Get educated about buying dive gear
What to know, who to ask and how to buy the right dive gear for you.
Buying Tips: Masks
What It Does: The mask creates an air space in front of your eyes that allows them to focus under water. The nose pocket allows you to equalize the air pressure in your mask as you go deeper.
What to Look For: A good watertight fit.
You'll find a whole range of options on masks, including side, top and bottom panes for a wider field of vision. Some also have purge valves for venting any water that leaks in, and others have quick strap adjustments. These options (and a range of color schemes) are a matter of personal preference —just make sure the mask you choose fits right.
Here are some features to be familiar with before you purchase a mask:
FIELD OF VIEW Lenses should be shaped to maximize peripheral view and optimize downward view, which is particularly important for seeing gauges, buckles, D-rings, BC pockets and weight-ditch handles.
SKIRTS Clear skirts provide an open, airy feel by increasing the amount of available light allowed into the mask. Black skirts block out unwanted reflections that come through clear skirts. The basic rule-of-thumb: black skirts in bright water, clear skirts in dark water.
LOW VOLUME Low-volume masks are nice because they require less breath to clear. They also create less drag when cruising through the water column, and they tend to provide a wider field of view because the lenses sit closer to your eyes.
BUCKLES/STRAPS Buckle systems mounted on mask skirts offer a number of advantages, including improving the range of motion for strap positioning and enabling the buckles to be folded flat against the lens for stowage or packing.
PURGE VALVES Mounted in the bottom of the nose pocket, a purge valve is designed to keep water from building up inside a leaky mask. The purge valve in a snorkel is located below the mouthpiece and makes clearing easier when surface swimming.
As a rule of thumb, most new divers prefer translucent mask skirts that allow maximum light transmission. Black skirts remove peripheral glare and distractions, and are typically used by photographers, underwater hunters and tech divers. Large lenses and side windows can increase the diver's field of view, but will often increase internal air volume as well. Low-volume masks are easier to clear, but not everyone will be comfortable with the ultra-low volume style favored by free divers and hunters. A good compromise would be one of the new breed of wide-angle, low-volume products introduced in the last few years.
You will most likely purchase a snorkel the same time as you buy your mask. Keep in mind:
SNORKEL KEEPER Look for a durable yet easy-to-operate attachment. Many keepers can slide, lock and swivel, thereby making the attachment and removal or adjustment of the snorkel much more convenient.
SNORKEL UPPER TUBE The bigger the tube the easier it is to breathe, but the more drag it creates moving through the water.
SNORKEL LOWER TUBE Flexible tubing improves fit and comfort and allows the mouthpiece to hang out of the way when breathing off your regulator.
Read our Tips on Getting a Good Mask Fit and check out our 2013 Mask Gear Guide.
Buying Tips: Fins
What They Do: Fins translate power from the large leg muscles into efficient movement through water, which is 800 times denser than air.
What to Look For: Comfort and efficiency. When trying on fins, look for a snug fit that doesn't pinch your toes or bind the arches of your feet. If you can't wiggle your toes, the fins are too small. Don't skimp on fins. Choosing the right pair is important to prevent muscle fatigue and cramping. Good fins will enhance your enjoyment of diving; bad ones can ruin it.
Here are some features you should be familiar with before you purchase your first pair of fins:
BLADE DESIGN Long, stiff fins look cool, but they require more kicking effort and can put stress on weak muscles. More flexible fins are much easier to kick and often produce more propulsion for the amount of effort expended.
FOOT POCKET DESIGN Closed-heel foot pockets are worn barefoot. They are thin and flexy and very comfortable, but proper fit is critical. Open-heel fins are worn with a bootie. They are more forgiving of fit as they can be adjusted with a heel strap.
MATERIALS Fins made of thermoplastic elastomers tend to be lightweight and rather stiff. All-rubber fins tend to be flexible and rather heavy. Many fins are made with a combination of the two, using plastics for stiffness and rubber both for flex and to enhance foot pocket comfort.
