What equipment should new divers expect to buy?
The question...What should I buy, and when should I buy it?
There is no "correct" answer that would be equipment choices are best for everyone. However, there are some guidelines. First, You don’t want to make a mistake in the selection of your gear because it will likely last a very long time. Now, to avoid mistakes, it is necessary to gain familiarity with the equipment options before the purchase is made. This seems to be contradictory to the "special" plan that many dive shops offer with certification classes. The answer: Forget any special plan that requires a significant purchase prior to certification. Find another dive shop if they require you to buy any equipment that the shop could supply to you from their rental stock. If they have it available for rent, it should be available for classes. A student can expect to buy mask, fins, snorkel, weights, etc., which are relatively low cost items. They can even borrow them from friends! In my opinion, the shop should supply all expensive gear such as tanks, regulators, BCs, etc., as well as accessories such as compasses.
After certification, rent equipment for a while. Try different brands, or styles, especially in the case of BCs. Read a few dive magazines to get an idea about features that are offered by competitive brands or models. Don’t rely very much on reviews of products. I’ve read great reviews about regulators, and found that the technician that overhauls them hates them because they aren’t reliable. Talk to the staff at the dive shops to find out what they use. Dive shops often carry multiple brands and recommend one brand of BC and another brand regulator. One manufacturer isn’t likely to offer the best of all products.
Mail order? You have to keep in mind that some items require periodic service. Those items are probably better purchased where you plan to get them serviced. However, those items that don’t require service by the shop can usually be purchased by mail order. I tend to limit my mail order purchases to well known brands if service is expected. You hear a lot about the risk of buying "life support equipment" by mail order. Well, if the equipment comes to your house by UPS instead of to the local dive shop by UPS, where is the added risk? It isn’t there. The real question is the quality of the product purchased, and availability of service. It is a good idea to buy from your shop, even if they are a little more expensive. They won’t be there for you if they have no customers.
What do I use? The brands aren’t as important as matching the fit and function to you and your diving habits, but I’ll tell you about the features I like. I have quite a mixture of brands.
Don’t buy them until you find yourself wanting to go on dives with no time to rent tanks, or start diving in areas where you can conveniently carry your own tanks to the site. Air travel with tanks is usually a big problem. Another reason to buy tanks is that you want to go where refills aren’t available. I own several tanks because I might go offshore at 6:00AM after a phone call the night before. You might consider buying tanks after you have purchased other equipment with which you can travel easier, and that you prefer not to rent.
You will want a "high performance" regulator for effortless breathing. When you get ready to buy, try models above and below the price range that you are considering. If the difference in performance between the model you are considering and the next model up isn’t noticeable, you are probably on target. If the next model up breathes much easier, you might want to save a little longer to get the better model.
I also prefer the adjustable regulators. When on the surface, I de-tune it to prevent free flow if I drop it in the water. When at depth, I tune it for effortless breathing. My first regulator was fixed, and it bubbles occasionally if I drop it in the water at the surface. It works great at depth, as do other non-adjustable regulators. But, I saved a little money on the first regulator and ended up buying a second later to get the adjustment. It isn’t a big issue, but it makes sense to buy what you want the first time.
I don’t care much for the configuration that requires the diver to donate his primary regulator to a recipient, then switch to a second stage located on the end of the low pressure inflator hose. This configuration requires the donor to take action to deliver the air, and the standard method allows the recipient who needs air to take the octopus from an inattentive donor. There is also a potential delay in receiving air caused by the need for the donor to catch a breath and give up the regulator.
In the confusion of switching to the backup, I’ve alsoseen a diver grab the snorkel instead of the regulator. The are very close to each other. This mistake is more probable with new divers who aren’t used to their gear’s "feel". In any case, the result can be disastrous, and the risk is not worth the convenience of the integrated second stage.
Buoyancy Control Device (BC, or BCD)
There are as many reasons to pick a BC as there are BCs. This is a highly personal decision. I use a BC that has flotation on the back. It can tend to float you face down when full, but it isn’t normally a problem. The benefit for me is that a full BC doesn’t restrict access to the contents of the pockets where I carry de-fog and spare lights. Study the advertisements for BCs in magazines and catalogs before you buy. Pick the features that you like for your personal diving plans. Obviously, adequate floatation is necessary. Your shop can help you select the model that best meets your needs. Ask them if you can try one out in the pool.
