What Is Back Paddling In Surfing? It’s Meaning Explained

what is back paddling in surfing

Maybe someone’s called you out for ‘back paddling’, or an angry surfer is telling the whole parking lot about how the guy kept on ‘back paddling’ me every wave. But what does it all mean?

It’s when a surfer paddles around another waiting surfer to get closer to the take-off zone, effectively jumping the queue.

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

So what’s this sin of surfing all about, and how can you make sure you’re not doing it or on the receiving end?

what is back paddling in surfing

What Is Back Paddling & Why’s It So Bad?

In a nutshell, it’s not taking turns when everyone’s catching waves.

In a perfect world, people should catch a wave from the take-off zone and either ride it until 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.

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

*Back paddling meaning – When a surfer paddles around another surfer waiting to catch a wave. The offending surfer effectively jumped the queue and took the next incoming wave meant for the surfer they paddled around.

Why Do People Do It?

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.

Waves are a limited resource, and humans are naturally greedy. Some surfers feel that their social standing, skill level, or ‘localness’ to a surf spot means they are entitled to a more generous share of the 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 become a more unpleasant sense of ownership, making surfers feel entitled to more than their fair share of waves. Extreme cases of this would be the Da Hui Wolfpak, 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 through violence and vandalism to those they felt broke their surfing rules.

But mostly, it’s drop-ins, stern words and a waxed-up windscreen or two. None of which are fun to be on the receiving end of.

*Additional reading – Head over to our piece on localism and the dark side of surfing that no one talks about to get to the gritty bottom of this phenomenon.

Skill level

Surfing is one of the few sports where people of all skill levels can share the same training arena.

Advanced surfers sometimes feel entitled to more waves, especially if less able surfers are falling and wasting set waves.

I’ve experienced this myself out in Indo. The locals there absolutely shred and rightly take the lion’s share of the waves. But the shoulder ain’t a shabby view of spitting barrels.

Times When Back Paddling Can Be Acceptable

Lineups are a complex social hierarchy with lots of factors coming into play when it comes to who gets which wave.

But if you’re doing any of the following, you can almost expect people to paddle around you, and for good reason.

  • 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 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 paddle 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, 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 surf spot with mellower waves that gives you more time to get to your feet.

Once you’ve improved, you can always return with the new skills you’ve learned and redeem yourself.

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 who 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 significantly decreased.

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

*Extra reading – If you’re still relatively new to surfing, I strongly recommend reading our guide on surfing etiquette and the ten 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 roll just underneath the waiting lineup, and you pick up wave after wave as you paddle back out.

Unknowingly, you may be drawing unwanted attention from surfers patiently waiting for set waves. When you eventually reach the lineup, you’ll be met with some stony faces and hostile glares.

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.

*Honest tip – For the next perfect set wave coming your way, turn 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 understand the meaning and consequences of back paddling in surfing, why 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.