We spent 30 hours subjecting 11 sets of snorkel gear to chlorine, mud, sand, salt, pounding waves, and sweeping currents in Charleston and Folly Beach, South Carolina, and at Florida’s beautiful Ichetucknee Springs State Park. After the silt settled, we decided that the Cressi Palau Short Fin Set is the best snorkel set for bigger kids and adults who want to snorkel in a variety of settings, including cruise ship excursions, island getaways, ocean resorts, crystalline freshwater springs, and meandering rivers.
Our top pick for most novice snorkelers is the Cressi Palau Short Fin Set. With a simple but solid mask that’s proven itself over the last two decades, a highly functional snorkel, and a short but robust set of travel-friendly fins, Cressi’s snorkel set will propel you forward without risking equipment failure.
The Onda mask that comes in the set doesn’t offer a panoramic view or a plethora of features like some of the other masks we tested, but it’s a solid, simple, and robust option. The mask’s soft, double-gasketed, clear silicone skirt didn’t leak during testing, either. The Supernova “dry” snorkel kept water out of the breathing tube remarkably well during our exploratory free dives to the seafloor, and stayed sealed amid ocean chop and waves. And the Rondine fins were simple but functional, designed to be stiff and strong with robust attachment points between the comfortable strap and the fin itself. Their small size made them easy to travel with, and we really liked this set’s tough storage bag. (The fins come in a longer version, too, which can be found in the Cressi Palau Long Fin Set. The longer fins are a bit less travel-friendly, but they may be better if you need more propulsion.)
If our top pick is sold out, this US Divers set is a great backup option. Its mask features an angled, tempered-glass lens with exceptional peripheral visibility and negligible visual distortion. The face skirt’s glare-free black silicone materials are surprisingly pliable, and the purge valve at the nose makes expelling water an easy afterthought. The hinged fins have big thumb rings that make them easy to slip on and adjust on the fly, and they offer solid propulsion. We also liked the unique GoPro mount at the snorkel’s base, which gave us an unobtrusive and bubble-free shooting platform.
When you get into the under-$40 price range for a snorkel set, things can get weird. The silicone in the face mask skirts gets uncomfortably hard, the plastic in fins gets unreliably cheap and bulky mouthpieces on the snorkels cause unacceptable mouth fatigue. However, we found that the Innovative Scuba Concepts Reef Snorkel Set still gave us the basic features we needed in a snorkel set at a low price, surpassing all of its budget competitors. Innovative’s set includes a comfortable and easily adjustable black silicone mask with no purge valve. The comfortable and high-volume snorkel lacks a “dry” valve at the top, but it does offer an effective splash guard and purge valve at the base. The fins were easily adjustable and offered ample thrust for a wide range of foot sizes, too.
This set certainly isn’t cheap, but it is amazing. The Subea mask was conceived by French sporting goods giant Decathlon with the basic idea of making snorkeling as fun and easy as possible, offering true 180-degree views. The mask, released in 2014, goes over your whole face, sealing off your nose and mouth and allowing you to breathe through both. You can even talk underwater while wearing this mask—provided your intended listener is close enough to hear you. The snorkel and breathing apparatus allow for a unique air-circulation system that prevents fogging and seals tightly against intruding waves. The fins are basic but comfortable, too. With a shoe-style construction, they come in multiple sizes and provide ample thrust.
Why you should trust us
For this guide, we spent more than 10 hours researching and more than 20 hours testing many different snorkel sets. I interviewed Aric Branchfield, a Pennsylvania-based dive instructor who, at the time of our conversation, had just completed a week of scuba diving along the bottom of the impossibly murky, boat-filled rivers of Charleston on a hunt for megalodon teeth and pre-Civil War artifacts. (He found both.) I also spent over an hour at Charleston Scuba, where divemaster Jordan Schneider discussed the high points of a good snorkeling setup. After we made our picks, I emailed with Baptiste Savary, digital manager at Subea; Mike Tobin, engineer at Cressi; and Melissa Rodgers, communications director at US Divers.
