With the sheer variety of fins on the market these days, new (and even experienced!) snorkelers can be confused about what choice they should make. Perhaps the most obvious difference among fins is whether they have a closed foot pocket like a slip-on shoe or an open pocket with a strap that goes over your heel. Why do fins come in these two types? And which kind is best for your next snorkeling trip? Let’s take a closer look at the differences between open-heel vs. full-foot fins!
The key difference between open-heel vs. full-foot fins is that open-heel fins are typically worn with a thick-soled dive boot (bootie), while full-foot fins can be worn barefoot. That makes open-heel fins better for SCUBA and cold-water activity. Most casual snorkelers will be better off with a full-foot fin, but there are, of course, exceptions to this general rule!
Open-heel vs. full-foot fins: Major Differences
As a general rule, full-foot fins are best for warm-water activity while open-heel fins are best for cold water activity. That’s because typically, you’ll be wearing open-heel fins with dive boots, which insulate your feet. In contrast, you wear full-foot fins barefoot.
Most casual snorkelers will be swimming in warm, tropical water, making full-foot pockets the better choice. If you’ll be snorkeling in cooler water, however, then open-heels fin plus a pair of dive boots might be a better choice.
Tip: As a rough guide, you’ll want to use dive boots (3-5 mm neoprene) for water temperatures below about 60°F (15°C). Keep air temperature, wind speed, and your personal sensitivity to the cold in mind as well!
Dive boots and fin socks
Open-heel fins work better with booties (dive boots). SCUBA divers need booties for walking while wearing their gear out of the water and for insulation in colder water. Will you need to walk over any rough or rocky terrain to get to your snorkeling site? If yes, then you’ll be better off with a pair of booties and open-heel fins!
For full-foot fins, you can wear a thin neoprene fin sock instead of going barefoot if you wish. Not only does the thin neoprene (1-2 mm) add some insulation, but it will also protect your feet from blisters or chafing and give you a snugger fit. Personally, I always wear fin socks with my full-foot fins just for the comfort factor.
Tip: Be careful not to over-tighten the straps of your open-heel fins. They should just be snug enough to keep your fins from falling off. This way, you’ll avoid uncomfortable pressure points or blocked circulation. You’ll also be able to pull the straps over your heel to don and doff the fins, rather than unbuckling and re-adjusting the straps each time.
SCUBA vs. snorkeling
Generally speaking, SCUBA fins are longer, stiffer and bulkier than snorkeling fins. This is because longer fins can move more water with each kick and so have better thrust efficiency. The extra oomph from these fins allows divers to have precise control of their movements in deep water (and even strong currents) while carrying heavy equipment. The heavier weight of SCUBA fins also ensures the diver can stay in the proper horizontal position (trimming) without their feet rising up from excess buoyancy.
Because SCUBA divers do most of their activity at depths far greater than the average snorkeler, they also need the insulation from dive boots. Deeper water is colder than surface water! SCUBA divers also need booties for walking while wearing their gear out of the water. Some dive sites can only be accessed by walking over rough or rocky beaches first. All of this means that most SCUBA fins are open-heel.
Related Post: Snorkeling Fins Vs. SCUBA Fins, What’s the Difference?
Longer, heavier fins are great for propelling you in deep water with weights and a tank strapped to you. But that extra bulk means your legs have to work harder. As a result, SCUBA fins tend to be cumbersome and inefficient for snorkeling. This is especially true if you’re inexperienced and/or have a weak kick.
But what if you want to use your fins for both snorkeling and SCUBA?
Open-heel fins are a good choice if you want some versatile fins that you could also use for SCUBA activity. Something longer and stiffer than a fin designed for snorkeling, but not too long or too stiff! Especially if you’re diving in shallower, tropical water without much current, you’ll be able to travel with just one set of versatile fins.
For some recommendations on both full-foot and open-heel fins that fit this “Goldilocks” description, check out my article on snorkeling fins for beginners.
Open-heel vs. full-foot fins: How to choose?
Advantages of open-heel vs. full-foot fins
As you may have gathered already, the main advantage of open-heel fins is that you can wear them with thick, soled boots. That makes them the ideal choice for cold-water activity, SCUBA, and any sites that require walking on land to reach. Some folks also prefer open-heel fins because the strap adjustment allows you to get a more precise fit. This feature is especially useful for SCUBA divers because the dive boot will compress at depth. Some fins have spring straps, which can automatically compensate for this compression.
Many of the advantages of full-foot fins, in contrast, are due to their simplicity. Simply slide them over your feet. No messing with straps and buckles required! Full-foot fins also tend to weigh less so they’re easier on your legs (and your luggage!) Plus, you can wear full-foot fins barefoot or with some thin fin socks, so you don’t need to bring a bulky pair of booties with you on your trip. That makes them a more affordable and less complicated option for beginner snorkelers. They are also more efficient because more energy from your kick will be transferred from your leg to the blade via the full-foot pocket.
- Can wear with soled boots
- Easier to get a perfect fit
- Less buoyant
- Better for cold water
- Can accommodate spring straps
- Simple to use
- Better energy transfer from foot to blade
- More affordable
- Better for warm water
Disadvantages of open-heel vs. full-foot fins
The biggest drawback of open-heel fins is that they tend to be more expensive. The bulk, buckle, and strap add to the fin’s production costs. The buckle and strap can also be prone to wear and tear over time, especially plastic snap buckles. You can reduce the chances of your buckle breaking by sliding the strap over your heel to take the fin on and off, rather than undoing the buckle each time. Spring straps make this considerably easier. Because open-heel fins are heavier and bulkier, they’re also more of a pain to travel with (not to mention needing to take boots with you too!)
Full-foot fins, though lighter, are also more buoyant as a result. If you want to use your fins for SCUBA activity, the lightness may make it difficult to balance your body’s buoyancy. Likewise, they won’t be able to accommodate for compression on your boot or sock at depth. Generally, full-foot fins are best for tropical water and boat entries. Any sites that require walking over rough terrain will require soled boots. Thin socks will be fine on a sandy beach, however.
- More expensive
- Buckles/straps can wear out over time
- Straps require more fiddling
- Can’t be worn barefoot
- Harder to insulate
- Limited by available foot size
- More buoyant
- Can’t compensate for depth compression
- Can’t wear with soled boots
Have you decided which kind of fins you’ll get? Let me know in the comments what the deciding factor was for you!
More posts about fins!
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