Surfboard Guide: How to size down from larger boards to shortboards

I often get asked how to size down on surfboards. So in this guide I'm going to cover the exact progression I would use to go all the way from soft tops to shortboards so you can avoid all the mistakes that I made.

Personally, I went from learning on longboards, straight down to shortboards (and I thought I was ripping, but really I was mostly floundering) and then I went back up in volume to mid-lengths to work out a bunch of kinks in my surfing, before coming back down to riding shortboards again. 

My biggest piece of advice is size down slow, to go fast over the long run.

Most people make the mistake of moving down board size too quickly.

They think the smaller the board under their arm, the better the surfer they must be. But who would you rather look like? 

Devon Howard flowing and not even doing any turns with perfect style on a CI Mid like this?

Or one of countless people on a shortboard with the style of a wounded seagull like this?


Personally my goal is to be like this guy :)

As a beginner / early intermediate surfer you’re going to want to maximize the number of waves you catch and focus on the fundamentals before you should even really worry about doing turns.

 So how do you know you're ready to size down?

There are two tests that you should use to determine whether you’re ready to size down. The first is are you catching lots of waves a session? I see lots of beginner and intermediate surfers sitting around like buoys on smaller boards barely catching any waves and not progressing. In the beginning, it's better to catch lots of waves on a big board than less waves on a small board.

The second test is are you getting long rides, riding all the way down the line, and outrunning the wave? Remember that a turn is a functional maneuver meant to return you to the power source, so if you’re not catching long rides and generating so much speed you need to burn it off with a turn, then what’s the point of riding a smaller board to do a turn if you're not ready for them? You probably still need to focus more on fundamentals.

My biggest regret is I wish I had stepped down more gradually.

When I was learning, the popular concept of a mid-length didn't really exist the way it does today. So you basically went from a 10 foot longboard to a shortboard or a fish. What happens when you jump down that quickly is you're not ready for:

  1. The dramatic drop in wave count which really slows your progression. Every time you drop volume you will need a corresponding increase in paddle fitness and wave reading to compensate. Reducing volume more gradually gives you more time for your fitness and wave reading to catch up.
  2. The dramatic increase in sensitivity which can cause you to throw your limbs in all sorts of directions as you try to balance. This can really mess up your style and teach you bad habits that can be very difficult to unlearn. Unfortunately, some people think it's more exciting and fun because they are doing "more" (e.g. flopping their arms around), but often when they finally see the footage of themselves surfing, they realize their style is funky and that their friends elegantly riding bigger boards actually look better than they do.

  3. The dramatic increase in how quickly everything is happening on the wave. Surfing is already pure sensory overload and jumping on a smaller board intensifies that. One of the big benefits of riding a larger board is how it slows everything down so you can have time to be aware of your body and to focus on your style and time to study where exactly on the wave you want to place your bottom turn or cutback.

Each time you step down you'll be faced with an adjustment period where you struggle, but because each step down is smaller and more manageable, the adjustment period is shorter, and you'll have more fun and learn quicker while avoiding bad habits. 

You may be wondering now if you're riding too small of a board.

Don't worry, if you're on too small of a board, I have some recommendations on what you should try.

The following would be my progression from soft top to shortboard.

If you're a beginner, start at the top of this progression. If you're riding a shortboard already, but you feel like you're not catching a lot of waves and you want to fix your style, then go to the bottom of the progression and then jump up a level and get on say a 6'6". If you're say on a 7 ft mid-length, but you still feel like you're struggling, start a step above with say a 7'6". How quickly you progress will heavily depend on how frequently you surf and the kinds of waves you surf, so if you're extremely fit and can surf almost every day in good waves you may be able to progress through this much more quicker than someone who surfs once a week on weekends in small weak waves.

  • ~8-9ft soft top: use this until I am in complete control of my board and solid with etiquette so I’m not at risk of hurting myself / other people. I've known of people getting concussions, breaking ribs, and severe injuries because of beginners loosing control of their boards. This is very important.
  • ~9-10ft traditional longboard (ideally traditional): use this to get familiar with riding a hard surfboard and really focus on wave selection and just riding down the line. I would probably stay on this board for a while to really focus on those fundamentals and not size down until I was consistently catching lots of long rides to the beach. The journey from catching white wash to riding a wave down the line can take a long time because you need to develop that memory bank of waves so I would accelerate that by riding a board that makes that as easy as possible for you. The reason I would go with a traditional longboard is because I could keep this in the quiver forever and even when I get to the point where I’m riding shortboards I could still use it when the waves are really small and to work on style and wave reading. See this article on how beneficial riding a longboard can be even if you're on a shortboard. Some of you may just decide that riding logs is all you really want to do and more power to you!
  • 8ft+ full outlined egg / mid-length: If you're not into riding a traditional log, you might skip right to this, but I would use it the similar way to a log and really focus on mainly catching lots of waves. An 8 ft board paddles pretty well and you’ll almost be able to catch waves like a longboard, but you'll have more maneuverability. Goal here is to get comfortable on a smaller board and catching good waves and riding them all the way down the line and starting to do drawn out cutbacks. I would only move down in volume from this when you’re consistently catching lots of waves and making them all the way down the line.

