If you’re looking to get into a wave riding board sport, you may have a hard time deciding whether to choose kitesurfing or regular surfing (no kite). Having been a surfer all my life, and a kitesurfer for some years, I think this is a question worth answering. Kitesurfing and surfing are quite different sports, yet when it comes to riding waves they have a lot in common.
So which is better, kitesurfing or surfing? Kitesurfing may be a good fit if you live near a windy beach, your physical condition is about average, you have some money to spend, and/or you want to start riding fast. You may choose surfing if you live near a wind-free beach, you’re young or athletic, and/or you’re patient and ready to make efforts over a period of time.
In the rest of this post, I’ll go over the main differences between surfing and kitesurfing, namely in terms of :
- Learning curve
- Riding conditions
- Safety and risk
- Riding experience
Surfing vs kiteboarding vs kitesurfing
I want to first clarify a point: when comparing kitesurfing to surfing, what most people are thinking of is kiteboarding on a directional board (aka “kitesurf board”) for the purpose of riding waves, as opposed to flatwater kiteboarding.
Kiteboarding on a twintip and on flatwater is completely different from surfing waves. Comparing the two wouldn’t make much sense. If anything, kiteboarding can more easily be compared with wakeboarding, as they both involved being pulled on a board on flatwater.
So for the purpose of this post, “kitesurfing” will always refer to kiteboarding on a surfboard, not on a twintip, and in ocean waves, not in flatwater. Whether you’re new to both sports or you’re already a flatwater kiteboarder looking to ride waves, this post is for you.
Which of surfing and kitesurfing is harder to learn?
Both surfing and kitesurfing have a steep learning curve. Learning to kitesurf, however, is generally much faster than learning to surf. Given the right conditions and gear, you can go from newbie to kitesurfing in waves within a few weeks. Surfing real waves, on the other hand, typically requires a much longer commitment.
I’ve learned both so I know what I’m talking about – I learned surfing at age 17, and kitesurfing in my late 30s. Right off the bat I can tell you surfing is much harder to learn – I know, that’s not what everyone says…
How hard is it to learn to surf?
Surfing looks easy to learn, just grab a foam surfboard and a leash, get into the small waves close to the sand, paddle a bit and push on your hands to stand. All you need is a few tips, practice push-ups on the beach, start by getting on your knees, then find your balance and ride.
Getting up on your board in small whitewater is relatively easy if you’re physically fit. Actually learning to surf, however, is another story. Here are some of the things you have to master:
- Paddling with endurance and efficiency (muscle build-up)
- Duck dive in a technically sound way to get under the breaking waves
- Position yourself in the right place when a wave arrives
- Paddle hard into the wave (but not too long)
- Stand on your board and balance as your board is about to drop
- Immediately steer your board into an appropriate trajectory
- Maintain speed to avoid getting caught up by the whitewater
- Ride around breaking sections and fellow surfers
- Snap/cut back into the power zone to maintain momentum
A lot of these aspects can only be learned with time and practice. Sure you can take lessons – more and more people do nowadays – but surfing is all about building reflexes and muscle memory. The advice you’ll get will only go so far, it’ll mostly help you avoid common mistakes.
Most surfing learners will have to eagerly practice and get washed out in waves for dozens of hours before it finally clicks and they find themselves riding down a green right or left-hander wave. Learning to surf can be fun, but the truth is it’s a long and tedious process.
Another thing to know is that surfing will exhaust you and make you sore in muscles you never knew you had – around the shoulders, back, and neck. Legs? Nope, not really… At least 90% of your surfing time will be spent paddling and duck diving. Only 10% (for an experienced rider) will you actually be riding waves.
There’s a reason why most new surfers are either kids or really fit people!
Is it hard to learn to kitesurf?
People often say kiteboarding has a steep learning curve, which is true. Kiteboarding actually requires learning 2 different skillsets, flying a kite and riding a board (vs. only the board for surfing).
Most learners, however, crunch through that learning curve relatively fast with some initial lessons. You’ll typically get up and ride on a twintip kiteboard after just 10-12 hours of guided instruction. A few more hours of self-practice will get you riding upwind comfortably.
See my post how long does it take to learn to kitesurf.
Learning to kitesurf on a surfboard in waves will require some extra water time and practice (see my post on learning to kiteboard on a directional board). Unlike surfing, however, you’ll already be riding and having fun with your kite before mastering wave-riding techniques.
