Guide to Planning a Sustainable Surf Trip

There is no better feeling than planning, packing for, and leaving for a surf trip. And whether it’s your annual trip or a last-minute strike trip, they’re all special. You might miss some flights and break some boards but the world-class waves will be worth it – trust me. 

Planning a surf trip involves several challenges – Where? How long? With who? Where to stay? How many boards to take? 

And with the added element of sustainability, surely it must be difficult, right? Wrong.

In fact, planning a sustainable surf trip has never been easier. You can enjoy the waves, hang out with locals, and eat amazing food without worrying about your environmental footprint. 

Sure, there are a few more things to consider. But the peace of mind knowing that you’re protecting the waves that make the trip possible will make it all worth it. From planning to packing to surfing the first wave, here’s everything you need to know about sustainable surf travel. 

Planning

Aside from actually surfing, planning is the most fun part of a surf trip. There are so many options – the whole world is in front of you, literally. So how do you choose a location that satisfies your need for adventure and the needs of the planet? Here’s how:

Where to go

If you haven’t settled on a destination yet, check out countries like Costa Rica, Denmark, Norway, Australia, and Spain. These countries are among the "greenest" in the world. 

If none of these interest you, there are still plenty of places to travel responsibly. Look for places with nearby nature reserves and protected marine areas.

Where to stay

With the rise of Airbnb, surf hostels, eco-friendly resorts, and others, there are plenty of accommodations to suit your needs. You have to consider how long you’ll be there, who you’re traveling with, and what kind of amenities you might need throughout the trip. 

Fortunately, sustainability is front of mind for a lot of surf-friendly destinations. But how do you know which ones are legit and which ones are greenwashing? 

Hint: sustainability is more than just a recycling bin.

To find the best, start by looking for places with one or more of these certifications: 

  • STOKE (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation) - STOKE Certified operators are dedicated to “protecting the places you love to surf and the people who live there.” These places are often powered by renewable energy, contribute to local conservation projects, pay fair wages, and so much more. 
  • GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) - The GSTC is the global standard for sustainable tourism. To be certified, hotels & resorts must adhere to their standards for sustainable management and socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental impacts. 
  • EarthCheck - EarthCheck-certified tourism operations display increased efficiency, top-of-the-line guest experience, and minimal environmental footprints. Their certifications comply with the Mohonk Agreement and are backed by the GSTC. 
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) - LEED-certified hotels & resorts are built with humans & the planet in mind for a lower carbon footprint. On top of that, they protect & restore water resources, biodiversity, human health, and more. 
  • ISO 14001 - The ISO 14001 Certification is a framework for sustainable environmental operations. Stays with this certification have taken steps to reduce their energy & waste consumption, increase recycling efforts, and more. 

If the place you want to stay isn’t certified, don’t worry yet. Check the website for their environmental policy/standards. Look for things like energy & water saving practices, on-site gardens, single-use plastic alternatives, locally-caught seafood, and more. If you can’t find one that meets your environmental standards, opt for a local homestay or family-run hostel rather than a big hotel chain. You can still support the local economy. 

Limit your impact even further (and save some money) by traveling outside of peak season and avoiding tourist traps. If a place has been recently impacted by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, your trip would help inject some money into the local economy. After Super Typhoon Rai hit Siargao, home of Cloudbreak, the surf tourism industry helped the island get back on its feet.  

And while you’re looking around, see if there are any volunteer opportunities where you can support the local community and environment through education, cleanups, or other activities.

How to get there

If you’re traveling by car, we assume you know how to use Google Maps. But for cross-country or international flights, here’s how to plan your flights to limit your footprint. 

Nobody likes layovers. Well, it turns out that Mother Earth isn’t such a big fan either. With long-haul flights being the exception, planes use more gas during takeoff. If you have a layover, that means you’re taking off twice as much. They aren’t always easy to find (or the cheapest), especially if you’re traveling between continents or multiple islands. But if you can swing it, you might be rewarded with some waves.

Here’s a pro tip if you have flexible dates. Check Google Flights for the cheapest days to fly nonstop to your destination. They’ll even show you low-emission flights. 

 

You have your flights booked – you’re all set. Not quite. Hopefully, you landed some nonstop, lower-emissions flights. There’s still more you can do. As much as we’d all like to believe otherwise, air travel is bad for the environment. Aside from avoiding it, the best thing you can do is purchase carbon offsets. The purpose of these is to offset the carbon emissions associated with travel. Common offset projects include planting trees, protecting blue carbon sinks, and even sucking carbon directly out of the air. 

What to pack

Congratulations, you booked your flights. Unless you’re rushing to the airport for a strike trip, you have a few days or weeks until you leave. Regardless, you should start packing early (or at least think about it). 

Clothes

Let’s start with your clothes. Your wardrobe will change depending on where you’re heading, but packing neutral tones is the easiest way to pack light. They match nearly everything and can be worn with different combinations to change your look from day to day. 

Warm weather

If you’re heading to a warm water destination (lucky you), you’ll be able to pack super light. Seriously, you could fit all of this in a backpack:

  • 3-5 t-shirts
  • 2-3 board shorts or bikinis
  • Sandals & shoes
  • Socks, underwear, bras, etc.

Mild weather

Traveling in between seasons and it’s not quite warm enough for boardshorts? Your list is relatively the same with a few extra things to keep you warm when the temperature drops a bit:

  • 1 wetsuit (1-3 mm)
  • 1-2 pairs of casual pants
  • 1-2 jackets/hoodies
  • 3-5 tees/long sleeves
  • Socks, underwear, bras, etc. 

