Compared to the tried-and-true paddle fins which have been around for over a century, split fins are a relatively new design that people are trying to gauge if they are just a passing fad or a useful design that is here to stay.
As the name suggests, split fins are like paddle fins but they have a split down the middle, separating the blade into two parts.
This design is said to create a vortex when you kick which helps propel you the same way a propeller would. Also, the split decreases the water resistance on the upward part of a kick, which helps to conserve energy.
People who have tried split fins have found it much easier to kick with, and doing the flutter kick style in calm waters has allowed many snorkelers to generate propulsion with ease.
As such, many beginners have found split fins to be a great option to use while snorkeling because they love the ease in which they can perform kicks compared to full fins, and it helps them conserve energy.
In this article, we will discuss in more detail the pros and cons of using split fins while snorkeling, how they compare to paddle fins, and if they are the right choice for you over the paddle fin style.
How do split fins work?
To understand how fins work, and how split fins work specifically, we need to provide some contextual information.
Fins help you move around faster underwater based on the principle that overcoming resistance produces a forward momentum as you kick. Specifically, this is derived from Newton’s Third Law, which is that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The blades of a fin further increase the water resistance you’ll have to overcome, which ultimately provides greater propulsion.
Knowing this background information, we can already come to several conclusions.
Regular bladed fins (also known as full/paddle/blade fins) generate more thrust than split fins because they do not have the split down the middle, making it more difficult to kick with. Furthermore, paddle fins are generally stiffer, further increasing the water resistance.
We know that full fins are therefore harder to kick with, but if you have the leg strength, will generate more thrust. For this reason, many experienced snorkelers and divers prefer the full blade fin.
Conversely, split fins are much easier to kick with thanks to the split in the middle. This allows water to pass through it, which helps you easily perform the upward stroke of the kick which does not generate much thrust in the first place and ultimately helps you conserve energy.
Furthermore, split fins tend to be softer than paddle fins. This softer design decreases the water resistance and helps the two blades of a split fin twist into a propeller shape when kicking, creating a vortex effect that can help propel you.
Additionally, since split fins are so much easier to kick with, you don’t need particularly strong legs to use them. This is great for beginners and those with hip or knee injuries to reduce the stress on their body.
Benefits of snorkeling with split fins
We’ve provided bits and pieces of information regarding what split fins can do for you in the sections above. However, the purpose of this section is to compile all of its major benefits so that you can better understand what exactly you’re getting when snorkeling with split fins.
Helps you learn basic techniques
Have you already tried snorkeling with fins, only to find that you are struggling with the technique? Chances are, you were wearing paddle fins and you lacked the leg strength to perform continuous kick cycles.
It’s not a bad idea if you’re a beginner to start out with split fins. This is because they are less stiff and the split down the middle allows water to pass through, ultimately making it easier to kick with (among other benefits).
You will then be able to perform the basic kicking techniques without worrying about whether your legs can handle it. If you haven’t yet mastered your kicking technique yet, consider training with split fins before moving on to paddle fins (or just stick with split fins, there’s nothing wrong with that).
Helps you conserve energy
As mentioned, since split fins are much easier to kick with, you are less likely to become fatigued when performing limited to moderate movements.
If you tend to suffer from leg cramps when you overexert your muscles kicking with full blade fins, then split fins are the solution.
People who lack the leg strength to kick with full blade fins will find themselves struggling and using up a lot of energy and air just to perform a few kicks. For these people, the (lack of) propulsion they are generating is not worth the energy they are putting into their kicks.
While split fins do not generate as much thrust as paddle fins can, they are a good middle ground between not wearing fins at all and wearing fins that are too hard to use.
To be clear, split fins are better than not wearing fins, but if you have the leg strength and want greater control and propulsion, then consider moving on to paddle fins.
Great for leisurely activities
Compared to full blade fins, split fins are ideal for calm waters. If you know that you will not encounter rough current, then navigating will be easier because you will conserve so much energy.
If your preferred kicking style is the bicycle or flutter kick, then you will benefit the most from snorkeling with split fins. You will be able to snorkel for hours compared to other fin types due to how efficient your kicks are.
