Updated January 15th, 2023
Windsurfing and Kitesurfing are too exciting and fun water sports. Kitesurfing has really taken off in the past few years but windsurfing is still alive and well. Apart from both being done on the water and both using the wind, they are very different beasts. Are you thinking about giving one of them a try? Windsurfing vs kitesurfing, which one is best for you?
Windsurfing vs Kitesurfing – what is the difference
Windsurfing or sailboarding/boardsailing uses a board similar to a surfboard or SUP board with a sail attached to it. You stand on the board and use your arms and body weight to control the sail. Beginners will stand on the board and pull the sail up. Advanced windsurfers will do a water start where they use the sail to pull them out of the water onto the board. Windsurf boards are directional. This means you have to tack and gybe them similar to a sailboat.
Kitesurfing or kiteboarding uses a large kit that is attached to your body with a harness. You use a board attached to your feet. You need enough wind to be able to plane out the board. There are various ways to depower the kite if you get in trouble. When it comes down to it, you are attached to the kite while it’s flying until it crashes or lands on the water or land.
Which is easier to learn?
With windsurfing, you learn basic skills really fast. You spend a long time and a lot of effort learning to go fast and plane and advanced skills. With kitesurfing, you have a steep learning curve. You have to go straight to planing conditions. You spend more time initially but then you know almost everything.
Learning to windsurf
Windsurfing is easy to get out on the water and get going. You can get a lesson and be out on the water in an hour or 2. Modern windsurfing gear with wide, long boards are very easy to stand on and uphaul the sail, especially in calm flat water. You use your body to orient the sail to steer and control the board. You do not need a really windy day to learn windsurfing. Any light breeze will work.
After a few hours, you’ll be able to sail across the lake. With a little practice, you’ll be able to tack and gybe without dropping the sail or falling in the water. From here the learning curve gets a lot steeper. You will need a lot of practice to go from this point to the more advanced windsurfing techniques. Using a harness, waterstarting, planing gybes all need a lot of practice and work. The good news is that you can gradually work your way up in wind strength to learn to plane out and the other skills.
Basic windsurfing may take 2 to 3 hours. Planing in a harness, flying across the water, exciting windsurfing takes a lot more.
Learning to kitesurf
Kitesurfing is a whole different beast. With kitesurfing you need to be able to plane out to do it. There is no going out on a calm day and learning the basic skills. You have to jump right into enough wind speed for planing. The process for learning to kitesurf involves first learning to fly a trainer kite on land. Do that for a few hours.
Next, you need to take kitesurfing lessons to learn to safely handle the kite. This is important. A kitesurfing kite can easily launch you into the air and drag you across the parking lot. After spending a few more hours on kite handling it’s time to hit the water. The next few hours are spent dragging yourself in the water. You’ll also learn how to relaunch the kite from the water. You need to learn how to depower and bail the kite if you get in trouble. You can expect to get forcibly dragged through the water by the kite really hard several times during this phase.
Click here to see where you can take a kitesurfing lesson near you and book lessons.
After this, it’s finally time to get the board out. The next few hours you’ll spend learning how to get up on the board and ride it. If you have tried wakeboarding or snowboarding it can help as you will already have some boarding skills. You can expect to get violently dragged through the water by the kite several times in this phase too. Now you finally are riding the board in the water. The good news is this. You now know almost everything about kitesurfing. You can plane across the water going back and forth really fast.
Check out 57 Hours Adventure Tours for some great learn to kitesurf tours in the US and around the world.
Windsurfing and kitesurfing gear
The cost of a starter set for kitesurfing and windsurfing is similar. You can expect to pay between $1500 and $2000 for a starter setup for kitesurfing. A starter package for windsurfing gear will be similar. There are tons of entry level windsurfing longboards on Craigslist and Marketplace. You can pick them up with sails for under $500. For kitesurfing, used equipment is much less reliable. It’s difficult to tell if a used inflatable kite has damaged bladders or valves. You don’t know how much life is left in a set of used lines until one decides to snap.
Your starter kite surfer package will last you the rest of your kitesurfing life. You might want to add a directional board or foiling board. Your bidirectional board is the foundation of your kitesurfing equipment. Add a couple more kites to expand your wind range.
For windsurfing, a longboard can be used in light winds up to and including planing conditions. As you get better you’ll want to get shortboard. You can use 1 sail for a longboard that will take you from ghosting along on light air days up to planing winds.
With a shortboard, you need enough power for planing and not so much power you can’t control it. This is where your sail selection gets more important and you need more sails. This means you need more masts and booms. It also means you need more fins for the board. I live in a light to medium wind area so I only have a longboard which is fun in almost any wind condition I ever get. If I lived near the Columbia River Gorge where the wind is nuking all the time I’d need something else.
- Greenwater Sports is a good place to go for beginner windsurfing packages.
- MacKiteboarding is a good place to go for beginner kitesurfing packages.
See our guide to beginner windsurfing equipment to learn more about what is needed for windsurfing.