As for me, I live on the water in Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve snorkeled recreationally for over 30 years, and I recently completed my PADI open-water scuba diving coursework.
My writing has also appeared in Outside, Men’s Journal, and Garden & Gun magazines. I’m the author of Ghost Wave and a co-author of Taschen’s Surfing: 1778–Today, and I’m working on an ocean-handbook project forthcoming from Chronicle Books in 2018. My reporting on topics ranging from national news to science and travel also appears frequently in The New York Times (parent company of The Wirecutter and The Sweethome).
Who should get this
This guide is meant for people who want to observe nature underwater without holding their breath. Typically, snorkel sets include a mask for seeing underwater; a set of fins, which give you vastly increased propulsion; and a snorkel, so you can breathe without having to lift your head out of the water. Of course, regular swim goggles will also allow you to see things underwater—just like a snorkel mask would—but if you plan to do more observing than swimming, a snorkel set will allow for a more enjoyable experience overall.
For this guide, we focused on bigger kids and adults who want to snorkel recreationally in clear-watered oceans, rivers, lakes, or pools. Of course, many resorts will provide snorkel gear for free or for rent, but as Schneider pointed out: “Your mask, snorkel, fins and booties. That should be your stuff, fitted to you. You don’t go down to the Caribbean and rent someone else’s sneakers do you?”
You can buy the individual components in each of these sets individually, of course. But for this guide, we made our choices based on the overall quality of the combined components in each set, especially given the lower price and convenience you get from buying it all in one go.
Though the gear we’re reviewing here—particularly the masks and snorkels—may function in other underwater settings, these sets are recommended for snorkeling or recreational swimming only, not for freediving, spearfishing, or scuba. Why? In freediving or spearfishing environments, divers typically use low-profile masks that allow them to equalize and prevent “mask squeeze” at depth using little valuable air from the lungs. The masks we recommend here won’t do that. Plus, most freedivers and scuba divers use stiff, high-propulsion fins when they dive. None of the fins we recommend will offer the level of thrust needed to propel copious gear through the water.
How we picked
Our finalists, bagged up and ready to dive. From left to right: US Divers, Innovative Scuba, Subea, and Cressi.
I spent 10 hours submerged in snorkel research on Amazon, LeisurePro, SwimmersOutlet and DiversSupply. I looked at known and unknown brands, reading hundreds of reviews and talking to experts along the way. Based on my conversations with experts, long hours of online research, and my personal experience snorkeling above reefs from Key West to Eleuthera to Cozumel, I established that a good snorkel set includes the following qualities:
Mask materials and fit: A good mask should be made with tempered, high-strength glass lenses. Bonus points are tacked on if the lens features angled glass at the edges for panoramic or even peripheral visibility. Glare-reducing or contrast-enhancing tints drive up the price and aren’t really necessary for recreational snorkeling.
Good masks also tend to have wide, easily adjustable straps that split to spread comfortably across the back of your head. It’s best if the strap attaches to the frame of the mask itself, as opposed to the silicone of the face skirt. Finally, the strap should be built with a ratcheting design, which allows for easy adjustment.
During testing, we found that our favorite masks had face skirts that were soft and pliable with both inner- and outer-edge gaskets, to keep the mask watertight on a variety of face shapes. A good mask should also offer even, comfortable pressure all the way around the face—particularly around the nose. (Pro tip: The nose pocket should make it easy to squeeze your nose to equalize the pressure in your ears. To test fit, get your hair out of the way and press the mask to your face and inhale lightly through your nose. The mask should hug your face for several seconds with no leaks.)
Fin materials and fit: Good fins have comfortable heel straps and foot pockets with a wide range of adjustability. The straps should also have a ratcheting system with a wide section at the heel, to spread pressure, and a heel loop is great for easy entry and exit. Loops at the end of each strap (for “on the fly” adjustments) are a bonus. Good fins should also have a balance of flex and rigidity in the water, feeling firm on the down “power” stroke, and flexible on the upstroke. Generally, we found that a length between 17 and 24 inches is good for traveling snorkelers of any height.
