Wax or Tail Pad? A closer look at surfboard traction and grip

Does the idea of surfing without a tail pad fill you with dread?

If you’re anything like me then the answer is yes, when you’ve spent most of your years trying to ride refined high-performance shortboards, the thought of no tail kick (the raised area at the back of a tail pad) is uncomfortable.

It’s crazy to think that tail pads have only been around since 1976, before that all surfers could do was add a layer of wax and build those bumps.

Don’t miss our breakdown of the 21 most famous surf brands that helped shape our sport.

Let’s look at the long-standing wax or tail pad debate, the pros and cons for each, what the general surfing population thinks and our humble opinion here at Honest Surf.

Wax or tail pad/traction pad?

To successfully surf a wave and progress at surfing you need some way of gripping onto your surfboard to avoid falling off.

Initially, surfers turned to wax as a quick way to add a layer of grip to their surfboards.

When 1976 arrived American surfer and shaper Herbie Fletcher began experimenting with polyurethane elastomer foam.

After much testing, Herbie found he could blow the foam into sheets before sanding the top layer to expose the cell-like structure contained within that would produce suction under pressure.

Traction pads were born, they started by gripping out the whole board but after a few years, Astrodeck hit the scene with a tail pad and a whole roster of progressive surfers signed to their brand.

Head over to this short read by Surfing World for the lowdown.

Both of these methods of gripping onto your surfboard work, but both have their own pros and cons and both have their own camps of dedicated supporters.

Many surfers will stick to one or the other religiously.

For many the choice of wax or pad comes down to the board you want to ride, be it a shortboard, twinny, performance longboard, fish etc

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each one and why they lend themselves to different kinds of surfing craft.

Surfboard wax

First of all, you need the right wax for the right water temperature.

Get it wrong and wax will be sliding off your board like butter, trust me it’s no fun.

What’s your local water temp? Check below to make sure you’re putting the right wax on the deck of your surfboard.

Base wax – Often referred to as ‘base coat’ this incredibly hard wax builds the foundation of any good wax job.

Cold water wax – For all you cold water surfers this will be your go-to. Suitable for ocean temps below 58 degrees Fahrenheit or 14 degrees Celsius.

Cool water wax – Slowly warming up, cool water wax is great for ocean temperatures from 54 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 to 20 degrees Celsius.

Warm water wax – Anyone blessed enough to live in warmer climates will find that warm water wax is the ideal solution with a temperature range from 63 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit or 17-25 degrees Celsius.

Tropical water wax – Well aren’t you lucky! If you’re drawing for the tropical you’re probably in crystal blue water somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Now let’s look at what makes surf wax a great choice and what lets it down in comparison to a tail pad.

Pros:

  • People enjoy the ritual of waxing up their boards – Some surfers love the feeling of waxing up their surfboards.
  • It smells amazing – Most surf wax smells great. Coconut, vanilla, and all sorts of delightful aromas can pop when you start to wax your board.
  • You can control the level of grip with different wax types and wax jobs – Using a wax comb you easily dictate exactly how your wax job looks and feels.
  • Wax has lots of other uses – Believe it or not, there are lots of other uses for surf wax.

Cons:

  • Polluting the ocean – Wax contains paraffin and paraffin does no favours to our oceans.
  • Needs regular attention You’ll need to regularly wax and dewax your board if you want to keep your wax clean and grippy.
  • Grip deteriorates over time – The more you surf the more you level out your wax job requiring more wax or a comb.
  • Having the wrong temperature wax is a nightmare – Wax melting off your board in the water = no fun.

Tail pads

Tail pads are fairly cheap and most of the time you’ll get a free one thrown in when you buy a new surfboard.

Pros:

Why we love some foam underneath our back foot:

  • Save your fibreglass – Tail pads act as a layer of protection between your feet and the deck of your surfboard.
  • Cheaper in the long run – Wax is getting more expensive every year and a tail pad that lasts two years is easily cheaper for a keen surfer.
  • Get’s you in the waves quicker – None of that waiting in the car park waxing up your whole board.
  • Tail kick makes performing manoeuvres easier – You can’t beat tail kick when you’re trying new surf tricks.
  • Works in all air and water temperatures – You won’t get caught short with cold water wax in Indo.

Cons:

  • Needs good placement on your board – Place your tail pad in the wrong place and repositioning can be nearly impossible.
  • Not suitable for longer boards – On longer boards it just doesn’t make sense to have a trial pad because you spend so little time at the very rear of your surfboard.
  • Too grippy in wetsuit boots – Some people think that a tail pad and wetsuit boots are too grippy.
  • Replacing traction pads requires a lot of scraping – Trying to remove an old tail pad leaves 3M adhesive everywhere and you’ll be scraping it off for hours.

We asked real surfers what they think

We created a poll and asked surfers just like you from all over the United Kingdom about their surf traction preferences.

Originally we had three options but thanks to participant feedback we added some extras just in case.

The results are in, and it’s surprising:

Out of the 164 surfers we surveyed:

18% voted tail pad
29% voted just surf wax
46% said it depends on what type of surfboard you’re riding
4% weren’t too fussed

Here we can see it’s a clear winner for ‘it depends’ but overall more surfers prefer wax than tail pads which honestly surprised me.

Wax or tail pad? Our opinion

If you’re looking to cruise on a longboard or take out a thick twinnie then wax all the way. But if you’re planning to hit the lip or get technical with your manoeuvres then a tail pad is definitely the way to go.

When it comes to cost tail pads probably win out in the long run so if you’re trying to save those pennies don’t draw for the wax and maybe add a front grip as well!

Head over to our guide on traction pads (front grips) vs wax for an honest opinion on the front pads place in surfing culture.

Conclusion

Whichever way you choose to go in the wax or tail pad dilemma you’ll be safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of other surfers just like you.

Don’t miss our other surf guides below packed full of interesting insights into this awesome sport.

wax or tail pad