One of surfing’s main draws is the ability to detach and unplug for a while. As you likely know, it’s a wonder what a dip in the brine in the morning can do for the rest of a person’s day. And whether a solid session must yield to a shift at a coffee shop or a shareholder meeting, a well-constructed waterproof timepiece is a critical piece of gear for maximizing the time you spend in the water. Certain watches may even allow you to call in sick from the lineup if the waves are really firing.
The variety in surf-specific watches on the market today, though, can be difficult to wade through. Are you looking for a watch that will track your waves, speed, calories burned, and deliver videos of your waves to your phone? Or do you prefer something more minimalist that will display only the info you need the most? Point is: the market is pretty sophisticated these days which can make things difficult to navigate based on individual wants and needs. With that in mind we recently tested some of the best surf watches out there to give you our top picks.
If you’re curious as to how these watches stacked up against one another, take a peek at our Comparison Table below. Or, if you want to know more about what to look for in a good surf watch, check out our Buyer’s Guide.
The Best Surf Watches of 2023
Best Tide Watch: Nixon High Tide
Best Smart Surf Watch: Apple Watch Ultra
Best GPS Surf Watch: Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Surf
Best Budget Tide Watch: Rip Curl Rifles
Best Tide Watch for Women: Nixon Siren
Best No-Frills Digital Surf Watch: Freestyle Shark Clip
Best Tide Watch
Water Resistance Rating: 100M
Pros: Amazingly detailed display, straightforward interface, high on comfort
Cons: Price, pushers a bit hard to operate
If we’re being honest, going into this test we didn’t expect to be surprised by the functions of a tide watch. After all, tide watches are pretty straightforward. They deliver the time and the current tide information of your local surf spot. But we’ll be the first to admit that those expectations were shattered with the Nixon High Tide.
In its default display, the time sits at the top in big easy-to-read numbers with the time of the next tide (high or low) and the height sitting below it. But in its secondary default display is where the High Tide really blew us away. It makes the time a bit smaller in the upper third of the screen and reveals a large tide graph that shows both the time and height of each tide throughout the day.
The High Tide was one of two watches that had this level of detail in a default display (the other being the Casio G-Shock) — which made it an even more functional tide watch than the fully-loaded smart watches on our list. Information about moon phase, sunrise and sunset are also easily navigable through the mode button and look really crisp and clean with the high-resolution MLCD display. Overall, we found the size of the Nixon High Tide to be just right. It wasn’t too big to feel bulky either under or over a wetsuit, nor was it too small to read.Check Price on Amazon
Best Smart Surf Watch
Water Resistance Rating: 100M
Pros: Fully customizable display, loaded with features, extremely durable
Cons: Price, needs add-ons to get all the info you likely want
Editor’s Note: While testing and publishing this review, Apple replaced the Apple Watch Ultra with the Apple Watch Ultra 2, which is what we link to in this review. The Ultra 2 is the same price as the original Ultra (which you may be able to find a deal on now) and delivers a few key upgrades like a brighter screen, night mode, and the new “Double Tap” gesture, also available on the Apple Watch Series 9. We will update this review with more info as we are able to get hands on and test the Ultra 2.
It’s hardly surprising that Apple’s dominance in the wearable technology category extends to surf watches. Their most recent offerings, including the Apple Watch SE ($249), Apple Watch Series 9 ($399), and the Apple Watch Ultra ($799) are our top-picks in the smart surf watch category, with the Ultra tagging on a few more features that, depending on your budget, might be well-worth the cost. The watches are also loaded with useful features that are ideal if you enjoy other activities in addition to surfing (diving, skiing or snowboarding, hiking, running, etc.).
But, while the Apple Watch Ultra can do some pretty crazy things like tell you the water temperature and depth when you plunge into the ocean or display your current bearing on a compass, one native feature that Apple’s line of smart watches is missing is tide data. To fully empower an Apple Watch as a surf watch, one needs to download an app, and we toyed around with a few different ones, namely: Ocean Watch, Surf Watch, and Dawn Patrol. You can get the full breakdown on these apps in our individual review of the Apple Watch Ultra.
Ultra vs. Series 9 vs. SE: All of these apps mentioned are compatible with any Apple Watch. So, the difference between the three different tiers of Apple’s watches (Ultra, Series 9, SE) is a question of hardware. As we said, the Ultra is Apple’s most rugged watch. This is reflected by its 100M water resistance rating. The Series 9 and SE are each rated at 50M. Although Apple claims on its website that this rating is suitable for surfing, most experts recommend 50M be used only for activities in still water. And while there are likely many Apple Watch users out there that have surfed with their watches without issue, the Ultra is the only watch that Apple states is suitable for high speed water activities like water skiing. In other words, a Series 9 or SE may hold up to extended knee-high log sessions, but may be suspect in more serious surf.
