Will Your Snowboard Skills Transfer Between the Surf and Snow?

Snowboard Expert Jason Robinson explains how a history with one may affect your future with the other and give you certain advantages over the average beginner.

Someone carves upward on their surfboard on a sunny day. The water is turquoise.

Photo by Cédric Frixon

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Whether heading from the swell to the hill or from the slopes to the coast, there are some noteworthy advantages of having some previous experience standing sideways. There certainly are skills that transfer extremely well between sea and summit, but let's just say that it's not all going to be smooth sailing. Getting over the steep learning curves, in the form of mountain peaks or the peaks of a wave, can be sizable obstacles indeed. It is easy to get discouraged when the riding surface changes its molecular structure but know that the more time you’ve spent cruising in your element, the less time you’ll spend floundering in your newfound environment. In this article, I will lay out two cases, those with snowboarding experience that want to learn to surf and surfers that want to try snowboarding. We’ll go over both the advantages and disadvantages of each and some pointers to help smooth out the potentially choppy transition.

Transitioning from Snowboarding to Surfing

Someone leans back on their snowboard and touches the hill behind them as they ride down.

Photo by Dominic Zimmerman

Let’s say you’ve been riding the mountains for as long as you can remember, you know all the hidden pow stashes, and have probably sent all the biggest drops at your local ski resorts. Well, what's next for such a bonafide pow ripper you may wonder? The reality is that once you learn to ride powder on a snowboard there will be a situation where you feel like you are surfing, and you may wonder if your skills would transfer. Progressing as a rider, there will come a point where your board control and muscle memory start working as one entity. It’s an almost subconscious understanding of general physics and the concept of using flexion and extension as a tool to manage your speed will develop. Aside from some nuances, regarding weight distribution mainly, the general idea of pumping to gain speed and turning or slashing to scrub speed is, in theory, very much similar between the two. When the board control and body mechanics to surf proficiently are present, you may, like myself, have the notion that you could now surf all of a sudden, or at least figure it out struggle free. I mean world champ Kelly Slater and I are the same exact size, 5’9” 160, and yes, I can absolutely shred apart any powder-covered bank or gully in my path, and cutbacks, hacks, and floaters all day long! I’ve even got all the hottest new aerial surf maneuvers, but the fact is, I’m on a snowboard and snowboarding is easy.

Ok, now I shouldn’t say that snowboarding is easy—it’s not skiing after all—but once you strap on the board and stand up, gravity pretty much steps in, and you are now technically riding. Getting to the point where you can simply stand up and drop in on a surfboard is a whole other skill in itself. With snowboarding, there is a chairlift that pretty much puts us on a peak to drop in on but to ride a surfboard, you have to get yourself standing atop that peak all on your own. For us inlanders, just learning how to catch a wave could be comparable to learning calculus or a second language. Not only are we not in paddle shape, or in any semblance of it, we are clueless on how to catch and ride the face of a wave. Aside from time, lots of time, here are some tips that may help you stand up and start utilizing that snowboard experience just a little sooner.

Tips for Shifting to Surfing

Someone carves on their surfboard.

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

The best tip I was ever given as a beginning surfer was to take a trip. Go to the warm water, find an uncrowded, point break, and just surf every day for a month. Not a reality for all of us, but at the time, I was lucky enough to actually go do this. I turned it into a two-month trip and camped on a beach in Costa Rica. This trip changed my life, for sure, and the amount of time spent in the water helped take my surfing to new levels. Getting your reps in and being very observant of other surfers in the lineup can help fast-track you along the path to actually getting to ride the surfboard.

Another major key to success I should mention is volume. No, I don’t mean the volume of the Skullcandy headphones you’ve been rocking since 2005, I’m talking about the volume of the board. I had it stuck in my head that I was born to rip a surfboard and after just a few fun days as a kid riding a log, I would always just grab the shortest, most high-performance style board I could find. Much of my time in the water was spent exactly there, in the water, and not catching waves. Longboards will be your best friends for a while. Stick with that Wavestorm a bit longer and size down your board gradually to streamline your progression. You can’t learn to surf on a wave you can’t catch.

