a person snorkeling in a rash guard

What Is A Rash Guard? (And When You Might Want One)

With an image of snorkeling largely being someone  lying face down in crystal clear tropical waters it’s reasonable to assume all you need is a snorkel, mask, and fins.

It’s certainly possible to snorkel like that without any problems, but with respect to snorkeling you often hear the term ‘rash guard’, ‘rash vest’, or ‘rashie’ as an indispensable item.

If you’ve never heard of the term, what is a rash guard?

A rash guard is a shirt worn for the purposes of warmth, abrasion resistance, and UV protection by those involved in water based activities. They’re made from lightweight, thin, breathable, and stretchy material to aid the enjoyment of freediving, snorkeling, surfing, and paddle boarding etc.

You can get a rash guard for the upper legs, but the terms ‘rash vest’ will specifically be used for a shirt for the torso.

a woman snorkeling at surface level

What’s The Purpose Of A Rash Guard With Snorkeling?

While you can enjoy most water based activities without a rash guard, there are going to be certain circumstances when having one might be a good idea.

  • Warmth – Air temperature and water temperature are different, and coupled with wind chill’ a rash guard is a good middle ground between traditional swimwear and needing a wetsuit.
  • UV protection – Much snorkeling is done in tropical warm waters. A combination of intense sun, and the sea produces a reflective glare. Over time sunburn can become a serious issue.
  • Abrasion – As snorkeling involves the beach, sand will get everywhere, but also you will be underwater around stones, and rocks so there’s a good chance that your arms or torso may connect with something rough.
  • Water irritation – While a constant surrounding of water isn’t a problem, continually diving in the water, or being ‘slapped’ by waves will irritate the skin.

A rash guard is designed to be stretchy but skin tight so it’s lightly protective against the above.

What Are Rash Guards Made From?

A rash guard needs specific properties, so it’s not just like a normal t-shirt. You can wear those, but they aren’t as ideal.

A rash guard needs to be lightweight, thin, breathable, and stretch so it’s tight against the skin.

So traditionally, a rash guard will be made with a combination of lycra, spandex, polyester, and nylon.

a child snorkeling at surface level looking at a fish

When You Might Want To Wear One

If the water and air temperatures are unbelievably warm and you only intend half an hour of snorkeling, then getting a rash guard may ne unesary.

However, they are worn by a large amount of people who snorkel, swim, or surf regularly, and they wear them for a reason.

So what might those reasons be?

  • Extended snorkeling – If you intend more than a quick try at snorkeling, perhaps a good amount of time in and out of the water during a day, then a rash guard seems a good idea, not only for UV protection but ‘sand issues’.
  • It’s a snorkeling trip – While there are many reasons for going on a holiday somewhere, a lot of travellers will only snorkel once or twice for a short period. If you intend snorkeling to be a large part of the activities you will be partaking in, then a rash guard would be advisable.
  • Temperatures – There are varying degrees of temperature throughout the world, and as seasons change, as well as times of day the water may be cooler than you expect. If you might be sensitive to cold, then consider a rash guard.

For temperatures that you may encounter, here’s a quick idea.

Water Temperature Range (°F)Wetsuit ThicknessRecommended
65°- 75°0.5 mm – 2/1 mmTop / Shorty
62°- 68°2 mm – 3/2 mmSpringsuit / Full Suit

Everyone is different, and has a different tolerance to colder weather but if the water temperature is 70° Fahrenheit (21° Celcius) then you should at least think about a rash guard.

  • Boat trip / tour – If the trip you are on involves leaping on and off a boat then a rash guard becomes more necessary. AS well as the amount of things that can likely rub, or ‘nick’ you on a boat is pretty limitless, there is also the issue of wind speed on a fast moving speedboat.
  • Snorkeling environment – While many snorkeling environments are white sands and a few fish, often you might be going across a rock, or snorkeling amongst weeds, and underwater rocks. 
  • Jellyfish – A rash guard offers some light protection against jellyfish stings.
  • Chafing – A rash guard was originally designed for protecting against abrasion for surfers, and that same reasoning helps with almost any water based recreational activity.
a person snorkeling in a rash guard

Final Thoughts

A rash guard, while not being absolutely necessary if you are only going to go snorkeling in very warm and clear water for short periods of time, is still a piece of kit you should consider.

They’re designed to make water based activities less about endurance, and more pleasurable. Worn against the skin they can drastically reduce UV exposure and the painful sunburn that will go with it.

The more snorkeling you do, the more you will appreciate their usefulness.

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