How to snorkel the easy, cheap way

how to snorkel the easy, cheap way

Last Updated on May 27, 2023 by Ellen

Although it’s extremely enjoyable, snorkeling can be challenging, exhausting, even life-threatening without a flotation device. But boating life jackets are cumbersome, ill-fitting, and not designed to enhance the snorkeling experience. This will show you how to snorkel the easy way.

Read on to learn the easiest and most effective budget travel snorkeling tips and hacks we’d like to share with you after our real-world experiences over many years.

How to snorkel the easy way

On a recent trip to Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines, I spent the better part of several days snorkeling with the estimated 2.5 million sardines that permanently reside there. Many other tourists also enjoyed the same thrill during that time.

On at least three different occasions, as I peacefully floated atop the gigantic sardine school, I was kicked by some fellow snorkelers who obviously had difficulty while in the water. Thankfully the blows were little more than an annoyance. But I did notice that each of the distressed, kicking snorkelers were in the water without any flotation device. They were simply swimming – and struggling – while wearing only a snorkel mask and breathing tube.

Newsflash: swimming is tiring. Spending any more than about 10 minutes in deep water will leave most people exhausted — and sometimes panicked, gasping, thrashing – and kicking other snorkelers. Snorkeling done wrong can even lead to death!

Vacationers struggle to get into the proper snorkeling position at Banco Chinchorro, Mexico.

I certainly understand why people snorkel without the life vest that is usually offered by a tour or rental company. Life vests are designed to keep a human upright — perpendicular to the surface of any body of water, with the head safely above the water.  

In contrast, snorkeling is best done when parallel with the water surface — floating on top, face down, with one’s head half-submerged. Wearing a life vest while snorkeling often results in an ongoing, uncomfortable scuffle that greatly detracts from the experience of snorkeling.

Here is the solution: one of my very favorite travel hacks that I have used for more than two decades!

how to snorkel the easy way -- use a child's flotation donut
Tedly demonstrates where to place the child’s flotation toy for optimal comfort and safety while snorkeling.

Yes, that is a small, plastic, inflatable, child’s pool toy. It is also a godsend when trying to observe and enjoy the undersea bounty that blesses our beautiful planet.

Believe it or not, that tiny toy (and only half-filled with air) provides more than enough buoyancy for any adult human to engage in hours of comfortable, amazing, struggle-free snorkeling.

Trust me. I’ve tried the life vests. Occasionally still, I will be on a paid snorkeling tour where a life vest is REQUIRED to participate.

In those cases, I will enter the water wearing the required vest. Then a few minutes later, after swimming a hundred feet or so from the boat and crew, I will casually slip out of the vest, reverse it, and submerge it in front of me, using it like a cradle for my torso and thereby assuring I float face down in the water without any effort. Easy. No tour guide has ever noticed my trickery.

Time for the warning / disclaimer: If you are not a good and confident swimmer, stop reading here and swear to NEVER snorkel without wearing a life jacket.  

And even if you are an excellent swimmer, only use my budget travel snorkeling tips and hacks under ideal conditions: in calm waters, with a partner, in close proximity to a boat, beach, or shore, in places without dangerous currents or winds or watercraft traffic.

how to snorkel the easy way -- a woman heads into calm seas with a floatie toy half-filled with air
Ellen heads out to snorkel with a floatie in the calm waters at Caye Caulker, Belize.

My snorkel hack, pool toy donut works just like the ‘life vest cradle’. But the first time I tried snorkeling with a pool toy for flotation, it was difficult. I remember being unable to keep the inflated plastic donut beneath me.  Every few seconds, the donut would slide to the side and pop up to the surface – dunking me as I grabbed at it.

The solution: less air.

a floatie is half-filled with air
Less air in the floatie actually works better for snorkeling.

As surprising as it seems, about two liters (by volume) of air is all that is required to keep a 175 pound human floating atop the water under calm conditions. Even my small green pool toy holds way more air than two liters.

Through trial and error, it is easily possible to find exactly the right amount of air to provide the necessary flotation for your body weight while keeping the donut securely controlled and submerged.

As a test, I decided to try floating on a one gallon Ziplock freezer bag filled with air. As I mentioned, a gallon was more than necessary.  In the end, I settled on about half of the Ziplock bag of air. I easily snorkeled around at a beach in the Bohol Sea, Philippines, for over 30 minutes using the half-filled Ziplock bag.

Tedly demonstrates the amount of air needed to keep him afloat.

Time for another warning / disclaimer: NEVER use a ziplock bag of air as a flotation device. My experiment was only a test – and conducted in shallow, calm waters, with a snorkel partner.

When using the pool toy donut, I fill it about half-way with air, then force it under my belly in the water. I use my hands to adjust it and arrange it under my lower abdomen. When it is properly placed, my crotch and legs contain the bottom edge of it and the top edge extends up to around my belly button.  

Because the pool toy donut is always trying to rise to the surface, it ends up being plastered against my abdomen. It doesn’t move or need holding. My hands are free for swimming/paddling.  

Again, a little trial and error and air adjustment should enable anyone to find a comfortable and stable fit.  

Tip: if the donut pops to the surface or seems very unstable — reduce the amount of air and try again.

With some patience and tinkering, anyone can find the right balance of air fill versus submersion. This is best and most easily done in shallow water – like three feet – or even in a swimming pool.

When you feel some stability and confidence floating atop the small ‘air pillow’, spend time practicing in the shallow water. You will likely make more minor adjustments. But in a short amount of time you’ll become adept at proper inflation and abdomen placement in any location.

For the record, both myself and my wife have snorkeled all over the planet using this method. We actually carry two inflatable donuts with our masks and snorkel tubes as we travel (we don’t need or use bulky foot fins). The donuts are easily deflated and take up very little space or weight.

how to snorkel - the floatie folds up to practically nothing
A deflated floatie does not take up much space.

Further, they are available at any beach worldwide for just a couple bucks if they were ever punctured or lost.

We’ve also shown other travelers these budget travel snorkel tips and seen them succeed almost immediately.

Tip: the smallest, cheapest donut available should be sufficient. There’s no need for anything that holds more air.

As continuous world travelers in early retirement, we are always looking for cheap, easy, effective hacks and tricks that make our lifestyle easier and more enjoyable. Using these cheap, common, small, plastic, inflatable, pool toys for snorkeling is one of our best budget travel snorkel tips and hacks that anyone could make use of.

As always, give thanks for your blessings, happy trails, and more beer.
Life is now!

How to snorkel the easy way
File photo of Earth Vagabonds snorkeling in Mahahual, Mexico, in 2016.

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1 thought on “How to snorkel the easy, cheap way”

  1. When you said that snorkeling is best done parallel to the water’s surface by floating on top, face down, with one’s head partially submerged, that really helped. Snorkeling while wearing a life vest frequently leads to a continuing, painful skirmish that significantly reduces the enjoyment of snorkeling. When I locate and plan a vacation, I’ll keep it in mind to make the most of it possible. I simply want this vacation to be fantastic because it is for my birthday and because I will be checking this item off of my bucket list.

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