Snorkeling is a most magical activity, allowing us to join the undersea world and mingle with incredible submerged landscapes and marine life that are so different from our own everyday experience. There isn’t much else like it.
And, fortunately, snorkeling is one of the most accessible ways to join this whole other world for a while as it requires much less training, equipment and cost when compared to something like scuba diving.
But, snorkeling does have a few basic requirements to get started, and one of those is at least some degree of comfort in the water, which usually correlates to your swimming ability.
Fret not, however, if your swimming ability isn’t as high as you would like it to be yet you are still itching to get out and snorkel. Different levels of flotation (like the best snorkel vests, life jackets, and other options) are commonly used for all types of snorkelers to increase comfort, safety and ability in the water.
If you can’t swim at all, one of the best snorkel vests or like jackets will most certainly help you start to learn the type of swimming needed for snorkeling, but it’s still recommended to stick to shallow waters until you start to build some skills. If that sounds like you, check out our article Can I Snorkel If I Can’t Swim? 7 Ways to Enjoy the Water Safely & Smartly.
Otherwise, flotation can absolutely be a benefit to both adults and kids alike, though there are different considerations to make for each type of human. Let’s get educated on the different types of flotation available for snorkeling, how to choose the best snorkel vest or life jacket (or something else), and why it all matters.
The different types of flotation for snorkeling typically break down into three categories: maximum flotation like life jackets, medium flotation like snorkel vests, and light flotation like pool noodles.
Generally, the idea is that if you want the maximum support in the water, go for a life jacket, whereas a snorkel vest is good for a moderate amount of support, and light flotation options like pool noodles (yes, really) are good if you’re looking for just a little buoyancy boost.
But, there are different options within each category for adults and children, as well as different considerations to make if you’re flying or driving to your destination (some take up more or less space when packing, while some have inflatable/deflatable models). So, let’s look at each of the options and find the best snorkel vests, life jackets, and even pool noodles for us.
Let’s start with the heavy hitters: the best life jackets for snorkeling.
As mentioned above, life jackets will give you the most flotation of any of the available flotation options for snorkeling. They’re typically the best choice for snorkelers and swimmers who are newer for this reason.
However, there are some trade-offs, considerations, and fitting determinations that must be made to make sure that you end up with one that works well (and safely) for you in the water.
How to Determine What Size Life Jacket You Need
First on the list of decisions is the level of buoyancy that you need. Life jacket buoyancy (or floatiness, if we want to make up a work) is measured in terms of Newtons (N for short) and refers to the upward force of the buoyancy. More Newtons of buoyancy means more floatiness (there’s that word again), and life jackets can range from 50N up to 225N and above.
For our purposes (snorkeling in waters that aren’t super rough or too far offshore), a 50-70N life jacket is going to do great for most adults and children and will give excellent buoyancy in the water without interfering with your technique too much.
Once you get up to 100-150N life jackets, they’re typically designed to be so buoyant (or floaty) that they’re meant to naturally flip an unconscious person onto their back until help can find them [source]. That’s great in certain situations, but not great for snorkeling since we want to stay swimming with our face pointing down to see what’s underwater. If you’re over 220lbs/100kg and do want a lot of buoyancy, you might start to consider 100N life jackets, however.
The next thing you need to make sure that you’re on the money with is sizing. For adults, sizing of life jackets goes by the circumference of your chest, while for kids it will typically go by weight of the child.
To find your chest circumference, use a measuring tape to wrap around your torso under your arms at its widest point. Then, that number will typically fall into ranges that a life jacket manufacturer has set for large, medium, small, etc. Large online stores like Amazon typically will offer free returns on fit-dependent items (like life jackets), so if you’re uncertain about your size, you may consider ordering a couple of options and returning what doesn’t fit.
In any case, you want your life jacket to be quite snug without being crushing. A good test for this is to have someone pull up on the shoulders of the life jacket once you’ve fastened all buckles and tightened all straps. If it pulls up past your mouth, the life jacket is too big [source]. Shaun does a great job walking you through the fitting and testing process in his video below.
Standard vs. Inflatable Life Jackets
Lastly, what kind of life jacket — or snorkeling flotation in general — that you may be in the market for can also come down to the space which you have available when packing to take it somewhere. If space isn’t an issue (perhaps you’re driving to the beach), your traditional fixed foam life jacket is probably your best option.