Snorkel materials and fit: Snorkeling should be a calm, low-intensity pursuit, but a good snorkel should still have high air volume and offer little to no restriction during heavy breathing. Our favorite snorkels were designed with a splash guard up top (to prevent water entry), and a locking dry valve (to keep the snorkel water-free if you dive or submerge beneath a wave). Good snorkels should also have a replaceable silicone purge valve, which makes it easy to expel any water that may have collected at the base of the snorkel. The mouthpiece is also important—it shouldn’t cause jaw fatigue, even if you’re in the water for extended periods of time.
Gear bags: Every snorkel set comes with a gear bag, and the best ones feature a mesh portion (or at the very least, a drain plug) to facilitate freshwater rinse and draining. Ideally, the gear bag should be substantial enough to double as a carry-on bag, too.
Price: We considered snorkel sets for beginners, priced at approximately $40 to $100. According to our readers, a $70 snorkel set was considered to be higher end for recreational use. We found that anything below $40 wasn’t worth buying.
Based on these criteria, we narrowed our choices to 11 models for testing.
How and where we tested
Cressi’s purge valve in action.
First, my wife, kids, and I unpacked the snorkel sets and made notes. Nothing appeared to be damaged out of the box. All the fins came with inserts to prevent deformation when squished in a bag. (We recommend keeping these inserts in your fins when they’re not in use, to maintain their shape.) The gear bags ranged from simple, rinsable pull-string mesh bags to engineered, sewn fabric units with bike-messenger-style straps. Sets from Cressi and US Divers came with basic instructional rundowns in legible English.
Unlike swim goggles, snorkel sets have plenty of potential failure points. The most common complaints among online reviews include snapped straps where the snorkel connects to the mask, or where the mask connects to the head strap, or where the fin meets the foot. So before water testing, we yanked and twisted straps, and flexed the fins and snorkel clips hard, subjecting them to the outer limits of what they’d likely endure.
Then, we spent two days swimming in a pool in Charleston, South Carolina, with all 11 sets. Along with a few friends, I kicked as hard as I could in the fins, diving repeatedly with the masks and chilling at the deep end to see how well the masks allowed for pressure equalization with a squeeze of the nose. We also tested how well the valved masks purged air and water. With the snorkels, we dove to see if the “dry” models really worked as advertised and even swam alongside one another, splashing the snorkels with gusto in an attempt to sneak water past the splash guards. This narrowed the list pretty quickly.
With our top five picks in hand, we loaded up the kids and drove to Ichetucknee Springs State Park in Florida. We rented a big inflatable raft and three inner tubes to hold our diving gear and food. Then, we floated. At 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, the spring-fed Ichetucknee is not necessarily frigid—but it’s bracing enough that a long submersion will leave you shivering. In contrast with the steamy air, this colder water provided a great test for the masks’ antifog properties.
The Cressi Palau Short Fin Set hard at work amid the steady current of Florida’s Ichetucknee River.
We floated down the river for seven hours, regularly tying off to stop and test our gear. We rated fins on their propulsion amid stronger currents and their ability to withstand the grasp of eelgrass and mud. We dove deep when a sand-bottomed spring revealed itself and marveled at herons, egrets, bass, sunfish, schools of mullet, and huge turtles. It was a beautiful day.
After returning to Charleston that week, my last step was ocean testing. I took our final picks to Folly Beach in South Carolina and swam downshore in the surf zone, letting the waves pound my mask and snorkel.
The waves at Folly Beach, South Carolina, provided a good spot to test the durability of fins and straps and the splash guards and dry valves of our snorkel sets.
I also bodysurfed with the fins—even though they’re not necessarily designed for it—thrusting them off the sandy seafloor. And I ventured fairly far offshore on a day when chop and current created the rolling, snorkel-defeating conditions you might find at an open-water spot off Eleuthera, or the windward side of Oahu.
