How to Tell if the Tide is Coming In or Out (Helpful Guide)


Tide direction is an essential element for any swimmer, boater, or water sports enthusiast to consider before venturing out to the ocean. However, it’s not always easy to tell which direction the tide is heading. Fortunately, there is a set of definitive strategies that seasoned ocean-goers use to tell tide direction within a matter of minutes.

You can tell if the tide is coming in or out by reading a local tide table since they list the predicted times that the tide will be highest and lowest. In the time that the tide shifts from its lowest point to its highest point, the tide comes in. The tide goes out during the other time intervals.

Although tide tables are largely considered the most effective tool for determining tide direction, there are other viable approaches. We’ll delve into the details behind these alternative approaches—along with the subtle intricacies of tide tables—in the paragraphs below.

Tide Tables: The Ideal Resource for Telling Tides

If you consider yourself a rather casual ocean-goer, you may not be intimately familiar with what tide tables are and how they work. However, to quickly tell tide direction on any given day, you need to have a fundamental working knowledge of tide tables.

What are Tide Tables?

Tide tables offer calculated predictions on the exact times the tide will be at its highest points, and the exact times the tide will be at its lowest points. Alongside these anticipated times of high tide and low tide, there are also predictions regarding the height of these tides. This information is organized into a neat table for quick, easy reference.

The data for tide tables comes directly from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This predictive data is about as reliable as it gets, as the NOAA has been producing tide tables for more than 150 years (source). They’ve been fine-tuning their process of predictive tide analysis for decades.

How to Read a Tide Table

Tide tables are available in both print form and digital forms. You can find tide tables in print form by heading to local bait shops and marinas. Typically, these tide table booklets are complimentary so that ocean-goers can be weary of hazardous water levels and plan their trips accordingly.

If you do not have access to the print version of the tide table for your local area, you can get free daily tide predictions from the NOAA’s online resource: Tide Predictions.

At first glance, tide tables may seem a bit complicated. Staring at the sheer volume of numerical values on one table all at once can be intimidating. Fortunately, it only takes a couple of minutes to familiarize yourself with the basics of tide table format and the underlying meaning behind the listed numbers.

Every tide table presents the following information:

  • Date
  • High Tide Time
  • Low Tide Time
  • Tide Height

The image below is from the NOAA’s online resource, Tide Predictions. The picture shows exactly how this information is organized.

This information may seem simple, but it provides swimmers, fishermen, boaters, and water sports enthusiasts with the information they need to maximize their ocean experience.

How to Use a Tide Table to Know When the Tide is Rising or Falling

The very first step to correctly reading a tide table is to identify the appropriate date that you’re heading out onto the water. If you check the daily tide predictions under the incorrect date, the data will be inaccurate, and you’ll have a false notion of whether the tide is rising or falling.

Once you’ve located the specific date that you want, you’ll see a series of times paired alongside a series of different numerical predictions of how big (or small) the tide will be, as seen below.

The next question that people ask after seeing these various times and metrics is, “What do the predicted tide values even mean?” In the graphic above, these predicted tide values would be the numbers circled in blue.

First off, it’s essential to understand that the number zero represents an arbitrary water level that the tide rarely falls below. This is often referred to as the datum. In other words, any extremely negative numerical values would indicate an unusually low tide, whereas any extremely positive numerical values would indicate an unusually high tide. All tide predictions are listed relative to this mean low water level in units of feet.

Typically, there are two high tides and two low tides on any given day (source). For this reason, you will typically see two higher numerical values and two lower numerical values on a tide table on any given day. With this information, you can identify exactly what time the high tide will be and what time the low tide will be. Just take care to read the times listed on tide tables carefully, as many print versions of tide charts are presented in 24 hour time as opposed to the standard time format.

In the example below for November 5th, you can see that low tide will occur two separate times: once at 5:05 A.M and once at 5:37 P.M. High tide will also occur at two separate times: once at 11:26 A.M. and once at 11:27 P.M.

From this information, you can easily discern at what time intervals the tide will rise and at what times the tide will fall. An even more precise picture of these tide trends is provided in the graph listed directly above the table.

If you would like to further reinforce your knowledge on how to read tide charts, check out the video below!

Visible Cues that Tell Whether the Tide is Rising or Falling

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of using a tide chart, there are alternative strategies that you can use to tell if the tide is rising or falling. In most scenarios, this involves the observation of subtle visible cues that the naked eye can detect.

The Direction of Ripples on the Water

One easy way to confirm whether the tide is rising or falling is to observe the ripples on calmer waters. As the tide rises in calmer waters, you will see these light wave ripples push ever so slightly toward the shore. These lines in the water may be barely discernible to the unassuming observer, but if you look close enough, these ripples can give away the direction of the tide.

The Presence (or Lack of) Detritus

Another useful trick for identifying tide direction is to observe how much detritus is present on the waterline. For those who don’t know, detritus is a fancy term for physical debris or waste. A prime example of detritus typically brought in by ocean tides is seaweed.

During a rising tide, it is common to see more detritus being pushed onto the beach. With a receding tide, there is far less detritus present at the water line.

(source)

So keep an eye on that seaweed! It may hold the key to the tide answers you’re looking for.

The Wetness of Natural Landmarks on the Shore

Another visible cue you can use in a pinch to tell tide direction is to note the wetness of certain objects onshore. This tactic is useful in locations where tree roots or boulders are aplenty, as any waterline would be easily discernible on these prominent surfaces. It wouldn’t be necessary to actually go up to these natural landmarks and feel the wetness via touch.

Locals take advantage of this technique in South Andros, Bahamas since you can find mangrove roots practically everywhere on the shoreline (source). Thus, locals can tell if the tide is coming in or going out by glancing at the mangrove roots.

As a general rule of thumb, locals say that if the mangrove roots above the water surface dry, the tide is likely rising. On the other hand, if the mangrove roots above the water surface are wet, the tide is likely falling.

Of course, you can apply this strategy to natural landmarks other than mangrove roots, but I thought it best to offer a real-life example of how seafarers put this method into practice.

Rising Tide vs Falling Tide: Can You Always Tell the Difference?

Now that you know the useful tricks for identifying a rising tide versus a falling tide, you’re probably wondering if these tricks are effective 100% of the time. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that the difference between a rising tide versus a falling tide is not always apparent.

This difference is not always perceptible because the water movement of a tide can be minimal on some occasions. Thus, at certain locations at particular times, the tidal range could be somewhat small.

To better classify tidal range, water movement has been broken down into three separate groups, shown in the following table (source):

ClassificationTidal Range
Micro-tidal<2 meters
Meso-tidal2 to 4 meters
Macro-tidal>4 meters

As you can probably guess, micro-tidal environments are the hardest to detect whether the tide is coming in or going out. The water shifts very little from low tide to high tide (and vice versa), so it can be difficult to rely on the visible cues we discussed earlier.

So if you can’t tell at what stage the tide is, then don’t be discouraged! It may just be that you’re located in a micro-tidal environment, so the tide movement is practically negligible.

The Bottom Line

Tide tables are the go-to resource for telling the tide no matter what date it is or what location you’re at. As aforementioned, you can pick up a tide table at virtually any local bait shop or marina. However, if you don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of physically going to these places to pick up a print version of a tide table, you can easily access online tide tables for free at NOAA’s Tide Predictions.

If tide tables aren’t for you, visible cues are another viable option for determining tide direction. For example, you can look at the direction of ripples on the water, the amount of detritus at the waterline, and the wetness of natural debris onshore. These strategies may not be as accurate as tide tables, but they can definitely come in handy!

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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