Standard life jackets have become much slimmer over time, though if space is an issue (maybe you’re flying to a beach destination and would like to bring several life jackets in your suitcase), there are inflatable life jackets available that can compress down a lot smaller. The benefit to these is that they’re much more easily packable and simpler to carry around, but you will need to spend a little time at the beach inflating them (usually by breath) before heading into the water.
The biggest caveat with inflatable life jackets, though, is that they tend to be the type that you throw over your head and then strap around your waist instead of the standard type where you put it on like a vest and then buckle it together in front. This means that an inflatable life jacket is fixed to you a lot less firmly than a traditional life jacket, which can be comfortable, but potentially more prone to moving or slipping along your body in some way. If you prefer absolute peace of mind that your life jacket will stay in place, go with a standard life jacket.
Let’s look at the best life jackets for snorkeling given all of the considerations outlined above.
In our experience, the O’Neill Superlite (here on Amazon) checks all of the boxes to make it the best life jacket for snorkeling for adults if you’re looking for a traditional life jacket.
The Superlite has the right buoyancy (about 70N), available sizes, durable straps and buckles, slimmer design (perfect for snorkeling), and a lot of use and testing throughout the years along with being US Coast Guard certified. You can even pick a unique color and style if you’re looking to make a bit of a fashion statement.
O’Neill even has a Superlite version for women (Amazon) that better fits the female form, which is a rare mega-bonus in the world of life jackets in terms of both comfort and safety.
If instead you would prefer an inflatable vest despite the less-fixed form factor, consider the Rrtizan Inflatable Swim Vest (Amazon). The buoyancy, sizes, and durability are on point, and the inflation holds well while you’re in the water. When it’s not inflated, it packs down small into a mesh bag to make it easy to pack and transport.
For your kids, O’Neill again comes in clutch and their Youth Superlite (here on Amazon) is a really popular choice for the best life jacket for snorkeling for kids who are 50-90lbs (23-41kg), and rightly so. It’s more comfortable to wear than your average life jacket (very helpful depending on the age of child wearing it) and does everything needed to keep the little snorkeler buoyant.
If you have a slightly smaller child (30-50lbs / 14-23kg), check out the O’Neill Child Superlite (on Amazon) which comes in smaller sizes and also utilizes a strap that connects under the child to keep the life jacket from sliding upward.
Kids over 90lbs (41kg) may start to fit well into smaller adult sizes, but don’t be tempted to buy one size up to allow some room for your child to grow into. A snug and proper fit now should be the only consideration here since misfitting life jackets can even more easily slide up on children and cause safety problems [source].
If you need an inflatable option and are comfortable with the less snug set-up, check out the Eyson Inflatable Child Classic Life Jacket (Amazon) as well. You’ll easily be able to pack it with you in a suitcase, and the smaller child sizes will at least save you a little breath when inflating it on the beach before a family snorkel.
Think of snorkel vests as a light-duty life jacket made especially for snorkeling. You’ll still get some nice buoyancy added to your swimming, but snorkel vests won’t be as bulky or potentially difficult to travel with, so they’re a great middle-of-the-road option for snorkelers with decent swimming ability, but who maybe just want a little extra support as they push to develop their skills.
And just like with life jackets, the best snorkel vests are going to have a lot of the same attributes for snorkeling in terms of the necessary sizing, buoyancy ideals, standard vs. inflatable (with the same potential benefits and drawbacks), etc. So, we won’t go back through all of the same details, but if you happened to skip over the life jacket section, take a moment to read it so you’re all caught up in terms of the basics that go into the best snorkel vests and the like.
If you’re up to speed, just keep in mind that the differences are mainly around buoyancy and packability.
Snorkel vests will have less buoyancy than life jackets, which can be either a positive or a negative for you depending on your wants and needs. Even the best snorkel vests will probably require a little bit of swimming to stay fully afloat, but that means they can also allow you to swim underwater a bit, which is a great skill to develop as you snorkel more. If you need constant full buoyancy, though, life jackets are a better bet for you.
In terms of packability, the best snorkel vests have life jackets beat. Ultimately, since snorkel vests are a lighter duty form of a life jacket, they take up less room and are less difficult to pack in a typical suitcase. Snorkel vests also offer inflatable versions as well, which are also smaller than inflatable life jackets simply because the amount of material used is less.
Our pick for the best snorkel vest for adults is the Seaview Palawan Snorkel Vest (over on Amazon). And, it’s impressed us so much over the years that it’s our pick for both the best traditional snorkel vest as well as the best inflatable snorkel vest.