BUCKLE/STRAP SYSTEM Easy-adjust buckles with rubber straps are standard. However, these days both mfgs and divers are replacing them with stainless spring straps or bungee straps that eliminate the need to adjust and readjust straps. They also make quick work of donning and doffing.
First, ask yourself what kind of diving you'll primarily be doing — cold water, warm water, drift, etc. What kind of diver are you? Fast swimmer or a leisurely cruiser?
Full-foot or open-heel fins? Full-foot fins don't require dive booties and are best suited mainly for warm water. The straps of open-heel fins can be adjusted for the different booties you may wear and can also allow you to get a better fit. Open-heel fins require less effort to put on, especially if a pull tab is added to the strap. Bottom line: there’s a place for both types of fins. While exceptions are numerous, in warm-water locales where divers wear less gear full-foot fins tend to be the rage, while in cold-water locales open-heel fins are the preferred kickers. The dive booties required with open-heel fins also provide foot protection and comfort while diving and walking — and are especially useful if you'll be making a lot of rocky shore dives.
Split vs Paddle fins? Split fins slice through the water with minimal resistance because rather than pushing against the water with brute force, their flexible blades, when engaged in an up-tempo flutter kick, actually generate lift along with a jet propulsion effect, similar to a boat’s propeller. The faster the propeller turns, the more propulsion is generated. In other words, with split fins power comes from the speed of a diver’s kick rather than the force of the kick. Traditional paddle fins tend to have stiff blades that require more leg muscle to get them moving. These are designed for divers who want lots of feedback in their kick.
Check out our 2013 Fins Gear Guide.
Buying Tips: Wetsuits
Form-fitting exposure suits are usually made of foam neoprene rubber (wetsuits) or spandex-like materials (skins), sometimes with a fleece lining.
What They Do: Exposure suits insulate you against the cooling effect of water, which can rob your body of heat 25 times faster than air. The thickness and type of exposure protection you need depends on dive conditions. Simple Lycra suits provide little thermal insulation, but do help protect against scrapes and stings.
What to Look For: Fit and comfort. Exposure suits should fit snugly without restricting movement or breathing. Reject any suit that's too loose, however. Gaps at the arm, leg, crotch and neck allow water to circulate and defeat the suit's ability to prevent heat loss.
Here are some features you should be familiar with before you purchase a wetsuit:
MATERIALS Modern high-stretch neoprene increases comfort and flexibility. More traditional neoprene is stiffer but resists compression better. Many suits use both types: compression-resistant neoprene for its thermal advantages, and strategicaly placed anatomically shaped high-stretch panels to address the flexibility issue.
SEAMS Glued and blind-stitching eliminates water seepage because the needle never goes completely through the neoprene, making it a good choice for cold-water suits. Flatseam or flatlock stitching is softer against the skin but allows water seepage, making it better suited for warm-water suits.
SEALS Seals at the neck, wrists and ankles keep water from entering the wetsuit. Rolled smooth-skin seals do the best job, standard smooth-skin seals are also effective, followed by O-ring seals. Many suits use nylon cuffs in place of seals which are comfortable but don’t block water intrusion.
ZIPPERS A high-quality zipper backed by a smoothskin sealing system creates a water-blocking barrier that can’t be beat. Some suits use zippers with overlapping teeth designed to reduce water seepage even further.
BODY ARMOR Flexible kneepads provide substantial coverage for the knee and leg area, but don’t hinder swimming. Anti-abrasion patches on shoulders and rear protect the wetsuit in high-wear areas.
Our Advice: As long as a wetsuit fits correctly, it will do the job. If you're going the budget route, your choices will usually be limited to basic models. Bright colors and graphics aren't necessary but do make you more visible to other divers.
Exposure Suit Comfort Zones
75-85F - 1/16" (1.6mm) neoprene, Lycra, Polartec
70-85F - 1/8" (3mm) neoprene
65-75F - 3/16" (5mm) neoprene
50-70F - 1/4" (6.5mm) neoprene
35-65F - 3/8" (9.5mm) neoprene, dry suit
Check out our 2013 Wetsuits Gear Guide.
Buying Tips: BCDs
The BC is the most complex piece of dive equipment you'll own and one of the most important. So choose carefully based on the style of diving you'll be doing most.
What It Does: What doesn't it do? It holds your gear in place, lets you carry a tank with minimal effort, floats you at the surface and allows you to achieve neutral buoyancy at any depth.
What to Look For: Correct size and fit. Before you try on BCs, slip into the exposure suit you'll wear most often. Look for a BC that fits snugly but doesn't squeeze you when inflated. The acid test: inflate the BC until the overflow valve vents. The BC should not restrict your breathing. While you've got the BC on, test all valves for accessibility and ease of use, then make sure the adjustments, straps and pockets are easy to reach and use.
Pay particular attention to the inflator hose. Is it easy to reach and extend over your head? Make sure there's a clear distinction between the inflate and deflate buttons and that you can operate them easily with one hand.
Here are some features you should be familar with before you purchase a BC:
EXHAUST VALVES Vent air from the BC bladder. The main exhaust/over-pressure relief valve is activated by pulling on the corrugated hose. Remote exhaust valves normally work with pull cords. The more exhaust valves a BC has, the more options you have for venting air while in various positions.
INTEGRATED WEIGHT DITCH SYSTEM Available on virtually all BCs, with the exception of some rental and bare bones travel models. These systems eliminate the need for a weight belt by loading ballast into specially-designed pouches that can be ditched in an emergency by pulling on easy-access handles.
BLADDER Holds the air that allows for buoyancy control at depth. Most modern BC bladders are single layer. Some back-buoyancy BCs and backplate wings use a double bladder design with an airtight inner bag protected by an outer nylon shell built to resist tears and punctures.
POWER INFLATOR Connects to the end of the corrugated hose and ties into the tank’s air supply via a low-pressure hose. The unit includes both inflate and deflate buttons for filling or venting air from the bladder.
POCKETS For carrying lights, folding knives and other dive accessories. Normally fitted with zipper or Velcro closures. Jacket-style BCs often have at least two pockets; back-buoyancy BCs often have expandable or fold-down pockets.
Jacket-style BCs offer a sense of security by wrapping around you like a comfortable coat. Bladders are positioned under your arms, on your waist and to a lesser degree behind you. These BCs tend to be stable and are less dependent on trim weights to ensure a good swimming attitude. They also float you on the surface in a more comfortable position. However, jacket-style BCs are bulky when compared to back-buoyancy BCs, and some styles can cause body squeeze when fully inflated.
Back-Buoyancy BCs are more streamlined and put all their inflation behind you. With back-buoyancy BCs you’ll never suffer from body squeeze, and the separation of air cell from harness on some models allows you to mix and match. However, with back-buoyancy BCs the positioning of ballast and trim weights is critical for maintaining stability and a good swimming attitude. Get it wrong and you’ll be constantly fighting a tendency to roll or pitch. On the surface, a comfortable floating position is usually achieved by minimizing rather than maximizing inflation.
Hybrid BCs usually feature a rear air bladder balanced by some additional buoyancy around the waist. Hybrids tend to be stable at depth and comfortable on the surface but offer a bit more bulk in the waist area than a back-buoyancy BC.
Our Advice: This is an important piece of equipment that you can expect to use for many years. Don't skimp; go for quality. Test as many different models as you can in real diving situations before buying. Rent them if you have to.
How Much BC Lift Do you Need?
Tropical Diving (with little or no wetsuit protection) - 12 to 24 pounds
Recreational Diving (with a full wetsuit or dry suit) - 20 to 40 pounds
Technical Diving (or diving under other demanding conditions) - 40 to 80 pounds
Check out our 2013 BC Gear Guide.
Buying Tips: Regulators
The good news: Among major-label regulators — the kind sold in dive stores — there is no junk. Regulators have been perfected to the point that even budget regulators can offer high performance. However, you must do your homework before buying this vital piece of gear.
