So you’re looking to fit in some snorkeling on your next vacation (lucky you!) and you’re doing some gear shopping. Snorkeling, due to its accessibility, is a sport that has rapidly grown in popularity over the last couple of decades. While that’s great, it also means there’s a dizzying variety of equipment to choose from. Fins, in particular, come in all kinds of different styles. Some fins are very short, only adding a few inches to your feet, while others are nearly a meter long! So how do you decide whether to choose short or long fins for snorkeling?
First off, let’s define what we mean by “short” or “long” fins. I distinguish this based on what activity the fins are used for. So, a “short” fin is under 25 inches, as these are mostly designed for snorkeling and swim training. Conversely, a “long” fin is over 25 inches, as these are mostly designed for SCUBA diving. The very long fins you may have seen that are 40 inches plus are used near exclusively by freedivers and spearfishers. If you’re curious, you can learn more about freediving fins with this great guide from Deeper Blue.
Before I get into the details of whether short or long fins are better for snorkeling, let’s get one misconception out of the way first:
Do you need fins for snorkeling?
The short answer is yes, you need fins to be both safe and comfortable while snorkeling.
The surface area of the fin means you can exert more force on the water with each kick. That means you can swim for extended periods without over-exerting yourself. You will also be able to swim against waves and currents with far less effort.
For most of your snorkeling session, you should be relaxed and floating. But when necessary, your fins will keep you from being tossed and buffeted by stray waves. They will also allow you to safely maneuver over and around coral, rock formations, and other sea life.
Whether you use short or long fins, they will allow you to be deliberate and precise about your movement and position in open water environments.
There is no good reason not to use them. These days, there are plenty of short fins on the market that can easily fit in even a small roll-aboard suitcase.
Related Post: 5 Reasons To Wear Fins While Snorkeling
Short or long fins: What’s the difference? (besides the length!)
When deciding between short or long fins, the key difference is thrust. Longer fins generate more thrust (and therefore more speed). However, longer fins also require more power (a strong kick) to use effectively. This is also because longer blades tend to be stiffer. On the flip side, shorter fins are easier to maneuver in.
Thrust, power, and speed
Thrust is the force that propels you forward in response to the backwards force of your kicks. The more power you generate with your kicks, the greater your thrust. More thrust means greater acceleration and speed.
Now, it’s possible to generate the same thrust with either long or short fins, but longer fins are more efficient at doing so. Simply put, longer fins can move more water with each kick.
However, moving more water with each kick also means you need more power from your legs. If your kick is weak or your kicking technique is incorrect, then you won’t get the benefits of the long fin’s thrust efficiency.
Related Post: How Do Swim Fins Work? (The Physics of Finning!)
Because long fins have better thrust efficiency, that means even small kicks have the potential to create a lot of forward movement. To move finely and precisely with long fins takes a lot of practice using a variety of techniques beyond the simple flutter kick.
For example, SCUBA divers tend to use long fins to give them the thrust they need while wearing heavy equipment. For fine and precise movements, SCUBA divers learn alternative finning techniques such as the frog kick, helicopter kick, and reverse kick.
So, a long fin can be just as maneuverable as a short fin, provided you have mastered the right techniques! New snorkelers and divers, however, will find it much easier to maneuver in short fins.
Stiffness or flexibility
Both long and short fins can have varying degrees of stiffness, but generally speaking, long fins are stiffer than short fins.
All fins must hit a “sweet spot” between too stiff and too flexible. Too stiff and the fin will take too much energy to move and won’t “scoop” and “snap” the water effectively. Too flexible and there will be very little thrust.
Where that sweet spot is depends, in part, on the length of the blade. Because long fins need to move more water, they experience greater resistance from that water. A stiffer blade can handle that resistance without bending overmuch. However, the same stiffness on a short blade would be inefficient. Conversely, the ideal flexibility for a short blade would make a long blade too floppy to be effective.
Short fins are best for most snorkelers
Easier to kick and less fatigue
The main reason shorter fins are better for snorkeling is that they’re easier on your leg muscles. You don’t need as much power with each stroke, and each stroke will be shorter relative to using longer fins.
Even though short fins generate less thrust, speed shouldn’t be a top priority for most snorkelers. You`ll be chilling at the surface most of the time, not swimming long distances through strong currents.
Easy to practice with in a pool
Many casual snorkelers will be accustomed to a swimming flutter kick, which requires short and fast strokes. That means kicking with a short fin will feel more familiar, and thus easier to get used to.
In fact, short fins are a great way to train your legs for the flutter kick and are routinely used by swimmers for this purpose.
I highly advise practicing with your new fins in a pool prior to using them in open water. Not only will your leg muscles become accustomed to them, but you’ll be able to maneuver in them more intuitively. Not having to think so much about how to move your legs means you can focus more at looking at all the cool sea life around you!
The key to kicking with fins properly is to move your legs at the hip. Your knee should bend only slightly on the down stroke. Focus on keeping your movements slow and smooth, and your ankles flexed. If you’re kicking properly, you’ll notice that you need to do very little with your arms, which you should keep at your sides or gently clasped in front of you.
Less likely to accidentally kick coral, sea life, and other snorkelers
If you’re not used to wearing a fin, thinking of your feet as taking up several times more space than they usually do is tricky! Beginners can be clumsy with their feet while learning to kick. Short fins are also easier to maneuver in. That means a short fin will decrease your chances of kicking coral, wildlife, and even your fellow snorkelers!
When entering the water from shore (rather than from a boat), short fins are also easier to walk in. Be sure to shuffle gently backwards into the water to avoid looking like a member from the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Easier to travel with
These days, traveling by air is much more of a hassle than it used to be. Many airlines now have increased restrictions on baggage size and weight. Short fins are much easier to travel with as a result.
In fact, there are some snorkeling fins out there that have been specifically designed for traveling. These fins are very short (15-20 inches), even shorter than the average snorkeling fin. In my article on snorkeling fins for beginners, there’s a section where I review some of these very short fins for anyone interested in buying a pair.
When to consider a longer fin
Only experienced snorkelers who also want to do some SCUBA diving or freediving on their trip should consider a longer fin. If you’re looking for something more versatile, then you’ll want what I call a “Goldilocks” fin. Something longer and stiffer than a fin designed for snorkeling, but not too long or too stiff! There are plenty of more flexible SCUBA fins out there that are great for beginner divers, but that can also be used for snorkeling (I recommend a few in my article on beginner fins).
I’m currently doing some research for a future article on good fins for beginner freedivers as well, so keep on eye on my blog if you’re interested in that!
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