Do You Need to Know How to Swim to Snorkel?

Have you ever wanted to try snorkeling while on vacation but didn’t because you think your swimming ability isn’t good enough? You think, surely people who spend hours out in the water breathing through a tube must be part-fish or something, right? You’ll be glad to know that snorkeling is easy and that even kids can do it. In fact, with the right gear, even non-swimmers can have a good time snorkeling.

So do you need to know how to swim to snorkel? Knowing how to swim is recommended, but with the help of snorkel flotation devices, wetsuits, and fins, it is very easy for non-swimmers to stay afloat with little to no swimming experience required. Furthermore, if you are snorkeling with a group, you can get assistance from your peers or an instructor, so you can snorkel safely without knowing how to swim.

When it comes to snorkeling, all one needs to do is to stay afloat and observe. Additionally, in salt water people can float more easily. Obviously knowing how to swim is a huge benefit when you are on a snorkeling trip to get the most out of the experience. Strong swimmers can perhaps even dive down to get a closer look. Furthermore, you never know when an emergency might happen, and having some swimming proficiency can be life-saving.

With that said, there are ways for non-swimmers to stay safe in the water and have a great time snorkeling. In this guide, we want to provide you with some recommendations that can help your first snorkeling trip be a smashing success.

Are You Snorkeling or Swimming?

Many beginners make the assumption that you need to be a strong swimmer to snorkel, but do you ever see snorkelers doing breaststrokes, butterfly strokes, or anything fancy in the water? When you’re swimming, the idea is to move quickly and get a great workout in at the same time.

When you are snorkeling, you absolutely do not want to do this! The point of snorkeling is to move slowly, stay afloat, and to just enjoy the beautiful underwater sights! You want to move slowly so you can take your time taking everything in and observing. This also allows you to conserve energy so that you can snorkel for longer. And instead of surfacing to get your breath, you can keep your face submerged and breathe underwater using the snorkel. Let’s go over some of the differences.

Swimming Technique

Advanced swimmers know all about the specific swimming strokes such as backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly stroke, etc. To do them, they need to move their arms and legs in a coordinated fashion to propel themselves quickly through the water. When you’re snorkeling as a non-swimmer, you can make up for this lack of power and speed by wearing fins.

This frees up your arms to balance and adjust your positioning in the water so you don’t float away. You are also free to point things out to your snorkeling partner, communicate with hand signals, or just relax. There is no need for any fancy strokes while snorkeling, and therefore  snorkeling is actually much less complicated than swimming in some respects.


The way many swimming strokes are performed, one must keep their head underwater and can only lift it out briefly to breathe. There is a rhythm to it, and can get exhausting as the swimmer fatigues. When snorkeling, you don’t need to count breaths or worry about any rhythm. Since you’re just floating and conserving a lot of energy, you can breathe normally through the snorkel.

Sometimes swimmers can experience water going up their nostrils which can be disruptive, but snorkelers avoid this problem since the snorkel mask will cover their nose and eyes.

Staying Afloat

Swimmers don’t wear any personal flotation devices (PFDs) since they are able to stay afloat by themselves in a safe and controlled environment like the swimming pool. Even when they tire, swimmers can quickly reach the edge of a pool and get out at any time.

Things are different when you’re snorkeling out at sea. There are additional factors that can be dangerous, and so wearing a snorkel flotation device is highly recommended. For example, riptides (strong currents), jellyfish stings, or a medical condition out at sea can easily turn a snorkeling trip fatal. With a PFD, the chances of surviving one of these emergencies is drastically increased.

Furthermore, if you plan on snorkeling for a long time, a PFD can help you save energy by keeping you afloat without any assistance. That is why it doesn’t matter what your swimming level is, everyone (not just non-swimmers) can and should wear a PFD when snorkeling.

Popular snorkel flotation devices include:

There are even snorkel boards that are essentially buoyant boards with a window to help you see beneath the water as you float along the surface (no snorkel or mask required).

