A tried-and-true transition plan that will get you out of rental gear and into a rig of your own.
You’ve completed your dive training, your instructor signed off on your check-out dive, your C-card is in the mail, and you’re feeling pretty pumped about this whole diving experience.
Now what? Easy answer. Stay wet. Keep diving. Log as much bottom time as you can, for this is the critical period—between graduating from class and becoming a bonafide dive fanatic—where you either make giant strides toward getting more comfortable and confident under water, or the euphoria fades, you start losing your grip on your new life as an aqua-star, and slide back into your old life as a boring land creature.
So stay pumped. Go diving.
But to go diving you need gear. If you don’t own gear you have to rent it. Which is okay, at first. But renting gear is a hassle, it can be pricey, and the gear you end up using is usually pretty well-worn and doesn’t always fit right. This can quickly cause a new scuba diver’s enthusiasm to wane. In fact, studies have shown that the surest way to lose interest in diving, beyond simply not going scuba diving, is to have to rely on rental gear to get you into the water.
So the best thing you can do to increase your safety, comfort and confidence in the water, beyond actually getting wet, is to own your own set of dive gear.
Of course, buying dive gear can also be pricey. If you can’t buy everything at once, then the next best strategy is to save up some cash, watch for sales, and wean yourself from rental gear one piece at a time. Here’s a plan for doing that.
The First Step: Get Yourself a Suit
Recommended Scuba Suits by RDC’s Experts
The wetsuit is by far a diver’s most personal piece of dive gear. It’s worn against your bare skin, it has the greatest impact on your comfort and warmth in the water, and it also plays a big role in your buoyancy.
Rent a wetsuit that’s even a little too tight and it will not only be difficult to move around in the water, but you’ll probably also have trouble breathing. Rent a wetsuit that’s too loose and your teeth will be chattering from all the cold seawater sloshing around inside. Wetsuits also have different buoyancy characteristics, so every one you rent will require you to readjust your ballast weight. And let’s not even get into a rental suit’s “pee factor.” Oh yeah, the first item on your gear-buying list should definitely be a wetsuit.
The ideal wetsuit should fit like a second skin, free of gaps and folds that can trap air and pump water. It should also be flexible enough to stretch with your body. There are lots of wetsuit manufacturers out there with their own distinctive styles and design leanings—for example, one brand might cater to tall or slim body types while another might fit stocky builds better. The only way to find out which is which is to try them on.
If a wetsuit fits right you won’t need to yank it off to be comfortable between dives.
This is why buying a wetsuit on-line can be risky business—unless you already know the exact make, model and size you want. If you don’t, then you really need to actually climb into a variety of suits until you find the brand that best fits your body shape. Unfortunately, most dive stores usually carry only a couple of brands, so you may need to visit a number of stores to find your dream suit. But it’ll be worth the effort, because a good-fitting wetsuit is the foundation of a successful dive rig.
The water temperature where you do your diving will determine how thick your wetsuit needs to be—usually 6mm to 8mm for temperate waters, 3mm to 5mm for dive spots like Hawaii, and 1mm to 3mm for true tropical locales (the thickness of the wetsuit you normally rent at your local dive store should be a good guide).
The three most common styles of wetsuits found in dive stores are the traditional two-piece jacket and john, the one-piece back-zip, and the one-piece front-zip with attached hood. Each design has its advantages.
• The jacket and john combo is popular in cold-water locations because the jacket and john overlap in the torso area, providing extra warmth. However, this also makes the suit a bit bulky. This type of suit usually requires a separate hood with a long bib that tucks inside the jacket, although models with attached hoods are also available. One plus to this style is that you can sometimes mix and match jacket and john to get a better fit.
• The one-piece back-zip suit tends to be popular in warmer-water locations. This simple design is the least bulky of the three and is generally found in the widest range of sizes. It’s also versatile; you can add or lose a hood or a hooded vest for seasonal changes in water temperature.
