Surfing the Great Lakes: A Spot & Gear Guide

lake michigan barrel

 

Surfing in the Great Lakes is cold, difficult, and even disappointing at times. But at their best, freshwater waves provide a surf experience unlike any other.

Before we dive in, let’s get the most obvious question out of the way. Can you surf in the Great Lakes?

Yes, you can surf the Great Lakes - people have been doing it since the 1960s. Since first being spotted on Lake Erie in Buffalo, New York, the local surf community has rapidly grown across all five lakes. Now, there are thousands of surfers in the region who jump at the chance to surf the harshest winter conditions.

But before you book your next trip to join them, here’s what you need to know. 

How to surf the Great Lakes

Riding waves in the lakes is much different than the ocean. The conditions aren’t as ideal with stronger winds, shorter periods, and colder temperatures. But when the conditions align, the Great Lakes are a sight to behold for any surfer. 

How it works

Unlike the ocean, lake waves are generated by windswell rather than groundswell. Scientifically speaking, windswell and groundswell are the same. But from a surfer’s perspective, they’re very different.

The difference is the period (length of time between waves), which is determined by the amount of fetch (the distance that wind blows over water). There simply isn’t enough fetch in the lakes to generate groundswell. 

Note - Generally speaking, a groundswell has a period of > 10 seconds while a windswell has a period of < 10 seconds. 

The biggest period you’ll see in the lakes is 7 or 8 seconds on the best days. Five to six seconds is common. These short periods make for a lot of cold duck dives. 

When is the best time to go?

The fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to surf the Great Lakes. Once September hits, you can surf until the ice shelf rolls in. Once it melts in February or March, you can get back out there before summer arrives. 

Low-pressure systems moving across the Midwest create strong, heavy winds. These winds blow across the lakes and create waves on the opposite shoreline.

It’s common to see waves in the 3-4 feet range (waist to chest). On really big days though, waves can grow as large as 6-10 feet (head high to 2-4 ft. overhead). These big swells only happen a few times each year, so keep an eye out if you’re looking to score.

It is possible to surf in the summer, though it is far less common. High-pressure systems don’t usually produce waves that are powerful enough to surf. 

 

party wave surfing lake michigan

A rare summer party wave. Photo by @arenzy

Conditions to look for

Just like the ocean, some surfing conditions are better than others. Here’s what to look for:

  • Swell size - You can’t be too picky here. Anything above 2 feet usually works for most breaks. 
  • Swell direction - This depends on the lake and shape of the coastline. For the south end of Lake Michigan, nearly every direction except a south swell works as long as it’s strong enough. For the north end of Lake Michigan, everything except a north swell usually works. Make sense?
  • Wind speed - In the colder months, wind speeds of 15-20 mph that blow consistently for 4+ hours will produce rideable waves. In the warmer months, you’ll need wind speeds of 20-25+ mph to surf. This is because warmer air is lighter than cold air, meaning less wind force is exerted on the water. 
  • Wind direction - This is the most difficult one. Offshore winds are the best wind conditions for surfing. They give the wave a softer, uniform face that makes it easier to surf. But because waves in the Great Lakes are driven by windswell, an offshore wind means that the wind is blowing opposite of the swell direction. If the wind is offshore, there won't be waves for very long. 
    • Your best bet is to find a break that is protected by a breakwall, jetty, or groin. These structures produce cleaner waves by reducing windspeed on the opposite side of the wall. They also improve the consistency of waves over the sand bottom. 
    • If the sideshore wind is light, the conditions might not require a breakwall. 
    • If you’re willing to settle for choppy conditions, you can surf with an onshore wind. It’s not recommended, but it’s certainly possible. 

What to expect

First, check your expectations. It's not Hawaii, but Great Lakes surfing still has plenty to offer.  

The good

  • Uncrowded. Hate sharing waves? This is the place to be. Most people are too afraid to brave the cold. There will usually only be a handful of people in the lineup. You might even have all of the waves to yourself.
  • No sharks. We’re shark advocates as much as the next person, but they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. 
  • Full of stoke. When the conditions line up and you’re out there with your friends, there is no other place like it on earth. Even better, there’s no localism (yet). People will be cheering you on like you just won the Pipeline Pro.  
longboarding in the great lakes

Longboarder cruising on a Lake Michigan wave. Photo by @arenzy

The bad 

  • Really cold. The best time for surfing is between September and April. These are also the coldest months. We’re talking freezing air and water temperatures (literally). When you get out of the water, you'll be covered in ice (not kidding). 
  • Inconsistent. Even in the fall & winter months, the conditions are inconsistent at best. There may be weeks where you surf every day and others where it’s totally flat. Be prepared to wait.
  • Pollution. Water pollution occurs everywhere – the Great Lakes are no different. The Surfrider Foundation even has a chapter dedicated to protecting the waves.  Just be careful where you paddle out. 
ice beard on lake michigan surfer

