How to Snorkel With a Life Jacket On: The Essential Guide

Snorkeling is a fantastic vacation activity; it is a workout, a trip to the aquarium, and a chance to be in the ocean all at once. It’s also completely accessible to people with varied swimming abilities. So, if you feel that you need a little extra security when swimming, you shouldn’t write off snorkeling just yet. There are plenty of options to wear a life jacket or flotation device when snorkeling. 

Is it possible to wear a life jacket when snorkeling? Yes, it is absolutely possible to wear a life jacket while snorkeling! In fact, most commercial snorkeling experiences require you to use some form of personal flotation device or buoyancy aid. 

You shouldn’t feel embarrassed to wear a life jacket when snorkeling either; even the most skilled snorkelers bring some kind of buoyancy aid with them because it can help them snorkel longer, and most importantly, it keeps them safe. 

Snorkeling with a Life Jacket 

Swimming with a life jacket not only keeps you safe, but it will also help you snorkel longer. Unlike diving, the point of snorkeling is to stay afloat, and wearing a life jacket will help you float without expending all your energy; this means you will be able to snorkel for longer without wearing yourself out.

What is a Life Jacket?

A life jacket is a form of personal flotation device (PFD), but it is different from other flotation devices because its purpose is to keep your head above water. There are usually two different types of life jackets, ones made out of foam and inflatable life jackets. Both of which are typically used during emergency evacuations of either water vessels or airplanes. They can also, however, be used as a flotation device when snorkeling. 

Most life jackets have the same basic components; they are designed like a vest and support your head to keep it out of the water. They are made of bright, noticeable colors and include adjustable straps to help you fit the vest properly to your body. Inflatable vests usually also have a tube that you can use to further inflate your fest or control the buoyancy level.

Life jackets used for water sports usually have a few extra features to help make them comfortable. For example, they usually have some kind of zipper closure and are generally covered in neoprene. 

How Do Life Jackets Work?

Life jackets work to keep you afloat by changing your buoyancy force. Flotation devices are generally designed to help you displace water by increasing the volume associated with your body, while also decreasing the overall density.

Put simply, life jackets, and all other flotation devices, make you lighter than the water you displace and thus increases the buoyancy force at work pushing against your body, which keeps you afloat. We can thank the Greek mathematician Archimedes and his suspicious King Herion II for the discovery of this principle of physics.

This is also why life jackets and other personal flotation devices are classified by newtons. Newtons are a unit of force, so in PFDs, they represent the amount of buoyancy force they create when submerged in water. Most life jackets designed for life-saving flotation are classified as 100-275 Newtons (Crew-Safe). 

Swimming Techniques for Snorkeling with a Life Jacket On

Skilled swimmers use their body’s natural buoyancy to help them stay afloat and expend energy efficiently. Lucky for you, a life jacket can help you achieve the same result without the years of practice and getting to know your body, but there is a trade-off. Life jackets are bulky, which can often hinder your range of motion, a challenge you have to overcome if you want to rely on a life jacket while snorkeling. 

Be sure to make sure your vest fits properly. This will ensure that you have the widest range of motion possible when wearing your vest. Commercial snorkeling operations will have experts on staff to help fit you in a life vest if you chose to rent one. However, if you are serious about snorkeling and want to buy a vest, we highly recommend going in-person to a boating and water sports store to have an expert fit you for your life jacket. 

Next, get in the pool and practice before you go snorkeling. You will want to get used to the feeling of floating on your belly while wearing the life jacket so that you can submerge your face into the water and look around. 

When wearing a life jacket, you will focus on propelling yourself forward with your legs, while steering with your arms. To steer yourself, push the water away from in the opposite direction of where you want to go and then just sort of move your arms in circles to help propel you forward and keep you steady. 

Other Types of Buoyancy Aids for Snorkeling

If you are a beginner swimmer or someone who fatigues easily in the water, you should absolutely wear a life jacket. If you are a more experienced swimmer, there are other buoyancy aids that you can use while snorkeling to help keep you safe. 

Buoyancy aids designed for snorkelers work to increase your buoyancy while maintaining your range of motion, but it is important to remember these are not designed to keep your head above water. These kinds of personal flotation devices are classified as buoyancy aids and are not considered to be life-saving personal flotation devices. They are not Coast Guard approved for use on boats (Dip n’ Dive). They can still help to prevent drowning. 

