The Test Team
For the past nine years, Rodale's ScubaLab, an independent testing
facility located on Catalina Island, Calif., has carried out the scuba
industry's only objective, scientific evaluations of scuba equipment. The
You can read ads and catalogs, talk to other divers or sales personnel,
read unqualified reports in other dive publications or on internet
newsgroups and message boards. But none of these will provide you any
objective comparative test results. That's why we test—so you can have
specific and detailed factual data on which to base intelligent buying
decisions of life-support equipment.
The one-pane oval mask of "Sea Hunt" and those old Bond films is
practically a relic. In its place is a variety of styles for a world of
faces. Your job: Choose the one right for yours.
What it Does - The mask creates an air space in front of your
eyes that allows them to focus under water. The nose pocket allows you to
equalize the air pressure in your mask as you go deeper.
What to Look For - A good watertight fit. Our ScubaLab experts
have come up with this six-step plan for foolproof mask fitting:
1. Look up at the ceiling and place the mask on your face without using
the strap. It should rest evenly with no gaps.
2. Place a regulator or snorkel mouthpiece in your mouth. Does the mask
still feel comfortable? Any gaps yet?
3. Look forward. Place the mask on your face without using the strap
and gently inhale through your nose. The mask should seal easily on your
face. Caution: A strong inhale will close minor leak areas and invalidate
4. Repeat the sniff test with a mouthpiece in place.
5. If the mask is still in the running, adjust the strap and put it on
your face. Make sure the nose pocket doesn't touch your nose and that the
skirt feels comfortable on your upper lip.
6. Put the regulator mouthpiece in one more time to make sure you can
easily reach the nose pocket to equalize your ears.
Any mask that passes this test is a potential keeper. You'll find a
whole range of options on masks, including side, top and bottom panes for
a wider field of vision. Some also have purge valves for venting any water
that leaks in, and others have quick strap adjustments. These options (and
a range of color schemes) are a matter of personal preference—just make
sure the mask you choose fits right.
Cost - From $25 to $150.
Our Advice - Clear or light-colored mask skirts let more light
in and are generally more comfortable for new divers. For reviews of masks
tested by ScubaLab, visit
It seems simple enough: a curved tube that lets you breathe while
floating face-down on the surface. Yet, as you look at the giant wall of
snorkels at your local dive store, you'll see an array of options and
features to choose from. Don't worry. Stay focused on the basics.
What It Does - As a diver, you primarily use a snorkel to
conserve air in your tank when on the water's surface.
What to Look For - Comfort. You want a mouthpiece that feels
good in your mouth and breathes dry and easy. The problem is, most
attempts to keep snorkels dry also make them bulkier and harder to breathe
through. The snorkel for you is one with a good compromise between ease of
breathing and dry comfort. Remember, the bigger a snorkel is, the more
drag it creates in the water. Also important: how the snorkel attaches to
your mask. Look for a durable, yet simple and easy-to-operate attachment.
Cost - From $15 to $75.
Our Advice - If you don't plan on doing a lot of snorkeling,
this is the one piece of gear you can skimp on. Get a simple, basic model
and be done with it.
Fish don't have legs for the simple reason that fins are the best way
to move through water. So if you're going to play in the fish's territory,
you need a good set of flippers too.
What They Do - Fins translate power from the large leg muscles
into efficient movement through water, which is 800 times denser than air.
What to Look For - Comfort and efficiency. When trying on fins,
look for a snug fit that doesn't pinch your toes or bind the arches of
your feet. If you can't wiggle your toes, the fins are too small.
Efficiency of fins is largely determined by their size, stiffness and
design. Divers with strong leg and hip muscles can efficiently use a
bigger, stiffer fin. Smaller divers or less conditioned divers will be
more comfortable with smaller, more flexible fins. Finally, make sure
buckles and straps are easy to use.
Cost - $65 to $200.
Our Advice - Don't skimp on fins. Choosing the right pair is
important to prevent muscle fatigue and cramping. Good fins will enhance
your enjoyment of diving; bad ones can ruin it. Read RSD's reviews of fins
Full-Foot or Open-Heel Fins?
- Full-foot fins don't require dive booties and are best suited mainly
for warm waters.
- The straps of open-heel fins can be adjusted for the different
booties you may wear or for different family members and children as
- Open-heel fins require less effort to put on, especially if a pull
tab is added to the strap.
