Your One-Stop Guide to Military Swim, Treading and Water Survival Tests

High level of swimming required of service members
An Air Force pararescue jumper trainee swims to the finish point, Aug. 17, 2011, at Calaveras Lake, Texas. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/3rd Audiovisual Squadron)

No matter which branch of military service you choose, you'll be required to display a certain level of proficiency in the water. That level can vary, but water survival training programs are a core element of all military training.

Here are the most common water survival training programs from each of our military branches, rescue swimming, diving and special ops programs.

Basic Training and Boot Camp Water Survival

If you are considering the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard, you're almost certain to spend time in the water during your career, and you need to know how to swim or at least save yourself from drowning. The Army and Air Force have basic water survival programs as well.

Marine Corps Water Survival Qualification

Water survival and training in the Marine Corps gets more difficult as you progress from basic training and move into infantry, Recon or Marine Special Operations Command-level swimming and diving operations.

Marine Boot Camp Swim Qualification

Marine water survival is challenging. You must learn to relax when carrying heavy weight during beach operations.

Coast Guard Water Survival Training

There is advanced swim training for some jobs within the Coast Guard, as well as boot camp swim survival training.

Air Force Water Survival Training

Water survival is part of survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training. Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, is the home of the SERE Water Survival Course.

Army Water Survival

Exercises: Soldiers also must pass water survival training.

Equipment removal (ditch rifle and tactical vest)

Trouser inflation while treading

Underwater swim with gear (15 meters) (ditch tactical vest)

3-meter drop and pool exit with gear

Bob and travel with gear (tactical vest, rifle, clothes, boots)

Two-stroke, 2 x 25-meter swims with gear (breaststroke and side stroke)

Navy Water Survival

The Navy has a system of progressive qualifications for sailors. Depending upon your job, you must qualify in one or more level of training.

Navy Third-Class Swim Qualification

Everyone who enters the Navy must pass a third-class swim test. The initial test is conducted in basic training (boot camp) for enlisted sailors. Officers will take the same test during their time at the Naval Academy, ROTC unit or Officer Candidate School.

Tower jump (10 feet)

50-yard swim (using free, side, breast or backstroke)

5-minute prone float

Blouse inflation while treading water

Trouser inflation while treading water

Each of these are individual events. The student can leave the water after each one to prepare for the next event.

Navy Second-Class Swim Qualification

This is roughly the same test with a few differences. Depending on the job in the Navy, a sailor may need this higher qualification. The second-class swimmer qualification is used as an entry-level requirement for small boat operators, naval aircrew and rescue swimmers.

Tower jump (10 feet)

100-yard swim (using free, side, breast and backstroke): You must demonstrate proficiency by swimming 25 yards for each of the four strokes.

5-minute prone and back float

Blouse inflation while treading water

Trouser inflation while treading water

These are back-to-back events. A candidate cannot leave the water between events.

Navy First-Class Swim Qualification

A higher level is required for swimming instructors within the Navy Training Commands.

You must complete third- and second-class swimmer certification, plus earn a Red Cross lifeguard certification.

100-yard swim. It's the same as the second-class swimmer requirement, though more strict form grading than required for second-class swimmers.

5-minute prone float and back float

25-yard underwater swim while demonstrating the burning oil maneuver twice

Navy Search and Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer

Water confidence challenges -- Air rescue specialists must be some of the best swimmers in the Navy and Coast Guard, as their job is to save people stranded in the ocean -- typically from a helicopter.

Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Training Challenges

Rescue Swimmer Fitness Standards

Navy SEAL and SWCC Water Confidence Challenges

The challenges start with the longer swim tests required to qualify for the training (500 yards). Then, a candidate must build up to two miles weekly and up to six miles in the ocean to get through the training.

Treading water, underwater swims, life saving, drownproofing and knot tying underwater on breath holds are the challenges that require you to take water confidence to new levels in the special ops world. For Navy SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal and Navy divers, the added diving skills require significant preparation. Your abilities in the water will be tested throughout training.

Marine Recon Swim Test

Swimming with full cammies, treading with gear and underwater swimming also will advance to diving and swimming in the open ocean and other bodies of water. These skills require significant testing and evaluation during training. Many candidates will not make the cut because of the water competency challenges.

The USAF pararescue and combat controller (CCT) training is one of the most challenging water competency programs in the military. A wide variety of swimming skills (surface, underwater, treading, drownproofing, life saving) are expanded to include buddy breathing on a snorkel while treading and being harassed by instructors. Their testing takes water competency to new levels.

The added Navy Combat Dive Course will teach candidates open- and closed-circuit special ops diving.

Army Special Forces Combat Diving Qualification

The Army Combat Dive Course in Key West, Florida, is an advanced diving course that tests an operator's water confidence and teaches open- and closed-circuit SCUBA for combat operations.

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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