Honestly, UK surfing is no sunny walk in the park. Epic waves are usually bookended by months of howling onshore winds, ice-cold seas or summer flat spells.
During times like these, it’s tough for improvers such as myself (I’m more than a beginner, but far from pro) to truly progress. But before packing my bags and shipping off to the perfect surf of Hawaii, I wanted to see if surfing tech could boost my game right here in the UK, so that I’m ready for when conditions start picking up.
Road trip: heading to Surf Snowdonia
I’m in luck: the first inland wave facility opened to the public in 2015. Surf Snowdonia features a 300-metre lagoon and a large, central pier that houses the Wavefoil, a snowplough-style hydrodynamic blade that travels underwater at a liquid-shifting six metres per second.
The moving water interacts with the contoured lagoon bed, creating consistent waves for beginner to advanced surfers up to 36 times per hour. If I can’t improve my game here then I should probably hang up my wetsuit for good, right?
With a few sessions booked, and my bag brimming with surfing gadgets, it’s time to hit the road. Traditionally, wave-hungry surfers would pile into a rusty VW Camper and head for the coast.
But this is T3, so I’ve opted for Volkswagen’s California Ocean series camper instead… Because nothing screams ‘get back to nature’ like a £65k motor with a touchscreen DAB radio, Bluetooth receiver and sat-nav built into the gleaming dash.
There’s plenty of space inside the California for surfboards and overnight gear, and the four-hour trek to North Wales is rather painless thanks to the camper’s 2.0 litre TDI turbocharged four-cylinder engine and slick, sevenspeed automatic transmission.
ParkPilot parking assistance and driver alert and emergency braking systems are all welcome safety features, too.
Surf and turf: are inland wave pools any good?
Witnessing Surf Snowdonia’s waves in action for the first time is as bizarre as it is impressive – although I’m surrounded by Welsh mountains and trees, I’m looking at perfectly formed, surfable waves.
These waves are graded according to experience: there’s Yellow for beginners, Blue and Green for intermediate levels one and two, and Black for the scary advanced wave. I’m no hero, so Blue it is.
Before I get in the water, I strap on Nixon’s burly, 100-metre waterproof Mission Wear OS smartwatch and load up the Trace surf app to track my session. Nixon’s Corning Gorilla Glass touchscreen works wonders, even with wet fingers, although visibility suffers in direct sunlight.
As Surf Snowdonia’s two-megawatt drive system kicks into gear and the Wavefoil starts moving, my nerves jump to overdrive. But there’s no time to think. A deluge of white water rears up behind me, I paddle hard and the wave picks me up. I pop to my feet and start shifting. The ride is short and surreal, but a total buzz.
I’m straight back in for a second wave. My take-off is better this time but I end up on a weaker section of the wave and it’s quickly game over. Third time lucky and I execute the perfect pop-up, carve a small left turn along the clean face of the wave and end up in the shallows with a huge grin on my face.
As my first session draws to a close, I check in with the Nixon. In one hour I’ve covered 2.5 miles, burned 246 calories and topped out at 16.6mph. Not bad for my first experience in Surf Snowdonia’s wave pool.
California dreaming: the best VW for surfers
Even on a man-made wave, all this paddling is exhausting. Time to fuel up, grab a cold beer from the VW’s 42-litre fridge and settle in for a cosy night under the stars. Well, the roof. However, I need to deal with my wetsuit first, because climbing into a suit that’s cold and damp from a previous session isn’t exactly fun.
I have a UV-protected Dry Bag Pro that ensures maximum airflow around my wetsuit to speed up the drying process, whilst safeguarding it from sun damage, something that can prematurely age and weaken the suit’s neoprene material. Does it work? Guess I’ll find out in the morning.
In addition to the VW’s folding two-seat/bed setup, popping the electronic aluminium roof reveals an additional double foam mattress up top, with soft interior lighting casting a welcoming glow. With the camper’s parking heater control set to ‘sleep like a log’, I drift off, dreaming of clean waves and, er, Keanu Reeves.
Shoot to thrill: GoPro's 360-degree action cam
I wake up refreshed in my B&B on wheels. Even better, the wetsuit is practically bone dry thanks to the Dry Bag Pro. I’m ready to hit the water again. To get a true picture of my performance today, I’ve mounted GoPro’s Fusion 360-degree action camera to the nose of my board.
The waterproof camera’s dual fish-eye lenses will pick up every angle of my wave riding and should help me figure out where I’m going right or wrong. The Fusion lacks a touchscreen like its Hero brethren, but it’s simple to operate using the GoPro app or integrated voice control.