People trying to decide between kitesurfing and surfing often get put off by the complexity of the kiteboarding equipment. Learning to set up and use that equipment, however, is a significant part of your basic training and can typically be learned in a few hours.
So overall, I find kitesurfing significantly easier to learn than surfing. Even though surfing seems simpler and less intimidating at first (including gear), it’s actually a very demanding sport with a higher learning curve and requires very strong dedication – even more so than kitesurfing.
Are weather conditions usually better for surfing or kitesurfing?
Obviously, you need waves for both. For both surfing and kitesurfing, you’ll want high-period swells with optimal orientation depending on your local spot’s orientation. Obviously, the biggest distinction in the ideal conditions for these two sports is wind speed.
For surfing, the best days are those with no wind at all – or light offshore wind (blowing towards the sea) which can make the waves “peel” and hold up longer.
For kitesurfing, you want a lot of wind! At the very least 12 knots, ideally 15-25 knots. See my post how much wind is needed for kiteboarding. Wind direction should be either side-onshore (coming from the sea at an angle) or side-shore (parallel to the beach).
Slightly offshore wind can make for better waves, like for surfing, but can hazardous as the wind will pull you out to sea in case of trouble. Only advanced kitesurfers should ever ride in offshore wind.
Whether there are more surfing days or kitesurfing days depends on where your local spots are located and on the season.
The East Coast of the U.S, for example, gets good swells in the winter with no wind, making a lot of surf spots pumping. In the warm months, on the other hand, the coast still get swells (including from hurricanes) but with mainly windy days, making it more of a kitesurfing season.
Across the Atlantic, Portugal, a famous surfing and kitesurfing destination, has similar winter/summer surf/kite conditions.
One great thing about doing both surfing and kitesurfing is that they are often complementary when it comes to weather conditions. In many places I go for waves, I find myself surfing in the early morning before the wind starts to blow, then pulling out my kitesurfing gear in the afternoon when the wind picks up!
What about cold and rain? You can pretty much surf in any temperature if you’re up for it (and have the right neoprene) as long as the wind is low. I’ve surfed in Long Island NY as late as early December.
Likewise, you can easily kitesurf in cold weather if you’re the polar bear type, although strong winds make the cold even harder to withstand, so get yourself at least a 5mm hooded wetsuit and booties.
Rain, however, can get in your way for kitesurfing as it typically comes with clouds, storms and air front. Kitesurfing in these conditions can be dangerous. I try to stick to clear weather to avoid unnecessary risks. Surfing in the rain, on the other hand, can be quite good.
Cost of surfing vs kitesurfing
How does surfing compare to kitesurfing in terms of cost? Without any doubt, kitesurfing gear costs a lot more than surfing equipment. For surfing, all you need is a surfboard, generally between $300 and $800 new (plus a $30-50 leash). For your kitesurfing equipment, on the other hand, expect to fork out between $1400 and $3200!
Besides gear, you’ll also need to factor in the cost of your initiation kitesurfing lessons, which are generally expensive – expect to spend $500 and $800. Surfing lessons, meanwhile, are generally much cheaper.
Kitesurfing also has higher maintenance costs than surfing. Your kites will quickly wear out if you always try new tricks and frequently crash them. Even if you take good care of them, there will be natural decay from the sun, the sand in the wind, and the salt water.
Having a ripped canopy patched up or a bridle, bladder, or valve replaced can cost a lot of money. Also, if you’re using a kite-specific surfboard with high-tech material for strength and lightweight, you’ll need to fork out heavy dollars each time you get a ding (e.g. after hitting a rock).
Repairing a regular polyester resin and fiberglass surfboard, on the other hand, is quite straightforward and cheap – you can easily fix small dings yourself using Solarez or equivalent. For surfing, you don’t really need any additional gear (except a wetsuit) so maintenance costs are low.
Of course, kitesurfing maintenance costs typically will go down over time as you crash or drop your kite less often, get used to folding up your kite as soon as you get off the water, learn how to steer clear of rocks and obstacles, and keep your lines clean and rub-free.
Even if you keep the same kites for a few years (like I do, see this post about my kite quiver) you’ll still have to replace your lines every couple of years for safety – a set of quality lines can cost up to $230! Check out this post for more about kite lines.
For more info about the total cost of kiteboarding, read how much does it cost to start kiteboarding.
