Can You Snorkel with a Life Jacket?

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If you are not a strong swimmer, you may be wondering if it is possible to snorkel with a life jacket. While it is technically possible, we do not recommend it because a life vest is designed to keep your head out of the water so that you do not drown. If you wear a life jacket, you will be constantly fighting against it while snorkeling. There are better flotation devices you can use instead, such as snorkel vests or flotation belts, which will not get in the way of your snorkeling experience.

Sometimes the terminology is not clear, and you may have heard about people wearing “snorkeling life vests” when they go out into the water. True life vests are ones that you’ll find on boats or cruise ships. They are approved by the United States Coast Guard as life-saving personal flotation devices and will keep your face out of the water even if you’re unconscious. They are not ideal for snorkeling because of their drag, bulkiness, and tendency to keep you upright. Instead, we recommend you use a snorkel vest or flotation belt.

In this article, we will discuss how a life vest should be used, what the differences are between a life vest and other snorkeling flotation devices such as a snorkel vest, and how you can properly use these tools to stay safe while snorkeling.

Who Should Use Life Jackets?

When you are out in the water, even shallow water, you should wear a life jacket if you are:

  • A beginner snorkeler.
  • Finding it hard to tread water due to old age, a physical disability, or lack of experience.
  • Part of a guided tour and need to wear it for insurance purposes.
  • Struggling to keep water out of your snorkel.
  • Planning on spending a lot of time in the water snorkeling at your leisure.
  • Snorkeling with kids.

A life jacket will keep you buoyant and reduce your chances of drowning if a sudden strong current or riptide drags you out into the sea. If safety is your number one priority, you can try to snorkel with a life jacket even if it inconveniences you. However, most snorkelers will do just fine with just a snorkel vest or ski belt as their flotation device.

Disadvantages of Life Jackets for Snorkeling

They Get In the Way

Above all, the life jacket’s goal is to keep your head above water. In order to do that, it will keep your body vertical when you want to be horizontal for snorkeling. Furthermore, it has large, bulky pieces of foam around the chest that cause massive amounts of drag in the water. You will find it difficult to swim, let alone snorkel. On top of that, they get in the way if you are trying to look down.

Cannot Duck Dive with a Life Jacket

While snorkeling can be done along the surface of the water, there is another aspect of it that you’re missing out on if you can’t dive down. Getting to see the aquatic life and seafloor up close is a lot more exhilarating than being a passive observer from a distance.

And since a life jacket’s primary purpose is to keep you afloat, if you try diving down you will have to exert significant energy fighting against it while diving down. Only an expert swimmer would be able to do it, and they wouldn’t need a life jacket in the first place anyways. This is where a snorkel vest comes in.

Snorkel vests can be inflated or deflated on a whim. When you just want to snorkel along the surface, keep it fully inflated. If you feel the urge to dive down, slightly deflate it, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can fully deflate it and dive downwards. Don’t worry, you can inflate it again with just a few breaths using the plastic tube that connects to the air bladder of the vest.

Is Snorkeling Dangerous?

Any water activity has the potential to be dangerous. That is why we recommend you wear a flotation device. A complete beginner or non-swimmers should just wear a life jacket. Think about safety first, even if it gets in the way of your enjoyment. If you are ever caught in a bad situation, you’ll be glad you decided to wear a life jacket.

Beginner snorkelers sometimes make the mistake of snorkeling for too long, heading out too far from land or their boat and running out of energy. They may also dip their snorkel too low and accidentally gulp a mouthful of water. Or the currents get too strong and they are swept away. This causes them to panic which only worsens the situation. If you’re afraid of these things happening to you, then just snorkel with a life jacket.

Should Kids Wear a Life Jacket when Snorkeling?

Yes, they should depending on their swimming level. As an aside, we recommend your child take swimming lessons before snorkeling. Before they go out into deep water, they should first practice in a pool, then shallow water, before moving all the way up. This way, they can learn the basics and develop the confidence they need.

Assuming they know how to swim, there are snorkel flotation devices designed just for children that can provide them with extra buoyancy without getting in the way of their snorkeling experience. Just make sure that you purchase a device with a high enough weight rating and that it securely fits your child.

Tips for Snorkeling with a Life Jacket

You don’t need to be a good swimmer to snorkel. Not everyone who snorkels is an athlete or seasoned swimmer. All you really need to know is how to float, breathe through the snorkel, and kick. If floating is difficult, then you can wear a snorkel vest or even a life jacket. There’s nothing difficult about snorkeling, even good swimmers do the same steps. No fancy strokes, just breathe and kick.

All of this is easier to do if you’re not afraid. Wear a life jacket if it gives you the confidence you need. Furthermore, as long as there is air in your lungs, you’ll have a bit of natural buoyancy. It will mostly be around your upper body; your legs will sink if they aren’t kicking, so wear some snorkel fins and just keep kicking. Anywhere you want to go in the water, just kick your legs to get there.

While wearing a life jacket, you may have to kick constantly to keep your head below water to enjoy the sights that the sea offers you underneath the water. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to dive underwater if you’re wearing a life jacket. At the very least, with a personal flotation device, you can literally snorkel for hours on the surface. After all, you will conserve a lot of energy when you barely need to spend any to stay afloat.

If you are a bearded snorkeler and find that water keeps entering your mask, check out our guide on snorkel masks for beards as well as tips on how to keep water out.

Life Jacket vs. Other Snorkeling Flotation Devices

Personally, we recommend wearing a snorkel vest or flotation belt as your flotation device. Depending on what size you buy, snorkel vests can support anywhere from 80 pounds on the lower end to over 200 pounds for extra large vests. Flotation belts also provide a lot of buoyancy, however they do not have the advantage of deflating when you want to dive.

With that said, the many straps of a snorkel vest may cause discomfort. Some users complain that their snorkel vest rides up all of the time, aggravating their armpits and neck. And even though both a belt and vest can keep you afloat, they are not considered life-saving devices because they aren’t intended to keep your head out of the water. They are snorkel flotation devices because they keep you afloat while allowing you to look down into the water.

A life vest’s purpose is antithetical to what a snorkeler wants to do. That is why we generally don’t recommend wearing a life jacket to snorkel. We only suggest it if an individual cannot stay afloat on their own, in which case they should wear the safest flotation device they can. Better to stay safe and have difficulty snorkeling than be at risk of drowning.

While I wouldn’t consider a wetsuit a buoyancy aid since its primary purpose is to keep you warm, wetsuits help keep you afloat simply because of the air bubbles found in the neoprene material. That means that someone wearing a wetsuit would float more easily than someone without it. You might want to consider getting one if you find yourself getting cold in addition to any floating issues. You should also check out our list of snorkeling equipment to help you find more products that can help you with snorkeling.

Parting Words

When you are snorkeling, you want to keep your head in the water to see what’s below the water’s surface. Thus, snorkeling with a life vest will prove to be difficult. Most snorkelers will struggle to keep their body in a prone, horizontal position while wearing a life jacket. If safety is your priority, this is a good thing. That means you are safe, but not so good if you want to enjoy snorkeling.

It is up to you to judge your swimming capabilities. If you are not confident, then choose the safest option, a life jacket. Most people will do just fine with a snorkel belt or vest. Especially in the case of a snorkel vest, it will not get in your way as you can deflate it and dive deeper to truly enjoy the full snorkeling experience. One way to safely snorkel is to do it as part of a tour. That way, you can snorkel with a group, and ask the snorkeling instructor for assistance. You will also be provided personal flotation devices so you don’t even need to buy your own. If you want to stay as safe as possible, then snorkel with a life jacket.