Ultimately the Palawan looks cool and inflates with less effort and more comfort than most inflatables thanks to its more straw-like mouthpiece rather than the tiny rubber nub that we’re all used to.
Seaview also adds just the right amount of buoyancy for decent swimmers who just want a boost, and the Palawan packs down flat to take up not much more room than a sweatshirt or something similar, so it’s excellent for travel.
There’s a ton of overlap in terms of how an inflatable snorkel vest and an inflatable life jacket work in the for-kids arena, so the Eyson Inflatable Child Classic Life Jacket (Amazon) from our best-of pick for inflatable child’s life jackets above would work well as a stand-in for the best snorkel vest for kids while still minimizing the space needed to store it quite well.
If you have kids in tow and want something even more compact, though, our pick for the best snorkel vest for children that’s even smaller is the Scuba Choice Kids Snorkel Vest (Amazon) for smaller kids along with the Scuba Choice Youth Snorkel Vest (Amazon) for larger kids. You’ll find a familiar around-the-neck inflatable form factor, but these vests do an admirable job of keeping kids afloat given how small the actual vest is.
If both life jackets and snorkel vests sound a little burdensome or overkill to you, you might be looking for something lighter duty that maybe you don’t have to strap yourself into.
Believe it or not, a surprisingly effective form of light floatation in the ocean for snorkelers are pool noodles. Yes, the colorful foam tubes from the childhood pool.
Pool noodles obviously aren’t going to be much help for someone gone overboard in rough seas, but you would be surprised how much they can support a snorkeler in normal waters.
Instead of attaching it to yourself, you can swim with a pool noodle or two underneath your armpits and around the front of your body. This set-up lets you swim around with your goggles in the water (obviously a must for snorkeling), and allows you to put the noodle aside to dive underwater unimpeded before returning.
Pool noodles are also great if you’re teaching a child to snorkel in shallow water, helping you to work on getting them comfortable with using goggles and a snorkel in the water before transitioning to swimming on their own. Plus, pool noodles are easy to cut into different lengths (children don’t necessarily need the full length to have helpful buoyancy, though it’s good to test it out first) for different sizes of kids (or adults) and travel packing capacities.
Don’t overthink it too much; pool noodles are generally pool noodles. But, these floaty noodles from FixFind (Amazon) come in a multi-color pack of 5 (nice if you want to cut a few to different lengths for different family members or for different travel luggage capacities) and we like them.
The Deep Dive
If you’re a newer snorkeler still working on your confidence in the water (or have kids who are) — no worries! We’ve all started there and several different types of snorkel flotation exist (specifically, life jackets, snorkel vests, and lighter flotation like pool noodles) to help you take that next step.
Ultimately, if you want to be fully supported in the water while you snorkel, a life jacket is the way to go. If you’re a decent swimmer who is just looking for a little bit of a boost, a medium-duty snorkel vest might be right up your alley. Or, if you just need a minor lift (or are teaching kids and need the flexibility), even a pool noodle can efficiently do the trick.
Whatever makes most sense for you, pick one up and get out in the water to experience the undersea world!
First, you can look into the recommended gear from this article (the best snorkel vests, life jackets, etc.) at their Amazon links below:
Best Life Jackets for Snorkeling
- Best snorkeling life jacket for men: O’Neill Superlite Men’s Life Vest
- Best snorkeling life jacket for women: O’Neill Superlite Women’s Life Vest
- Best inflatable snorkeling life jacket: Rrtizan Inflatable Swim Vest
- Best snorkeling life jacket for 50-90lb kids: O’Neill Youth Superlite Life Vest
- Best snorkeling life jacket for 30-50lb kids: O’Neill Child Superlite Life Vest
- Best inflatable snorkeling life jacket for kids: Eyson Inflatable Child Classic Life Jacket
Best Snorkel Vests
- Best snorkel vest for adults (standard & inflatable): Seaview Palawan Snorkel Vest
- Best inflatable snorkel vest for kids: Scuba Choice Kids Snorkel Vest
- Best inflatable snorkel vest for youths: Scuba Choice Youth Snorkel Vest
Best Light Flotation for Snorkeling
- Best pool noodles: FixFind Pool Noodles
Next, if you (or members of your family) are newer to snorkeling, check out some of our other helpful snorkel guides that will help you find the right gear and get in the water with more confidence and knowledge: