A Starter’s Guide to Scuba Equipment

Steve diving upside down

I started researching scuba equipment immediately after completing my open water course. Sports equipment has always been my kryptonite – I always want to have my own swag, even after my first dives.

Equipment Considerations

Buying your own set of gear may be a profitable move in the long run, but it could end up as a sunken cost (no pun intended). Before you whip out your credit card, you should have an idea of how frequently you plan to dive. If it’s less than one dive trip a year, you’re better off renting your equipment or purchasing a few key items.

On top of being expensive, diving equipment takes up a lot of real estate. This may not be a problem if you’re lucky enough to live at a diving destination. For the rest of us, it may be unreasonable to pack everything for a short trip. My gear, without weights, fits in one large and unwieldy duffel bag that must be checked on an airplane. The additional baggage costs can add up, and hauling an awkward bag around the airport isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.

A French Angelfish with coral

You also have to consider maintenance. It’s really important to regularly service regulators, buoyancy control devices (BCDs), and tanks. If you aren’t diving frequently enough, these are further added costs that you may not want to take on.

Order of Importance

I’ve put this buying guide together to help any diver, whether you’re starting from scratch or looking for your next upgrade. I list each piece of equipment in what I believe is the best purchasing sequence. I consider necessity, affordability, transportability, and required maintenance.

Note: this list targets readers who do a significant amount of destination diving. If you do most of your diving at home, you can take transportability concerns out of the equation.

1. Mask

Wearing an unfamiliar mask is like driving someone else’s car for the first time. It gets the job done but it doesn’t feel natural. You also don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars on a mask in order to find one that works properly.

Close up of Katie underwater

2. Dive Computer (or Waterproof Watch)

This is a rather expensive item for the top of the list, and with good reason. Diving from the RDP tables are ridiculously conservative because you don’t usually stay at one depth for an entire dive. A dive computer takes your previous dives and the depths of your current dive into account when determining your no stop time. It also aids you in completing a safety stop.

For those who would like a more cost effective option: purchase a waterproof watch with timing capabilities. As long as you use a regulator with a depth gauge, you can still complete a safety stop without the help of another diver. It is important to have this capability in case you need to ascend by yourself.

Pre-dive buddy check on the boat

3. Fins and Snorkel

Going back to the car analogy: imagine that you are accelerating onto a highway. Most people would rather do this with a Ferrari over a Prius. Think of your fins in the same way: higher quality gear gives you a better kick underwater. Rental fins pale in comparison with basic (but decent) scuba fins. If you choose to get strap fins, make sure to also invest in a pair of neoprene boots.

As for the snorkel… well I actually hate diving with a snorkel. Despite this, I still advocate for owning one in case you go snorkeling at a diving destination with non-divers. I personally love snorkeling, and what diver doesn’t want the chance to practice their free diving skills? If you also dislike diving with the snorkel, don’t waste your money on anything too fancy.

4. Diver’s Alert Network (DAN)

DAN is a membership community that promotes diver safety through research, services, and information resources. They also sell dive insurance at an affordable price, which allows you to be medically covered in the case of a recreational diving accident. At the current time of writing, these plans range from $40 to $125 annually.

Waves from the dive boat

DAN plans cover emergency transportation and hyperbaric chamber services, which are usually uncovered in your regular health insurance plan. Just as you would mitigate risk with your health, you would want to reduce risk from a dive accident.

5. Surface Marker and Metal Double-Ended Snap Clip

You probably didn’t expect these items on the list. I believe that every diver should have a surface marker buoy (SMB) that can be inflated at the surface. The reason: the existence of boats and jet skis, neither of which are things that I fully trust in tourist areas. If you have to ascend from a dive by yourself for any reason, you will want to inflate your SMB at the surface in order to make yourself visible to nearby traffic. It will also make it easier for your own boat to spot you.

You’ll notice that your instructor or Divemaster will put up an SMB as well, usually underwater and with a reel. An air-inflated SMB at the surface will suffice for non-professional divers, and you won’t need to use it if you remain with the main group. If you find yourself alone without an SMB, you can always take off one fin and use it as a signal, assuming a weak surface current.

Pre-dive safety check on the boat

As for the metal double-ended snap clip, this does two things: a) it attaches your SMB to your BCD and b) it can be used as a noisemaker. Just detach the clip and bang it against your tank. Simple but very effective.

6. Regulator

I had a hard time determining whether a regulator or a wetsuit was more important to a beginner. These could honestly go either way.

When you have your own regulator, you understand exactly how it’s supposed to work. You have a feel for its sensitivity at the surface and at depth, and you know exactly when it was last serviced. Some people also just prefer it for sanitary reasons. Regulators are more transportable than wetsuits and BCDs, especially if you store them in a separate bag.

7. Wetsuit

Let’s be real: Rental wetsuits are pretty gross. They get used almost daily by a wide array of different people, and you don’t even want to think of the number of times they have been peed in. When you have your own wetsuit, you know for a fact that your urine is the only bodily fluid that has saturated the neoprene. There’s also the benefit of proper fit and exposure, but we know those reasons are secondary to the pee factor.

Steve on the boat pre-dive

8. Buoyancy Control Device (BCD)

It may come as a shock that a BCD is as far down as it is on this the list. BCDs are expensive, take up a lot of space when packed, and require maintenance. There are fewer sanitation concerns, compared to those with wetsuits and regulators.

I’m not saying that this isn’t an important piece of equipment, but you may want to invest in one only when you know for a fact that you are able to dive regularly.

9. Scuba Bag

If you’ve bought items 1 through 8, you officially have enough swag to require your own scuba bag. There are a number of shoulder or rolling styles, some with a plastic mesh and others using sturdy cloth. If you can find one, go for a bag that doesn’t include a scuba brand label on it. Those tend to send the ‘expensive equipment can be found here’ message, which can attract thieves.

10. Pressure Gauge and Octo Holders

These aren’t technically necessary to complete a dive, but they support you in establishing good diving practices. Clipping your hoses improves your trim and reduces your impact with the underwater environment.

Final Thoughts

This list serves as a guideline to help give you some sort of prioritization when thinking about your investments. Are you an experienced diver? If so, would you rank equipment purchases in this order or do you have a different opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

If you haven’t even gone on your first dive yet, feel free to check out my open water diver course guide. You can also read up on my tips for first-time divers, all things that I wish that I had known.

Disclaimer: This guide is based on my own experiences and opinions. It should not be treated as an official document.

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