Our pick: Cressi Palau Short Fin Set
From toughness to comfort to fit, finish, and price, there’s plenty to like about the Cressi Palau Short Fin Set. If treated well, this set could last for years, and it’s unlikely to fail when you come face to face with your first dolphin (or barracuda).
The Cressi Palau snorkel set comes in a fitted nylon bag with a clear front window and single shoulder strap, bound together with tightly sewn seams. The bag is just the right size for all your snorkel gear, plus an apple, a small bottle of water, some sunscreen, a bottle of antifog compound, and a digital camera. Lacking mesh construction, this gear bag isn’t meant for in-bag rinsing, but it has a brass drain hole at the base, which means you can still load your gear even when it’s wet.
Cressi’s Onda mask also stands the test of time: It doesn’t offer a panoramic view or a plethora of features like some of the other models we tested, but the Onda has been on the market for 20 years. It features a single, flat pane of clear, tempered glass, and is solidly bonded into a tough, scratch-resistant plastic frame. The lens is angled slightly downward to give snorkelers a better view of the world below, which is a nice touch. We didn’t find lens fogging to be a problem with this mask, either—a coating of old-school spit did the job.
The Onda’s face skirt is made of soft, transparent silicone with a watertight double gasket along much of its length. All of our testers (even my 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son) found this mask to be watertight. We also loved that it wasn’t complicated with unproven technology or a nose-purge valve. The Onda’s straps are made of soft, hypoallergenic silicone with a series of ridges that easily ratchet through the strap with the lift of a button; and that same button locks the strap when it’s released. Attached to the Onda’s face strap is a small, tough, black plastic clip that connects the mask to the Supernova snorkel via a tough thumb-actuated button. This genius little device allows for a one-handed release of the mask and snorkel.
The Onda’s strap clips are integrated into the frame itself, giving the entire assembly a bulletproof toughness.
The snorkel’s mouthpiece is perfectly engineered: It’s stout but small and soft enough to be unobtrusive, producing no mouth fatigue, even after long forays underwater. A tiny, replaceable silicone purge valve rests at the snorkel base, which is connected to a ribbed silicone pipe that hangs unobtrusively off the side when not needed. Atop the snorkel is Cressi’s patented splash guard and “dry valve,” which keeps out water with a floating, sliding plunger. Submerge and the plunger floats up instantaneously, blocking water. Surface and it immediately drops back down to allow for the free flow of air.
Cressi’s diminutive Rondine Palau fins don’t look like they’d give much propulsion, but our testers were impressed by the fins’ balance of flex and rigidity. At 17 inches, these fins were shorter than most of the other sets we tested, but that makes them easy to walk in and even easier to travel with. A sizable slot at the toes drains water away, reducing drag. The fin blades are well-built, with a soft, but durable rubber coating bonded to the front edge to prevent wear. As far as comfort goes, the fins are designed to be snug—they’re a hybrid of a full-foot “shoe” fin and an adjustable-heel fin. The fin secures to your foot via a ratcheting system similar to that on the mask. We found it easy to loosen on the fly while swimming, but tough to tighten while in motion. The wide thumb loop, though, makes pulling the heel strap on and off a cinch. The sides of each blade are comprised of a tough segment of stiff rubber and thermoplastic, and the foot pocket is soft rubber, meant to be worn with bare feet or a thin bootie sock. I mostly went barefoot in these fins, with nary a blister.
If you want the added propulsion of a slightly longer fin, we’d suggest the Cressi Palau Long Fin Set. The longer Rondine Palau fins measure 22 inches and feature a water-channeling V shape along the end of the blade. Otherwise, the sets are identical.
Cressi’s long- and short-fin Rondine Palau sets.
Runner-up: US Divers Lux LX Purge Snorkeling Set
If you’re looking for a snorkel set that will get mild to moderate use, and our top pick is sold out, we think the US Divers Lux LX Purge Snorkeling Set is a good backup option. We were impressed with the litany of features in this set, all at a solid price.