Transitioning from Surfing to Snowboarding

A woman surfs on a cloudy day.

Photo by Hoang M Nguyen

I don’t have the personal experience with bringing my skills from saline to crystalline, but I have to admit that I'm a bit jealous of those transitioning in this direction. I’ve seen an experienced surfer get on a snowboard for the first time and start carving by the end of their second run. Don’t get me wrong, there are some obvious differences and challenges, however, the barriers to entry remain significantly lower here.

From a financial standpoint not so much—lift tickets and all the necessary gear can cost you—but physically, it is much more attainable to get yourself up and running. When an experienced snowboarder starts surfing, they need to learn a foreign skill and put in some serious work before even the chance of catching themselves a couple of good ones. When changing from liquid to solid, priority for that 10-point ride is always yours and all you have to do is simply drop in. As I said, those rides will come at a premium, and if you do want to get into snowboarding, you’ll probably have to get used to shelling over some pretty serious cash for lift tickets, a season pass, or all the necessary gear to start earning your own turns. You may have thought a $10 parking fee to surf your favorite break was extortion—just wait ‘til you buy day tickets for a family of four and you might be a little more friendly to your local lot attendant the next go-round.

Now, you’ve got the condo in Mammoth for the weekend, the whole family is dialed in with tickets, lessons, and gear rentals. You’ve now essentially paid all of your necessary dues. It didn't come cheap, but most of the struggle and stress are now behind you. There is nothing to really learn before snowboarding now, and except for having to step into your binding and figure out how to push (which is just incredibly awkward for everyone), you simply get off a chairlift and you're boarding.

A snowboarder turns through the powder, staying low to the snow.

Photo by Jerome Tanon for K2

Yes, I mentioned that riding fresh powder on a snowboard feels a lot like surfing, but the reality is that the odds are slim that your first run will be in powder. You will need to learn how to navigate this stick that is now stuck on your feet through various snow conditions. Sadly, not all of them are going to be as soft as the surface you may be used to, and crashing on hardpack can really hurt. Keep in mind that the most common risk of injury involves the wrists and/or tailbone, so in icy conditions, treat it like a very shallow reef break.

One of the biggest differences is if you fall, granted you aren’t hurt too bad, you can simply just stand back up and keep riding. The sheer amount of time you get to spend standing on a snowboard versus the time standing on a surfboard makes fine-tuning your riding technique a breeze by comparison. The flow and technique acquired in the surf translate wonderfully to snowboarding and if you stick with it you’ll be looking smoother than most in no time.

Another component that often speeds the progression on a snowboard is the fact that the mountain is a fixed object, as opposed to waves that are breaking. Until entering into much more advanced terrain, where avalanches and sluff become a concern, the slope essentially does not move. This allows for maximizing your reps. If something didn't feel right, you can just try it again, and again, and again. Other than the cold and costs—which can be managed—I can’t think of a good reason for an adventurous surfer not to give snowboarding a try.

I hope this article provides some insight into the experience of hopping off one board and popping up on another. While certain skills may be easily transferred between these two different sports, there are many that you can only develop with time and repetition. It is hard to really quantify how difficult it will be to make the transition, but a solid foundation of riding and a good attitude go a long way. As with anything, the more work you put in the more likely you are to have a clean jump from ski bum to surf rat or vice versa. If you have any questions or want to find the perfect board for your journey into the snow, reach out to a Snowboard Expert here on Curated.

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Written By
I've spent over thirty years on snow and a decade as a professional rider. Snowboard career highlights include standout video parts with Absinthe Films, 2016 Big Mountain Rider of the Year and two Snowboarder Mag covers. I pretty much grew up on the slopes in Whitefish, Montana and snowboarding has...

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