Snorkeling Vest

Snorkeling vests are closely related to inflatable life jackets. They have the same vest-style design but are not as restrictive, and do not put out as much buoyancy force. They allow you to float lower in the water, making it less of a strain on your neck to keep your face in the water. They also allow for a wider range of motion, making it easier to steer and propel yourself through the water. When not inflated, they also allow for free-diving to get a little closer to underwater life (always do so without touching or damaging fragile coral reefs and structures.)

Most snorkeling vests have a tube that you used to control the amount of air in the vest. It allows you to add more air and increase your buoyancy or let the air out to decrease it. There are two styles of snorkeling vests, horse collars, and snorkel jackets; there are also some hybrid vests that combine the two styles. This article goes over the different types in more detail. 

These aids are typically classified between 50-70 newtons (Subsea). Finding the right one for you will depend on your body weight and density, so make sure to do research before choosing to go out into the waters with a snorkeling vest. 

Flotation Belts

Flotation belts like this one from Amazon are the next best thing if you don’t want to be restricted by a vest. They allow for the greatest range of motion, while still providing significant buoyancy force to keep you afloat. They do not, however, help to support your head in any way. 

Similar to the life jackets and snorkeling vests, flotation belts come with different newton ratings. So, if you want more lift from your belt, get one with higher newtons. There you can also judge pretty well just by gauging the thickness of the belt. The thicker it is, the more support it will give you. 

The following video provides you with a very sympathetic introduction to using a flotation belt to go snorkeling. The narrator was originally afraid of spending time in the water; she overcomes her fears by using a flotation belt and gives you a full demonstration, so you can do the same. 

Noodles 

Noodles are not just for pool use, and many advanced snorkelers use them because they make the experience more relaxing. They give you extra support, help to stabilize you, and make it easy to stop and rest for a bit. You can also sit on the noodle to free up your hand in case you need to adjust your mask or check your camera.  

Inflatable noodles are super cheap on Amazon and most local shops, and they are easy to pack. So we recommend taking one along on your vacation if you plan on snorkeling, even if you do end up renting other flotation gear. Plus they make good water swords and squirt guns for your kids to annoy you…uh, I mean play with.

Snorkeling Floats

Along the same lines as the noodle, snorkeling floats provide support and stability to help you manage your fatigue when snorkeling. These are also a great option for folks who may not like to hold their faces underwater for extended periods. Some have viewing windows built right into the float so you can see what’s underwater without getting water in your ears! 

You can even use snorkeling floats in combination with other personal flotation devices. 

Swim Buoys 

Swim buoys, also known as swim bubbles, are often used by snorkelers to mark their places and alert boats to their location. They are less cumbersome than dive flags. This article explains how and why you should use a swim buoy when snorkeling. 

These are not meant to be used as a constant form of buoyancy aid. They can support your weight and help you hoist your head above water when you hug it to your chest, but they should not be relied on for sustained flotation. As such, they make a great addition to your snorkeling gear, but should not be your only flotation device. 

The swim buoys usually feature some kind of belt or anklet that keeps it attached to you while you are swimming, and some may even double as a dry bag that can keep your goggles, sunglasses, wallet, and camera safe and dry while you snorkel.

Since they double as a dry bag, we do suggest buying one of these for yourself; you can repurpose it for any and all water sports, including kayaking, paddle boarding, tubing, etc.

Additional Safety Tips for New Snorkelers 

Snorkeling can be intimidating for beginners, especially if you are not already a strong swimmer, but beyond investing in the proper flotation devices, there are some things you can do to help keep yourself safe. 

Splashing snorkeler wearing a life jacket

Plan Ahead & Prepare for your Adventure

The first step to safely participating in any outdoor sport is to do your homework. You need to know what kind of gear you need, how to use it, and you should consider practicing with it on in the pool too.

Additionally, you should make sure you know about the location of your snorkeling adventure, try being able to answer the following questions:

  • When are high and low tides?
  • How far is the snorkeling spot away from land?
  • Are you swimming out to the spot or taking a boat?
  • How deep is the water where you will be?

Furthermore, you should always have an emergency action plan. Think through yours with the next set of questions:

  • How will you communicate with your rescuers?
  • Where will they come from – the shore, a boat, do you have a trained guide?
  • Can you carry a small first aid kit with you in a dry bag? 

It is also recommended to research what kind of threats the wildlife poses when snorkeling. If you are going to be swimming near coral reefs be mindful of bodily contact with them, it will not just damage the coral, they are very sharp and can cut you. Remember: look but do not touch!

Know Your Comfort Level

Before you go snorkeling, practice some basic swimming techniques at your local pool. If you are very unconfident in your swimming abilities, consider taking swim lessons before your trip so you will be putting all your trust into your flotation devices. 

