On the surface skimboarding and surfing may look like similar sports. They both use boards you stand on to ride waves. But there are some significant differences between the 2 sports that you may want to know about before choosing one over the other.
With skimboarding you run into a wave skimming on a small board with no fins. With surfing you paddle into waves on larger boards with fins, different fitness is required. Surfers will generally get longer waves with more focus on turns across the wave staying in the right section, skimboarders will generally get shorter waves, but more of them, and have more focus on doing tricks.
If you're considering picking up either skimboarding or surfing then or you're just curious as to how the two vary from each other then in this article we'll cover the differences indepth. As someone who both surfs and skimboards I can tell you from firsthand experience that these 2 sports are extremely different in a lot of ways.
Below is a quick comparison table and then we will go into each section in more detail.
|Entering Waves||Run at waves head on, skim and turn onto waves||Paddle directly onto a wave|
|Board Length||3'9″-4'6″ (45-54″)||5'0″-9'6″ (60″-114″)|
|Fins on Board||No||Yes|
|Core Fitness Required||Running||Paddling|
|Frequency of Waves||Very Frequent (every 1-3 minutes)||Varies (every 5-20 minutes)|
|Conditions You Can Surf In||Almost all conditions||Need larger waves|
|Ease of Learning||Easy to get started, difficult to master||Harder to get started, easier to master|
|Type of Tricks||Skateboard like tricks||Focus on turns|
|Ocean Knowledge||Little required, but picking the right timing for a wave can be challenging||More wave and ocean knowledge required to get out the back and be in the right spot to catch waves|
|Danger Level||Potential for bad wipeouts on the sand||Low, unless surfing big surf or near rocks/reefs|
|Sense of Community||Mixed||Mixed|
|Dealing With Crowds||No issue||Commonly crowded|
|General Vibe||Fun, lighthearted||Varies – Zen to competitive and even angry/territorial|
|Chance of Shark Attack||Almost no chance||Very little chance|
Let's have a look at all the differences that make skimboarding and surfing so different to each other.
1. Different Ways of Entering Waves
The primary difference between surfing and skimboard is the way you enter waves. This is where the 2 sports differ the most.
Skimboarding – Run, Jump, Skim, Surf
When skimboard you'll start on the beach and run towards the ocean building up speed.
Either on the wet sand or in shallow water you drop your board, jump onto it and skim across the surface of the water (thus the name skimboarding).
In most cases you'll be heading directly at the oncoming wave or approaching it from a slight angle. You'll then need to perform a sharp turn in order to get onto the wave and ride it back into shore.
Surfing – Paddle, Standup, Surf
With surfing you don't approach the waves from the shore. Instead you'll paddle “out the back” past the breaking waves and will wait in “the lineup” for the waves to come. This is usually right where the waves are first breaking or slightly further out than that.
When a wave comes you'll paddle in the same direction as the wave building up momentum. A surfer will then get caught by the wave and will stand up and ride the wave towards the shore.
2. Different Size and Types of Boards
The boards skimborders and surfers use I also very different from each other.
Skimboards are smaller, wider, have no fins and at the top level are made from a foam core covered with epoxy or carbon fibre for strength, durability and rigidity. They tend to start out around 45″ (3'9″) for kids or beginners with regular adult boards being around 45-54″ (4'4″-4'6″).
The lack of fins on skimboards is important as it allows you to effortless glide over the water without your fins digging in and causing drag. The last thing you want is fins digging into the wet sand while you go flying off your board face first.
It also means when riding the waves you'll need to use your rails for turns and control as you have no fins to guide your direction.
Surfboards on the other hand are larger than skimboards and have fins. Starting at around 4'6″-5'0″ for kids with adult boards being anywhere from around 5'3″ for small performance short boards up to 9'6″ for longboards (also known as “mals”) and everything inbetween.
Surfboards are usually made from a foam core with a fibreglass cover making them more fragile than skimboards but more buoyant given their larger size and volume. Pretty much all surfboard have fins at the rear which helps the surfer turns easier and maintain control on the wave.
3. Length of Wave
When skimboarding you'll usually be riding extremely short waves that break right on the shore or close to it. You'll skim out, turn onto the wave and then maybe get a short ride before the wave completely closes out or shore dumps.
There are some waves like at the wedge where you can get a longer ride or pro skimboarders who can skim further can also catch longer waves, but even then the waves will likely be shorter than the waves a surfer is riding.
When surfing the waves you catch will be a lot longer. How long depends on where you are surfing, the swell and the current conditions but generally speaking a surfer will be on a wave for a lot longer than a skimboarder.
Surfing is about riding the wave and doing turns or adjusting speed to stay in the right section of the wave so you can catch it for as long as possible.
4. Frequency of Waves
The flipside of this is the frequency of waves you'll catch.
While skimboarders will get shorter waves they will usually get a lot more waves than a surfer would.
When surfing a lot of your time is spent waiting out the back for the sets or for the right wave to come through for you to catch. Add in competition for waves on busy breaks and you can often spend 5-20 minutes between waves. This sounds boring but it rarely is and just maintaining the right position is always a challenge and keeps your mind active.