What It Does: Converts the high-pressure air in your tank to ambient pressure so you can breathe it. A regulator must also deliver air to other places, such as your BC inflator and alternate second stage.
What to Look For: The best regulators can deliver a high volume of air at depth, under heavy exertion even at low tank pressures. Some regulators also have diver-controlled knobs and switches to aid this process, so it's important to understand the controls and how they work. Look for a comfortable mouthpiece and have your local dive store select hoses of the right length for you.
Here are some features you should be familar with before you purchase your first reg:
GENERAL You can’t breathe directly from a scuba tank because the high pressure gas would damage your lungs. Hence, the need for a regulator. A reg is made up of the first stage, which reduces gas from high pressure to intermediate pressure, and the second stage, which reduces intermediate pressure to ambient pressure for on-demand delivery to the diver.
THE HOSE First and second stages are connected via an interstage hose. These hoses commonly have a rubberized outer layer, but braided hoses have recently become popular because they are lightweight, flexible and coil easily.
MATERIALS Second stage casings are normally made of thermoplastic polymers, although metal or partial-metal casings are not uncommon. Internal hard parts are usually made from stainless steel. Some higher-end models use titanium, which is corrosion-resistant and lightweight.
FIRST STAGE Made from chrome-plated brass and sometimes titanium, the first stage attaches to the cylinder via either a yoke or DIN fitting and reduces tank pressure from around 3,000 psi to an intermediate pressure from an average of 125 to 145 psi.
USER CONTROLS The dive/pre-dive switch is useful in preventing free-flows on the surface. The breathing resistance knob can be used to tune out positive pressure and free-flows caused by current, or modulate work of breathing as depth increases.
1. Piston and diaphragm. These are two approaches to first stage design that accomplish the same goal. One design uses a rigid piston to move air, the other a soft diaphragm. Both have been around for decades and are proven performers; however, diaphragm systems are often preferred by divers who frequent cold or contaminated waters.
2. Unbalanced, balanced or over-balanced. Unbalanced first stages are low-cost but don’t compensate for tank pressure changes, so as the SPG’s needle drops breathing resistance increases. Balanced first stages are able to maintain a steady intermediate pressure, regardless of cylinder pressure, so breathing will be as easy at 500 psi as it is at 3,000 psi. Over-balanced first stages take it a step further by progressively increasing intermediate pressure as depth and gas density increases.
3. Number of ports. More ports provide more hose routing options. Some regs have only one high-pressure port and just a few low-pressure ports; for some divers this is enough, but divers who like to hook up redundant systems or who dive in a drysuit will need more.
4. DIN vs. yoke. The yoke fitting screws down over the standard K-valve found on most aluminum 80s, while a DIN fitting screws into a special threaded DIN valve. DIN fittings are more compact, attach to the tank more securely and are designed to withstand higher pressures. The DIN fitting is more common in Europe, the yoke fitting is more common in the U.S.
5. Environmental kits. These kits keep water out of the first stage, preventing contamination in dirty water or icing in cold water. Keeping water out can also reduce the need for maintenance.
Our Advice: You've got to do your homework to find the best regulator available for your budget. Talk to dive store personnel, experienced divers and read ScubaLab's objective, scientific tests and ratings. Try as many regulators as you can in real-world diving situations. Breathing on a regulator in a dive store tells you nothing about how it will perform under water.
Check out our 2013 Regulators Gear Guide.
Buying Tips: Dive Computers
Nobody enjoys working the dive tables, but they're an invaluable tool for safe diving. Dive computers are an even better tool for the same reason a laptop is better than a slide rule.
What They Do: By constantly monitoring depth and bottom time, dive computers automatically recalculate your no-decompression status, giving you longer dive times while still keeping you within a safe envelope of no-decompression time. Computers can also monitor your ascent rate and tank pressure, tell you when it's safe to fly, log your dives and much more. That's why dive computers are almost as common as depth gauges these days.
