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How to select snorkeling equipment
By Heather McCloskey
I owe my passion for the underwater world and my career in diving to my grandpa, Dave. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time at his then home in Key Largo, Florida. He’d take my brother and I on all sorts of adventures in the water: fishing, tubing, exploring the Everglades, and snorkeling on shallow reefs like the Key Largo Dry Rocks and Molasses Reef. As a kid, witnessing the underwater world in action was pretty much the coolest thing ever, and it wasn’t long before I just knew that I’d spend a great deal of my life underwater somehow. Snorkeling opened my eyes to so many possibilities and sparked an unwavering sense of wonder and endless curiosity about life under the surface.
I will forever be grateful to have been given this life-changing opportunity as a kid, and to this day, I start every dive picturing my grandpa and silently thanking him for sharing this special place with my brother and I. I realize now that things could have gone SO much differently had my grandfather not been careful to ensure my brother and I had properly fitting, high quality snorkeling equipment during these outings and that we were taught how to snorkel safely from day 1. As relatively skittish kids, a poorly-fitting or leaky mask or snorkel that felt impossible to clear would have certainly been all it took to put us off exploring the underwater world for good!
So, in honor of him, and to prepare you for your first snorkeling trip, here’s a quick guide to selecting comfortable, high-quality, and properly fitting equipment for your upcoming snorkeling trip, so you can enjoy every moment of it stress-free.
Selecting a snorkeling mask
A properly fitting snorkeling mask is arguably the most important piece of snorkeling gear, so let’s address that first. Masks are NOT one size fits all. There is no single type or brand of mask that will work for every person, so you’ll want to try on a few different masks before you buy one. Everyone’s face is different!
Here’s how to check whether a mask is a good fit for your face:
Take the mask in one hand and push the strap out of the way and in front of the lens.
With your other hand, push back any hair that is on your forehead.
With your mask hand, place the mask on your face and LIGHTLY apply pressure to make a seal.
IF you are able to get the mask to seal to your face without the strap, move your face around a little bit…smile, laugh (you’ll be doing lots of this while snorkeling too!), and eventually check if the mask still stays sealed on when you put a snorkel in your mouth.
A properly fitting mask should stay sealed to your face without the strap pulled behind your head. The strap is just there to keep the mask in place if you accidentally bonk it on something, so don’t feel like you should tighten down your mask to hold it on — in fact, if you tighten the strap too much you might give yourself a headache and no one wants that!
Snorkels are much easier to shop for than masks since most of the considerations are rooted in personal preference rather than fit. I personally like a roll-up or travel snorkel because it’s lightweight, flexible, and compact when not in use. That said, most travel snorkels are simple and limited in features that some snorkelers find useful. For example, a “splash guard” which essentially helps prevent water from entering the snorkel through the top of the snorkel, which you may find handy in super choppy water. Meanwhile, a one-way purge valve allows you to clear your snorkel (get all the water out of it) with ease. With a one-way purge valve, rather than blowing water out of the top of the snorkel, you exhale strongly into the snorkel and the exhalation forces the purge valve open and allows extra water to drain out quickly.
Pro tip: There are two things that have made mask and snorkel wearing infinitely more comfortable for me. First, a neoprene “slap strap” which covers or entirely replaces the silicone strap that goes around the back of your head. This small accessory has made it SO much more comfortable to quickly remove and replace my mask without getting my hair caught up in the strap. Second, look carefully at the way your snorkel attaches to your mask strap. Look at attachments that are easy to remove and replace so you don’t have to spend some of your valuable snorkeling time trying to attach your snorkel! And, if your snorkel attachment breaks, keep a hair tie around your wrist, I’ve used these plenty of times in a pinch to re-attach my snorkel and not miss out on the cool sights below.
Before you go fin shopping, make sure that the destination you have in mind allows snorkelers to use fins. If fins are allowed, here’s a few things worth knowing:
My advice regarding fins: if you think you might someday want to become a diver, it’s best to purchase a pair of fins that will work well for diving too. With that in mind, a pair of comfortable dive booties and open-heel fins may be your best bet. Make sure the booties you select are comfortable, you’ll be wearing them lots!
If you’re snorkeling in cooler waters or are simply someone who tends to get chilly easily, a wetsuit will make your trip so much more comfortable. Wetsuits come in various thicknesses, lengths, and styles. Ask your local dive center what they recommend for the water temperature you’re going to be snorkeling in. If the water at your destination is relatively warm, you may want to consider purchasing a rash guard to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
Lastly, make sure you have some sort of personal flotation device with you at all times, no matter how strong of a swimmer you are. This might be something you can rent from the destination you’re visiting, or something you can bring along with you. It may not be the most glamorous or exciting piece of snorkeling equipment you look at, but from experience I can assure you it is a piece of critical importance, so don’t skip over this!
A final note
You’re going to probably fall in love with the underwater world after your first snorkeling trip. I know I did. When you do, your next question will probably be “How can I do this more?!” when that time comes, we’ve got plenty of resources here to help guide you toward more adventures in the water while keeping safety as a top priority.
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