• The one-piece front-zip with attached hood is designed with the zipper placed horizontally across the chest for easy access and to accommodate the attached hood. This is RDC’s favorite design because it minimizes bulk but maximizes warmth, and since the hood is attached there is no potential for leakage around the neck. A vest can be worn underneath to increase warmth in colder seasons. This design also comes in “semi-dry” versions, which are great for temperate and cold-water environments.
Manufacturing details like type of neoprene, seam construction, sealing surfaces and abrasion protection can enhance any wetsuit’s performance, so they should also be taken into account when selecting your suit.
The Next Step: A Reliable Regulator System
Recommended Scuba Regulators by RDC’s Experts
Okay, you’ve got your wetsuit. So what’s next? We say it should be your regulator system, which includes a first stage, a primary second stage, a back-up second stage or “octo,” and an instrument console. This is the core of your life support system, so you will derive huge comfort in knowing your reg is adjusted properly, it’s up to date with its service, and that you were the last one to use it.
To assemble your regulator system, start with the reg itself. Check out the regulator section of this issue’s lead story, “Top Gear.” You’ll find what RDC considers to be the best breathers currently on the market in six price categories, ranging from “Under $300” to “Over $700.”
Regs come in all shapes and sizes, with either piston or diaphragm first stages and balanced or unbalanced second stages—each has its own advantages, and most are extremely reliable. Some regs are fitted with environmental kits, some are rated for cold water diving, some offer second stage user adjustments. These are features that may or may not strike every diver’s fancy. But what every diver does want is top-notch breathing performance.
While the very highest performing regulators tend to be found in the upper price ranges, there are lots of economy models that stand up quite well against the pricier competition. We’d recommend shopping the major brands first. Experience has shown that within a major brand, many mid-priced regulators have the same performance attributes as the higher-end models, they just lack some of the features that you may not want or need.
Once you’ve got your reg, you’ll want to hook up a backup second stage, either an octo or an alternate air source (AAS). An AAS fits on the end of a BC’s corrugated hose and serves double-duty as the BC’s power inflator and your backup regulator. An octo reg allows you to assist your buddy without removing your primary second stage from your mouth. An AAS is more streamlined and eliminates one hose from your first stage, but requires that you hand off your primary to your buddy and take up the AAS yourself in an out-of-air situation. Which one to choose? At this stage in the game, unless you have strong feelings one way or the other, it’s probably best to go with the type you were trained on.
Finally, you need to rig up your instrument console. The instrument console usually consists of a pressure gauge, a dive computer or depth gauge, and a compass. The price of dive computers has fallen so much over the years that getting a console with a basic computer in it makes good sense, even if you plan on getting a more feature-rich dive computer down the road. Most entry-level computers now offer the ability to use air or nitrox up to 50 percent, which covers the computing needs of over 90 percent of the sport diving population.
Step 3: Buoyancy and Ballast
Recommended Jacket style Scuba BCDs by RDC’s Experts
The bouyancy compensator (BC) is actually a pretty easy piece of gear to rent, as long as you get the right size. So it can wait until after you buy your wetsuit and reg system. But while a wetsuit really promotes your comfort in the water, and a reg system contributes to your sense of security at depth, having your own BC will let you do the final fine-tuning to your dive set-up, which will make your time under water just that much more fun.
Like with a wetsuit, before you choose a BC you need to know where you’re going to use it. If you do all your diving in the tropics, you might want to go for what’s known as a Travel BC. Travel BCs are built light, tend to have fewer appointments, and offer less buoyant lift and smaller ballast weight pouches. If you do all your diving locally, a General-Purpose BC might be the ticket. These BCs are built big with lots of buoyant lift and lots of ballast capacity to deal with the rigors of temperate or cold-water diving. Or, if you dive locally most of the time but like to sneak off on an occasional dive vacation, and you only want to own one BC, a Dual-Purpose model might be the right choice. These tend to be built lighter than General-Purpose BCs, making them easy to travel with, but they offer much more buoyant lift and larger weight pouches than Travel BCs, making them well-suited for cold-water use.
