Do You Need to Know How to Swim to Snorkel?

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Expert: Cameron – I have snorkeled for over two decades and have been a PADI certified diver for over three years. I have used several methods to counteract my lack of ability to swim within my younger years in the water. I can assure you through proven experience that your ability to swim will not prevent you from enjoying your adventure.

Do you actually need to be able to swim to snorkel or even to enjoy snorkeling?

It is understandable to think that not being able to swim or swim well will destroy your plans or dreams to go snorkeling in your given destination.

Contrary to what you might believe this is not the absolute end to an activity like snorkeling.

How do you snorkel without knowing how to swim?

You ARE able to snorkel if you cannot swim. Snorkeling is mainly a surface water activity and there are previsions that you can bring with you to keep yourself above water without any effort of your own. Devices like this can be a life jacket or even inflatable safety rafts to keep you on the surface of the water.

There are things to consider when deciding what you need on your adventure, especially if you cannot swim, and we will break it all down below.

Snorkeling When You Cannot Swim

Outdoor Travel & You

Many devices on the market are specifically for snorkeling to keep you afloat and others that you can utilize if you do not want to purchase something that specifically relates to snorkeling and you already have lying around.

Our key goal is buoyancy, which is the tendency for an object to float in fluid as it relates to its relative density, according to Britannica.

Some may wonder though; will these devices really keep you on the surface of the water properly while still giving you the ability to snorkel?

PFDs You Can Use to Snorkel Without Knowing How to Swim

PFDs are known as personal flotation devices.

These can range from your traditional life jackets to snorkel vests specifically designed for our activity in mind.

There are a few things we need to consider when picking out our flotation gear, but we will cover this further down, our focus here is just your personal flotation device.

How many of these are out there and can we use anything to go out and snorkel with?

Classic Life Jackets


This is first on the list since it is one that most everyone has in their garage if they frequent water activities whether they can swim or not.

These can be somewhat difficult to utilize while snorkeling because the absolute objective of a life vest is to keep your head above water.

They do this by utilizing a hard pact foam that remains buoyant even when punctured.

You can still lay in a position that will allow you to see underwater, but it can be difficult with some body builds.

However, there are ways to equip a jacket to your person to ensure that you can remain in a buoyant posture that allows you to float and keep yourself in the traditional snorkel position.

Strapping it on your waste is one method of placing buoyancy closure to your center of gravity and allowing you to remain vertical while floating about in the water.

Another method is placing the vest on backwards with the back of the vest on your torso and leaving this unstrapped.

Both of these methods however are not how the device is intended on functioning and can lead to injury if there is no supervision or someone without experience is attempting this.

If you intend to use a lifejacket in a way that it is not intended BE SURE THAT THERE ARE CERTIFIED PERONNEL AT YOUR LOCATION!

These personnel can show you methods to use the lifejacket properly when snorkeling and help anyone that is having an issue.

Snorkeling Vests

These vests are ideal for snorkeling since they utilize air instead of foam.

Air is much better for snorkeling since it can easily move around to fit what your body needs when it comes to proper buoyancy in the water.

The movability of air is exactly what we need to keep our faces in the water and bodies vertical to enjoy the snorkel sites.

One of the best things about these vests is that you can deflate them to dive down further when needed.

There are two main types of snorkel vests; one that is an actual vest and another that many refer to as a horse collar vest.

Snorkel Jacket or Snorkel Vest
Snorkel Jacket & Snorkel Vest

You will find some of these terms interchangeable, but this snorkel jacket or vest is the same basic structure.

There look like the typical lifejacket, but as mentioned above utilize air instead of foam and are strapped in the same way.

These are less common but can provide more warmth than the next type we will discuss since they wrap around the back.

The wrap around the back does not have air pockets so if the event comes that you lose consciousness your body floats around putting your face to the surface of the water.

An extra bonus to these is that it provides an extra layer of UV protection since you are spending extended periods with your back exposed to the Sun.

Some of these offer pockets you can add things to and do not typically have crotch straps like the next PFD.

Horse Collar Snorkel Vests
Horse Collar Snorkel Vest

These will be what you typically see when you think of snorkeling vests; as well as what you will see if you decide to book a snorkeling trip with a tour company.

This is ideal for several sizing since the straps that secure the jacket can be manipulated further than any particular snorkel jacket or life vest.

It is an inflatable tube that wraps around the neck, straps around the back, and around the crotch for security.

This offers all the advantages of the previously mentioned snorkel jacket without the benefit of the UV protection since all that is around your back is a strap.

Children’s Snorkel Vest

I added this section to stress the importance of having proper safety gear for children; ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 13 NEEDS TO HAVE A PFD.

If safety is not a big enough concern, there are many places around the world that require, by law, that children must have a PFD when engaging in an open water activity.

The best PFD you can get a child for snorkeling would have to be a horse Collar Snorkel Vest.

A horse collar vest allows a greater chance of use since the size can fit a wider range of growths; this prevents having to purchase a new PFD every year.

Alternative PFDs

Anything that assists in floating can be a personal flotation device.

Pool Noodles
Pool Noodle

I have seen many people bring out foam noodles to the water just to assist in dispelling less energy.

These are great for anyone that already knows how to swim and just wants that extra assistance when floating.

Foam Ring Buoy
Foam Ring Buoy

This is just as it suggests a foam ring life preserver.

