Every new diver faces the issue of whether to buy new equipment immediately to use during their lessons, or to use the shop's rental gear. There's no single answer, as the issue depends on your budget and risk tolerance. So let's explore your alternatives.
Whether you are gearing up for diving in BC or in tropical warm water, there are four categories of gear that you will be needing and using:
- Personal gear - mask, snorkel, fins.
- Scuba unit - regulator, BCD, lead weights, air cylinders.
- Exposure protection - wetsuit, drysuit, undergarments, hood, gloves, booties.
- Accessories - tools, safety equipment, communication aids, hobbies and spare parts including: computer, compass, dive light, knife, slate, signalling sausage, marine radio/GPS locator, gear bags, tool box, etc.
The cost of fully equipping yourself for diving in BC can easily reach $5,000 for middle-of-the-road quality, so you will likely prefer to budget and accumulate your gear incrementally. What factors should you consider and what should your priorities be?
- Firstly, you must understand that whether you own or rent the gear you carry into the ocean there will always be some risk of equipment malfunction. Dive shop rental gear is by definition used gear, much of which needs regular maintenance and repair. Some rental gear is very old and all of it gets mistreated. We strongly urge you to fully inspect and test all rental gear before you take it into the ocean. Don't trust blindly. If you don't like some piece of equipment you've been given, ask for a different one. And if you decide to buy some gear, recognize that you are taking on the responsibility to service and maintain it to manufacturer standards.
- Secondly, whether you own or rent your gear, dive gear can and does break down, and it does malfunction. Busy dive shops all over the world often fail to notice or consciously ignore deteriorating or malfunctioning equipment. Scary but true. Often, no repairs or maintenance are performed before the equipment experiences a failure. Believe me.....I have many stories about rental gear failures from my own experiences as an instructor and international traveller, including gear failures underwater. But you can mitigate a lot of risk and disappointment by using your own gear and servicing it regularly.
- Pricing is important, but buying from the internet costs you more over the full lifecycle of the equipment. It's smart to establish an ongoing relationship with a dive shop operator. Buy your gear and get it serviced at the same place. You will not only be better informed, you will get better, faster service and pay lower gear maintenance costs than if you buy your gear from the internet and then try to find someone qualified and licensed to service it.
1 Buy a premium, well-fitting mask and spare mask strap. $100-150. It will last you 10 years or more. It fits easily into luggage. You can also use it for snorkelling. Nothing sucks the fun out of diving more than an ill-fitting leaky mask. Every diver has a unique facial profile, nose shape and size and visual acuity. It's imperative that you wear a mask that fits, feels comfortable and allows you to see everything that you need and want to see. Some models will accept prescription lenses, which usually cost an extra $200.
Snorkels cost $30 to $80.Unless you plan to do a lot of snorkelling, buy the cheapest snorkel you can find and a spare snorkel holder made of soft rubber/silicone, not hard plastic. Plastic snorkel holders break. The retail markup on snorkels is crazy, and for most divers it's not worth the expense to buy a premium dry snorkel. You can buy a snorkel directly from Chinese manufacturers, on Ebay, for $15 or less, delivered.
2 Buy premium fins, preferably split fins, and a spare fin strap. $200+. Bungie straps and spring straps are worth the extra expense. Diving with split fins will give you a consistent, predictable, soft ride, will minimize overexertion and thigh burn and will therefore maximize your swimming comfort and bottom times. Some fins come with a lifetime replacement warranty on both the fins and the fin straps. You'll never have to buy another pair or pay for maintenance. And you can avoid the spare straps if you get fins with spring or bungie straps.
3 If you decide to take the plunge and invest, buy the gear that you need to be 100% confident in its functionality and reliability, and can take travelling with you anywhere: a regulator with depth and pressure gauges, a compass and a computer. Total $1500-$2000. You'll also need some spare parts and tools for minor maintenance jobs, spare mouthpiece, low pressure hoses and computer battery.
The annual maintenance cost for a regulator is about $100. The regulator delivers air from the cylinder to your lungs for breathing, to your BCD and dry suit for buoyancy control and to your gauge console for monitoring tank pressure. It is imperative that this critical piece of equipment be in tip-top working condition at all times, so if you buy one, be sure to get it serviced annually, whether you're diving actively or only occasionally. If you haven't been diving in 6 months or more, get the regulator inspected before using it.
Most gauge consoles come equipped with an air pressure gauge and a depth gauge. These two gauges can lose their accuracy over time and might eventually need to be replaced. Air pressure gauges can be inaccurate by up to 10% and I know a diver who inadvertently descended to 180 feet although his (rented) depth gauge indicated that he was at 130 feet. The gauge console might or might not contain an integrated compass. If it doesn't, then buy a large, wrist-mounted or retractor-mounted compass. It's standard equipment for anyone who takes the Advanced Open Water course, but everyone ought to develop superior navigation skills right from the start. Recently, I was taking a client on a navigation dive. Their rented gauge console held a compass that was 180 degrees out of whack. So I repeat: if you are renting gear, test all of it before taking it into the ocean.
The highest priority accessory is a dive computer, which gives you real-time data on your depth, bottom time, remaining no-decompression time, surface interval nitrogen desaturation, and much more. Good computers can be purchased for under $400. Before you buy a computer, be sure to learn the details about it's dive table algorithm. Some computers have extremely conservative dive tables that might unnecessarily restrict your bottom times and safe ascent rates. Your dive computer will become your primary depth gauge, with the console's depth gauge becoming your backup in the event of a computer failure.
4 Buy a main dive light, a small backup light, a knife tool and a writing slate next, to see true colours, keep track of dive plan details, carry a useful tool underwater and support better buddy communication. $500-$700 total.
5 It's not critical to have your own BCD, but rentals should be thoroughly inspected and tested before use. Most dive shops offer regulator/BCD package deals that offer some savings over buying them separately, but if your budget forces you to choose between a BCD and a computer, buy the computer first. BCD's cost $500-700, with annual maintenance cost of $100. The two main styles of BCD are the jacket and the harness/wing styles. Jackets will have the air bladder positioned mostly around your torso area, whereas harness styles have the bladder in the back, behind you. Harness styles are less constricting on your chest, whereas fully-inflated jackets can feel tight and constrict your breathing. The two styles can have different characteristics in the water. Harnesses might tend to make you face-plant on the surface while keeping you more horizontal when underwater. There are advantages and disadvantages to each style, but serious divers tend to prefer the harness.
6 Lastly, exposure protection can be rented in BC waters until you commit to being an active diver. For tropical diving, I recommend that you buy your own wetsuit, to ensure proper fit and function as well as for hygienic reasons. Most dive shops never sterilize or disinfect their rental wetsuits between uses, which I find gross because of the dead skin and urine. But, hey, that's my hangup.
Ocean temperatures can vary from around 30C near the equator to 6C at depth in BC during the Winter season. As an international diver, I have two drysuits and two wetsuits in my gear chest, along with several pairs of booties, hoods and an entire bag devoted exclusively to gloves. It can sometimes be difficult to find a rental exposure suit that fits you properly unless you are very close to a standard size. Improperly-fitting exposure protection won't keep you warm, and loose dry suit seals will result in leaks and flooding.
Dry suits require regular maintenance and repairs. Neck and wrist seals wear out and fail in about 100 dives. Inflator and deflator valves eventually start to leak. Zippers wear out and break. If you buy a dry suit, expect to spend $1500-3000 for suit, booties, hood and neoprene gloves, and an average of $200 per year on maintenance. I recommend dry glove systems, especially in the Winter.
If you buy a shell style suit, you will need to wear base layers and heavy undergarments. Most people will already own some of these items, but it's definitely worth spending $500 on a good quality undergarment.
Very few active divers wear a wetsuit in BC, but the best time of year to wear one is in the Summer. A heavy integrated wetsuit (suit + hood), or semi-dry suit, booties and neoprene gloves will be about $1000. The problem with wearing a wetsuit in BC is that for most of the year it's difficult to warm up between dives. So a diver gets cold much faster on the second dive.
7 Cylinders and weights are virtually identical everywhere and there is no need to own them before becoming a serious and independent diver. Cylinders cost about $250 to buy and $10 per fill. They require an annual inspection as well as hydrostatic testing every 5 years. Most shops will rent full cylinders for about $20 each.
Lead is basically sold by weight, at about 3-5 times the price of the metal. Beware of huge retail markups.
8 Dive shops will typically offer full gear rental for about $100-120 per day. So do your math and weigh all the various factors including your risk tolerance and the number of days per year that you hope to dive.