Also, unlike the SE and Series 9, the Ultra features dual frequency GPS which is more precise. This makes the Ultra watches better equipped to capture speed on a wave, length of ride, etc. compared to other models. When you’re already shelling out for a top-of-the-line smart watch, turning to a third party for the info you need can be a little disappointing. When fully dialed and customized, though, the Ultra is absolutely the best-in-class in terms of smart watches. Using Apple’s newest Ultra 2 watch face with integrated with add-ons, we were able to get key info like time, date, current weather, sunrise/sunset info, a detailed tide graph, water temperature, swell height, wind speed and direction, and current altitude on a single screen that somehow didn’t feel too crowded with information. We also loved Apple’s integration with Surfline Sessions, which allowed us to track surf sessions and compile all the videos of our waves in a neat little drop down on the Surfline app in our phones. Read the full review here.Check Price on Amazon
Best GPS/Multisport Watch
Water Resistance Rating: 100M
Pros: Light, durable, loaded with functionality, insane battery life
Cons: Weird phone/watch notifications, GPS tide info requires periodic refreshing
When a behemoth like Garmin decides to throw its proverbial weight behind a watch with surf in the name, you expect big things. And the Instinct 2 meets many of those expectations and then some.
Starting with the customizable display, the watch face we found the most useful featured time, date, a tide graph, battery life, current weather, and sunrise/sunset information without looking overcrowded. The black and white display was easy to read, and scrolling through the different menus gives you all kinds of useful information like solar intensity for charging, weather, stats on your last activity, step count, heart rate, sleep data, and even simplified surf forecasts powered by Surfline. And surf tracking can be synced up with Surfline Sessions much like with an Apple Watch to get videos of your waves to your phone.
All these features make the Instinct 2 an ideal fitness tracker and GPS watch, but we wouldn’t quite call it a smart watch. While the Instinct 2 can pair with your phone via bluetooth to display notifications and ping you when you get a text message or email, these features are a bit wonky because they often only give you a preview of your message and only when your phone is in range. Other features, though, like a native compass, altimeter, and all kinds of sport modes — from trail running to kiteboarding to backcountry skiing — make the Instinct a workhorse for multi-sport stat tracking. With solar-powered charging and a massive 28-day battery life, you’ll never have to delay a session because your watch needs to be charged. Some users have reported problems with durability in online reviews, but we have yet to have any issues with our test unit.CHECK PRICE ON Backcountry Check Price on Amazon
Best Budget Tide Watch
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Hingeless strap/case connection, sleek design
Cons: Interface takes some getting used to
One of Rip Curl’s most popular tide watches, the Rifles is a highly functional, straightforward tide watch in a sturdy package. The biggest and most notable difference compared to every other watch on our list is that the straps of the watch literally envelope the case. Eliminating the typical hinged connection between straps and watch case gets rid of a major point of failure from potential issue in the future. While the band is rubber, it doesn’t have a latent sticky texture like a lot of the silicone band watches in our test.
We found this made it easier to slide a wetsuit sleeve over or down without anything getting stuck in the process. Flicking around the menus of the watch did take some getting used to. Switching from time to tide, you kind of scroll through a menu that takes up the upper third of the screen while the time remains displayed in the lower portion of the screen. Not a huge deal, but different enough to throw us off at first. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reliable tide watch with accurate info at a better price.Check Price on Amazon
Best Tide Watch for Women
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Clever menus, narrow strap, unique style
Cons: Basic tide info not very precise
We can appreciate the problem that a watch like the Nixon Siren aims to solve. To get all the info a good tide watch should display on a screen and still be readable requires that display be on the larger side. The added bulk gives most tide watches a more masculine appearance, which very understandably is not a selling point among discerning female consumers. Not to mention they’re cumbersome and uncomfortable on a smaller wrist. So, what to do for those that want a tide watch in a smaller, fashion-forward package?
The Siren attempts to thread this needle by stripping down the humble tide watch to its most essential info. Using one of the pushers, you can toggle between displaying the date and displaying a tide graph in the lower third of the screen. For more detailed information, use another pusher that will show you the times of current, past, and present low and high tide events using basic tide calculation. Pretty smart. And all of this in a trendy octagonal case that looks great.