Some basic swimming techniques to be familiar with before your trip include: 

  • The starfish floating technique
  • Water treading and sculling
  • The dog paddle

You will feel more confident in the water if you know your comfort level. Try to learn your body a little better and be familiar with your limits. You can also work to build your strength and endurance before you go. 

Use Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is important when snorkeling. If your face is in the waters and your ears are submerged, your senses will not operate the way you are used to. Your hearing will be muted, your line of vision limited, and your sense of smell completely turned off. That means you have to make sure you are extra aware of your surroundings. 

Situational awareness is about being able to scan your surroundings for things that could cause you harm. When snorkeling, this could even be your own body. You need to make sure you do not dehydrate. You may also need to be aware of the sun, always wear sunscreen to prevent sunburn and sunstroke. 

According to the Journal of Wilderness Medicine, along with bug-bites, skin abrasions, and broken bones, sunburn and dehydration are among the most common causes of wilderness emergencies (WEM Journal). Therefore, it is important to prevent these conditions even while snorkeling. 

Never Swim Alone

Having a buddy along for a snorkeling adventure is a must. Not only do you get to share the awesome experience together, but you can also actively work to keep each other safe. Your swimming partner will be your first responder if something goes wrong. 

Two heads are always better than one. While you are submerged observing things underwater, your buddy can have their head above water and practice alert situational awareness. They are also great to have around in case you want your photo taken with a sea turtle! 

Consider Wearing a Wet Suit 

Neoprene wetsuits can help keep you safe in the water in several ways. 

First, they can help protect you from dangerous sunburns. When you are snorkeling, your skin is in contact with water, rendering most sunblock lotions ineffective to protect you. To avoid constantly reapplying sunscreen, you can wear a wetsuit with UV protection

Second, while wetsuits are not a personal flotation device, they can help increase the natural buoyancy of your body. They do so by trapping air in between the fibers of the fabric, giving you a small net increase of buoyancy force. They should not be relied on for flotation, but in a pinch can certainly make floating easier.  

Third, they will help you stay warm in colder waters. If you are snorkeling in cold or cool areas, or during the colder seasons, you could be at risk of hypothermia. In these situations, you should wear a wetsuit to keep you warm. 

Finally, they protect you from abrasions, bites, and stingers. Keeping your skin covered in a thick layer of neoprene can help protect you from cutting yourself on corals, or from being stung if you accidentally brush up against a jellyfish. You can also wear a rash guard for protection.

Are you looking for information about safe snorkeling? Check out this blog maintained by snorkeling enthusiasts. 

You may also want to read about snorkeling fins and the various mask types you may want to buy or rent. We have a complete guide to buying a wetsuit as well.

Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to enjoy your snorkeling adventure with confidence!


Resources:

• Suba Lover. “Is Snorkeling with a Life Jacket Possible?” Scuba Diving LoversWeb.

• Edmonds, Molly. “How Life Jackets Work.” How Stuff WorksWeb.

• Davidson, Nick. “Can You Wear a Life Jacket When Snorkeling?” Sports Rec. Nov. 2018. Web.

• Zehr, Michelle. “How to Swim in a Life Jacket.” Sports Rec. Nov. 2018. Web.  

• Hawley, Chuck. “Life Jacket and PFD Basics.” Boat USWeb.

• Crew Safe. “Buoyancy Categories.” Marine Safety and HardwareWeb.

• Dip ‘n Dive. “Life Jacket vs. Snorkeling Vest – Different Types of PFDs.” Dip ‘N Dive. 2019. Web.

• Galen & Nicole. “Snorkel Vest: Why to Have One and What to Get.” Tropical SnorkelingWeb.

• Subea. “Is A Buoyancy Aid Useful for Snorkeling?” SubeaWeb.   

• Life Jacket Advisor. “7 Vest Snorkel Vests for Easy Snorkeling.” Life Jacket AdvisorWeb

• Galen & Nicole. “The Snorkeling Dive Flag We Use.” Tropical SnorkelingWeb

• Scuba Lover. “Do You Need A Floatation Belt for Snorkeling?” Scuba Diving Lovers. Web

• Keller, Christophe. “Learn Basic Swimming Techniques.” Enjoy SwimmingWeb

• Szaszi, Anett. “Safe snorkeling – 10 tips for your safety and comfort.” Snorkel Around the WorldWeb.

• Kogut and Rodewald. “A field survey of the emergency preparedness of wilderness hikers.” Journal of Wilderness Medicine. Web

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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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