Sidemount Diving – the whole story
Unless you’ve been living in the International Space Station for the last 8-10 years, surely you’ve heard of sidemount configuration. Surely, you’ve even seen a few divers using this configuration. Over the next few paragraphs, I am going to give you a bit of a rundown of what this is. Let’s start…
How did sidemount diving start?
Sidemount diving is by no means a new thing. It was started by British cavers back in the 1960’s. When they were doing exploration in sumps, they needed equipment that was light weight and small enough to get past tight underwater passages that lead to the next dry section of the caves. Needless to say, carrying around back mounted double tanks, was not an option. Since the dives were not long, and the dives themselves were simply a way to get from point A to point B, the harnesses were somewhat crude, had no buoyancy control, sometimes they didn’t even carry fins. They simply needed a means to attach a tank and a regulator to themselves (outer thigh) with a belt and a cam band and that’s it.
In the 1970’s, Florida cave divers refined these crude systems, added buoyancy control and made the systems so that they allowed them to do extended exploration dives in the Florida caves. The tanks were moved up from being attached to the thigh to being attached at the hip, then up the torso. This allowed for improved trim which in turn allowed the divers to do their dives with more comfort. They continued to improve on their system individually as there were no commercially available harnesses at the time. Everything was DIY.
In the 1990’s we saw the first commercially available sidemount harnesses.
The early part of the 2000’s saw the boom of the sidemount configuration. The Armadillo Harness was developed, and many of today’s harnesses follow that design. It had bungee anchoring for the tank valves. a bottom routed inflator on the wing, buttplates, etc.
From the mid 2000’s till now, a myriad of harnesses have been made commercially available, with many divers still embracing the DIY ethos.
So what makes Sidemount Diving so special?
Sidemount diving to many, is more than a simple configuration of equipment. It is an entire philosophy for diving. Going a step beyond DIR (albeit without the dogma attached) of only taking what is absolutely necessary on a dive to make yourself as streamlined as possible with very little chance of getting snagged or tangled on a cave line, and being able to pass through small restricted passages in caves (keep in mind, this configuration was originally thought out for cave exploration). However, it goes far beyond that.
Sidemount diving allows the properly trained diver to improve his/her trim, buoyancy and air consumption. It allows some of us who may be getting a bit older or who just don’t want to walk around with big heavy tanks strapped to our backs to kit up in the water and get out of our gear in the water as well with ease.
As each tank is independent from each other, gas management does become a bit more complex, but emergency management becomes safer and easier because we have access to the valves right in front of us.
Now the beauty of sidemount is that you do not necessarily have to carry two tanks. You can sidemount a single tank, or even multiple tanks for technical diving.
I myself have been diving for over 25 years (about 10 of which I have been doing cave and technical diving)… I wish I had discovered this configuration sooner!
Should I take a course to learn sidemount diving?
While you can probably pick up the basics of sidemounting on your own, it is important that an instructor teaches you all the nuances of diving in this configuration. After all, you’ve trusted an instructor to teach you other aspects of SCUBA diving, correct?
Most SCUBA diving training agencies have a sidemount program. TDI, SDI, IANTD, SSI, PSAI and even PADI have sidemount training programs. Some are good, and frankly, some are just atrocious. In my opinion, the best way to learn proper sidemount techniques is to take a course with an instructor who is an expert in sidemounting.
How do I know good vs bad sidemount techniques?
Allow me to illustrate. Obviously, the faces of these subjects will be blurred to protect both the innocent and the guilty.
Let’s start with the bad…
Notice in all of these pictures, the tanks are completely out of whack… Even though the trim on the first 2 photos is ok, the tank position is just horrible! This happens because as Aluminum tanks empty, they tend to become more buoyant so tanks need to be repositioned to prevent looking like this. Also, in some, you will notice horrible hose routing due to improper regulators, and improper hose lengths.
Now let’s look at some good examples of proper sidemounting techniques.
If you notice on all 3 of these pictures, tanks are in-line with the body, hoses are properly routed, valves are pointing inwards and first stages are protected by the diver’s body. This creates a neat, streamlined configuration. Mind you, all 3 of the photo subjects are experienced cave and sidemount instructors.
So what is the best sidemount rig for me?
There are many sidemount harnesses and wings. Some are manufactured by very large equipment manufacturers, and some divers choose to make their own rigs. Some of the most notable commercially available systems are the Razor Harness, the Ultimate SM Harness, the XDeep (in its Classic, Rec and Tec variants), Apeks WTX-25, Hollis SMS50 and the UTD Z-System. These are all sidemount specific rigs that are proven and tested.
Then we have several other rigs that are not sidemount specific such as the Hollis SMS (75 &100 variants), DiveRite Nomad (several variants) amongst others. .
There are several differences between these systems. For starters, most SM specific rigs use harnesses that are custom sized and wings that provide lift only in places where lift needs to be provided. They have no extra rings, clips, or unneeded accessories (there are exceptions though), whereas multi-use rigs can be used for sm, single tank backmount or double tank backmount. They have massive wings, loads of extra stuff that is really not needed in most sidemount diving scenarios. They can also be quite cumbersome and large. Especially if you are diving with Aluminum tanks (as is the case with most tropical diving destinations). Not to say that they don’t have a purpose and a use with steel tanks for example (but even that can be done with SM specific rigs like the Razor and Xdeep Tech).
I don’t personally endorse any one brand. But I can tell you what I use (Razor SM system with Apeks DS4 regulators, and I have an Ultimate SM harness with a DECO 20lb bladder, as well as Razor harness with a UTD Z-Harness). So it is very important that when you choose an instructor for your Sidemount Diver Course, you choose one with experience with different systems. Not just one, and that they don’t just advocate one particular training system and brand of equipment.
It doesn’t matter if you are going to progress into techinical diving or you wish to stay completely recreational after your sidemount training. Getting proper training is the best way to ensure that you will be a well rounded sidemount diver!