Great Lakes Surfing | Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council

Great Lakes Surfing

Surfing Lake Michigan in Southwest Michigan.

Ryan of Third Coast Surf Shop surfing Lake Michigan photo by NowickiThough it is believed that Great Lakes breakers were first surfed nearly a century ago, and possibly much earlier by native peoples, the first significant wave of participants arrived in the 1960s. The California surf craze was leaking into Middle America, and small surfing communities sprouted across the Great Lakes. Slowly but surely, surfing spread throughout the region, and today, surfing on the Third Coast is more popular than ever.

The sheer size of the Great Lakes is what makes surfing on them possible. Containing six quadrillion gallons of water and more than 10,900 miles of shoreline, the Great Lakes are the largest fresh water system on earth and have more coastline than the East and West coasts combined. Furthermore, while ocean waves are created by distant storm systems, waves on the Great Lakes are formed by localized winds. Thanks to ongoing improvements in wetsuit technology, surfers are now able to comfortably ride lake waves year-round, including in winter!

With its rise in popularity, lake surfing and Third Coast Surf Shop have been featured by national and regional news sources like The CBS Early Show, NBC's The Today Show, The Weather Channel, Newsweek, The New York Times, and National Public Radio. Surfing in Chicago has also been legalized thanks to the work of lake surfers, and Third Coast is the closet surf shop to Chicago. The notion of surfing on freshwater lakes in the heartland of America, especially in winter, tends to catch people's attention.

Since 2005, our mission at Third Coast Surf Shop has been to spread the joy of the surfing lifestyle in the Great Lakes and beyond. Owned and operated by Great Lakes surfers, the shop offers rentals, lessons, kids' camps, repair, and a full line of surf and skate gear, clothing, and accessories; everything needed to get wet. So, come in, look around, and most importantly - have fun!

Best weather conditions for surfing in the Great Lakes:

  • The waves are typically small in the summer, which makes it the perfect time to learn to surf. The big waves and prime surfing time is fall, winter and spring.
  • Also in the summer, stand-up paddleboarding is one of the coolest new ways to get on the water. Relatively easy to do with a little practice, stand-up paddling is similar to kayaking; all you need is a body of water and a paddle and you are set to go. While perfect for calm days on the lake, in the harbor, and up the river, stand-up paddleboards can also be surfed when there are small waves as it is essentially a giant surfboard.

Types of Equipment Needed:

  • What type of surfboard works best on Lake Michigan?
    • Short boards are best for the advanced surfers
    • Long boards are best for beginners because there's more surface area to work with and it provides greater stability
    • Stand-up paddleboards: Giant surfboard for paddling
  • Wetsuits:
    • Crucial for safe surfing, especially in colder seasons, there are various types of wetsuits for surfing in different conditions. A hood, booties, and gloves are needed in colder conditions.
  • What else do you need to start surfing on Lake Michigan?
    • All the essentials for a day at the beach: sunscreen, a comfortable swimsuit in summer, towel, sunglasses, a sweatshirt, hat, and drinking water.

Tips for surfing on fresh water:

  • Take a lesson! There is no better way to start the process than with an experienced teacher.
  • Bring a friend. Learning together is safer and way more fun.
  • It takes time and perseverance to find good surf in the Great Lakes, but when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.

Best places to learn the basics:

  • At Third Coast Surf Shop, we have been teaching people to surf on Lake Michigan for ten years! We have also been rated as one of the best places to learn how to surf in North America by Outside Magazine. Come see us!


See you in the water,

Ryan @ the Third Coast Surf Shop Crew
(Ryan Gerard opened the first Third Coast Surf Shop in 2005 in New Buffalo, Michigan. A second anchor store was opened in St. Joseph in 2010, and four kayak and stand-up paddleboard rental sites have been added in Michigan's Great Southwest since. He started surfing on Lake Michigan in 1998 and has surfed in nearly a dozen countries since.)

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