You can benefit even if you duck dive, as these fins allow you to gently maneuver yourself underwater. As a beginner, you’ll find them easier to work with as long as you don’t need to make precise movements.
Downsides of snorkeling with split fins
In order to provide the benefits that it does, the split fin design has had to make a few trade-offs that may negatively impact your snorkeling experience depending on skill level, kicking style, and the water conditions you will be in.
Read over this section to see if any of these negatives might affect you. Most of the downsides will be felt by experienced divers, which is why the general consensus is that split fins are better for beginners, and paddle fins are for more advanced users.
Not compatible with some techniques
If you already have a preferred kicking technique, and it happens to be the frog kick, then you’re not going to appreciate split fins. While split fins are usable with most kicks, the frog kick, one of the most popular kicks, is not one of them.
Professional divers also argue that split fins lack control. For instance, with paddle fins, experienced snorkelers and divers can kick backwards or spin around in place. They also feel that they can be more precise with their movements, whereas they struggle to perform the same techniques with split fins. This is a design problem, not a lack of skill.
Not stiff enough
Technically, all of the problems listed in this section can be summarized as: split fins aren’t stiff enough. Its (lack of) stiffness is what makes it an attractive option for beginners, but a detriment for the pros.
Remember what we said about Newton’s Third Law? Basically, the stiffer the fin is, the more water resistance you will encounter. This is bad if you lack the leg strength to overcome the resistance.
However, if you are strong enough, then the thrust you can generate with paddle fins far surpasses what split fins can provide. It requires more energy, but if speed, power, or control is what you care about, then stiffer fins are better.
Conversely, you may sometimes find that split fins are not rigid enough to generate the amount of propulsion you expect. As many pros found when they tried split fins for the first time, sometimes it felt like what should have been a powerful kick that should propel them forward barely moved them at all.
Without the right amount of rigidity, you don’t have the potential to generate a lot of power when needed.
Inadequate performance in rough currents
Continuing on from the section above, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re being tossed around by rough current, you’re going to wish you had blade fins on.
You will be able to generate enough thrust with paddle fins to overcome the water and swim out of the rough current.
On the other hand, split fins are too pliable to generate enough thrust, and thus will not be able to overpower the currents.
In a similar vein, if for some reason you are towing or carrying something while snorkeling, split fins will fail you. Going back to their lack of rigidity, you won’t have the power you need to carry something heavy.
Lack of feeling
Out of all of the disadvantages so far, this one is perhaps the most subjective.
Many experienced divers and snorkelers have found that when wearing split fins, they do not “feel” their fins as much as blade fins.
Fins should be treated as extensions of your feet so that you do not accidentally kick coral reefs, sediment, rocks, or other people in the water.
However, due to how soft split fins are, many experienced users find that they lack feeling in their feet. It’s hard to gauge where exactly the blades are because they move with the water, rather than move as you tell them to.
Hence, this is why many divers and snorkelers feel they lack the precise control they expect. However, if you are in an open area and you do not need extremely precise movements, then this is a non-issue.
Are split fins better for snorkeling?
So overall, are split fins better for snorkeling? If you’ve read the major pros and cons, then you’ll know the answer is “it depends on you.”
If you find the advantages attractive and feel that the disadvantages aren’t so bad, then clearly, split fins are a great option for you.
More specifically, if you are an inexperienced snorkeler who wants to improve their technique, who does not yet have much leg strength or endurance, who does not really need precise movements, and will only be snorkeling in calm waters, then split fins are a fantastic option.
However, if you suspect that there will be rough currents where you will be snorkeling, or if you like to duck dive and want to perform precise movements underwater, then paddle fins are probably the better option. If you are a snorkeler who also happens to scuba dive, then you need paddle fins full stop.
Both split fins and paddle fins are similar in price and are relatively affordable. You could justify buying both – one for leisurely use and another for tougher sessions. Or you could use split fins as a stepping stone to help you move on to paddle fins at some point; these are all viable options.