If you’re curious about river surfing but not sure where to start, here is a basic gear guide along with rental locations and where to find instruction in Colorado
Pockets of river surfers have carved U.S. waterways since the late 1970s, but the sport recently flourished across a wider audience — and Colorado is a hotspot. Endless Waves, an online directory of Colorado’s river surf spots, lists 40 features and 30 whitewater parks to date — the highest volume of human-made waves worldwide. The Colorado River Surfers Facebook group ballooned, too, boasting 1,700 members at print.
To keep pace with the burgeoning industry, the Colorado River Surfing Association launched in 2018 to promote the development of river surf waves and community safety. Historically, river surfers have relied on using ocean surfboards, but a handful of Colorado-based manufacturers are now constructing boards built specifically for rivers. And nearly a dozen retailers statewide rent or sell a fleet of designs.
Here’s the river surf gear, rental locations and list of instructors statewide to help you get in the water.
Colorado rivers are fed by high-altitude snowmelt. It’s not uncommon for river surfers here to don a 5.5mm/4mm wetsuit. That rating indicates the material has a 5mm thickness on the torso and thighs, and a 4mm thickness on the arms and legs. It’s also reasonable to wear a suit with a hood.
I vouch that the Patagonia Women’s R4 Yulex Front-Zip Hooded Full Suit ($549) is super durable, comfortable, tailored to the female form, and keeps me toasty. Over the past two years, I’ve worn that suit in rivers around Colorado and Montana, as well as winter ocean surfing along the coast of Vancouver Island, at Cox Bay, with 45-48 degrees Fahrenheit water. The thickness protects my skin from abrasion. The integrated Supratex kneepads are an important barrier for my knees, especially while learning how to pop up: you often kneel first. The contour works well for broad shoulders and bust. The stretchy exterior fabric is 100% recycled spandex-polyester blend coupled with a soft 100% recycled polyester liner and natural rubber used throughout the suit.
When the temperatures rise and the swim isn’t as intense, like at the Montrose Water Sports Park, I’ll pull on a suit without a hood and with lower thickness: the Patagonia Women’s R2 Yulex Front-Zip Full Suit ($229). The R2 thickness is 3.5/3, meaning the material on the torso and thighs is 3.5mm thick, and the material on the arms and legs is 3mm thick. Don’t size up. When you pull on the suit, it should feel snug.
Keep in mind, the wetsuit thickness that you need depends on the location where you most surf, the weather, your personal preference and health needs. If the ambient temperature is high, or the swim is really short, you don’t want to boil in a suit too thick.
For frigid water, I really like pulling on the Patagonia R4 Yulex Three Finger Mitts ($79). These gloves are 5mm thick and very warm with a R4 rating. The microgasket at the wrists prevents water entry. My hands never feel cold, and the thickness adds protection for my hands, which occasionally smack the board or rocks. The extra material around my fingers adds a bit of surface area when I paddle. The only challenge I have had is pulling on the second glove: at first, I needed help.
If the temperatures are blazing outside, the water is warm and the debris is low-risk, I’ll replace these mitts with thinner, five-finger gloves or drop my gloves altogether.
In the springtime, nothing protects my feet like the 5mm-thick Patagonia R4 Yulex Round Toe Booties ($89) — even as I healed from superficial frostbite, a backcountry ski injury. The microgasket on the tall cuff prevents water entry. The round-toe, grippy, thick soles deliver cushion and protection when I hike with my surfboard on gravel singletrack and rocky or root-filled slopes into and out of waves. And the tenacious pull rings on the heels are key for pulling the booties on and off.
When the temperatures rise, I can depend on my high-top, low-profile NRS Womens Paddle Wetshoe ($60) for excellent protection and comfort. The booties have a 3mm upper and sole and 5mm insole. The side-zipper delivers easy entry and exit. And one of my favorite features about this design is the rugged rubber outsole wrap, which shields my feet from impact and terrain underfoot.
Colorado is a headwater state with smaller, steeper rivers compared to other river surf destinations nationwide. The size of river waves depends on snowmelt. The peak season could provide a six-week window of high water, which is the ultimate conditions for surfing each spring-to-summer. Otherwise, river waves are generally smaller, and a high-volume board complaints those types of waves.
Some river surfers opt to use ocean-inspired surfboard designs in the river. River surfboards are generally shorter, more streamlined, less buoyant boards and have features like well-defined edges or a rocker profile.