Cold weather

Trying to score some waves under the Northern Lights or hike your way to some empty peaks in Alaska? First of all, good for you – you’re braver than the rest. 

Second, you’re going to need quite a bit of gear to survive the cold. This list might be longer or shorter depending on just how cold it’s going to be, but here are the basics: 

  • 1-2 hooded wetsuits (3-7 mm range)
  • 1-2 pairs of wetsuit gloves or mittens
  • 1-2 pairs of wetsuit booties
  • Hat/beanie 
  • Winter jacket
  • Snow pants
  • Winter boots
  • Warm weather socks
  • Loungewear (sweatpants, hoodies, thermal gear, etc.)
  • Socks, underwear, bras, etc.

Surfboards

There are two ways to approach this – bring your own boards or rent/borrow when you get there. We’ll break down each one.

Bring your own quiver

There’s nothing like riding your favorite board, especially on a new wave. The general rule of thumb is to pack your go-to stick, a backup, and a step-up board if the swell picks up. If the swell forecast doesn’t require a bigger board, ditch that one first. You’ll be good with two – we’ve even traveled with just one before. 

If you’re strategic with your wardrobe selection, you can pad the rails with some of your clothes. You can save some space in your backpack or suitcase and protect your board in the process.

There are a couple of major downsides to traveling with your own surfboards. One, it’s expensive. Two, there’s no worse feeling than picking up broken surfboards from baggage claim. Plus, it’s just not convenient to carry a board bag through a crowded airport. Take boards at your own risk. 

Borrow/rent a board

If you’re heading to a surf resort or some well-known surf breaks, you should be able to rent a board there. They usually have entire quivers to choose from. And even though it’s not your go-to choice, surely one of those boards will do the trick. The cost will be similar to the oversized luggage fees but you won’t have to worry about them being damaged during travel. 

If your stay doesn’t have a set of boards to choose from, check out a local surf shop for rental options

Surf accessories

We’ve already covered wetsuits, but what about the rest of your gear? I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably going to break something. And whether it’s a fin or a leash, make sure to pack some extras. 

Pack a few bars of wax too – you’ll go through them fast. Make sure you take the right temperature wax for the water conditions.

Miscellaneous

It'd be nice if all you had to pack was a few outfits and boards, but there's a few more things you can't forget. 

Toiletries & medication

Toiletries & medication are often overlooked on packing lists. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. 

Here’s what you absolutely need:

  • Shampoo
  • Body wash
  • Sunscreen
  • Deodorant
  • First aid kit

And some other things you might need:

  • Aloe vera
  • Conditioner 
  • Lotion
  • Tampons
  • Medications (prescriptions, allergy medicine, EpiPen, etc.)

Obviously, everyone’s needs vary. But if you’re not looking to leave much of a footprint, travel light.

Other items

You should have room in your backpack or carry-on for a reusable water bottle. If you’re heading to Central America, Africa, or Asia, you might want to pack one with a built-in filter. You won’t have to buy several plastic bottles or worry about them ending up in the ocean.

If you have some spare room, it’s a good idea to pack reusable Tupperware, cutlery, and straws to pack meals for day trips and reduce your waste. 

While you’re there

You finally made it – the only thing on your mind is scoring waves. That’s totally fine, but you can’t spend all of your time in the water. For the downtime in between sessions, here’s how to make your travel as sustainable as possible

Travel light

Your traveling isn’t over once you land. You still have to travel to your home base, in between breaks, and to the store. Walking & biking is the most eco-friendly way to get around. For longer distances, take public transportation if it’s available. If you have to use a car, hire a local driver to help you get around while supporting the local economy. 

If you’re on a remote island, you might be traveling around by boat. Take a sailboat or paddle-powered boat instead of an engine-powered one. 

Hire a guide to show you the best breaks around. They’ll have all the local knowledge and you won’t be sharing waves with any surf schools (or kooks).  

Eat local

You can eat at a chain restaurant when you get home. Skip them. Pick up groceries from a local market and eat out at locally-owned restaurants & dive bars. Take it to the next level by catching & cooking your own seafood.

Shop local

Forget to pack an essential? No worries, just pick it up at a local market or pharmacy – avoid the popular franchises. The same goes for souvenirs – grab something from a local shop and avoid tourist traps at all costs. This applies to surf shops too. Go check out that hole in the wall, you might be surprised. 

Non-surfing activities

Whether it’s a rest day or a lay day, there will be a time or two that you don’t paddle out. If you still want to get out and explore, make it count. Go volunteer at a local school or community organization, help out at a sea turtle conservation project, hike in a nature reserve, or just pick up trash at the nearest beach. 

Back to reality

Hopefully you score some waves, have some fun, and meet some amazing people along the way. If you’re really lucky, you might even make it home without any broken boards or limbs. 

Paddling out at your home break may not be as thrilling as exploring uncharted waters halfway around the world. But that doesn’t mean your commitment to the planet is over. 

Share your story with your friends. Tell them all of the tips & tricks you used to limit your footprint and still surf world-class breaks. Next time they’re planning a surf trip, you can point them in the right direction for sustainable travel hacks. They’ll thank you and you can rest easy knowing they’re planning a trip the right way. 

Last but not least, keep practicing your sustainable habits in your everyday life. Support the local community, avoid single-use plastics, and make a conscious effort to limit your footprint every single day. We only have one planet – let’s protect it for everyone.