Sidemount diving has become incredibly popular over the last few years, both for recreational and technical divers. Simultaneously, the number of courses and available equipment choices have multiplied as well. But for many sidemount diving fans, the real learning curve starts after they certify. And it doesn’t end any time soon. Here’s why.
Setting up your sidemount diving rig
Basic sidemount classes tend to take two or three days and the number of dives you’ll do in the course varies. Both TDI and PADI stipulate a minimum of three dives. However, the learning starts long before students hit the water: equipment setup is a crucial part of the class and can take a surprisingly long time.
The toughest thing about diving in sidemount configuration is also the best thing about it — everything is adjustable. Every change affects a diver’s buoyancy, trim and comfort underwater. Starting with the harness itself and moving on to the tank rigging and positioning of weights, every adjustment makes a difference.
As a rule, the more adjustable your harness, the longer the setup is likely to take. So, why not just buy a less-adjustable harness? Because as divers continue on their sidemount journey, potentially executing longer dives and adding more tanks, having a harness that is perfectly adjusted will make an incredible difference to their underwater comfort level. A more-adjustable harness means divers can reach and shift their tanks easily, whether they are aluminum tanks getting lighter during the dive or steel tanks being pushed through restrictions.
These adjustments are not something that a diver can master over the course of two or three dives. A basic course will teach you what to look for, but if you are even a little bit of a perfectionist (most tech divers are) you will spend many more dives making adjustments — and enjoying it.
And that’s only the harness. Next, you’ll want to connect that harness to your tanks. A diver’s choice of tank rigging and its placement on the tanks — as well as the type of tanks — will also determine underwater comfort.
The main difference when it comes to tanks is whether you’re diving aluminum or steel. Aluminum tanks will be significantly lighter at the end of the dive and rise up on the diver’s side. Steel tanks, on the other hand, mostly retain their buoyancy characteristics at the end of a dive even though they are emptying of gas.
In locations where steel tanks are common, sidemount divers typically attach their tanks to the butt-plate of their harness. Divers with aluminum tanks tend to use D-rings on their hip and near the belt buckle. And this is where things get intricate: it’s about more than finding the perfect position for those D-rings — every small adjustment makes a difference. D-rings can, for example, be adjustable, moving along the belt and allowing inch-by-inch adjustments. Overkill? Not if you’re planning to spend hours diving that harness and want to be really comfortable.
Smaller divers often prefer low-profile D-rings, which will keep the tanks closer to the body. Rigid, slanted D-rings are often located on a harness’ shoulder straps but used on the belt they will help restrict tank movement too.
Finally, there is the tank rigging. Looking at pictures of sidemount diving from even just a few years ago, you’ll see that individual divers or instructors made their own rigging based on the requirements of their environment. In remote areas, much depended on material availability. This approach remains valid today, as a primary benefit of setting up your own rigging system means you can fine-tune its position on the tank during a dive.
However, as sidemount diving’s popularity has grown, so too have the number of off-the-shelf products. Pre-made rigging, including cam straps, bungees and chokers, can help make that initial setup easier. However, underwater adjustments will be more difficult as the individual components are interconnected.
Truly getting into sidemount diving means getting into gear and starting to personalize it. These skills reach far beyond initial training and will take a while to master. Committed sidemount divers will admit to having spent dozens, if not hundreds of dives, fine-tuning their rigs. On advanced or technical sidemount courses, an equipment clinic is often part of the curriculum before you add tanks and gases. Pursuing continuing education is well worth your time when it comes to setting up your own sidemount diving rig.