Transporting your gear to the water
Kitesurfing equipment is really easy to transport and store. The board easily fits in the back of a small car. The kites fit into a backpack with the lines and spreader bar. You can fit a board and a few kites in almost any closet or compact car trunk. A foiling board will take a little more space. You can easily take your board and kites on a plane with you for travel.
Windsurfing gear sucks to transport and store. You need a good amount of garage space and a car with a roof rack. You can strap a surfboard onto the roof rack. You can fit the rest of the gear inside of a compact car if the rear seats fold. A windsurf board may weigh 20 to 40 lbs and be 9 to 13 feet long. They are awkward to carry.
Thanks to the proliferation of inflatable SUP boards, there are now inflatable windsurfers. Starboard and Fanatic both make inflatable long and shortboards. This takes care of the board transport problem. It still leaves you with the sail, mast, and boom large objects to store and transport problems. There are inflatable sail rigs but they are light air, low performance sails. For high wind planing fun, you’ll need a conventional sail, mast, and boom.
A kitesurf kite will last 3 to 5 years of use. A windsurf sail will last 5 to 10 years. A sail is much easier to repair with sail repair tape. A damaged air bladder or valve is not. A kiteboard isn’t that expensive to replace if you damage it. A windsurf board is a big part of your gear cost and they are not easy or cheap to repair. There are a lot of 20 to 40 year old windsurf sails and equipment still being used. If you take care of your gear it will last.
Where to kitesurf/windsurf at?
Where can you go if you want to kitesurf or windsurf? For the most part, you can do either one at almost any body of water out there. Kitesurfers have the advantage that they can be used in really shallow water. A windsurfer might need 2 to 3 feet of water for the fin to clear the bottom. A bidirectional kiteboard has fins that are only a couple of inches deep. Knee deep water is all you need. For a windsurfer, you need closer to waist deep water.
You only need enough space to set up a windsurf sail to use it. This means a nice grassy area about the size of the sail. For kiting, you need a lot more space on land to lay out the sail and lines. You need enough space to launch the kite and walk it to the water without getting it caught in powerlines or trees.
As a beginner, you should find a place where the wind is blowing onshore. The wind is blowing you back into the shore. Both a windsurfer and kitesurfer are challenging to sail upwind, especially for beginners. Always check the weather forecast for the wind direction and how it will change throughout the day before heading out. Even experienced surfers and riders should avoid offshore winds.
For windsurfing, you need parking close to the water. Carrying gear any distance is a giant pain. Kitesurfing stuff is easy to carry if you want to hike to a more remote place far away from parking.
Kitesurf needs strong wind to plane. There is no displacement longboard to ghost around on a light air day. You need at least 8 knots of wind with a large kite and light air directional board. For the average bidirectional kiteboard and normal size kite, you need 15 to 20 knots of wind. Above 30 knots it becomes very dangerous and should be left to the professionals. In some places this isn’t a problem.
In the Great Lakes where I am, it happens often in the spring and fall but we don’t consistently get winds that strong. You have to pay attention to the forecast and look for a good wind window and hope it’s not when you have to work.
Kitesurfing requires more steady weather conditions. It likes consistent steady winds. You can depower to some degree in a gust but only so far. If you get really overpowered can only do so much before your only options are bagging the kite into the water.
For windsurfing, you need much less wind. A good longboard can glide along in whisper of a breeze. You can go exploring on a 5 knot day and have a good time. For planing and going fast you need the same 10-15 knots that kitesurfing needs. When you get overpowered on a windsurfer you can unhook and drop the sail into the water. If you are harnessed in you might get flung forward into the water but it’s not that catastrophic.
This is one area where the sport of windsurfing has lost it’s way. Windsurfing started out with longboards that were good in light to strong winds. Equipment got more specialized with shortboards that required strong winds. All the marketing effort went towards highwind shortboards and longboards almost completely disappeared. There were a few specialized race boards but that was it. No effort was made to promote windsurfing equipment that was easy to use and could be used in light wind conditions that exist in most places, most of the time.
Around the time kiteboarding came onto the scene longboards started making a comeback. Boards like the KonaOne and Bic/Tahe Beach 225D made windsurfing fun in light winds again. These boards can also be used for Stand Up Paddleboarding or small wave surfing. That is where the term WindSUP came from. This gives you something else you can do with your windsurf board in light air.
See our article on WindSUP to learn more about gear you can use both for SUP and windsurfing.
High performance sailing
Kitesurfers hold the record for top speed. There are foiling windsurfers now so who knows if that will hold. With foiling you can hit mega fast speeds with both.
Kitesurfers have a nice open air feel with no sail right in front of you blocking the view. Because the kite is up in the air far away from you it’s not as responsive. A windsurfer will react immediately your controls.
Both kitesurfers and windsurfers can head out in the surf and waves. It takes much less skill to do it on a kiteboard. Wave sailing is a very advanced activity for windsurfing that may take you years of practice to be able to do at all. Kitesurfing tricks are much easier to learn to do. Almost anyone can learn to do basic tricks and jumps kitesurfing. It takes a very advanced skill level to do any tricks on a windsurfer.
