Beginners Guide to Snorkeling – All You Need to Know to Get Started

Last Updated: April 2021

Imagine floating near weightless in the rolling waves hearing nothing but the sound of your breath as you swim, watching schools of fish pass and hide in a kelp forest.  

Snorkeling provides you unique access to marine environments that you may never have otherwise.  

Today, snorkeling is an everyday activity among tourists and researchers alike. 

It provides access to some of our planet's most impressive, unique, and remote locations.  

Keep reading on how to get your start on your next snorkel adventure. 

Step 1: Gear Up

snorkeling gear

While the mask and snorkel can be considered the most critical pieces of equipment for an amateur diver, in fact, you'll need a lot more than your typical mask. 

To get started, grab yourself some zinc-based sunscreen (be sure to double-check your sunscreen is reef safe).

A sun shirt or rash guard (preferably long sleeve). A mask and snorkel (consider a mesh bag for keeping your gear clean out of the water). And a top-notch set of fins. 

1. Mask

Last but certainly not least is the snorkel mask. You have various choices in this department, and the technology used to sustain the diving community has evolved significantly over the last few decades.  

In particular, the full face snorkel mask has revolutionized the industry over the last few years. Originally designed and available only in Europe, the full face mask reduces difficulty you might experience as an early diver in nasal breathing restriction.

In a traditional snorkel mask, you need a tight seal around your nose and mouth. If you breathe through your nose, you're likely to release the seal or simply fog up your mask. The full-face design creates a seal from your forehead to your jawbone covering your nose and mouth. If you're a beginner, and you're willing to fork out the $70 needed for purchase, this might be the mask for you.  

Glass vs. Plastic?  

The variations in the traditional snorkel mask are slight but have a more significant impact than you might imagine. After years spent in the water, I prefer a glass full-face oval mask.  

This opens your peripheral vision and, if cared for, will last longer than your typical mask. However, separated goggle and nose sections in your snorkel mask are less likely to fog-up after a long dive. If it's your first time or just getting started in the sport, plastic is the way to go. This is less likely to show wear and tear after a few adventures, and most need TLC like glass or rubber masks.  

2. Fins

While many new snorkelers may think that the top priority for their aquatic adventure is the perfect mask and snorkel, however, fins are significantly more important. 

Choosing the right pair of fins brings in many factors, from personal preference to the environment, experience, and use.  

A good pair of fins can make or break your experience in the water.

Depending on where you're headed: open ocean or your nearby shoreline, you may want to consider fins solely for snorkeling and diving, or better suited for a variety of activities including bodysurfing, boogie boarding, or freediving.  

There are two basic categories of fins, flexible or rigid.

Rigid fins are often made from rubber and are manufactured in a mold not dissimilar from your last pair of Vans. These are perfect for cross-sport use in just about every environment but the deep sea. There is an assortment of brands to choose from, but the top pick of the International Life Saving Association is DaFin.  Longtime watermen, lifeguards, and bodysurfers in Hawaii designed these fins ideal for just about any aquatic pursuit. As a result, you can expect high-quality performance in just about any conditions.  

If heading the flexible route, you'll want to consider you're experience level. A longer fin is suitable for longer and deeper dives. Imagine long, clean, smooth kicking strokes 50-100 feet underwater. If you're not quite pushing your limits this deep, you can find a simple pair of dive fins at your local sporting goods store or 

How to know if your fins are right for you?

Be sure to try them on (both) before heading out. As you head down to the waterline (if you choose to don your fins before getting wet), be sure to walk backward so as not to step on and break your fins.

A rigid set of fins is great for bodysurfing and all-manner of watersports. A flexible fin is likely to give you long smooth strokes, keeping you sleek and silent under the surface. The longer your fins, the deeper and slower you're preparing to travel.

Whenever you're taking on a new human-powered pursuit, there are a variety of learning curves. Beyond the physical fitness and technical skills necessary to engage in your activity of choice, trial and error can significantly affect the pocketbook of just about anyone new to stepping outdoors.  

New hikers may spend extra cash on boots that fall short of their marketing language or ridiculous accessories, which in essence, just weigh down your pack.  

New snorkelers are no different. It can be hard to find the right equipment if you're new to the market and aren't sure what you're looking for. Even those with a decent amount of experience while abroad or overseas may find that the equipment they used in Hawaii isn't best suited for their native Massachusetts.  

The industry has evolved, and there's a lot more variety in the market than a novice snorkeler may realize. Keep reading to discover the best snorkel gear for your next adventure!