Smiling after a frozen surf session. Photo by @arenzy

A spot guide

The Great Lakes have 9,500 miles of coastline that span across eight US states and one Canadian province. There are plenty of surf spots, some more popular than others. From east to west, these are some of the best: 

Lake Huron

Lake Huron has some hidden gems, especially on the Georgian Bay. Between the US and Canada, there are plenty of spots to check out:

  • Bay City, MI
  • Collingwood, ON
  • Lexington, MI
  • Port Austin, MI
  • Port Huron, MI

Lake Erie

Lake Erie borders 3 US states and Ontario, each of them with something special to offer: 

  • Edgewater, OH
  • Hamburg Beach, NY
  • Luna Pier, MI
  • Port Maitland, ON
  • Sterling State Park, MI (only Michigan break on Lake Erie)

Lake Ontario

In tune with its’ namesake, the best surf spots in Lake Ontario are located on the Canadian side. But don’t worry, we’ve included a few breaks in the US too:

  • Ashbridges Bay, ON
  • Scarborough Bluffs, ON
  • Niagara River Mouth, NY
  • Olcott Beach, NY
  • Sandbanks, ON

Lake Michigan

Because of its north-south orientation, Lake Michigan is arguably the most surfable of the Great Lakes. You can find a spot to surf on nearly every combination of swell & wind direction. Check out one of the 60 spots on Surfline:

  • Frankfort, MI
  • Grand Haven, MI
  • Marquette, MI
  • St. Joseph, MI
  • Sheboygan, WI

Lake Superior

There aren’t nearly as many spots in Lake Superior, but it arguably has the best break of them all – Stoney Point. It’s the only reef break in the Great Lakes and if it wasn’t for the heavy snowfall & ice beards, you might think it’s Hawaii. Here are some others:

  • Beaver Bay, MN
  • Grand Marais, MN
  • Lester River, MN
  • Marquette, MI 
  • Stoney Point, MN

The point is, no matter where you live, there are plenty of surf breaks within driving distance.

You need the right gear

Surf season starts in September and continues on till late April/early May. If you’ve never spent a winter in the Midwest, it gets cold. With sub-40° F water and sub-zero air temperatures, you need the right gear to make it out alive. 

Wetsuits, mittens, and booties

There might be a few sessions in the early fall where you can wear a 3/2 mm. You might even get lucky in the summer and paddle out in boardshorts. 

But to make it through the winter, you're going to need some extra thick neoprene. If you’re unsure how thick, ask the locals what they’re wearing.

We recommend choosing a hooded wetsuit that’s at least 5mm thick in the core and has a built-in hood. Your hands & feet are going to be cold. Pick up a pair of mittens & booties that are at least 6-7 mm. 

Surfboards

Freshwater is less buoyant than saltwater, so choose a board with more volume than normal. It might be a bit slower than your typical performance board, but it’s better than not catching any waves. 

Most Great Lakes surfers actually ride longboards. For those who want more maneuverability, you can’t go wrong with a fish or funboard.  

Other things to know

Know when to go

Forecasting waves across the Great Lakes is difficult. Unlike groundswell, windswell can change quickly. Don’t be surprised if you show up to knee-high peelers even though the forecast said 3-4 feet.

Most surfers use several tools to forecast waves. 

Surfline and Magic Seaweed provide info for hundreds of surf spots around the Great Lakes. Within 24 hours of the swell, they provide fairly accurate forecasting. If anything, they may overestimate the wave height by a foot or two. Because of how often conditions change in the Midwest, these two tools are not great at forecasting days or weeks in advance. Don’t hold your breath if you see a big day in the forecast the following week. It likely won’t be that big when the day finally arrives.

Many Great Lakes surfers consider themselves amateur meteorologists. They study NOAA, iWindsurf, Sailflow, buoy data, and local weather reports to determine where they’re paddling out. 

It’s a tight-knit community

Great Lakes surfers embody “Midwest nice.”. Even on the coldest days, total strangers will cheer you on as you catch wave after wave.

Surfing the Great Lakes is very different from the oceans. You have to deal with freezing temperatures, extra thick neoprene, and unpredictable weather. But when everything comes together, the waves are truly a sight to behold – even on the coldest days.

Far from the reaches of warm, sunny beaches, the Great Lakes are a hidden gem among the world’s most unique surf spots.