This may be the first time you are travelling with your surfboard or you may be coming off a bad experience and trying to figure out what you can do differently. Flying with boards is always a little nerve racking, but I’m here to outline some information I’ve learned from travelling on various surf trips over the years. This should make it easier for you to decide what surfboards and equipment to bring, and most importantly, how to pack your gear so that it arrives there safely.
Where are you travelling to?
The location of your surf trip is going to dictate what surfboards, wetsuits, and type of wax you bring. Start by figuring out the water and air temperatures, whether trade winds affect the area or whether temperature changes at dawn and dusk. Do your research ahead of time and find out more about the waves you will most likely be surfing so that you can choose which surfboards to bring on your trip. Before you start packing, take a look at the wave and weather forecast to have a better sense of the size, shape and period of the waves you will be surfing. If you are going for an extended period of time, talk to your friends who have been there, reach out to locals and research online the type and size of waves that area gets during the period you will be there.
Choosing your boards
If you will be surfing mostly beach breaks, you can probably get away with a groveller or a daily driver. However, if you will be also surfing points, slabs and maybe charging bigger waves, you may want to bring a step up or an additional board that better suits those waves. I ride a 5’7” Wax Classic Fish pretty much anywhere I go, but I always travel with a daily driver or a step up depending on where I’m going to. I find that the fish suits my style of riding on most waves, and when the waves get bigger or steeper, I’m looking for something a little narrower and faster. If you are planning on travelling with a longboard, make sure to call the airline to make sure they will take your board. Most airlines’ cutoff is 8 feet but you may be able to check your gear as cargo if your bag is longer than that.
Choosing your accessories
Depending on where you are going, there may not be surf shops to grab anything you forgot. I like to thoroughly pack everything I may need in a surf trip, and always bring a few extra items, so I don’t find myself in a situation where I can’t surf.
Once you figure out which boards you are bringing, you can start looking at the accessories. The first item to pack is enough wax for the entire duration of your trip. Pack a bar or two of basecoat (tropical) and a few bars of wax made for the temperature of the water where you are going. If you have old wax on your board, just put your board out in the sun for a few minutes when you get there and scrape it off with a comb. It’s much easier to do it there than when it’s below freezing back home. Always bring one or two extra leashes, and it’s not a bad idea to have a thicker one for those heavier days. If one of your leashes break, you have a replacement with you.
Having an understanding of the waves you will be riding is key to choose which fins to bring for each board. You want to bring more than one set for each board not only in terms of performance, but also in case you break or lose a fin on the reef. Choosing fins is a science of its own and the subject for a future article, but a good starting point is sticking to the size that is appropriate for your weight, starting with a balanced set and then adding a speed generator and/or controller to begin exploring.
Once you start building your fin quiver, a fin case becomes a very handy tool to keep them organized and protected in your surfboard bag. Make sure you have extra leash ties, fin screws and fin keys. The FCS Ratchet Tool is a handy addition for any surfer as it has a variety of bits that will work with any screwheads, and it will allow you to remove a stripped screw from your fin boxes.
How in tune are you with the moon and their effect on the tides? Depending on the place you are going, different breaks will only work on certain tides. While I enjoy math, when I’m on a surf trip, calculating tides is not something I want to spend my time doing. I’ve owned a tide watch for over a decade now and can’t even think of life without one. And if you like having the wave forecast on your wrist and enjoy geeking out on data over a beer afterwards, you can get one that keeps track of your surf sessions.
Dings are inevitable and while learning how to fix your own dings may not be everyone’s desire, it is a very handy skill set for the independent traveller. I always travel with a solid ding repair kit that contains a variety of products for quick fixes as well as for those bigger and more involved jobs. Remember that in a pinch, duct tape can save most sessions...
I like to travel with a pair of ear plugs in case I’m surfing somewhere where cold water or pollution is an issue. Some people’s ears are more sensitive than others and wearing them is a great way to prevent inflammation and infections.
Make sure you have a good first aid kit in your bag as cuts, bruises and other medical issues are ever present on surf trips. While some accidents may lead to a trip to the local health clinic—or sometimes shaman—others can be dealt with the supplies you bring along. Some of my must-have items are a variety of waterproof bandaids, tweezers, rubber gloves, gauze, tape, sterilizer and antiseptic lotion. I also find that superglue can fix most small cuts and get you back in the water quickly!
