How to choose and use fins

In previous posts we’ve looked at choosing a mask and choosing a snorkel. In this post I’d like to focus on choosing snorkeling fins. While you can easily snorkel without a pair of fins they are very useful for swimming long distances, swimming fast, swimming into currents and swimming underwater.

There are dozens of different makes and models on the market. Ignoring most of the marketing hype from different manufacturers most fins fall into two main categories which are full foot or open heel.

Full foot fins encase the foot like a shoe in a plastic pocket. They can be worn with bare feet or with a thin neoprene sock liner. It is important that these fins fit correctly otherwise they will rub and cause blisters. The full foot type fins are typically what are provided as rental fins on snorkeling day trips and they are fine for casual swimming. A good tip if you will be renting fins is to have an old pair of socks with you to wear with the fins. You’ll look a little uncool but you won’t get blisters.

Open heel fins have a pocket that you slip your toes into and an adjustable strap that you tighten over the heel. They are worn with neoprene booties. They are a more heavy duty fin preferred by scuba divers. Wearing booties is more comfortable, warmer in cold water and can also provide foot protection if you are walking into the water over rocks or a stony beach. If you buy open heel fins it’s advisable to buy a spare heel strap as well so that a broken strap doesn’t ruin your snorkeling day out.

Open heel fins are more expensive than closed heel fins. They are also heavier which means your muscles have to work a bit harder. Carrying booties and fins will take up a bit more space and weight in your travel bag. If you are short of space there are now some decent travel snorkeling fins on the market that look similar to the fins that boogie boarders use. They are shorter but often wider to make up for the lack of length. They are never going to offer as much power as regular fins but are better than nothing and provide some directional control. Avoid the very wide ones, you’ll end up banging your feet together as you kick.

snorkeling fins

The blades on snorkeling fins come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The blade is the power in the fin but bigger isn’t necessarily better. A very long stiff fin will be hard to kick with and will fatigue your legs. Freedivers typically wear long flexible fins to get them to the surface quickly after a deep dive. Short fins will provide limited power for forward propulsion but will at least provide some directional control. Very lightweight floppy fins, often the cheap ones are not much use, you’ll just be kicking and not moving far.

A fairly recent addition to the market place is split fins, the marketing hype will tell you that they are modeled on a whales tail. In tests split fins have good straight line speed (why would you want to go fast?) but I’m personally not a fan. I find them a bit too floppy with not enough thrust when I want it and less movement control. But that’s just my experience because I’m used to standard paddle fins that provide more feedback in each stroke. If you do buy split fins buy a good quality pair, the cheap ones are too floppy and next to useless.

Fin kicking technique

With normal paddle fins use your biggest, strongest muscles to fin efficiently, that’s your quads and glutes (thighs and bum). Kick from the hips in a slow, fluid motion with the knee just slightly bent. Most power will be in the down kick. Avoid kicking from below the knee like you are riding a bicycle. Make sure that your fins stay just below the surface so that you are kicking underwater.

If you are using split fins you should take smaller more frequent kicks, called flutter kicking. On long straight swims it’s a more energy efficient technique.

When you first try swimming with fins you may find it pretty tough on muscles that aren’t accustomed to fining. The obvious advice is to take it slow and easy. Even with fins on you’ll still be the most clumsy and slow creature in the water. You may think you can keep pace with that slow moving whale shark but you can’t. Anything over the slightest current is impossible to swim against, it’s better to swim with or across a current. If you get a cramp in your thigh roll onto your back, grab your fin tip and as you straighten your leg pull the fin tip towards you. That will normally relieve the cramping.

Walking in Fins

The best advice regarding walking in fins is don’t. At best you’ll look silly waddling along, at worst you’ll fall over and hurt yourself. If you must walk into the water from the beach with your fins on, walk backwards to avoid tripping over your fin tips. Normally it should be possible to walk waist deep into the water and put your fins on there. Similarly when you exit the water remove your fins in water that you can stand in then walk ashore.

On a boat it’s normally possible to sit on the side of the boat and put your fins on before plopping over the side. When returning to the boat hold onto the platform or ladder, remove your fins and pass them up before climbing aboard.

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