BCs also come in three basic styles: Jacket, Rear-Inflation, and Hybrid. Jacket-style BCs are commonly found in rental departments, and most student divers wear them for their training. This is because they are easy to use. They are also very stable on the surface, handle well at depth, and they offer lots of adjustment to fit a wide range of users. They can, however, be a bit bulky.
A rear inflation BC puts all its buoyancy behind you, leaving your chest area clear and uncluttered. Rear-inflation BCs put all their inflation in back while minimizing clutter up front, creating a sense of unbridled freedom as you cruise through the water column. However, having your buoyancy behind you tends to push you forward on the surface and requires that you pay more attention to your trim weights to achieve a comfortable cruising attitude at depth. This can all be accomplished with practice, but it’s why rear-inflation BCs are usually favored by more experienced divers.
The hybrid BC is a combination of jacket and rear-Inflation styles, offering a somewhat smaller rear air cell teamed with some inflation that wraps around the waist. If you’re not sure which BC fits your individual diving style, before you plunk down your cash, check your dive stores to see if they put on “Demo Days” where you can try each style out before committing to a specific model. Also, check out the BC section of “Top Gear” elsewhere in this issue for RDC’s picks for the top BCs currently on the market.
In sport diving, the traditional weight belt is pretty much a thing of the past. Virtually all BCs now come with an integrated weight system as either standard or optional equipment. But while you might not need a weight belt any longer, you still need the weights. Owning your own weights is not only convenient, it will help you dial in your buoyancy. All weights, both hard and soft, are not created equal. We’ve used a variety of brands and find no two weigh exactly the same, so the best way to make sure you have the proper ballast load is to buy your own weights and use them exclusively for your personal ballast needs.
Somewhere Down the Road
As you log more bottom time and you get a better sense of the kind of diver you are destined to become, you’ll probably want to pick up another dive computer with more features, perhaps a bigger screen, maybe with a hoseless transmitter, and use your console DC as a backup (check out our dive computer section).
Divers who do a lot of local diving might also want to pick up a tank. A tank is the easiest piece of gear to rent, and it comes topped off with gas, which you need to get anyway. But owning your own tank does have its advantages. (For more on that, check out the article “Are you Using the Right Tank?” elsewhere in this issue.)
Divers who are familiar with their gear tend to be the most comfortable in the water, and being comfortable in the water is the fastest way to become one of those bubble blowers who feels more at home cruising around at 60 feet deep than he or she does sitting on the surface. Which proves positively that the more time you spend in the water using your own gear, the better diver you will be, and the more you’ll enjoy diving.
Divers who are comfortable with their gear tend to be the most comfortable in the water, and that’s what diving’s all about.
Should You Buy the Gear Your Instructor Uses?
Most students look to their instructors as examples of how to dive. This often extends to gear too. Make sense? Consider the following:
• Some instructors like to use the same gear their students are using (usually rental gear) so they can teach diving skills with similar equipment.
• Some dive stores require that their instructors use only gear they stock so students will be interested in buying what the store sells.
• Some instructors wear their personal gear while teaching, which often includes a collection of sport diving gear, tech diving gear, and old favorites that are no longer on the market.
So don’t make decisions about what gear to buy simply by looking at what your instructors are using, not without first finding out the “why” behind their gear choices. The vast majority of dive instructors are honorable sorts, they teach diving because they love the sport, and they want you to love it too. So ask lots of questions, and let your instructor help you choose the gear that will best suit you.
I’ve been a diving addict since my 14th birthday when my parents took me to the Bahamas and had my first scuba diving experience. I’ve been an active diver ever since but in the last few years my focus shifted on sharing my thoughts and experience on diving gear, writing product reviews and gave up on organizing dive tours.