Skimboarders on the other hand don't really have to wait long for waves. Waves breaking near the shoreline are much more common and there is usually less competition for waves so wait time is little to none.
A skimboarder can expect to wait 1-3 minutes max for a wave to come through and often the only time between waves is when you're having a rest from all the running you're doing
5. Type of Fitness Required
Skimboarding and surfing require two completely different types of fitness. Both are extremely tiring for beginners and you need to build up your fitness and stamina to perform at a high level.
Skimboarding requires a lot of running fitness as you'll be constantly running towards the beach and jumping onto your board. The more speed you have the further and faster you skim so sprinting is common in skimboard.
When I first started skimboarding I was exhausted after just 10-15 minutes and my hips and legs we so sore the next day it wasn't funny. Over time you get used to it though.
Surfing also requires a high level of fitness but rather than running you need upper body strength and fitness as you'll be paddling with your arms the entire time.
First you have to paddle out the back, duck diving and fighting against the incoming waves trying to wash you to shore. Once out the back you'll need to paddle hard to get onto waves. Once you've caught the wave in you need to paddle out the back again and repeat the entire process.
Both skimboarding and surfing are extremely tiring in the beginning but if you continue at it you'll quickly build up your stamina and will be a healthier, fitter person as a result.
6. Conditions (and Locations) You Can Surf In
Surfing requires very specific condition in order to be possible. Swell/wave size is important and the waves need to break in a certain way to be ridable.
Some places just don't get large enough waves to surf.
Skimboarding, on the other hand, can even be done on flat water (often referred to as “flatland” skimboarding) or with very small waves.
This is because you build up the majority of the momentum yourself and you're catching waves close to the shore where they are more likely to break.
If you don't live near a good surf beach then skimboarding may be your only real viable option.
7. Ease Of Learning
Both skimboarding and surfing are difficult sports to pick up and to master. It's hard to say which is easier and which is more difficult because they both have things that make them challenging.
Skimboarding is arguably easier to pick up and get started and running and skimming on your board can be done on your first ever session. You might not be riding waves like the pros but you'll be up and skimming and getting that satisfaction.
Surfing is extremely difficult to pick up as strong wave knowledge is equally or more important as being able to stand up and this knowledge isn't something you can get from a book, you just develop it over time and experience.
You can begin in the whitewash but even positioning yourself of the board properly so you don't nosedive and paddling onto a wave can be tricky for beginners. But once your wave knowledge improves and you start getting up on waves some people say surfing is easier to master than skimboarding.
Honestly, I think both are equally as challenging as each other, they are just challenging in different ways.
8. Types of Tricks
When skimboarding you can perform skateboard like tricks like pop shove its and 180's/360's. These are possible on wet sand or flat water or can also be performed on a wave. Because you don't have fins you can orient your board in any direction and it'll skim just fine.
Given your starting speed and types of waves you'll be riding doing aerials is also easier on a skimboard. This is part of what I love about skimboarding. It's always so much fun to launch off a wave and into the air.
While aerials and 360's are possible when surfing they are much more advanced tricks and in the beginning you'll be focusing on carving on the wave and doing turns like bottom turns, cutbacks and roundhouse cutbacks.
Surfing is more about riding the wave and the different sections, staying in the pocket and maintaining and using speed. Because skimboard waves are shorter there is less opportunities to do big turns.
9. Ocean Knowledge
Surfing requires more ocean knowledge than skimboarding. Understanding rips, how waves break, where they break, how regular the sets are and exactly where to position yourself to be able to catch the waves is a challenge.
You have to see a wave coming before it is formed. Paddle into position where you know it is going to break, often facing away from the wave so you can't see it. You have to be in the right position – not too far behind or too far in front of the wave as it breaks or you'll miss the wave or get smashed by it.
It's challenging and once of the biggest hurdles to overcome going from a grommet (new surfer) to a more experienced surfer. I know I struggled with this and my kids also struggle with this. I can be frustrating at times not being able to catch waves because you're in the wrong spot.
Skimboarding, on the otherhand is more forgiving. Yes you still need to be able to time the waves as you run and skim towards them but staying in position is less of an issue and you also get more waves so more repetition, meaning you learn faster than surfers do.
10. Level of Danger
Skimboarding is more dangerous than surfing given you are running and jumping onto your board at high speeds either directly on the wet sand or in very shallow water. If you miss your step or dig your rail in you can crash into the ground at high speeds and hurt yourself pretty badly.
You'll also be riding waves that crash directly into the shore which can be dangerous at time and the chance of your board hitting you when you fall off is also a possibility.
Surfing isn't without it's dangers, especially when surfing reef breaks or close to rocks. But generally speaking if you fall off when surfing there is a large amount of water to catch your fall and if you're smart the chance of your board hitting you is very slim.
I can probably count on both hands the amount of times my board hit me and I've been surfing for over 20 years now. The lack of danger is why most surfers don't wear helmets.
