Adventure travel can be tricky: it often costs lots of money and involves lots of planning in order to have a truly sensational experience. And although travel purists may feel differently, it can be nice to get a stunning photo out of a far-flung trip. With those factors in mind, given the choice, most people choose to spend their money to travel to the nicest breaks in the world during the best times of the year to surf them: Oahu’s North Shore January through February, Morocco in March, Tavarua in spring, Puerto Escondido or Bali in the summertime. Because when you start researching surf travel using the Stormrider Surf Guides or Surfline’s Travel site, that’s what’s advised.
But hear me out: what if you could go to these places more easily all while spending less money, having more booking options, and experience less crowding? The thing is… you can. Adventure travel is unique in that the place one goes is only half of the equation. Take Oahu, for example. If you travel there in the summertime, you’re staying on the south shore to get those famous south swells. And if you go in the winter, you want to see Pipe and Sunset going off, which means you’re waiting for winter north-westerly swells. Of course, weather matters, too: wind is equally important to swell when it comes to waves, and people usually don’t want to surf in the pouring rain.
But because every place has a “perfect” season (for surfing, it’s the time with the most consistent swells, the cleanest waves, the best wind direction, etc… for skiing, it’s usually a little bit after the mountain opens for that nice base layer, and then you want the most snowfall, the least wind, etc.), there are also three other seasons with their own weather patterns and swell consistencies. It’s true that, usually, at least one of these is not worth making the trip for. For Southern California, most surfers don’t want to be caught there in the spring; with any ski mountain, you can’t ski without snow.
But here’s the caveat: there’s still two other pretty good (if not perfect) seasons that likely fit the bill of what you’re looking for without breaking the bank. Spring skiing, for example, can be even better than more hardcore, mid-winter days. The weather is often warm enough to ride the lift in your tee shirt, and there’s far fewer people, because anyone who’s only going for one week likely picked that prime week two months earlier. Many surf resorts in the Mentawais even advertise shoulder season months, such as October, as being their favorite because there are “medium-sized swells together with light winds and less boats sailing around.”
And with both surfing and skiing, almost all conditions can be enjoyable with the right equipment. One-foot onshore slop is still fun using alternative craft (the fringe surf community prides itself on this very fact!), most ski mountains make their own snow, and hey, just because the glades are closed, you can still try to ski park! Plus, if the snow is more slushy, just change your wax, sharpen your edges and you’re good to go. Alpine racers routinely spray down the trail on purpose… and East Coasters don’t say “Ski The Ice” for nothing!
Visiting places outside of the normal travel window can also lend itself to a more authentic experience. Home-stays will be less hectic and stressed, allowing hosts to share their recommendations and talk story. Surf camps are less booked up, charter boats may be cheaper, and fishermen may even be keen for a couple of random surfers to hop aboard and see the unexplored coast. The population will consist of more people who live there and won’t be as overwhelmed by tourists.
Also, most adventure destinations rely on tourism to boost the economy, so going off season may be appreciated by those who make their living this way (but it goes without saying that traveling is a time to be respectful, tip appropriately, and try to act appropriately as specific to the local culture!)
One example of this is Mexico: you can do Cabo for spring break and meet other American tourists at Squid Roe, or you can go during a normal week and enjoy freshly caught fish and swap stories with other people driving the Baja Peninsula. Sure, some of this comes down to how you travel to begin with, but it’s largely impacted by when you travel, too.
You can never predict when you’re going to score, but you can generally predict how bad the crowd will be, what the expenses are, and when the busiest seasons are for any given location. If you’re not a pro, you probably aren’t looking to surf death slabs anyway. Plenty of spots become user friendly on their off season, not to mention cleaner, less crowded, and way friendlier. The whole point of going somewhere new is to experience it in a positive way, so why not consider going when things are more mellow? As the cliched saying goes, the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun, and you might save a little time and money in the process.