I’d be lying if I told you I don’t get butterflies whenever I embark on a surfing trip on my own. Not knowing anyone in the place I’m going, or if the hostel I’ve picked is clean enough, or if the waves are a good match for my skills, can make me feel panicked on the flight there. But every time I go alone I have the most soul-filling trip of my life. I make lifelong friends, go on epic adventures and grow immensely as a person. I’ve done dozens of sola surf trips in Asia, Africa and Latin America - these are my tips for making your next sola-surf adventure as rewarding as possible.
1. Figure out if the time is right
Check out the seasonal forecasts for the destinations you have in mind on magicseaweed.com or wannasurf.com. Find out if the water and air temperatures are what you’re packing for and determine if there is likely to be good waves that suit your skill level when you’ll be there. If you don’t want to surf the biggest waves of the year in Indonesia, pick a time of year when the swell forecasts are more chill (fewer feet and smaller wave-periods).
Check if the local breaks can hold the forecasted swell. I recently got skunked in Japan because I only looked at the seasonal data, which showed 6-9 ft swell but all the local breaks closed out in 5 feet of swell.
Timing is everything, scoring in the Peruvian desert
2. Take extra gear
You never know what might get damaged, so always bring a spare set of fins, leash, leash-cord and tuck-tape for a quick-and-dirty way to seal dings. Wax can be more expensive or poorer quality in some surf destinations, so I always bring extra, which makes great gifts for your new friend if you don’t use it all. UNLEASH has a complete list of gear tips for travel here.
3. Plan your sun-protection regime
If you’re planning on going somewhere hot and you’re a burner, buy a good sunscreen and lip balm before you go as it can be challenging and expensive to find quality options when you’re travelling. I search for a non-toxic sunscreen on EWG’s Skin Deep site and then dry it out so it goes on super-thick and lasts in the water. I do this by leaving it open for a few weeks or months so most of the added water evaporates and makes a consistency that stays on in the water. My favourites (after some drying) are Goddess Garden Sunscreen for the spreadability and Aubrey Tea Tree 30 for my face, neck and ears. Always test your sunscreens on your skin before you go, to make sure you aren’t sensitive to the ingredients.
Use a light coloured rashie and make sure you put sunscreen beyond the lines of your suit - especially on your butt and the back of your legs. I’ve fried my butt many times because I thought my suit and shorts had those areas covered, but things shift in the water and expose unprotected areas to the sun.
Sunscreen applied and ready to surf in Easter Island
4. Pack no-fail surf outfits
There’s so much crappy surf gear for women that it is hard to find surf-wear that is functional in the water. Whether you prefer to surf in a bikini, a shortie or rashie and leggings, make sure it is compatible with surfing. I try to buy surf wear made for women surfers by women surfers (Seea or Akela Surf). My fail-proof outfit consists of a bikini top a light-coloured long sleeve rashie to protect my chest from board rash, which is tucked into my bikini bottoms, which are under my draw-string surf shorts. The draw string prevents my shorts from falling off, and the bikini bottoms prevent uncomfortable chafe on my lady-parts from the seam of the shorts and stops my rashie from riding up to my waist.
5. Buy stuff-able waterproof snacks
Being able to munch on something mid-session gives me the energy to surf longer, so most of my suits and shorts have a small pocket that fits a sealed granola bar. Make sure you can get at it easily and always put the wrapper back in your pocket.
6. Bring some health and safety basics
There’s no need to make half your bag a drugstore from home because you can get most of what you need in any town in the world. I like to have enough first aid goods on hand to get through an urgent need for minor surfing injuries, so I bring tweezers, band-aids of various sizes, gauze, pain-killers, imodium, muscle-relaxant, stomach-medicine, surgical tape, antiseptic wipes, antibacterial cream, elastic bandages, anti-histamine and a course of a general antibiotic (get your Doctor to prescribe it) just in case you end up somewhere remote and aren’t able to find a doctor or pharmacy in a time of need.
I also never leave home without earplugs designed for swimming to prevent water-borne infections, my menstruation products of choice and reef booties - because sea-urchins or crusty rocks can ruin an entire surf-vacation.
7. Get your board(s) there intact
Even if I plan on buying a board when I arrive, I always bring a favourite board with me. There’s nothing worse than finding out all the surf shops are closed the day you get there, or the available boards are too expensive or crappy - meanwhile there’s perfect peelers that your ol’ faithful would’ve made magic on.
Many airlines charge for boards and, longboarders beware, most won’t take a board that is over 7ft. Find out what length of board your airline accepts and how much you’ll be charged. Invest in a well padded board bag and put fragile stickers all over it. If you have a board bag that holds 2-3 boards, airlines will just charge you for the one bag - so bring more than one if you want. Loosely pack clothes and soft items around your board(s), or use light cardboard for added protection, but make sure not to pack it too tight as it can increases the risk of getting dinged.
Check your board thoroughly before you leave the baggage claim area. Air Canada managed to sever my board in half when I was en-route back from Asia and refused to reimburse me for the damage because I’d left the airport before filing my damage report.
Bring a couple of good roof straps and know how to use them. They don’t take up much space and you’ll have a better choice of taxis to and from the airport and surf spots. The 5am Quiver Carrier by The Make Co. is an excellent choice of board bag.
8. Arrive during the day
There is reams of information on how to travel smart as a lone woman, and there’s also plenty of fear mongering that will make you feel unsafe to go anywhere. Don’t buy into it. Do some reading on what it means to travel smart as a solo woman and commit to listening to your instincts.
Whether I’m travelling solo to San Diego or Sierra Leone, my non-negotiable safety precaution is to always arrive several hours before dark. All places tend to be emptier and feel less safe after dark - and you have less time to fix a situation that doesn’t feel right. For example if you get to your hotel after dark and it turns out to be a dump or is in a dodgy neighbourhood, you might not have the time or energy to take your board and wander the streets looking for a new place. If it is early in the day, you have plenty of daylight hours to re-arrange a situation.
9. Book into a hostel for the first couple of nights
Even if you think you’re too comfort-driven, old or introverted for a hostel setting, you might be surprised at how easy it is to meet great people and get oriented to the area. You can then look around in person for a place to stay for the rest of your trip that has the vibe and location you want. If you’re going to be there in high-season, this might not be possible, so make sure you have a sense of that before you go and book accordingly.
A boatload of new-found friends out for adventure
10. Chat with a friendly local surf shop
Even if you don’t need to rent a board or buy gear, a local surf shop is a good place to get the goods on the best places to surf, any hazards to consider, where to eat and how to get around. Unless I get creepy vibes from the shopkeeper, I usually let them know I’m travelling solo and would like tips on which places are most women-friendly. Be prepared that the staff in some surf shops are too cool for school and won’t provide you with much info, or might assume you can’t surf well because you’re a woman. Try a few places and eventually you’ll find someone who’ll give you good tips.
11. Follow the locals
If you’re on your own and don’t know the local conditions or hazards yet, try to surf where and when the locals do. If you see a spot with perfect peelers but no one else in the water - there might be a reason for it. Avoid getting in unless you’re sure it’s safe.
12. Treat yo’self
It baffles me how many women surfers overlook the amazing aesthetic traditions in some countries that tend to be affordable and amazing. Care for your sore surfing-muscles and salty skin by dropping a few bucks at a women-run salon on a facial, pedicure, manicure or massage. You’ll feel great, meet some local women, and you can help them grow their business by reviewing it on sites like Tripadvisor.
Always room for one more at the Burrito Bar in Lima
Let us know if you have any other tips by commenting on our Facebook page.