When most people dream of an idyllic surf destination, they conjure up images of white-sand beaches and slightly bent palm trees swaying idly in a soft breeze. It’s hard to imagine the type of madman or woman who would fantasize about cold and dark water, hard-to-access beaches and bone-penetrating cold when searching for a few good waves.
However, for some, that is the only option. Thanks to the continued progression of wetsuit technology and the continued growth of surf culture, the Pacific Northwest has become more and more of a viable place to surf, with cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver all starting to become vibrant surf communities.
The Northwest is well known for being a hotbed of adventure athletes and outdoorsmen and women, so it isn’t surprising that surfing, even in cold waters, is starting to explode in popularity.
The other thing Pacific Northwest outdoor enthusiasts are well known for is their love of gear, and for anyone who plans to become even a novice surfer in the PNW, quality gear will be a necessity, as cold waters, gale-force winds and endless rain are the rule, not the exception.
For anyone who’s planning to either score a Northwest swell or take up surfing in the PNW, these five essential items will allow you to get it when the waves get good and not be completely miserable when they aren’t.
A good wetsuit
Having the right wetsuit is going to be the difference between being stoked and feeling wretched. It can get frigidly cold in the Northwest, and while renting a wetsuit might be a key option for your first few outings, purchasing a proper wetsuit should be your first major gear investment when becoming a PNW surfer.
Many Northwest surfers have a 4 to 5 mm hooded fullsuit for winters and a 3 to 4 mm hooded fullsuit for summers. You will also need a pair of gloves and booties, as keeping your hands and feet warm is essential for avoiding frostbitten misery.
This is an insider’s tip, but one of the most essential pieces of gear you can buy for a successful surf mission is a Thermos or something to keep warm liquids in.
Two is best, as you can keep warm water in one and soup, tea or coffee in another. After spending hours in arctic water, warming your core after sessions will become a lifesaver.
Use the warm water to pour in your wetsuit after you get out of the water, and keep the warm, ingestible liquids on hand to further heat your core and keep you comfortable on the long drive home.
A surfboard with some serious volume
There’s a large selection of wave types in the Pacific Northwest, but the best tend to be pointbreaks, as the beachbreaks can often be messy and disorganized.
Large storms churning in the Bering Sea tend to wreak havoc on beachbreaks. The points can often be epic, but aren’t always powerful at the takeoff. You will also be wearing thick neoprene and losing energy due to the cold water, so a little extra volume will be a welcome friend.
A nice tent
If you can’t afford a camper van or coastal cabin, then a good tent will go a long way when it comes to scoring surf in the Northwest. Many of the best surf spots are hours from urban areas, so if you live in the city, capitalizing on the best conditions often requires camping near your favorite break.
A surf spot can go from all-time to not working in a matter of hours. The Northwest is fickle, so to be truly dialed, a good waterproof tent is key.
Firewood and matchesThe coast is rugged and beautiful in the PNW, and the sea can often look less like a surf video and more like “Deadliest Catch.”
However, it is still a great place to find some solitude and peace. Bring plenty of firewood so you can build a campfire for you and your crew to warm your hands over, cook food on and tell stories of epic sessions around.
It can also be good for fending off bears and aggressive sea lions.