Snorkel Vest vs Life Jacket – Which One Should You Wear?

Navigating the vast ocean that is water safety gear can feel as complex as exploring underwater reefs. Among the most commonly debated equipment are snorkel vests and life jackets—both designed to keep you afloat but tailored for different aquatic adventures.

Snorkel Vest vs Life Jacket

In this article, we’ll directly compare the strengths and weaknesses of each flotation device, from their primary purposes and designs to their comfort levels and costs. Whether you’re a snorkeling enthusiast eager to explore coral paradises or someone simply looking to stay safe during water escapades, understanding the distinction is crucial. So let’s dive into it.


When it comes to water safety, having the right gear is crucial. Both snorkel vests and life jackets are designed to keep you afloat, but they serve distinct purposes that cater to specific water activities.

Snorkel Vest

Snorkel vests are specifically tailored for the activity of snorkeling. These vests provide just the right amount of buoyancy to allow snorkelers to float effortlessly on the water’s surface.

They’re not meant for life-saving emergencies like life jackets but aim to enhance the snorkeling experience by offering buoyancy, which can reduce fatigue and allow snorkelers to enjoy prolonged periods in the water.

Life Jacket

On the other hand, life jackets, also known as personal flotation devices (PFD), prioritizes safety above all else. It is designed to keep the wearer’s head above water, preventing drowning, especially in emergencies.

Whether you’re on a boat, kayaking, or participating in water sports, wearing a life jacket is essential to maintain safety, particularly in situations where there’s a risk of falling into deep water or if the person is a non-swimmer.


snorkeling tips for non-swimmers

The distinct purposes of life jackets and snorkel vests are reflected in their respective designs.

Snorkel Vest

The design of a snorkel vest is typically lightweight and inflatable. This vest often has a front zipper or clip mechanism, making it easy to wear or take off. The inflatable nature means that snorkelers can adjust the amount of air in the vest to their liking.

Some snorkel vests also have a crotch strap to prevent the vest from riding up while in the water. The minimalistic design aids in ease of movement, ensuring that the snorkeler can swim and explore the underwater world without any obstructions.

Life Jacket

Life jackets, conversely, are more robust in design. They are predominantly made from foam or other buoyant materials that provide a constant level of buoyancy. Life jackets cover a larger portion of the torso, ensuring that, regardless of the situation, the wearer remains afloat with their head above water.

These jackets often come with multiple straps and buckles to ensure a snug fit. Their design also frequently includes reflective materials and whistle attachments for emergencies, which emphasize their role in ensuring safety above all else.


flotation device for snorkeling

Buoyancy is the force that allows objects to float in a fluid. When it comes to water-based activities, buoyancy ensures that you remain afloat, and both snorkel vests and life jackets provide this crucial attribute. However, the way in which they achieve buoyancy differs significantly.

Snorkel Vest

The buoyancy of a snorkel vest is variable, determined by the amount of air inflated into it. Users have the flexibility to adjust the buoyancy as per their preference. If they wish to stay closer to the water’s surface, they can inflate the vest to its full capacity.

If they desire a deeper dive or want to explore just below the surface, they can let some air out, reducing the vest’s buoyancy. This adjustable buoyancy is a feature that many snorkelers appreciate, as it gives them control over their flotation.

Life Jacket

Unlike snorkel vests, life jackets come with a fixed buoyancy rating, provided by the foam or other buoyant materials from which they are made. The buoyancy is consistent and doesn’t require any adjustments from the user.

This ensures that, in emergency situations, the life jacket provides immediate and dependable flotation, keeping the wearer’s head above water without any manual adjustments.


While safety is paramount, comfort is also a significant consideration when selecting the right flotation device for your water activity.

Snorkel Vest

Designed specifically for snorkeling, snorkel vests prioritize comfort for extended periods of floating on the water’s surface. Their lightweight and adjustable nature allows snorkelers to move freely in the water.

The absence of bulky foam or other materials means that the wearer can swim, turn, and dive with minimal restrictions. Furthermore, the design ensures that while floating, the snorkeler can comfortably keep their face in the water, observing the marine life below.

Life Jacket

Life jackets, on the other hand, are built primarily for safety, and while they are essential for many water activities, they might not always be the most comfortable option for prolonged use.