Danger and safety
Kitesurfing is more dangerous. There is no way around this. You have a huge kite strapped to you that is flying up in the air above you. You can’t just drop it into the water in a panic situation.
A strong gust of wind can pick the rider up into the air and put them into a dangerous situation really fast. You can cut loose from your kite and drop back into the water but then you have an out of control kite still flying. You can let the kite take you where it’s taking you. You can bag the kite which will drop you back into the water and leave you with a flailing kite until it hits the water. You can cover a large amount of ground in the time from when you lose control until you and your kite are both in the water. You may travel 100-200 yards downwind in this time.
On a windsurfer when you get hit with a large gust, the end result is this. The sail flings you in a few feet in front of your board and you stop real quick. You might get injured if you land on the board or boom. I’ve done this a ton of times and never got hurt yet. You might go 10-15 yards from gust to dead stop.
When you learn to kitesurf you have the skills to go out and get going in planing conditions and up as soon as you pass the intial learning phase. This also means you have enough skills to get in a lot of trouble without the experience to avoid it or get out of it. With windsurfing it takes a lot more experience to get to the point of really being able to hurt yourself. If you go out on a 30 knot day as a beginner you’ll never successfully uphaul your sail.
See the below video for some of the ways you can get in trouble kitesurfing and how to avoid them.
There are safety features built into the kite. You can let go of the bar which depowers the sail. You can release the safety line which will bag the kite and leave you with a giant tangled mess. You can release the bar off your harness that the kite is hooked to. Your harness should have a knife attached to it somewhere you can cut the kite lines if needed. When you take a kitesurfing lesson your instructor should show you these.
I took my first kite lesson on a 40F degree May morning with about 25 knots of wind. Getting drug by and bagging the kite with the safety line isn’t something I’ll ever forget. Neither is the amount of lake water I forcibly drank that day.
Both of these 2 sports could be considered an “extreme sport”. Both need some level of physical fitness. For both, you use a waist harness or seat harness to take most of the load from the kite or sail.
Most people who have done both say that windsurfing needs more. It takes more strength and endurance to hold and manipulate the sail even with a harness. It doesn’t take that much effort to hold and control the kite spreader bar.
You put all your body weight into the boom when you are windsurfing. The harness takes the load off your arms after you hook the harness in. You still have to hang onto the boom with your arms until you get going and to adjust the sail trim. You need upper body strength for high wind days. With a kite, the bar is only twisting the control lines. The main force from the kite is going through your harness which is always hooked in from the moment you launch the kite.
As a beginning windsurfer, it can get tiring to uphaul the sail out of the water even on a light wind day. As you get better and start using bigger sails in higher winds it gets harder, not easier. I find anything below a 6.5 meter sail isn’t that tough or hard on your back. If you go out with a 9meter sail in enough wind to plane, it takes a huge amount of effort to uphaul the sail.
I now use nothing bigger than a 6.5 meter. My longboard is fun in sub planing conditions with that sail. I nolonger go out with a shortboard in marginal conditions and a big sail hoping I can get planing or go home if I can’t.
You don’t have to be in great shape to go out on a long windsurfing board in 5 knots of wind and cruise around the lake. The loads on the sail and boom aren’t that much. I’ll do this until I’m old and broke. I won’t be going out in 20 knots.
Once your skill improves and you learn to water start it makes high wind days much easier. It still involves hanging by your arms from the boom until you get hooked in.
|✔️ Better for light winds and very high gusty winds|
|✔️ Easier to learn to a beginner level|
|✔️ Good for cruising around on light air days|
|✔️ You can foil and go really fast|
|✔️ You can go out in waves and surf|
|✔️ Windsurfing longboards can also be used for Stand Up Paddleboarding|
|❌ Very difficult to learn to an advanced level|
|❌ Gear is difficult to transport and store|
|❌ More physically demanding in high winds|
|❌ You need water deep enough to clear the fin and daggerboard|
|✔️ Easier to transport gear|
|✔️ Steep learning curve but easier to get to fast, exciting planing skill level with instruction|
|✔️ Can be used in shallower water|
|✔️ Less physically demanding|
|✔️ You can foil and go really fast|
|✔️ You can go out in waves and surf|
|✔️ Easier to do tricks and jumps|
|❌ More dangerous|
|❌ Kites do not last as long as sails and harder to repair|
|❌ Need more setup space and assistance with kites|
You might also like:
- WindSUP – Windsurf And SUP With One Board Helpful Guide
- How To Pick The Best Windsurfing Equipment For Beginners
Staff Writer | Water Sports
Steve spent his time growing up in South Carolina doing as much as possible on the water. He is an avid stand up paddleboarder and kayaker and loves hitting the lakes and rivers near home. He is a competitive sailor and has competed in sailing at the collegiate level as well as 7 Mackinac Island races.