My wetsuits are 3 mil one-piece suits (full and shorty), and a 5 mil Farmer John. The Farmer John is more versatile. You can wear either piece, or both in cold water. I solved the warm water problem by buying a diveskin for minimal protection. A thick sleeveless sweatshirt helps in the really cold water with the 3 mil suits. Drysuits are much more comfortable than wetsuits in colder water. I use a 3 mil suit down to 68 degrees F (20 C) with reasonable comfort, but everyone’s tolerance is different. I’ve wished I had a drysuit in 80 degreeF ( 25 C ) water several times. Drysuits work by having a slight amount of positive air pressure to keep water out, so you need extra weights to get back to neutral buoyancy. Anyone considering the purchase of a drysuit should get special training in their use. Imagine getting the extra air in the legs of the suit making the feet very buoyant. It could happen!
I have several, including the conventional web and brick type, and the padded belt with lead shot in bags. It is expensive to lose the padded belts, so the standard type can be considered more expendable. Ladies tend to find the padded belts are a great deal more comfortable on the hips. Even though the weight isn’t a problem underwater, the BC might push the belt against the hips and become uncomfortable.
I have a stache.. My first $75 mask leaked, so I bought one with a purge valve thinking my stache was the problem. It wasn’t. The new mask didn’t leak. Now I have several masks, each with a unique feature that I thought was worth a look. I find that a good fit, a wide field of vision, and low profile are good characteristics to look for. When trying on a mask, inhale through your nose and try to hold the mask to your face without the mask strap on. If it pulls tight, it should fit. A neoprene mask strap is clearly superior to the plastic straps. They don’t pull your hair at all. I highly recommend them.
You will only use it when resting on the surface, so consider it less important than the mask. I might spend a little more on the mask and compromise on the snorkel if my budget is a concern. I strongly prefer the type that has the flexible tube that straightens to get out of the way of the regulator.
No purchase is more subjective than this one. It is important that the knife be stainless steel or titanium, have a hook for cutting monofilament line, one serrated edge for cutting rope, and a smooth edge. A good positive retainer is critical to prevent the loss of the knife. Clean the knife with fresh water and apply a light lubricant to it after every trip.
I carry two small lights in my BC at all times, with a large light at night. This allows me to look into dark areas in daylight and provides two spares at night. One backup is fairly small (6 "C" cells), but adequate for night diving, the other (AA batteries) allows a controlled ascent if both primary lights fail at night. The idea of two primary lights and one backup has saved several night dives. Also, I don’t use Ni-Cad batteries because they fail rapidly when discharge is reached. Alkalines decay over several dives and won’t likely leave you in the dark. They are more expensive over the long term, but not when compared to the cost of a great night dive aborted due to unexpected battery discharge.
I don’t dive without carrying a compass where I can’t see a reference. The bearing to land (or another reference) is always recorded on my slate at the beginning of the dive. I prefer the direct reading compass since it is more like the kind I learned to use in Boy Scouts. I like to remind people that they can determine which way is up if they can see through their mask ( the bubbles), and they can find their way to the bank (in the lake) using a pre-recorded bearing. It is a good habit to develop.
This one is complex. Practice and use those tables! As a well known diver I know often says, the best computer is between your ears. Having repeated that pearl of wisdom, I’ll add that the use of a dive computer is a great assist in knowing your actual status with regard to nitrogen absorption. The tables are designed to plan your worst case dive profile. The computer gives you credit for the lower N2 absorption during the time you were well above the planned depth. Don’t push your limits with a computer. The magic No-Deco limit on the computer is not a guaranteed limit. A little extra margin of safety is always good.
Look for one that has a long battery life and/or user replaceable batteries. Computers that display tank pressure sometimes use significantly more power than those that don’t. My air-integrated (reads air pressure) computer lasts 2 weekends while others last 5 years. My backup computer battery lasts a very long time and I can replace it myself.
Well, that’s about it for my second draft of my suggestions. I added the section on fins as a result of questions. Feel free to send me your comments or experience with equipment selection. I’m not opposed to adding information supplied by others. After all, everything I know was told to me by someone else. Dive safely.