11. Community, Crowd and Vibe
Personally I love surfing for the zen vibes I get. Being in the water is a meditative experience and riding waves is high energy and a lot of fun. Generally the strangers I surf with are nice and there's a good vibe.
But in some more popular surf spots, and especially when the waves are good, it can get extremely crowded and the vibe changes from one that is calm and relaxed and happy to one that is competitive and at times downright aggressive. While I've never been punched in the lineup one of my mates got punched in the face from some psycho surfer just for accidentally being in the way.
But, at least from my experience, this is a small portion of the surfing population. Most people are nice or just ignore you in the water. People rarely chat and talk when waiting for waves unless they know each other or it's a more rural area (and then everyone loves a chat).
Skimboarding on the other hand can have a great community vibe. There are more waves and less competition and less skimboarders overall so people are often excited to meet and hang with other skimboarders.
Given you wait on the shore for waves it makes strike up conversations easier than in surfing where you have to wait in the lineup and try and hold the right position.
However, there are less skimboarders compared to surfers. So where I live (which is still a major city with lots of beaches) skimboarders are extremely rare and so usually I'm doing it by myself with no one to hang out with.
You'll be a lot warmer skimboarding than surfing. You spend way less time in the water and all of that running keeps your core body temperature extremely warm.
When sitting in the lineup waiting for waves you can get extremely cold at a surfer. But a good wetsuit will combat this and this is why surfers wear wetsuits.
It's common for skimboarder to wear wetsuits too in colder seasons and you don't have to wear a wetsuit in order to surf. It really depends on water temperature.
Some people don't like wetsuits but I personally think you can look good in a wetsuit.
Worth Noting: Chance of Shark Attack
While this isn't something I would really consider a core difference between skimboarding and surfing if you have a big fear of sharks (which I know some people do) then skimboarding will keep you closer to shore making a shark attack less likely (but not impossible).
I was chatting to a guy in the surf the other day who lives in a small beach town that has amazing waves. However, he was saying living remotely it can be difficult to find people to go surfing with. He told me that prevalence of sharks in the area means you really want a buddy when surfing and that yes…he has seen a few sharks whilst surfing.
While shark attacks are extremely uncommon (there were only 57 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2020 and there are millions of surfers according to ISAF) it's still something you have to be vigilant about and aware of as a surfer.
As a skimboarder you are much closer to shore making shark attacks less likely. But also if you see a shark you don't have the long scary paddle into shore as you'll basically always be right near the shore.
So if you have a phobia of sharks, skimboarding might be the best option for you.
What Others Say About Skimboarding vs Surfing
I wanted to make this discussion on skimboarding vs surfing as details as possible and don't just want to share my own opinion. While the points above come a lot from personal experience I also did a bunch of research to see what other people say about skimboarding vs surfing and why they like one over the other.
There is this great discussion on the topic and below I have highlights a few of the best comments from that discussion.
Prefer skimming because of:
Challenge – Skimming is hard, and a good ride is really really satisfying
No waiting – in surfing you might get 4 rides in an hour. In skimming you might get 25. I hate waiting around.
Community – Skimming with friends day after day is way better than surfing with strangers
Crowd Factor – Surfing is a zoo. Period.
Crowd Vibe – Partially because of the crowd factor, surfers are often assholes. Paddling into most lineups around here is like showing up where no one wants you. Its almost like day one of a prison sentence. You gotta show you are badass otherwise you will get snaked all day. In skimming when you show up you get to give your friends high fives. Totally different experience.
Waves – The waves are consistently better for skimming in Laguna than surfing. Thats not true everywhere, but is here.
Consistency – The size of the waves in skimming is generally smaller than surfing, but on the other hand skimming a two foot wave is actually fun. Surfing a two foot wave is usually pretty not fun. Hence, you can skim fun waves way more often than you can surf them.
Its different – Surfing used to be counter-culture. Now its played out in a large sense. Sick surfing is still sick surfing. Abercrombie and the like make me want to puke though.
When I used to go to mexico and surf with my buddies we would have an awesome time. Surfing is a rad sport under the right conditions. However in a lot of places what makes surfing a great experience has been lost as overcrowded breaks lead to a survival of the fittest attitude where people fight for waves, snake each other and vibe so hard that its not even fun. I would rather just go get barreled with my friends.
And another comment from the same thread:
i love running fast. ive always just loved running, ESPECIALLY at the beach.
i love doing tech tricks. i used to skateboard alot before skimming, because i liked the feeling you get when doing a tech trick.
you dont need big waves to skim. i will skim ANYTHING. sometimes my friends will just give up, and sit on the beach, but i will skim flat water until my legs fall off.
skimboarding is hard. i love doing sports/games/things that are hard. taking the easy way out sucks.
the feeling is awesome. when you get on a board and slide out and crouch as low as you can, just sliding on top of the ocean, you feel so good.
you pretty much never have to wear a wetsuit.
you get to stand on the beach all day. i love that
you dont have to worry about rocks as much as skimboarding.
you can find bigger waves to ride
it gets you in really great shape