Here’s the rub: because the Siren uses basic tide calculation where you are essentially setting it to the tides of your local beach and not pre-programmed tides for different beaches, it can be pretty hard to get it to give you exact tide info for your local spot. In practice, we found some tide events were off by an hour or two here in SoCal, which isn’t great. On top of that, because its self-programmed, the tide info doesn’t include the heights of high and low tide events. So, while the Siren is definitely a stylish, capable watch in a small package, we’ll chalk the tide functionality up to being nearly perfect for now.Check Price on Amazon
Best No-Frills Digital Watch
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Fun iconic style, countless color ways, straightforward interface, price
Cons: Simple display, no tide functions
It would be positively irresponsible to review the best surf watches on the market today without giving a nod to the watch that pioneered the category in the early 80s: Freestyle’s Shark watch. Born in 1981, the Shark was designed specifically to meet the demands of surfers. And over 40 years later, the design remains largely unchanged, which is part of its charm. If it ain’t broke, right?
The Shark Classic comes in both a clip closure and a leash closure system that, like a surf leash, uses overlapping fabric pieces with velcro to create a secure fit. In testing, we felt the clip had a slight edge over the leash closure as the three layers of fabric with velcro felt bulkier. The Shark’s display is pretty limited, showing the time, date, and with a stopwatch and alarm. But, especially given the modest price the case and strap had a super sturdy feel that were comfortable enough for all day wear.
For those who view their watch not just as a tool but also as a form of self-expression, the Shark comes in countless color ways, some of which are pretty wild. Think leopard print, octopus print, or floral and you start to get the picture. Bottom line: If you’re looking for a bit of an 80s throwback that’s both rugged and affordable, the Shark is your match.Check Price on Amazon
Best Of the Rest
Runner-Up Best Tide Watch
Water Resistance: 200M
Pros: Rugged, bulletproof style, detailed display
Cons: Wonky notifications and app interface
The rugged durability of Casio’s G-Shock watch line is so beloved that the humble G-Shock has developed a bit of a cult-like crop of devotees. For proof, look no further than the G-Shock subreddit that at time of writing is 57 thousand members strong. The appeal is easy to see: G-Shocks are designed to stand up to years of daily abuse, there’s no charging required, and displays are crisp and easy to read. So, when we got the opportunity to get our hands on Casio’s G-Shock G-Lide, a variation designed with the needs of surfers in mind, we were excited to put it through the wringer.
It was a tight race for best tide watch in our lineup, and while the Nixon High Tide narrowly edged out the G-Lide, Casio’s offering does have some pretty awesome features that retail for less than the High Tide, so it’s really a great option, too. True to form for G-Shock, the G-Lide has the highest water resistance rating of any of the watches we tested and every detail from the strap to the case looks and feels extremely sturdy. There are a few different default displays that you can toggle through, but the ones featuring tide info are definitely the most useful – one includes sunset, sunrise, time of next tide event and height, a tide graph, and the time. However, to get all this info on the screen, some of the text is pretty small and can be difficult to read.
The watch can be set using an app on your phone called G Shock Move and can also preview the same notifications you get on your phone on your watch. But, in practice these notifications aren’t the most useful because you just get a short preview and can’t do anything about them anyway. Despite some of these funny little idiosyncrasies, make no mistake: The G-Lide is a great surf watch at a very competitive price point for all the features it offers and unmatched durability.Check Price on Amazon
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Records surf-tracking data and can sync with Surfline Sessions to record waves
Cons: Not a true smartwatch, Search 3 releasing soon
Rip Curl is a tried, tested, and true surf brand that’s been in the game since 1969, when Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer started making surfboards in Torquay, Victoria. Since then, it waded into any and all things surf, including surf-specific watches like the Search GPS 2. It features a tide tracker, records your wave count, top speeds, distance traveled, and time out in the ocean, and it’s water-resistant up to 100 m, the industry standard for surf watches. You can also connect your GPS watch to the Rip Curl Search App or website to re-live your session with location maps, image sharing, and graphic charts.
The Search 2 comes with a more streamlined design than its predecessor, as well as the ability to sync up with your local surf cams through Surfline Sessions and record your waves. Pretty groovy, especially for those who want that, but not the text notifications dinging on their wrist that comes with a true smart surf watch. We were not able to get our hands on the Search GPS 2 for this review, as Rip Curl has advised us that they will be releasing a new and updated Search GPS 3 in February. We’ll keep you updated with more info on the new watch as it comes to us.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Best-in-class fitness data, big colorful screen, maps functionality
Cons: Limited ability to customize watch faces, no ability to get tide data
Designed principally to meet the demands of running and training, the Suunto Race is one of those watches that you want to love because it is nearly perfect for surfing. Like the Garmin Instinct or Apple Watch Ultra, the Suunto Race has GPS capability to track speed and distance of hundreds of different activities. This includes surfing, so you can track a surf and come back to your car and see a little map of all of your waves and info on each from the Suunto App on your phone, though it doesn’t have compatibility with Surfline Sessions. At least not yet.