The single-strap shoulder-carry gear bag included in the Lux set is made of a stiff, durable nylon fabric. It features a large, zippered lower pocket lined with a smooth, water-resistant material, meaning that the bag can hold a digital camera, phone, and sunscreen, or even your mask once it’s dry. That pocket bears external loop straps and a sturdy key clip, too. There’s also a second, drainable pocket up top that is meant to hold your wet mask. The main compartment of the bag is lined with a water-repellent coating and features a mesh base, which means easy rinsing for all the gear in your bag.
The U.S. Divers Lux Bag is top notch.
The Lux LX mask is a nice, fairly low-profile unit with dual panes of tempered glass, and an angled window on either side to give swimmers a panoramic view underwater. The glass seam at the lens’ side is unobtrusive, and we definitely had good peripheral vision while wearing this mask. We were also impressed with the form-fitting yet pliable double-gasketed face skirt. It sat comfortably on all of our testers’ faces and didn’t leak, no matter how narrow or wide their faces were. A bonus point for this mask is that the skirt is black instead of clear silicone: A panoramic lens, combined with a black skirt, gives divers a wide view while minimizing glare from the sun. At the base of the Lux mask’s nose pocket sits a replaceable silicone valve that effortlessly purges any water that enters the mask. The straps for the mask are made from pliable silicone, too, and they feature a push-button ratchet-and-buckle system that can be adjusted with one hand.
The Lux LX dry snorkel offers the highest airflow volume of any snorkel we tested. The mouthpiece on the snorkel is soft and comfortable for long dives, too. We found that the dry valve very occasionally remained sealed after pushing through a wave—this creates a surprise when you go to inhale and can’t—but that’s easily remedied with a simple shake of the snorkel. We also liked this set’s “GoSnorkel” action-camera mount, which is situated on the snorkel’s base and provides an unobtrusive and bubble-free shooting platform for a GoPro or similar mounted camera. (Note that you’ll have to adjust your camera into “upside down” mode to shoot, or flip the video with editing software, but this is a very cool little feature.)
Our overall take on the Lux’s Pivot Dive fins was mixed: The fins’ pivot system provides a nice snap of thrust at the top and bottom of kicks, but it’s not as rigid as our top pick. However, our testers agreed that the thermoplastic and rubber ribs along the fin blade’s outer edges made it just stiff enough for quality propulsion. The soft rubber foot pocket features an ample drain point at the toe, but it’s more comfortable to wear these fins with a thin neoprene bootie or sock, rather than going barefoot, because of the slightly looser fit. The heel-strap system works well, though, featuring a pair of good-size finger rings on each end; it’s very easy to adjust the fins with one hand. At the heel, the strap is wide and comfortable, binds well, and also features a big thumb ring for easy on-off.
The Lux set might have been our top pick if not for reliability issues with the fin and mask attachment points expressed by reviewers on Amazon. The Lux mask has a strange mounting point for the buckle: Rather than being firmly affixed to the body of the mask like our top pick, this mask has the buckle mounted on a silicone extension, which is molded into the actual face skirt. Additionally, the plastic pins that bind the buckle and strap together are not much wider around than the ink-tube in a ball-point pen. Ours didn’t fail, but this is nowhere near as strong as it should be and several reviewers on Amazon complained that this was a breaking point.
We tested this fin set hard because some Amazon reviewers had issues with reliability. Though it didn’t fail on us, the attachment point for the fin is not as robustly constructed as that of our top pick—the most prominent problem appears to be a tendency for the fin to snap in half at the base of the foot pocket. One tester, Aric Branchfield (who has a particularly strong kick), sprint-kicked with this fin to see if he could break it. He couldn’t. I bodysurfed in small waves, kicking off the sandy seafloor, and got the fins stuck in the mud of the Ichetucknee River—they still held up. The issues of numerous reviewers with this fin might indicate that some of these fins shipped with a design flaw. Again, flex it hard before your trip.
Some reviewers also mentioned problems with leaky purge valves on US Divers sets. My daughter’s US Divers mask, which we already owned, very occasionally leaks, too—but I’ve always been able to fix it by simply giving it a good freshwater rinse to dislodge the few grains of sand that cause the trickle. Once you know that trick, purge-valve leaks won’t be a huge problem unless the valve itself becomes compromised (a much rarer event).