For playback, the footage from the two cameras is stitched together within the GoPro app. I’m able to explore every corner of the spherical, 5.2k clip by dragging my finger around my iPhone’s screen, assessing and tweaking my stance, board position and takeoff angle. It’s like having my own digital surf instructor.
A swell time: advancing to bigger waves
With Surf Snowdonia’s Blue wave conquered, it’s time to face the bigger, gnarlier Green wave. I need to get in the right headspace for this, so I fire up Spotify and plug my ears with Plantronics’ BackBeat FIT Bluetooth earphones.
I’m drenched from my first surf session of the day, but that’s no problem for the IP57-rated, one-metre waterproof ’phones. Despite water still sloshing in my ears, Frank Sinatra’s 'Beyond the Sea' sounds crystal clear. Feeling confident, I paddle out to the Green wave takeoff by the pier.
Over my shoulder the Wavefoil springs to life and I have just a few seconds to shout, “GoPro, start recording!” before a wave lurches up behind me. Paddling frantically, I feel the tail of my board lift and I’m soon shooting down the steep wave face. Miraculously I make it to my feet and slice through the water to the edge of the lagoon.
The GoPro footage reveals my ride would have been smoother had I been further forward on the surfboard at takeoff. So I make tweaks over the next few waves with varying degrees of success, but regardless it’s great to be able to ride, reflect and retry.
Since my first session I’ve refined my stance, advanced to a bigger wave, and the Nixon Mission tells me I’ve almost doubled yesterday’s top speed. Sounds like progress to me.
While nothing will truly beat the exhilaration of riding waves dished up by Mother Nature, practising on a consistent wave and using a few gadgets to review my performance has been the ideal training ground to help me make the most of what I’ll find in the wild. And heck, if the summer is a dud for waves, a road trip to Snowdonia is a solid plan.
The best surfing gadgets used during our test
Powered by Google’s Wear OS, the Nixon Mission features dedicated apps to track sessions and monitor surf conditions at your favourite breaks.
This Android Wear smartwatch features a larger than life face, enabling you to easily glance the time, data and any notifications when you're in the water.
The Mission is a tough GPS tracking watch and can be used for skiing and snowboarding as well as for surfing. It's waterproof to 100 meters and features a Cerakote ceramic coating that won't peel off any time soon in the water.
There are some cool bespoke apps to dig into, with Trace Surf being a stand-out. Designed to help you improve your surfing technique, the app provides data on your speed, turns, paddle distance, calories burned, and more.
GoPro’s 360-degree action cam enables surfers to capture immersive, digitally stabilised videos in 5.2k. View footage with a VR headset, or use Overcapture within the GoPro app to generate shareable videos.
The Fusion has a few manual controls and an LCD display, so you can control most of the camera's functions and change every setting quickly, without having to connect to the app. That power button also doubles as a mode selector.
Video detail is very impressive - far more so than on the stills it captures - with the camera stitching footage together pretty much seamlessly. The GoPro Fusion is also waterproof to 5m, making it ideal for mounting to the end of your surfboard to capture whole-view footage and audio.
The only annoying thing about surfing multiple days in a row, especially throughout the colder months, is that your wetsuit will still be, er, wet from the day before. That's where a great hanging dry bag could really boost your enjoyment of multi-day surf trips.
How? By speeding up the drying time of your wetsuit, helping you to get back in the water feeling dryer... And not like you've climbed inside a damp, cold, very tight sleeping bag.
Our choice for surfer's is the Dry Bag Pro , a well-ventilated design that improves airflow around your damp wetsuit. Mesh side vents enable faster air flow, while heat-welded seams ensures sea water collects safely at the bottom of the bag and doesn't empty all over your car or house.
In the warmer months, or in sunnier climates, The Dry Bag Pro also offers up to 3x UV protection to stop the sun from killing your wetsuit's neoprene material.
Ok, so this isn’t technically a gadget, but it’s superb for surfers nonethless. The Volkswagen California Ocean is a B&B on wheels, with room to sleep up to four. We particularly love the elevating electro-hydraulic roof, giving you extra sleeping or chilling space if you don't fancy all being crammed in downstairs.
It's properly kitted out for self-catering too, with an integrated kitchen with a small cool box, sink and stove for preparing hot and cold food and drinks, pre- and post-surf.
When you're done surfing for the day and want to kick back on your sea view campsite, bust out the California Ocean's on board camping table and chairs and watch those waves roll in.
We know it doesn't look like much at first glance, but Thule's surf-dedicated racking is a totally secure way to transport up to two surfboards on the roof of your car. Because yes, we're not all lucky enough to have a VW California Ocean to throw our boards in...
The Wave Surf Rack is compatible with a wide range of cross bars, and comes with four cradles and two straps to keep your board locked in place as you drive.