Your snorkeling mask is the most important piece of snorkel equipment to fit and buy correctly. If your mask is leaky, too tight, or painful in any way, you will not have a good time, and it may even be dangerous.
And believe us, not every mask is good. We have had a variety, and a high quality mask makes life a pleasure in the water. Better masks also last much longer because they are made of more durable materials.
To Be Water Tight It Has To Fit Right
Your snorkeling mask fits over your nose and makes an air tight seal under your nose, around your forehead, and on the sides of your face. If your mask is too wide or tall for your face it will not seal properly.
Below you will learn about all the different types of masks. There are a lot of options. But, don't get too attached to the appearence or features of a mask. Focus mostly on it fitting perfectly (we teach you how to fit your mask on the next page).
This is probably the most important part of your snorkeling mask because it is what makes the seal around your face. This is the soft flexible material that goes all the way around the mask.
Very inexpensive masks have skirts that are often made out of plastic (old ones were made of neoprene). The plastic skirts are less flexible, form a poor seal on your face, and don't last very long.
What you must get is a mask with a skirt made out of silicone. Silicone is a far more durable material, forms a better seal on your face, has more stretch, and if taken care of can easily last ten years or more. Most every mask sold by a diving/snorkeling store is now made from silicone, but if you are buying in a department store (Walmart or Kmart), make sure the package says it is made of silicone, because they still commonly carry plastic ones.
There are some companies advertising different types of silicones in their mask skirts, some of the brand names being "Liquid Silicone", "Crystal Silicone", and others. There may be some small advantage in these but probably not much.
The majority of silicone snorkeling mask skirts are going to be clear. But you can also get them in black. The purpose of the black skirt is mostly for photographers who don't want stray light coming in the sides of their mask, making it harder to see their camera viewfinder or screen. But a black mask has a more claustrophobic feel to it in general, and it tends to reduce peripheral vision a bit. Even though we both take tons of pictures underwater, we still prefer to use a mask with a clear silicone mask skirt.
A good quality snorkeling mask will have its lens/lenses made out of high quality impact resistant glass, not plastic.
How many lenses your snorkeling mask has affects several things. Most importantly it may affect the fit. Less importantly it will affect peripheral vision, unobstructed vision, and how much volume of air is inside the mask (volume described below).
The classic snorkeling mask has one big lens and your nose is inside. This is a very high volume and generally poor sealing mask.
One Lens Mask
The more common single lens mask has a nose pocket and allows unobstructed views forward. One issue with these masks is that they tend to have less room for your nose bridge. So you may need a split mask to keep the mask from pressing on your nose, particularly once there is a little water pressure pushing the mask in.
Split/Two Lens Mask
A split front window will generally allow more room for a bigger nose bridge, and will be lower volume (less air in the mask). And although you might think you will notice the divider in the middle, your mind will quickly ignore it.
Three/Four Lens Mask
The next option is to add side windows. These allow better peripheral vision and more light, providing a less claustrophobic feel. Don't expect to be able to focus out these windows. Instead they just allow you to see motion in a more natural way (you will not have to crank your head around as much to find your partner). Adding the side windows does increase the mask's air volume.
Finally there is the frameless mask that gets rid of the stiff plastic frame and instead glues the silicone skirt directly to the single front lens. These are very lightweight and low volume masks that tend to be much more flexible. They can be very nice if you get a good fit.
So what does the volume of the mask have to do with a snorkeler? A high volume mask is farther away from your face, has more air inside, and has more buoyancy. Really there is nothing good about high volume and low volume is better. A low volume mask has less trouble sealing (less leverage and buoyancy trying to pry it off). And a low volume mask is easier to purge water from. But the trade off is that generally you have less visibility in a low volume mask. If you freedive a lot you may notice that a low volume mask creates less pressure that you have to equalize as you go down.
A purge valve is just a little flap valve in the bottom of the nose pocket. It allows you to hold your mask to your face and blow out lightly from your nose to purge your mask of any water that has entered. This allows you to get the water out without breaking your mask to face seal.
But we have found that although they work great, we have no problem doing the same thing without the purge. We just hold the top of the mask, blow out, and the water goes out the bottom of the skirt and it reseals just fine. Sometimes the purge valve flaps get damaged, which means you have to carry extra ones, which is why we prefer to have a mask without a purge. It is just simpler.
For a completely different option, you could try one of the new full face snorkeling masks. They combine mask and snorkel into one unit. We talk about the best brands and the pros and cons of this type of mask on this page.
One consideration when buying a mask if you wear glasses is that you may need to make sure you can get prescription lenses for it, unless you wear contact lenses. Generally you will have to go with a two lens (front) mask for this. Every new mask should be marked as to whether you can get a prescription lens for it or not. We go into all your options for a prescription snorkel mask here.