Budget pick: Innovative Scuba Concepts Reef Snorkel Set
When you get down into the $40 range for a snorkel set, it’s best to focus on simplicity, comfort, and function. With few potential failure points and solid overall performance, the Innovative Scuba Concepts Reef Snorkel Setdoes just that. One tester put it best: “It basically has the stuff you need, and nothing that you don’t.”
This Innovative Scuba Concepts snorkel set comes with a simple but tough drawstring mesh bag. Throw in your gear, rinse it off, and you’re good to go.
Our set also included a basic, comfortable, and easily adjustable black silicone mask with two straight-ahead, tempered-glass lenses. The double-gasketed face skirt fits a variety of faces, seals well, and has no uncomfortable pressure points. The nose pocket is of ample size and is plenty soft for equalizing finger squeezes. The strap is very wide and comfortable, and it could also be covered with the included soft fabric hair protector, to prevent hair pulling. We were less impressed with the on-the-fly adjustability of the mask’s ratchet straps: Adjusting the mask isn’t overly difficult—but with this set, it’s a two-handed job. The mask also lacks a purge valve: To empty any trickled-in water, you simply press your fingers to the top of the lens and exhale through your nose.
This set’s comfortable and high-volume snorkel lacks a dry-valve feature—if you dive, it will fill with water, requiring a solid exhale to purge that water when you surface. The snorkel does, however, offer a highly effective splash guard. It also features a replaceable purge valve at the base. The snorkel-to-mask clip was nothing special on this model, but it didn’t slide up and down annoyingly, nor did it break.
The relatively compact, 20-inch-long fins that come with this set were actually identical to a model we saw in a competitor’s snorkel set. It’s a fairly generic design, to be sure—but again, it was perfectly functional. The foot pouch is wider on this model than on our other picks, meaning that unless you have fairly wide feet, you’ll be well-served by wearing booties or neoprene socks. The strap system features finger loops at the heel and at each end, allowing for one-finger adjustments.
Upgrade: Subea Easybreath Snorkeling Set
At between $80 and $100, the Subea Easybreath set isn’t cheap—but it is amazing. The goal of the Subea mask is to allow people to see and breathe underwater, just like we do on land. A team of 50 Subea engineers went through over 30 iterations before releasing the first full version of the game-changing mask design in 2014. And it certainly lives up to expectation: During testing, we were blown away by the clarity, durability, and novelty of this new model.
The set ships with an integrated full face mask and snorkel, and a pair of shoe-style, travel-size fins, all carried in a simple, Velcro-sealed nylon and mesh bag. The bag is easily rinsable and features an adjustable shoulder strap and a handy towel loop. After peeling off a protective plastic film, you’ll find the mask’s lens to be a single slice of molded and curved thermoplastic. It offers an incredibly wide field of vision and a mild blue tint that increases contrast and color perception in shallow water. The front of the mask, in the area of your primary field of vision, is completely flat—vital to preventing visual disturbances and distortion. The lens then angles away at the sides, allowing for little perceptible distortion between your forward and peripheral vision. You can glance up, down, and all around with no obstruction. For some people, a mask like this solves the problems of claustrophobia and the unnatural “mouth breathing” required by traditional snorkel sets. Because you can breathe through your nose, the Subea mask can also help to prevent dry mouth.
The face skirt on this mask is comprised of a soft, hypoallergenic, molded silicone. It fits a wide variety of faces and allows even mustached humans to dive leak-free. Because the mouth and nose are isolated by a separate silicone barrier, you can breathe through the mouth or nose. It’s even possible to talk to someone underwater as long as they’re close enough to hear you—although you’ll need to speak clearly, as the water muffles your voice. In an emergency situation, you’d have to unmask to call for help, as opposed to simply spitting out a snorkel and shouting.
The Subea mask makes you look like a Teletubby, but it’s a game changer.