It features a beautiful 1.43 inch AMOLED touch screen display that can feature full screen maps. And max battery life (depending on type of use) can push 26 days. For uses like training and backcountry navigation, the Suunto doesn’t play. But one glaring issue for ocean folk is that there’s no ability at time of writing to get any tide data to display either in a widget you can navigate to or on the different watch faces that you can select from. Suunto appears to be adding all kinds of new modes and features every day to its SuuntoPlus store, so its possible such a feature could be added soon that remedies this. Once that happens, expect the Suunto Race to surge on our rankings.Check Price on Amazon
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: To-the-point info with a familiar interface
Cons: Default display could be more detailed
The Nixon Base Tide Pro is kind of like the tide watch that comes to mind when someone asks you to picture a tide watch. Available in either negative or positive high-contrast displays, the Base Tide Pro gives you all the info you need and nothing you don’t in a neat square little package. The default display features the time with the option to toggle between a tide graph or the date displayed below. Pushers are extremely easy to operate, and the silicone band is comfortable for all day wear. Like the High Tide, the Base Tide Pro is also made with #tide recycled ocean plastics, which keeps garbage out of the ocean.Check Price on Amazon
Water Resistance Rating: 100M
Pros: Stylish, simple, made from ocean plastic
Cons: Hard to see in the dark, face could be bigger
For the minimalist that deplores how digital technology has seeped its way into all things, not least of which lineups around the world, a sturdy little analog number may be just the ticket. Triwa is a company out of Sweden that has made a name for itself in recent years pioneering beautiful analog watches with cases and straps made from recycled ocean plastic. We had the opportunity to put a piece from their SUB Ocean Plastic line to the test and were thoroughly impressed.
The watch was light, stylish, and super comfortable in the water. The SUB in the name is in homage to early underwater exploration. And the rotating bezel calls back to a time before dive computers. If we’re going to nitpick, the 40mm case could be a little bigger and the glow-in-the-dark watch hands could be brighter in the dark. But, it’s hard not to love a well-constructed back-to-basics classic that won’t worsen a pre-existing addiction to technology.Check Price on Amazon
Water Resistance: 100M
Pros: Super low profile, easy-to-read, light
Cons: No tide info
Nixon bills the 8mm stainless steel case of the Heat as the world’s thinnest 10ATM digital timepiece. And when comparing it to every other watch in our test, we were impressed by just how much margin that appears to be true. For comparison sake, most of our top picks were somewhere in the 14-15mm range. This reduction in bulk gave the Heat a great feel on the wrist to the point that it was easy to forget that it was there.
The Heat also trims down the info it displays — think time, date, a chronograph, and a timer. It’s easy to see the appeal of a timepiece like the Heat in, say, an actual surf contest when you’d want to be able to quickly reference how much time you’ve got left to catch waves but don’t need the discomfort of excess bulk or notifications and other distractions pulling you out of your zone. A cool little Easter egg hidden in the timer is once there are 60 seconds remaining, a little red rectangle starts to glow and the word “Send!” appears.Check Price on Amazon
|Surf Watch||Watch Type||Price||Depth Rating||Tide Info?|
|Nixon High Tide||Tide||$220||100 m||Yes|
|Apple Watch Ultra||Smart||$585||100 m||Yes|
|Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Surf||GPS||$299||100 m||Yes|
|Rip Curl Rifles||Tide||$107||100 m||Yes|
|Nixon Siren||Tide||$125||100 m||Yes|
|Freestyle Shark Clip||Digital||$65||100 m||No|
|Casio G-Shock G-Lide GBX-100||Tide||$162||200 m||Yes|
|Rip Curl Search 2 GPS||GPS||$359||100 m||Yes|
|Suunto Race||GPS||$449||100 m||No|
|Nixon Base Tide Pro||Tide||$150||100 m||Yes|
|Triwa Sub Ocean Plastic||Analog||$179||100 m||No|
|Nixon Heat||Digital||$150||100 m||No|
Different Types of Surf Watches
The amount of variety in the watch market these days can make your head spin. From analog to digital, straightforward pieces that just tell the time to smart watches that make phone calls and send text messages and everything in between, there’s a lot to consider when shopping for a time piece capable of meeting the demands of an ocean-centric lifestyle.
