most crowded, as crowds move according to seasonal changes and weather conditions, but when the conditions are perfect, Pipeline may take the prize.

Banzai Pipeline is one of the best big wave locations in the world, and possibly the world’s most famous surf spot.

When conditions are perfect it is not uncommon to see over 100 surfers in the water.

With such a small take-off area and bone-crushing waves, it is easy to see why pipeline has become one of the most dangerous waves to surf.

Is it dangerous to surf in a crowded lineup?

Surfing is always dangerous to some point, but as crowds begin to grow the dangers begin to increase.

Being hit by a surfboard is one of the most common surf injuries, and with more surfboards, the chance of being hit becomes greater.

Furthermore, it’s easy for surfers to get lost in the crowd, which means it may be missed if someone goes missing.

Surfing in a crowd becomes dangerous when surfers become overly competitive, begin to break surf etiquette and become selfish.

It is most important to follow the rules when conditions are the most dangerous.

Should I Surf in a Crowded Lineup?

Deciding whether to paddle out in any situation should always be up to you and not influenced by others.

Although it’s good to push our limits, pushing them too far will quickly become dangerous.

If you are not confident in your surfing capabilities or feel uneasy in crowds, then there is no shame in deciding not to paddle out.

On the other hand, if you’re fully confident in the situation then there is no reason why you should not enjoy your surf.

Crowds are not ideal for beginners, but you should always use your sense of judgment to decide if it’s a safe choice for you.


Surfing in a crowded lineup can be tricky, dangerous, and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

As long as you and the other surfers follow surf etiquette, and you keep in mind the tips above, you will find yourself enjoying the crowds more than you thought you could, and perhaps even make a few new friends.