Two of the most popular river surfboards for beginners in Colorado include the Hydrus Board Tech Montrose, which was recently renamed the Hyper ($904-$948); and the Inflatable Sk8, by Colorado-based Badfish SUP. Colorado-founded SOL Paddle Boards and Hala Gear are likewise pioneering river surfboards.
PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICE (PFD)
PFDs help bring a surfer to the water’s surface, which is key if they get worn out catching an eddy, pulled through rapids below a wave or are knocked unconscious.
According to Colorado law, folks on river-running vessels must have a United States Coast Guard (USCG)–approved PFD that is categorized as a Type I, II, III or V Whitewater River Running Buoyant Vest.
To date, I’ve used my Astral Layla ($139.95) for river surfing, SUPing and whitewater rafting. The design is a USCG-certified Type III PFD. As a woman, this is the most comfortable PFD I’ve ever worn and is fairly streamlined. It features hinged seams and a cupped chest that conforms to a female frame. The front is zip-up, it’s easy to pull on, and I don’t need to mess around with the straps very much. When I lie prone on my surfboard, I notice that this PFD has a more material beneath my chest than a thinner vest that’s non-certified. I’m a conservative recreationist, so I opt for more protection over a light, airy feel. One streamlined vest I’m eager to try is the USCG-approved O’Neill Women’s Reactor Vest ($95). The men’s version is the Assault.
Sizing for PFDs is based on body weight and chest size. Be sure the arm holes are large enough for freedom of movement and to avoid being chafed.
We don’t need a scientist to affirm that wearing a helmet while playing in whitewater and constantly shifting rocks is a smart idea. Not to mention, there’s plenty of opportunity for the board to slip out, fly up and land on your noggin. Then, once you start surfing side-by-side, it could be your buddy’s board that hits you in the head.
Like PFDs, helmets are certified for specific use. The Bern Macon 2.0 H20 Watersports Helmet ($60) is an accredited design for water-specific sports. This helmet is a solid design, given its light — 306 grams — and boasts 12 vents.
To prevent one’s surfboard from being washed away, river surfers need to wear a releasable leash. If the leash gets caught in a strainer beneath the water, the surfer can pull the emergency release to prevent being caught and drowned. Various releasable leashes attach to the surfer via their PFD or around their leg by way of velcro or a clip.
In my experience, the Re’Leash ($69) has worked really well compared to other releasable leash systems. While they work fine for some river surfers, I’ve had issues with velcro leg straps getting pulled off in strong rapids.
- Altitude Paddleboards, Englewood
- Grand Junction Stand Up Paddle Las Colonias Shop, Grand Junction
- Confluence Kayaks, Denver
- CKS Main Street, Buena Vista
- Montrose Surf and Cycle, Montrose
- Glenwood Adventure, Glenwood Springs
- 4Corners Riversports, Durango
RIVER SURF LESSONS
Depending on location, river surfing in Colorado spans from May to September. Here’s where you can find certified instruction:
RVR 2 RVR is a Colorado and Utah-based river surf and standup paddleboard company that teaches private instruction, clinics and river retreats worldwide. Co-founded by Natali Zollinger and Brittany Parker, the duo leads clinics in various locations across Colorado.
Montrose Surf and Cycle offers complimentary river surfboard demo clinics every Wednesday night at Montrose Water Sports Park each summer. The retailer has one of the largest selections of river surfboard rentals in the state plus wetsuits for rent, too. The shop also offers one-on-one surf lessons.
Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) boasts a strong Learn to Surf program at the Salida and Buena Vista Whitewater Parks, 25 miles apart. The center’s introductory class is held on the easiest waves and teaches surfers to paddle prone across the eddy line and to stay prone while catching the wave. Advanced lessons teach surfers how to stand up, and how to maneuver the board across, up and down the face of the wave. They can surf more challenging waves.
The Chill Foundation organizes a youth river surf program, in collaboration with the Colorado River School and Colorado River Surfing Association, in Denver.
Be on the lookout for day clinics at the annual CKS Paddlefest, each May.
MORGAN TILTON is an adventure journalist specializing in outdoor industry news and adventure travel. She grew up on Colorado’s Western Slope, where she commenced board sports on snow at her home mountain of Telluride Ski Resort, 18 years ago, inspiring her curiosity to eventually carve waves. Crested Butte, Colorado, is home.