  • ~7’6” full outlined egg / midlength: I would move down here from 8 ft boards to get comfortable catching waves on a smaller board. Maneuverability will begin to open up here.
    • Here is Torren Marten on a 7’9” from Morning of the earth surfboards.

      • This board is more pulled in and narrow so that’s why I’m putting it under the 7’6” vs the 8’0” category, but this is the kind of surfing you’ll want to shoot for. Notice how he utilizes the full wave face and rides to the top and bottom of the wave. His turns are much more drawn out, but that’s perfect for building the fundamentals. That’s really great practice to build up to doing turns.

      • Now what exactly do I mean by pulled in vs full outline and how should I take volume into account?

      • Remember that volume is just one data point on how the board will perform. If you're more on the beginner side you're going to want something that's relatively wide and thick.

    • My personal favorite mid-length is the JS Big Baron. I've ridden a 6'8" version of it in everything from 2 ft waves to 20 ft Hawaiin waves and it handles them all. I wrote a review if you want to check it out. Here's a clip of Harrison Roach ripping on both a 6'4" and 7'6" version and getting pretty insane barrels.

      • The one thing I would mention here for the Big Baron is that for each length there are two volume levels. One beefed up for beginners that I would recommend for people that are stepping down in size, and another one that is refined that I would recommend for more experienced surfers going from shorter boards back up to longer boards (for example to get some sick barrels like Harrison gets in this clip). The thinner versions are actually relatively sensitive and probably wouldn't be a good board for beginners.

      • I've also found that the twin pin design (a pintail with twin fin set up) seems to be the perfect set up for larger boards by providing a combination of hold in bigger waves, speed in smaller waves, and maneuverability. Personally, I've found thrusters and quads to be stickier when you're riding a mid-length and the twin fin set up gives the larger boards the right amount of looseness. When you eventually size down to shortboards, it will translate well when you start riding thrusters and quads. 

    • The Harley Ingleby MOE also looks like a good board for this size with its nice wide outline while maintaining a good amount of performance. Here's a good review of the board by Thomye that really breaks down the benefits of riding a bigger board:

      • Note that Thomye is on a 7'2" but if you're coming from say an 8 ft board I would take a more gradual step down to a 7'6" first.
  • ~7’0” performance midlength: This is a key size that is kind of a jack of all trades. You’ll be able to catch waves almost like a longboard but still also be able to do maneuvers. I would spend a good amount of time here focusing on maneuvers and only move down when I’m able to do a decent cutback. 
    • Here is Harley Ingleby on a 7’0” Mid6 which is a more refined performance oriented version of the MOE.

      • You can see he is properly ripping at this size. Granted he is a bigger guy and a pro surfer but at this length you should be able to work on your turns.
  • ~6’6” performance midlength: Another key size where you’re going to have lots of paddle power but still be able to do even better maneuvers. I would not size down below here until you are properly pumping and generating a lot of speed, out running waves, and working on cutbacks. 
    • As I've mentioned the Big Baron is my favorite and this clip by Wooly TV on a 6’8” JS Big Baron showcases the versatility of this size:

      As you can see, he is properly ripping on that thing and even though he normally only rides shortboards he loved it so much he kept this in his personal quiver.

    • This is also a size that I think I will always keep in the quiver for whenever the waves get really big. When I go surf and it's big here on the east coast I almost always bring both my shortboard and a mid-length in case the current is heavy and it switches from being rippable to down the line and tubing.
  • As you begin to size down below 6’6” and get closer to shortboard territory I don't think it would be a bad idea to take an intermediate step and try a mini-mid lengths rather than ride an oversized shortboard which are built for people much heavier than you. This is also a good option for those of you riding shortboards that are struggling that want to bump up the volume. 
    • This is the same clip from earlier but pay particular attention to the clips where Harrison Roach is on his smaller 6’4” JS Big Baron:

      As you can see, Harrison is doing pretty beautiful turns and has tons of speed such that it almost looks like he’s riding a regular shortboard. The volume on this is 34 liters which is the volume for a shortboard for a 200 pound intermediate / advanced surfer, but the rails are much thinner than a normal shortboards so it's easy to sink the rail with the paddle power of a normal mid-length. If you were to get a Hypto Krypto in the equivalent 34 liters of volume the board would be 5’10” with less paddle power and speed, while the thickness and corkiness of it would make it handle pretty weird.
  • The smaller the boards get, the more a change in volume and dimensions affects the handling of the board. Earlier we were moving down in 6 inch increments. Once you get below 6 foot though I would recommend you begin to size down in ~1 inch / ~ 1 liter increments and very gradually move towards a more pulled in shape until you get to proper high performance size and liters. I will create a separate guide about how I’d go about sizing down in terms of shortboards in the future.

You may be thinking, holy crap that is a lot of money on surfboards!

Well, it doesn't have to be. Rule number 1 is buy used surfboards: 

As you work your way down in size, sell your old boards to fund your new boards. I do think though it's a good idea to always keep at least one larger board in the quiver. This way if you show up on a given day and you're really struggling, you can just pull out the bigger board and have fun. This is a great strategy on more challenging days.

I know we covered a ton, but I learned this all the hard way and am hoping you can avoid a lot of the mistakes that I made!

    Any questions or feedback? Feel free to reply to this email!