3. Wetsuit or Rash Guard

Depending on the environment that you plan to head out snorkeling in, you may want to consider covering up for sun protection, safety, or warmth.

A day spent snorkeling, preceded by days, weeks, or even months out of the water can result in quite the sunburn! Choosing a sun shirt or rash guard, wetsuit, or drysuit (temperature depending) may be the difference between a great time and a disaster.  

If heading out in water upwards of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, you probably won't need much more than a sun shirt. Consider purchasing a long sleeve rash guard for full-body coverage, and don't forget to lather up the backs of your legs with your favorite sunscreen. 

Between high 50's to 70's, you can get away with a 3.2-4.3 millimeter wetsuit.  3.2 is broken down to mean 3 millimeters (typically neoprene) in the chest and legs and 2 in the arms.

When choosing a wetsuit, don't fear snugness, but don't be uncomfortable either. Stick with long sleeves if it's your first suit (you'll be glad you did). Anything under 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you'll want to consider weather and terrain factors in addition to your skillset.  

Caring for your Gear

Regardless of the equipment you choose, be sure to rinse and desalinate all of your snorkeling gear between every use. There is an assortment of systems that you can adopt to keep your snorkel gear in good shape, but a good practice is to create a single Rubbermaid tub with all of your gear.

Inside, separate items (mask, snorkel, suit, fins, etc.) by small mesh bags. Before heading to the beach, up-cycle your most recent milk carton with some tap water. Before stripping your gear or changing into your clothes after a relaxing walk back to the car from your chosen snorkel spot, dump that sucker straight over your head.  

So you've got your gear, you've slapped on some sunscreen, and you're ready for the water.

What should I consider next?

Step 2: Picking a Location

Snorkeling girl

Snorkeling is an activity you can do just about anywhere from the backyard pool to your local lake or river.

Before you choose your next snorkeling destination, there are several things to consider.

Perhaps most importantly: visibility.

When heading out snorkeling, you want to hit the water in a place where you can predict decent visibility (10 ft +).

When venturing into a foreign aquatic environment, murky water and poor visibility can scare off even the most experienced snorkelers.  See here for some of our favorite snorkeling spots in San Diego.

After you've chosen your destination, you'll need to pack your gear.  

Keep reading to find out what you'll need and when you'll need it.

Step 3: Snorkel Safely


Should I be scared of sharks?

Movies like Jaws give sharks a bad rep. In actuality, the likelihood of being attacked by a shark is incredibly low. That said, it's always good to be aware of your surroundings and to know if you might be encountering a dangerous shark before getting wet.

Sharks can be an incredible sight in the marine environment. They can bring a sense of adventure to your snorkel adventure.  

So are sharks the worst thing to be afraid of?

The answer is no.

The best way to ensure your safety while snorkeling is to consider a series of competing factors: weather, water, terrain, and human.

Before heading out, check the weather report and shoot for clear skies. Cloudy days may produce a little less visibility, and a windy day with big surf will flood your snorkel pretty quickly.

Make sure you've checked the local surf report and tide conditions before heading out. 

You may be in for a rocky approach or a wet exit depending on the ocean conditions. 

As far as terrain, be sure you check the depth before heading in and avoiding diving headfirst just about anywhere. A quick encounter with the rocks, reef, or cliffside can put an end to your adventure pretty quickly. Last but certainly not least is human factors.

Check-in with your emotions and know your limits. This is generally a good practice for life but a necessary step before heading out on an adventure.

Tell a friend or family member where you're going and when you expect to be back well in advance of your adventure. If you're feeling scared or nervous, your instinct may be to power through and keep trying, but there's no sense in throwing caution to the wind.

Take calculated risks and know your competencies, inside and out, and you're sure to have a great time. Bearing that in mind, never dive alone. Shallow-water-black-out is a real thing and can happen to everybody, so bring a buddy, every time.  

Key Takeaways

Snorkeling is a fun and easy activity for water-enthusiasts of all ages, shapes, and sizes. That being said, if you want to get nerdy, you certainly can and pretty quickly.

Do some research to see if there is a diving club or society in your neighborhood. 

Get in touch with your local "friends of…" group and get started protecting the places where you play. While you may find a snorkel trip a quick and easy activity for your next vacation, you might find a passion and captivation for nature that you've never experienced before.

And don't forget, it doesn't hurt to bring a friend!  

So what are you waiting for? 

Grab your gear, pack your bag - don't forget your sun protection - and get out in the water!  

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