Deciding on what snorkeling fins to get is really pretty easy, compared to fitting a mask, or even choosing a snorkel. Here we describe all the options, give our insights, and recommend specific fins.
First, do you need snorkel fins? Yep, fins are pretty much an essential item. You can swim without fins, but you gain so much efficiency and speed with them. And this may not appear to matter until you are in a strong current, and then you will bless those flippers. They also protect your feet from accidental contact with rocks and coral (you should not be kicking coral, but if it happens, it can really tear up unprotected feet). You can also tread water more easily, saving lots of energy, which could be a life saver.
When making your choice, comfort should be one of our top priorities. You should not have any hard spots rubbing on you. You should be able to snorkel for an hour or two without any major discomfort (blisters, etc).
What is the difference? Check out the two pictures on the left. The top fin is a classic closed foot snorkeling fin. And the second is an open foot snorkeling fin. It is open on the back with an adjustable strap.
Benefits of Open Foot Snorkeling Fins
The primary reason to use an open foot fin is it allows you to wear a boot. Mostly divers wear boots because they need the insulation (colder water at depths), and because they often are walking with a lot of heavy gear, over rocky shores. A snorkeler can also benefit from wearing boots. If you enter the water on a rocky beach very many times, you will know why.
Keep in mind that divers have more weight in gear, and more drag through the water because of this gear. And some open foot fins are designed for divers to help with those issues. These fins tend to be stiffer, much heavier and bulkier than most closed foot styles.
Benefits of Closed Foot Snorkeling Fins
There are a couple reasons why a closed foot fin is our choice. First, compared to heavier dive fins, they weigh less. Extra weight at the end of your foot means you have to work harder to move it. Not to mention the extra heft and size in your luggage (packing in a suitcase is essential for us). Second, efficiency tests have proven that a closed fin is more efficient than an open fin. I am not exactly sure why. It could be because they are less bulky, offering better hydrodynamics around the foot area. Or it could be because your connection to the fin is more positive (without a boot between).
The top picture on the left is the classic paddle fin again. The second picture is of a more modern split fin.
The split fin vs. paddle fin for snorkeling is one of those heated type of debates with people hot under the color about their perspective.
But really it is a pretty simple issue. There are benefits to both, and you just choose what you like the best. Or better yet, choose both, and sell the ones you don't like as much. The most important choice is comfort and fit and the quality of what you buy.
Benefits of Traditional Paddle Fins for Snorkeling
Paddle fins do work great. We have used them for years, in a variety of conditions. Generally speaking, the benefit of a good pair of paddle fins is that you have a lot of quick thrust available (fast accelerating speed), and you have good control and maneuverability when you are in close or are trying to carefully move around coral. You can also use a variety of kicking strokes with a paddle fin. But paddle fins are not considered as efficient or as fast over a longer swim as split fins.
With a paddle fin, you get your power from long, slow, powerful strokes of your legs. And if you are used to this style of swimming, and try to use that method with a split fin, you will think they don't work. Good split fins work great, but you have to kick differently with them.
Benefits of Split Fins
The theory behind split fins (fairly well proven through testing and user reports), is that the design of the split fin directs the water force more directly behind the fin than a paddle fin. This propels you forward easier for the amount of energy you put out. So for longer swims, you will save energy with a split fin, and if used correctly, will be able to swim faster.
Your leg stroke with a split fin is very different. Instead of long forceful strokes, you make much smaller, easier, and more rapid kicks in a split fin (sometimes called a flutter kick). You feel less resistance with this type of stroke, through the water, and through your fins.
The things folks don't like about split fins is that they don't provide as much feedback, because you don't push against the water as hard with them, and they are considered to be less precise for control of movement and position in the water. They are not supposed to be as good for back paddling, frog kicking, turning, etc. They are better for moving forward. But we have had no problems with them.
Quality is very important with split fins. If money is an issue, we would buy cheap paddle fins before we bought cheap split fins. Split fins are more of a technology that has to be done right. Paddle fins are more basic in terms of technology.
Finally, don't choose a split fin over a paddle fin if it is not a perfect fit and comfortable. That is most important.
You may be enticed by luggage space-saving travel fins, like the ones at right. This type of snorkeling fins are generally short, wider and open foot. We don't recommend them. They lack the power and swimming speed that you need if you get in a current (which you will), and they are less efficient so you will use much more energy while snorkeling. And because they are wider they tend to bang into each other when you kick. The little bit of space savings in your luggage is not worth the loss of swimming speed and efficiency in our minds.
We recommend closed foot split fins, of which there are two major options right now. Nicole currently uses the Oceanic Vortex V-6 Full Foot Split Fins. They are light weight, slightly stiffer, with quick thrust and she loves them. Galen uses a previous version of the TUSA X-Pert Evolution Full-Foot Split Fins, which have been discontinued. Before Nicole got split fins she could not keep up with Galen, but that is no longer a problem.
The second available option right now is the Atomic Aquatics Full Foot Split Fins. They are not quite as light weight as the Oceanic fins, but still travel-friendly and quick in the water.
And some of our favorite cheap and comfortable paddle fins for traveling are the classic U.S. Divers Sea Lion Fins pictured at right (we used them for years - they are very portable). Read the user reviews on Amazon if you buy these fins to get the right size.
And if you are buying more than just your fins, try to buy it all in a snorkel set and you are sure to save some money.
Make sure they fit correctly. You want them to be a bit snug, but not too tight. As your feet cool in the water they will shrink a little. So your fins will get looser in the water than when dry and slip more. So a little tighter fit is better than loose. Nothing is more irritating than snorkeling fins that slip off when you are trying to kick hard.
Also make sure there are no hard spots that dig in when you flex your foot back and forth. These often happen at the sides where hard plastic parts meet the rubber of the foot box. The foot area will stretch a little, but not at those spots.
If you are going to buy open foot snorkeling fins, make sure and get your boots first, and try your fins on with them. And make sure your boots are very comfortable and will not rub raw spots when you kick in them for an hour.