What Is Back Paddling In Surfing?

Back paddling is when a surfer paddles around another waiting surfer to get closer to the peak of the wave, effectively jumping the queue.

Maybe someone’s called you out for ‘back paddling’ or an irate surfer is telling the whole parking lot about how the guy just kept on ‘back paddling’ me every wave.

As a beginner, you’ll be quickly thrust into the world of surf terms and phrases, while some of these have little to no impact on your day-to-day surfing, backpaddling has led to verbal and physical abuse on countless occasions.

So what is back paddling in surfing and how can you avoid doing it?

what is back paddling in surfing

What Is Back Paddling?

Back paddling in essence is not taking turns fairly when catching waves. In a perfect world, people should catch a wave from the take-off zone and either ride that wave till it ends or fall off at some point along the wave face.

Regardless of the outcome, the surfer who has just ridden a wave should now take their place furthest from the take-off zone and patiently wait their turn.

In theory, this harmonious cycle should work much like a queue at your local supermarket with people quietly waiting their turn for the next set to roll through the lineup.

In reality, waves are a precious and limited resource, and we as humans are naturally greedy.

Some surfers will feel that due to their social standing, skill level, and proximity to the break they are entitled to a more generous share of the waves.

Backpaddling occurs when a surfer paddles around another waiting surfer to catch a wave.

This action allows the offending surfer to effectively jump the queue and take the wave meant for the surfer they paddled around.

Why Do People Back Paddle?

I touched on it briefly earlier but a lot of back paddling stems from a sense of entitlement and ownership of a particular surf spot.

Local surfers will sometimes feel that they deserve a higher proportion of waves.


If you grow up surfing the same beach, reef, or point break every day, you can’t help but feel some sense of responsibility.

This feeling can often grow to a more unpleasant sense of ownership that can lead to surfers feeling entitled to more than their fair share of waves.

Extreme cases of this would be the Da Hui Wolflpak, Bra Boys, or the Black Shorts of the Canary Islands.

All three are well known for acting as guardians for their respective locations and dishing out vigilante justice normally in the form of violence and vandalism to those they felt broke their surfing rules.

Skill level

Surfing is one of the few sports where participants of all skill levels will often share the same training arena.

This means that advanced surfers can sometimes feel like they’re entitled to more waves, particularly if less able surfers are falling and wasting set waves.

Times When Back Paddling Can Actually Be Acceptable

Lineups are a complex social hierarchy with so loads of factors coming into play when it comes to backpaddling.

Reasons another surfer might have back-paddled you:

  • You’re missing waves
  • You’re being a danger to other surfers
  • You’re being greedy and catching too many waves

Missing waves

Surfable waves are by definition a limited resource. You need wind, swell, and tide to all come together in beautiful harmony to produce rideable chunks of water that bombard our coastline.

If you consistently paddle for waves and don’t catch them or fall on take-off more than 50% of the time other surfers in the lineup will likely take note.

Next time you start paddling for a wave you may find other surfers do not give you the benefit of the doubt and will either back-paddle you or in some cases just drop in to avoid waves going unridden.

If this is you, spend some time practising your surfing at home, perfect that pop-up and consider finding a post with mellower waves that allow you more time to get to your feet.

Once you’ve improved you can always return with the knowledge you won’t be wasting as many waves with the new skills you’ve learned.

You’re being a danger to other surfers

Surfing is a dangerous sport and in some cases, surfing can kill you if you or other surfers around you don’t take all the necessary steps to be safe in the water.

Surfers that don’t use leashes or create dangerous situations due to a lack of surf knowledge or etiquette are often shunned by the surfing community.

If you are being a danger to yourself and others in the lineup you may find your ability to catch waves is greatly decreased.

Surfers are an observant bunch and if they see you flinging your 9ft fibreglass Minimal around with no care they may just paddle around you to ensure you don’t put anyone’s equipment or body else at risk.

Extra reading – If you’re still fairly new to surfing I strongly recommend reading our guide on surfing etiquette and the 10 basic rules every surfer should know.

You’re being greedy and catching too many waves

We’ve all been there, you’re having the perfect session, offshore wedges are rolling just underneath the waiting line up and you’re picking up wave after wave as you paddle back out.

Unknowingly you may be drawing some unwanted attention from surfers waiting for set waves. When you eventually reach the line up you may arrive at some stony faces and hostile glares.

While sometimes this spans from jealousy in a lot of cases you may be getting a bit too excited. By catching more waves you draw attention and it’s not always the good kind.

Try to be aware of other surfers in the lineup and how many waves they catch.

The next perfect set wave that’s coming your way simply turns to the surfer next in line and offer them the wave.

I’ve made friends for life with this simple gesture of kindness and it feels pretty great knowing you’re making someone’s day.

In Conclusion

Now you have a great understanding of what back paddling in surfing is and some of the reasons people do it and how to avoid it happening to you.

Just remember as surfers we are a community and giving back is just as important as catching waves. Try giving a wave to a stranger next time you surf, share the stoke, and make surfing a friendlier, happier place.

Want to level up your surfing skills? Don’t miss our detailed list of must-know surfing tips to skyrocket your progress or keep scrolling to check out our other great surfing reads.

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