The snorkel’s airflow is routed through a three-chambered system—one chamber on each side of the skirt and one for the lens. Inhaled air is delivered freely to a sealed-off air pocket for the mouth and nose, while a separate chamber at the top of the snorkel directs a small flow of inhaled fresh air onto the mask lens itself, creating a system I’d liken to an auto defroster. A pair of valves then filter that antifog air into the breathing area, preventing the moisture-laden exhaled air from flowing back onto the lens on exhale (which would fog things up), and instead routing it out through the side channels. During our dive in the Ichetucknee River, the 95-degree air contrasted markedly from the 72-degree water at the lens. This caused some fogging on the mask right when we started snorkeling, but the fog soon evaporated as air was constantly flowing across the lens. That airflow, by the way, is slightly noticeable as it passes the eyes, but not enough to be annoying. At the base of the mask, beneath the mouth, sits an impressive one-way valve system that drains away any water that might enter. It’s a passive system that works all the time in the background to drip out water. If you get a good dose of water inside the mask, though, pressing against the mask gently and giving a solid exhale will purge it instantly.
The Subea mask can be used for recreational and fitness-based swimming—in fact, you can swim laps while wearing it, all without turning your head to take a breath. For people with back or neck issues, this could be a very good thing. The mask also keeps you from ingesting bacteria and chlorine via the eyes, mouth, and nose. (Note, though, that if you physically overexert yourself while swimming with this mask, you may not get enough air. If you do become fatigued or short of breath, remove it to take some deep breaths.) This mask is definitely not built for deep diving, though. Anything deeper than a few feet and water pressure will squeeze it very uncomfortably against your face. If you dive deeper than 6 feet or 2 meters, you could risk cracking the lens—and you won’t want to do that anyway, because it’s impossible to squeeze your nose to equalize ear/sinus pressure. Because this mask is so bulky, we’d also not recommend swimming with it amid ocean waves.
The orange-tipped snorkel is highly visible to boaters (and my family thought it was reminiscent of a Teletubby antenna). It’s instantly detachable from the mask by way of simple thumb clip on its inner side, and it refastens just as easily, sealing tight via a replaceable O-ring gasket (just make sure to keep the gasket clear of sand). Up top, the snorkel features a sliding, cylindrical dry valve similar in operation to our top pick.
The strap system on this mask has good and bad points. First, it’s an elasticized nylon setup with two broad straps that cross the back of the head in a wide, comfortable X. The straps don’t pull hair at all and are easy to tighten on the fly by pulling them at the base. Loosening them, however, requires removing the mask. We found that perfectly centering them at the back of your head can be a little tricky. If you overtighten the straps, you also may experience fatigue in your cheeks.
Subea’s shoe-style fins are a travel-sized 18½ inches long. They feature a very comfortable rubber foot pouch that’s bonded to stiff outer ribs, and a down-angled blade reminiscent of our top pick. For a budget snorkel set, we would generally not recommend a shoe-style fin because it can be tough to get the size right, but this factor is somewhat mitigated because Subea offers five sizes. Importantly, these fins also feature open toes (in case your pair turns out to be a bit short), and the rubber on these fins stretches comfortably (in case your foot is a bit wide). We found the thrust to be slightly less than our top pick, but these fins are perfectly serviceable for recreational snorkeling.
Currently, the marketplace for these “full face” snorkel masks is exploding, and there are many options out there—some less expensive than the Subea. But this is a new market segment, and judging by the reviews we’ve read about Subea’s competitors on Amazon and elsewhere, it’s a market rife with potentially flawed knockoffs. We may update this guide later with more full-face picks, but right now, with this being such a new category, we feel better recommending the most proven and highly rated product on the market.
In addition to our picks, we tested six other snorkel sets:
The Icon, Cozumel and Admiral sets, all from US Divers: Though the Icon set was priced right, the fins were floppy and the silicone of the mask and snorkel mouthpiece was hard and uncomfortable. The Cozumel set featured a full-shoe fin with a comfortable fit, but the rest of the set mirrored the Icon. The Admiral set featured US Divers’s Trek-model short fins. And though its non-valved mask did feature soft silicone and solid strap buckles securely integrated with the rest of the mask, the set lacked the fit, finish, and snorkel and fin comfort of our top pick.