Surfing vs kitesurfing safety
People often freak out about kitesurfing being a very dangerous, “extreme” sport. It can be at times, but my scariest experiences so far have been related to surfing more than kitesurfing.
If you get into kitesurfing the right way, you’ll start with an instructor who will teach you most of the stuff you need to know to stay safe. In doing so you’ll avoid some of the biggest hazards, including those related to incorrect gear setup and handling.
Another type of hazard you’ll learn to avoid is hazardous weather conditions. Things such as offshore wind, rough seas, rip tides, high winds and stormy weather.
Surfers are generally much less safety-conscious than kitesurfers. Many will go out in bigger waves, sometimes without even checking out the currents, tide, and weather forecast. Being relatively athletic people, they often count on their paddling capabilities to get them out of trouble.
If they’re not careful, surfers might get stuck in the inside of a big wave, dragged by a rip current, thrown onto the rocks, hit in the head by their – or someone else’s – board etc.
Kitesurfers are less vulnerable to currents and big waves since they can typically ride away from them with their kite. However, they may have their kite drop in the water because of a wind lull, or get out of control due to wind getting stronger.
Equipment failure is another significant risk factor for kitesurfers – which is why checking your equipment regularly, namely your lines, is crucial.
For me, however, kitesurfers who usually ride waves on a directional surfboard, even though they’re exposed to some of the same risks as surfers, are able to avoid one of the sport’s biggest risks and source of injuries which is freestyle tricks such as big airs, rotations, and megaloops.
Surfing vs kitesurfing experience
Here are some the main pros and cons of each sport in terms of feeling and riding experience:
- Feeling of complete freedom – just you, the wave, and the board under your feet
- Relaxing time for enjoying the ocean and sunset while waiting for a wave
- Great workout paddling and duck diving constantly
- Ultimate stoke when riding long hollow waves or deep barrels
- Fast and easy setup on the beach before getting out
- Not hindered by lines and harness
- Few really good days (swell + low wind) in most surfing places
- You often have to sit on a board for a long time waiting for a wave
- More and more crowds everywhere fighting for the same waves
- Surfing is for people who don’t work!
- Lots of wind days during warm season (thermal winds)
- You’re not dependent on waves to get moving
- No waiting for waves, you ride continuously
- You can take many more waves with a kite
- No need to paddle for long periods of time
- Easy to ride out through waves (with good technique) and currents
- You can do things on a wave you wouldn’t dream of doing surfing
- Takes a long time to set up and get out in the water
- Takes a while to fold up and pack
- Wind decides riding direction on a wave
- Rarely get perfect wind + wave conditions
- You ride with a lot of gear on (harness, bar and lines)
- Can’t stop to socialize unless you go in
Surfing vs kitesurfing community
It’s no secret, surfers are an exclusive bunch with tribal-style groups and some pretty sectarian social habits. Waves are a scarce resource – even more so as time passes since surfing is getting increasingly popular and people of all age and style are getting into it.
The thing is, at any given surf spot, only one surfer can ride a given wave at a time. Therefore, there’s always competition for waves, with right-of-way rules being applied – the surfer who’s the furthest inside gets the wave.
Some spots, e.g. point breaks, have a very narrow take-off area, resulting in a tense atmosphere in the lineup as all the surfers cram into a tight space and compete for the waves. In other places such as broad beach breaks, or when the waves are not that good, things are more mellow and surfers are typically friendlier with each other.
Generally speaking though, the traditional mellow vibes and tribal friendship of surfing has long turned into a competitive, sometimes hostile attitude that often makes surfing much less enjoyable than it used to be.
Kitesurfing, on the other hand, is not as plagued by scarce resources and overpopulation. Kitesurfers have plenty of space, i.e. the whole wide ocean for riding without running into anyone – although in reality, most kiters ride in a delimited area for safety reasons.
Being highly mobile (they can travel dozens of miles in each session) kitesurfers can go catch waves far off from their starting point to avoid crowds – with the exception of a few particularly good world-famous waves where kiters take turns to ride (like in surfing).
As a result of the readily available resources and smaller crowds, kitesurfers tend to remain a tight-knit and friendly community in which everyone can count on others for information, tips and support in case of trouble.
Overall, the kitesurfing community has positive and friendly vibes. Getting together with fellow riders is generally a pleasant experience which often leads to new friendships. Sort of how surfing used to be…