You can fit this around your waist while snorkeling or hold onto it while you kick around.

Float Belts
Float Belt

These can be found as simple belts which allow easier buoyancy or as swim trainers.

While some can have foam, most are strictly inflatable.

Depending on what you decide to purchase, the straps go around your waste and you can decide the amount of air you wish to place inside.

Swim Buoy
Swim Buoy

These are relatively new to the scene and are typically used for triathletes or training and races.

They are an air inflated buoy that straps around your waste and sits behind you while you swim.

Bodyboard or Kickboard
Bodyboard & kickboard

These boards are a foam material.

Body boards are used to surf into shore on a wave and typically are the size of your torso.

They typically come with a Velcro strap as well to keep around your ankle or wrist.

Kickboards run smaller and are used to assist in swim training or lap swimming.

Both of these options are great for floating on top of the water while snorkeling.

BumFloat Snorkel PFD

This is a hands-free flotation device that uses foam.

It straps around your waste and is worn like shorts.

I included this since it is unique and still gets the job done.

I have only found one company that produces this type of PFD, hints the trademarked name, but it still is quite unique and useful.

Inflatable Snorkeling Floats
Inflatable Snorkeling Float

For those that do not wish to remain underwater while enjoying the sites, this flotation device has a clear bottom to allow you to remain above water and still see below.

These come in all different sizes to small with hand grips to those that you can rest your entire body on.

This can be very ideal for small children and close to shore.

Is snorkeling really that hard? Find out here.

Other Factors to Consider While Snorkeling When You Cannot Swim

Two Women Snorkeling

While picking a proper PFD for your snorkeling adventure is the most important step, there are other important things to consider when you are headed out into the water.


There are also several factors to consider when picking your snorkeling location; remember safety first!


Making sure that the weather forecast for the day you are going is going to be sunny and without rain.

This ensures proper visibility above water and clear visibility towards the shore.

Water Depth

Even though you have a flotation device, it is a good thing to consider keeping your swimming depth to a location where you can stand.

This is especially important for children to have an adult near them that can actually touch the surface bottom of the water.

Trust me there are wonderful places to snorkel and view the sea life where you can stand.

Be mindful of coral or sharp rocks when having a shallow depth because they can cause injury to yourself as well as the habitat of the marine life.

Keeping to Calm Waters

This is important even if you can swim.

Calm waters with small waves is ideal for snorkeling so you can maneuver around easily.

Not only waves but being mindful of currents will ensure that you have a good time in the water.

Strong currents are something to pay attention to even if you are a well-seasoned swimmer.

Staying Close to the Shore

There are many locations around the world that the sea floor dips off very quickly.

With this, make sure you stay near the shore line to avoid being swept up by currents.

Easy Water Entry

There may be some locations that it is difficult to enter the water.

Given this is may also be difficult to put your gear on and then enter the water.

I would suggest picking a location that has an open sand bank, or an easy step entry point to enter WITH YOUR GEAR ALREADY ON before entering the water.

Having Lifeguard’s Near or a Certified Tour Guide

Picking a location where a lifeguard is present is very important when you are entering open water and you cannot swim.

A good tip is to pick a snorkeling tour company since they have good safety protocols that place certified personnel with every group to ensure safety.

Warm Water

Some do not consider this, but no matter where you decide to have your adventure try to ensure that there is warm water.

Even in warm months certain currents can bring cooler waters near the shores and this can lead to exhaustion since your body is making an effort to keep your temperature regulated.

Saltwater vs. Freshwater

Saltwater deludes to a higher buoyancy as it comes to staying afloat.

Because saltwater is denser than freshwater, regardless of the water depth, you will float lower in freshwater than in saltwater as mentioned by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Always Snorkel with a Buddy

Snorkeling with a Buddy

Some may only include this rule as a diving rule; but I assure you that is not the case.

Whether it is simply swimming around, floating, snorkeling, diving, ALWAYS enter the water with a buddy.

If you do not have a buddy to snorkel with consider going on a paid snorkeling tour to ensure there is always someone there focused on safety.

Practice Being in the Water

As a certified diver I can tell you that the one thing you do not want in any open water situation is panic.

Practice going into the water in a pool or close to the shore to familiarize yourself with the feeling of your gear.

Understand that this is a relaxing activity and panic will only make any situation worse, even if it is an emergency.

Consider taking swimming lessons before your adventure to get a comfort of technique; even if you cannot swim like a pro afterwards anything is better than nothing at all.


Snorkeling is not an action sport; it is a leisure activity.

You do not need to be able to swim to enjoy your adventure.

Bringing the proper personal flotation device will keep your day calm and fulfilling even if you are able to swim properly.

Consider taking a guided tour with a snorkeling tour company; these companies have certified personnel and the proper PFDs for everyone in your group.

If you decide to not go with a guided tour, make sure that your snorkeling location has calm waters and a lifeguard present to ensure everyone’s safety and ALWAYS BRING A BUDDY!

Click here to check out the Pros & Cons of snorkeling.

[Sources and References]

Stewart, Ken. “buoyancy”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Feb. 2023, Accessed 5 April 2023.
“Don’t Even Sink About It!” Sea Grant,,they%20may%20float%20too%20low. Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

[Image Attribution and Licensing]

Featured Image Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay
#1 Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay
#2 Image by J. Ketelaars from Pixabay
#3 Image by Mark Salmon from Pixabay