SealBuddy’s Fiji Panoramic Snorkel Set: The PV10 swim goggle was a favorite in our swim goggle test. However, though the set had a nice storage bag and soft silicone mask, it didn’t make our cut. The purge-valve mask makes squeezing your nose for equalizing impossible, and the face skirt collapses when subjected to any pressure, making the mask very uncomfortable at the nose.
Promate’s Snorkeling Scuba Dive Panoramic Set: This set showed promise, especially when we realized that it came with the exact same fin as our Innovative Scuba set. But the dry snorkel was simply not as comfortable at the mouth as the Innovative set, and we found the mask pressed too hard at the nose.
The Phantom Aquatics Legendary Panoramic Set: Although we liked the nifty clips on its form-fitting soft silicone mask, we ultimately passed over this set because the fins were too flimsy and we were concerned about the long-term strength of the mask clips and buckle.
Care and maintenance
If you want your gear to last and fit well, here are some tips, straight from the mouths of our experts:
- Always rinse and store your gear after use. Chlorine, sun, and salt can ultimately degrade and stiffen silicone. Sand will get into everything, making for sticky valves.
- Antifog compounds for plastic swim goggles are different from those of glass dive masks. Do not use them interchangeably.
- Some masks build up a microscopically thin film of off-gassed silicone molecules on the lenses by the time the mask reaches you. This can make it fog easily. Wear it around the house for awhile. If it fogs heavily, consider cleaning the inside with a white, nonabrasive toothpaste, then rinse it very well.
- Test a new set for failure points before you travel.
- Breathing through a mouth snorkel is not a natural feeling. So if you’re not experienced with snorkeling, take your new set to the pool to practice in the shallow end.
- Don’t ratchet your mask down too tight. It will generally seal better if the skirt is just gently pressing against your face.
- If you decide to take a “resort diving” course be sure it is a “Discover Scuba” course certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Feel free to ask the instructor a leading question or two: “I hear there’s some really cool coral down at 70 feet, we can go down that deep, right?” If the instructor answers in the affirmative, run.
- Snorkeling should be a low-energy pursuit. Don’t overdo it.
- Want a watertight mask? Shave. Absent that, a thick coating Vaseline on your beard or mustache can help keep out the water.
- Antifog compounds can irritate your eyes. A good layer of wet, old-fashioned spit rubbed in the lenses can work as a pretty good surfactant, spreading out water molecules in a microscopic layer so they won’t fog.
After talking with our experts and spending almost 20 hours in the water with these snorkel sets, we’d strongly recommend investing in a snorkeling vest like this one from SealBuddy, especially if you’ll be snorkeling in open water, wind, or currents. These unobtrusive little lifesavers can be inflated by mouth to give you buoyancy if you’re fatigued.
You might also consider buying a pair of neoprene socks for protection from sharp reef, shells, and blisters.
If you’ll be in the sun for a while, a good rashguard is important. You’ll also want to bring along sunscreen. (If you’re diving a reef, strongly consider a sunscreen free of potentially coral-damaging oxybenzone and nanoparticles—Stream2Sea is my favorite.)
Seasickness medications can make you feel drowsy, but they sure beat seasickness. If you’re venturing out on a boat for a snorkel and are prone to motion sickness, consider a pressure-point remedy like Sea Bands. I’ve used them in heavy seas and they really seem to work. Constant, slow hydration and staring at the horizon from the middle of the boat will also keep nausea at bay.
Finally, if you’ll be wearing fins in moving or deep water, consider a simple set of fin tethers to keep your fins from disappearing into Davy Jones’s locker.
(Photos by Quinn Dixon.)
- engineer, Cressi USA, email interview, July 2017 ,
- divemaster, Charleston Scuba, interview, May 2017 ,
- scuba diving instructor, interview, July 2017 ,