Can You Wear a Life Jacket When Snorkeling?

Snorkeling Couple
Couple getting ready to snorkel in the ocean. (Image: Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Snorkeling is a rewarding but potentially dangerous activity in which drowning is an inherent risk. Even competent swimmers can tire in the water and should consider wearing a flotation device or swimming aid. For snorkelers, this means either a life jacket or a snorkeling vest. These devices function differently and hold unique advantages. While snorkeling, you should consider your swimming ability, location and ease of rescue to best determine which device is right for you.

Snorkeling Vests Vs. Life Jackets

Snorkeling vests are smaller than life jackets and inflatable, whereas life jackets are typically foam. Snorkeling vests are not actually made to act as life preservers in rescue situations and you should not rely on them for flotation, but rather as a swimming aid to give you rest as you tire from activity. Life jackets are more buoyant, designed to lift a swimmer's face and head out of the water to avoid drowning, often making snorkeling more difficult.

Types of Snorkeling Vests

The most common type of snorkeling vest is the horse collar. These circular vests contain one inflatable bladder that encircles your neck and covers your upper chest. They also often have a strap that connects between your legs to prevent the collar from riding up as you snorkel. Another type is the zip jacket. These resemble the standard life jacket, with holes for your arms and a zip-up front, also consisting of a single inflatable bladder.

Types of Life Jackets

A Type I PFD, the most buoyant jacket, will keep your face out of the water and is used for offshore swimming, where the danger is greatest. Types II and III PFDs have less buoyancy than Type I and mostly used for swimming near shore. They will help keep your face out of the water but are not made to do so and are mainly used as flotation aids.

Making the Right Choice

Snorkeling vests are made specifically for snorkelers and are the ideal choice, since they will allow you to easily swim with your face in the water while providing some flotation assistance. For weaker or beginning swimmers or snorkelers farther off shore, a Type II or Type III PFD might be the better choice for their greater buoyancy while still allowing freer movement for snorkeling.

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