Snorkeling Risks for Non-Swimmers

When it comes to any water sport, there are risks involved and these risks will pose more of a threat to non-swimmers. Below, we’ll discuss the general risks that snorkelers have to deal with and how it impacts non-swimmers.

  • Fear/Panic: If something goes wrong, non-swimmers are more likely to panic since they are less comfortable in the water. Resist the urge to panic, as you will not be able to think clearly and waste energy.
  • Evolving Conditions: The weather and water conditions can change rapidly, even in tropical climates. If you’re not paying attention, you may suddenly find yourself swept out to the sea or being buffeted by rain, wind, and waves. Strong swimmers will be better equipped to deal with these changes and swim to shore safely.
  • Equipment Malfunctions: When snorkeling, sometimes water can get inside the mask or the snorkel, and sometimes your fin strap might get undone. Beginners and non-swimmers may find it difficult to tread water and stay afloat as they deal with these problems.
  • Lack of Awareness: When you’re having too much fun snorkeling, you may not realize that you have slowly drifted farther away from the shore. Knowing how to swim means it will be easier to swim back to the boat or shore, whereas non-swimmers might lack the strength and find themselves stranded.
  • Boat Malfunction: Similarly, if the boat were to have any problems, you may find yourself stranded in the water for a while before getting any help. Strong swimmers will be able to swim to shore and get help faster.

Staying Safe as a Non-Swimmer

While there are a few risks associated with snorkeling which are further amplified as a beginner or non-swimmer, there are ways to safely deal with all of them. Minimize the above risks by keeping a few important tips in mind:

  • Always snorkel with a partner. Especially as a non-swimmer, you’re practically begging for something to go wrong if you go alone. Bring an experienced friend with you or go as part of a tour so that you have people to help you. Guided tours often have instructors that can teach you and watch over you.
  • Wear a snorkel flotation device. They will keep you afloat and safe if the water starts to get choppy or you get swept away from the group. If you have absolutely zero swimming skills, wear a life jacket. Life jackets are bulky and make it hard to snorkel but they will save your life. Snorkel vests are what we typically recommend snorkelers wear because they won’t get in your way.
  • Double-check your equipment. Make sure that your equipment are working like normal. Does your mask fit tightly, and are there any cracks? Is the splash guard on the snorkel keeping water out? Is your flotation device fully inflated and in good condition? Also, have someone close by to assist you if you lose a fin or need to clear your mask.
  • Stay calm. Again, if you panic you will waste precious energy thrashing around, which will only worsen the situation. Control your breathing and let your buoyancy aid keep you afloat as you signal for assistance.
  • Practice in a swimming pool. Do a practice run in a swimming pool to get a feel for your equipment in a safe environment. This can also help you calibrate your gear so that they fit you perfectly for the real thing. Improve your swimming skill as much as possible while you’re here.
  • Stay vigilant. Make it a habit to look up every few minutes to get a sense of your location and distance from others. If you notice that you’re drifting off, head towards the group or you’ll be left behind.
  • Take a guided tour. As part of a tour, you will be with a group of people and have access to a snorkeling instructor. They will teach you all about the equipment and give you tips on how to stay safe while snorkeling. You can ask them questions and get personalized feedback on your technique.
  • Avoid full face snorkel masks. They have been linked with a few cases of deaths while snorkeling. We recommend you avoid them and stick with a traditional snorkel and mask.

Can You Snorkel without Knowing How to Swim – The Verdict

Snorkeling is an enjoyable activity that can be experienced by people of all ages, and if you know how to swim, you’re at an advantage. However, swimming is not required for snorkeling if you take the proper steps to stay safe. Have the correct snorkeling gear, including a life vest or snorkel vest to help you stay afloat. Always snorkel with a group and stay near them. Practice how to use your gear and how to stay afloat in a pool first.

Next, choose your snorkeling destination wisely. Find one that is calm, and go early in the morning so you can snorkel safely before it gets wavier later in the day. If you can, we recommend joining a tour so that you can get a guided experience. If you follow all of these tips, there’s no reason why you can’t safely snorkel without knowing how to swim.