More importantly, not every surfer has the same wants and needs. Some surfers want to track every single detail of their session, from calories burned to wave count to paddle speed, whereas others would be perfectly content leaving the stresses of the modern world in the parking lot and focusing wholly and entirely on the ocean during a surf.
With these differences in needs in mind, we decided to categorize the watches we tested into a few categories: tide watches, smart watches, GPS watches, analog watches, and digital watches.
Tide watches are exactly what you imagine — digital watches with relevant tide information for your local beach.
Smart watches we defined as those watches that either have cellular data capability or can display notifications and other information when paired with your phone. These are (often) the watches with a full color screen display that have the capability to use different apps.
GPS watches are somewhere in between a smart watch and a digital watch. They often feature a simplified black and white display and can show some notifications information when paired with a phone, but their primary purpose is to track your location and other data like speed, duration, and heart rate during activities.
Analog watches are the ones with the big hand and little hand. And digital watches are those that tell time but don’t give you tide info.
How We Tested The Best Surf Watches
Our primary testing ground for these watches was the beaches of Southern California. We surfed with each watch — sometimes one on each wrist, in fact — to test the performance of every piece in the water first and foremost. We set each watch with our local tide (when possible) to compare accuracy and the level of detail provided. And for those watches with tracking capabilities, we tracked our surfs, again sometimes with two watches at the same time to get a good comparison for missed waves and general accuarcy.
For good measure, we also took out these watches on runs on the boardwalk and local trails, and even took the GPS watches out to a Joshua Tree dead zone to test out their offline maps functions. A little light bouldering may have been involved as well.
Markets for most tech products are chock full of jargon, and the world of watches is no different. That’s why a little exposure to how the industry talks about their product and their different features is critical to getting the right watch that fits your needs. Here are some aspects of surf watches that we considered in choosing the best of the best.
Arguably the most important consideration when selecting a watch for surfing is its ability to handle prolonged periods of submersion in the water. It’s industry standard practice to use the term “water-resistance” in reference to a watch’s rating for water activities as opposed to “waterproof.” This is mainly because for a watch to be waterproof it must pass rigorous testing and be sealed against the demands of deep ocean exploration.
Most brands refer to a watch’s waterproof rating either in meters or ATM, which is short for “atmospheres.” 10 ATM is roughly equivalent to ten times the atmospheric pressure of the Earth. Each ATM is equal to roughly 10 meters of water resistance. That said, 10 ATM or 100 meters is really the minimum rating you’d want for surfing, swimming, or other aquatic activities. Every watch listed here carries at least a 10ATM/100 meter rating.
A watch can have some amazing features, but if it’s too uncomfortable to wear for longer than 30 minutes, does it really matter? Obviously overall comfort can be a bit subjective depending on a person’s wrist size and shape and preferences, but we did our best to consider these when giving a standardized score.
At the end of the day, a watch is as much a tool that provides information on your wrist as it is a part of your wardrobe. A watch that can transition seamlessly from the lineup to date night just means one fewer watch you’ve gotta buy.
For all the variety in tide watches on the market today, the way each watch presents tide information is actually pretty similar. You can expect most watches to have two things: a tide graph that visually depicts the high and low tides of the day and written information about the time and height of each tide. It’s great to have this info on hundreds of beaches at your fingertips, but in practice a tide graph isn’t always super helpful if it doesn’t also tell you when the next tide event is and how high or low the tide will be. At our tester’s local, for example, a two-foot low tide and a negative low tide can make a pretty big difference. So, if tide information is one of your primary considerations, consider how the tide information is being displayed.
For smart watches, certain varieties like the Apple Watch Ultra offer customizable watch faces so you can get the information you need right in the primary watch face without having to scroll through apps. Other watches like the Suunto Race offer fewer options for watch face customization. Especially if you’re leaning toward a bigger purchase like a smart watch consider first seeing it in person and playing with the different watch faces to ensure it’ll meet your needs.
Surfline Sessions Compatibility
Surfline Sessions is a clever integration with select GPS-enabled watches that pulls clips of all of the waves you catch in front of a Surfline cam during a given session and puts them neatly into a little map or list for you to watch later on your phone. It also gives you data on each of your waves, including length of ride, speed, etc. To get it, you’ll need Surfline Premium and the compatible hardware, in this case, an Apple Watch, Garmin, or Rip Curl Search 2. If you can swing the cost of elevating your experience to a GPS enabled watch and already subscribe to Surfline (oh and your local actually has a camera) this is definitely a pretty awesome feature that saves you from hours rewinding cameras trying to find your waves.