The bulkier design can sometimes restrict freedom of movement, making certain activities, like snorkeling, less enjoyable. Turning or diving deep with a life jacket can be cumbersome due to its rigid structure.

However, it’s worth noting that advancements in life jacket design have led to the introduction of slimmer, more ergonomic options that aim to balance safety with comfort.

Ease of Use

don't know how to swim

When it comes to aquatic adventures, the ease with which you can use your gear directly impacts the overall experience.

Snorkel Vest

These vests are designed with simplicity and user-friendliness in mind. One of their standout features is the mouthpiece, which allows users to inflate or deflate the vest with just a few breaths. The one-way valve ensures that air doesn’t escape during inflation.

If snorkelers want to dive deeper or reduce buoyancy, they can quickly release some air. Additionally, the typically straightforward front zipper or clip mechanism makes putting on and taking off the vest a breeze, even for beginners.

Life Jacket

Life jackets, with their primary focus on safety, come with multiple straps, buckles, and adjustments to ensure they fit snugly. While this might seem daunting to some users initially, with a bit of practice, wearing and adjusting a life jacket becomes second nature.

It’s worth noting, however, that due to their bulkier design, life jackets can be more challenging to put on and adjust, especially in comparison to the simplicity of a snorkel vest.


For many enthusiasts, budget plays a pivotal role in determining which flotation device to opt for. Here’s a look at the general cost differences between snorkel vests and life jackets.

Snorkel Vest

Snorkel vests are generally more affordable than life jackets. Their simple inflatable design, coupled with fewer materials and components, makes them less costly to produce. It’s common to find a variety of snorkel vests at different price points, but even the higher-end models tend to be more affordable than premium life jackets.

Life Jacket

The robust construction, quality materials, and safety features that go into making life jackets translate to a higher price tag. Given their life-saving role, these jackets undergo rigorous testing and must adhere to strict safety standards, which can also add to the cost.

That said, the market offers a wide range of life jackets, from basic models to high-end options with added features, so there’s flexibility in choosing one that fits both needs and budget.

Who Should Wear a Snorkel Vest?

If your primary activity is snorkeling, a snorkel vest should be your go-to flotation device. Here’s who would benefit most from wearing one:

  1. Snorkeling Enthusiasts: The obvious choice. For those who love exploring the underwater world, a snorkel vest provides the perfect balance of buoyancy, allowing you to float comfortably on the water’s surface and dive below when desired.
  2. Beginners or Occasional Snorkelers: If you’re new to snorkeling or only indulge occasionally, a snorkel vest can give you the confidence to explore without fatigue. Its adjustable buoyancy offers beginners more control over their flotation.
  3. Swimmers Looking for Light Buoyancy: Even if you’re not snorkeling, if you’re looking for a flotation device that offers lightweight buoyancy without the bulkiness of a life jacket, a snorkel vest is ideal.
  4. Travelers: For those who travel to beach destinations and want a portable and lightweight buoyancy aid, the snorkel vest, being inflatable, is easy to pack and carry.

Who Should Wear a Life Jacket?

snorkel flotation device

Life jackets, given their primary role in ensuring safety, are a must-have for a broader range of water activities:

  1. Boaters and Kayakers: Whether you’re on a motorboat, sailboat, or kayak, a life jacket is essential. Accidents can happen unexpectedly, and having a life jacket ensures you remain afloat if you end up in the water.
  2. Non-Swimmers: If you aren’t confident in your swimming abilities or are still learning, wearing a life jacket is crucial whenever you’re around water, be it at the beach, lake, or pool.
  3. Water Sports Participants: Engaging in activities like water skiing, jet skiing, or paddleboarding? A life jacket isn’t just a safety measure; it’s often a requirement. The high-intensity nature of these sports increases the risk of falling into the water.
  4. Children: Kids, regardless of their swimming skills, should always wear a life jacket near open water. They offer additional safety, ensuring the child stays afloat at all times.
  5. Fishing Enthusiasts: Even if you’re a seasoned angler, wearing a life jacket is a wise precaution. Changing weather conditions or unexpected situations can pose risks, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  6. Emergency Situations: In situations where there’s a heightened risk, like during storms or when the boat is experiencing issues, every individual on board, irrespective of their role or swimming proficiency, should don a life jacket.

While both snorkel vests and life jackets have their unique advantages, you should choose the one that aligns with your activity and ensures maximum safety. Remember, it’s always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to water safety.