Sun protection is a top priority on any surf trip. There’s no better way to ruin a trip than getting a sunburn on your first session and spending the rest of the trip hiding from the sun.
Make sure you have enough sunscreen for the duration of your trip, and remember that sunscreen is most likely cheaper where you live than at that remote destination you are going to. I always like to bring a SPF 50 lotion to use as a first layer and apply a water resistant zinc paste on my nose and on top of my cheek bones—especially when surfing at high noon. Don’t forget to get a lip balm as your lips will burn under the strong sun. Some people apply zinc to their lips but I found out the wrong way that it will dry your lips and force them to break, often creating gnarly blisters that take forever to heal.
One important consideration if you are going somewhere with live coral is to make sure your sunscreen is reef safe. Our coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate and we can do our part to protect them.
Boardies and wetties
Once you determine the water and weather temperature where you are going, you can start considering what to bring to surf in. A couple good pairs of boardshorts should be on any surfer’s packing list for a trip in the tropics. I always opt for a higher-end technical piece with 4-way stretch and a sealed pocket so I can keep my key safe at all times. For women, there are a number of great surf bikinis or surf shorts on the market that are made to stand up to the active demands of surfing.
A rash guard is a great way to keep the burns and rashes away. There are many available in the market depending on your style and personal preference. I am a big fan of a surf shirt that can be worn in the line-up as well as at the bar for that post-surf cerveza. In addition to rash guards, women have some fun additional options in terms of surf suits and leggings. Add a surf hat to complete the look and you are set.
It doesn’t matter how tropical a place is, it’s always a good idea to have a 1mm or 2mm neoprene top or jacket for those dawn patrol or sunset sessions. Depending on where you go, the trade winds can make it for chilly sessions when the sun is low in the horizon. Also, depending on the place, a shorty may not be a bad idea. I remember bringing a shorty to Kauai and thinking I would never wear it but with all the waterfalls flowing into the ocean, some of the breaks were actually quite cold and I ended up wearing my shorty most of the time.
I always travel with a surf poncho that I use as a towel wherever I go. It will allow you to change anywhere while providing a layer of warmth after a long session. A reusable water bottle is also a must as you don’t want to contribute to the global plastic crisis.
Having a high-quality waterproof backpack is also key on any surf trip. You can either pack it flat in your surfboard bag or carry-on with your belongings. When you get to your destination, you can use it for those boat trips, to hike to that secret spot and for all your adventures. The best part is that whether it rains or shines, it will keep your gear dry and contained at all times.
A good book always goes well with a hammock. It’s always great to have something to do when it’s flat or you are waiting for the tide to fill in. I love freediving and travel with a freediving mask and swimming fins. You don’t need to have massive freediving fins to have fun and explore the underwater world. I opt to bring along a pair of Dafins and a hand plane. If there are no waves, I go explore a reef or a waterfall. Whenever I find a punchy shorebreak or a closeout wave, I love spending a couple hours in the water bodysurfing.
Packing your surf bag
This is probably the most stressful part of travelling with surfboards. I am not going to lie, it doesn’t matter how well you pack your gear, sometimes airlines will manage to find a creative way to ding your boards. However, I am going to outline a few tips so that you can minimize the chances.
Investing in a proper travel bag should be your main priority. They don’t tend to be cheap but neither are those high-performance surfboards you are protecting with them. If you want to protect the gear you love, bite the bullet and get a proper travel bag. Having a well-padded bag for two or three boards is ideal so you can travel with more than one board and have extra room to pack your gear in the bag.
It doesn’t matter how well padded the board bag is, I always reinforce my boards with additional padding. There are a few ways you can do this, but the most affordable and straightforward one is using pipe insulation foam for the rails and cardboard for the nose and tail. There’s a new product in the market called Flexi Hex that has revolutionized travelling with surfboards. It’s a very sustainable way to pack your boards—and in my opinion—the best way to protect your gear when flying.
Get Out There
If you have made it this far—you likely already have a trip planned and are psyched to pack your gear and head out on your journey. For more information and some visuals of the products and packing techniques we’ve outlined—check out this little video we put together. Now start packing your gear, get yourself to the airport and enjoy that surf trip you’ve been dreaming about.