What to Look For: User-friendliness. The most feature-packed dive computer does you no good if you can't easily and quickly access the basic information you need during a dive: depth, time, decompression status and tank pressure. Some models have both numeric and graphic displays for at-a-glance information.
Mounting options are an important feature to consider and let you position computers on your wrist, gauge console, hoses or attach them to BCs.
Some computers are conservative in their calculations, automatically building in safety margins; others take you to the edge of decompression and trust you to build in your own safety margins.
Before you buy, ask to see the owner's manual and check it out. Complete and easy-to-understand instructions are important, especially on feature-packed machines.
Here are some features you should be familiar with before you purchase your first dive computer:
BUTTONS Allow you to navigate through a dive computer’s menu system. Generally, the more buttons there are, the easier it is to set programming parameters and move from one mode to another.
DATA DISPLAY Depth and no-decompression limits are considered the most important information a diver needs while under water, so on most computers this data is the most prominent on the screen, displayed in large bold digits that are easy to see.
TISSUE LOADING BAR GRAPH Provides quick-reference to dive status by graphically illustrating when you’re in the Safe (no deco) zone, the Caution (approaching deco) zone, or when you’ve entered the Deco zone.
AIR INTEGRATION Lets you monitor air consumption and dive status, at the same, on the same screen. Normally found on console computers, this feature is also available on some wrist-mount models through the use of hoseless transmitters.
CONSOLE DC Connects to your reg via a high pressure hose like traditional mechanical-gauge consoles, but provides depth, air and dive data on a digitized screen. Popular because divers are accustomed to the console concept, plus they use extra-large screens that are easy to read at depth.
WRIST-MOUNT DC While more compact than console computers, they still provide large and easy-to-read screens. An even smaller version is the wristwatch-style, which combines the time-keeping functions of a topside watch with dive computing functions.
Our Advice: Begin with an honest evaluation of your diving needs — do you plan to use mixed gases someday to do decompression diving? Study the features of different computers and choose the one that offers the mix of features you need at the best price.
Check out our 2013 Dive Computers Gear Guide.
Where Should You Buy Gear?
Scuba equipment can be purchased in dive stores, at other retail outlets, by mail order or as used equipment from private parties.
Private party. Buying used gear from a private party may be the cheapest possible way to go, but provides absolutely no guarantees. Unless you are extremely knowledgeable or an equipment technician, you will not know if a regulator, for example, can even be serviced. You will also not have any performance data. The seller's statement that the regulator "breathes fine" and your breathing on it out of the water are both meaningless. We recommend not buying used life-support equipment from private parties.
Nondive store retail outlets. Sporting goods and discount stores may have scuba gear for sale. Some of these stores actually have scuba departments and should be considered dive stores. However, most are simply retail outlets and cannot provide the service, support and expertise that a dive store can. Other than price, there is no reason to buy at these nondive store outlets. And even price may not be an advantage since name-brand gear can often be purchased at dive stores at discount prices.
Mail order. Catalog buying is a popular and useful way to shop, particularly when some products are not available locally or may be purchased through a catalog for significantly less money (including shipping and handling charges). But buying scuba gear through the mail is not like buying a sweater from a clothing catalog. In particular, our concerns are these:
• Diver life-support products should not be sold to unqualified buyers.
• Dive gear should not be sold when operating incorrectly.
• Gear should not be sold to a diver without regard to proper fit and function.
• Little service or support is available by mail order, and gear that is not purchased locally may not be able to be serviced locally and may have no warranty.
Dive Stores. Retail dive stores have been the focal point of local dive support since recreational diving became popular. Your local dive store can provide instruction, dive travel, local dives, inspection and repair services, compressed air, rental equipment, equipment advice and the opportunity to look at, feel, compare and test equipment before purchase. In addition, the store can back up products immediately if necessary. Personal contact is also an important part of a dive store's value. In short, a dive store is in a better position than a mail-order dealer to provide the service and support you need and should expect.
For the definitive guide to the latest and greatest dive gear on the market today, read our 2013 Gear Buyers Guide.