- The dive booties required with open-heel fins also provide foot
protection and comfort while diving and walking.
Exposure Protection Suits
Form-fitting exposure suits are usually made of foam neoprene rubber
(wetsuits) or spandex-like materials (skins), sometimes with a fleece
What They Do - Exposure suits insulate you against the cooling
effect of water, which can rob your body of heat 25 times faster than air.
The thickness and type of exposure protection you need depends on dive
conditions. Simple Lycra suits provide little thermal insulation, but do
help protect against scrapes and stings.
What to Look For - Fit and comfort. Exposure suits should fit
snugly without restricting movement or breathing. Reject any suit that's
too loose, however. Gaps at the arm, leg, crotch and neck allow water to
circulate and defeat the suit's ability to prevent heat loss.
Cost - Wetsuits and skins range from $70 to $650. Dry suits can
cost from $650 to $2,800.
Our Advice - As long as a wetsuit fits correctly, it will do the
job. If you're going the budget route, your choices will usually be
limited to basic models. Bright colors and graphics aren't necessary but
do make you more visible to other divers. For reviews of exposure
protection suits and accessories tested by ScubaLab, go to
Exposure Suit Comfort Zones
75-85F - 1/16" (1.6mm) neoprene, Lycra, Polartec
70-85F - 1/8" (3mm) neoprene
65-75F - 3/16" (5mm) neoprene
50-70F - 1/4" (6.5mm) neoprene
35-65F - 3/8" (9.5mm) neoprene, dry suit
Once you're a newly minted diver, the anxiety you had about buying gear
will likely be replaced with a rush of excitement—a desire to max out the
plastic or convert the Roth IRA into a heap of the latest and greatest in
Fine. Having your own gear is essential to enjoy this sport fully and
to maximize your comfort and safety. Just remember that your experience
with equipment is limited. You've got to study the field and understand
what you want—and need—out of each piece of gear.
The BC is the most complex piece of dive equipment you'll own and one
of the most important. So choose carefully based on the style of diving
you'll be doing most.
What It Does - What doesn't it do? It holds your gear in place,
lets you carry a tank with minimal effort, floats you at the surface and
allows you to achieve neutral buoyancy at any depth.
What to Look For - Correct size and fit. Before you try on BCs,
slip into the exposure suit you'll wear most often. Look for a BC that
fits snugly but doesn't squeeze you when inflated. The acid test: inflate
the BC until the overflow valve vents. The BC should not restrict your
breathing. While you've got the BC on, test all valves for accessibility
and ease of use, then make sure the adjustments, straps and pockets are
easy to reach and use.
Pay particular attention to the inflator hose. Is it easy to reach and
extend over your head? Make sure there's a clear distinction between the
inflate and deflate buttons and that you can operate them easily with one
Cost - $300 to $750.
Our Advice - This is an important piece of equipment that you
can expect to use for many years. Don't skimp; go for quality. Test as
many different models as you can in real diving situations before buying.
Rent them if you have to.
How Much BC Lift Do you Need?
Tropical Diving (with little or no wetsuit protection) - 12 to
Recreational Diving (with a full wetsuit or dry suit) - 20 to 40
Technical Diving (or diving under other demanding conditions) - 40
to 80 pounds
The good news: Among major-label regulators—the kind sold in dive
stores—there is no junk. Regulators have been perfected to the point that
even budget regulators can offer high performance. However, you must do
your homework before buying this vital piece of gear. We can help: RSD's
ScubaLab has tested more than 300 regulators in thousands of breathing
What It Does - Converts the high-pressure air in your tank to
ambient pressure so you can breathe it. A regulator must also deliver air
to other places, such as your BC inflator and alternate second stage.
What to Look For - High performance. The best regulators can
deliver a high volume of air at depth, under heavy exertion even at low
tank pressures. Some regulators also have diver-controlled knobs and
switches to aid this process, so it's important to understand the controls
and how they work.
Comfort. Look for a comfortable mouthpiece and have your local dive
store select hoses of the right length for you.
Try as many regulators as you can in real-world diving situations.
Breathing on a regulator in a dive store tells you nothing about how it
will perform under water.
Cost - From $225 to $1,600.
Our Advice - You've got to do your homework to find the best
regulator available for your budget. Talk to dive store personnel,
experienced divers and most of all, read ScubaLab's objective, scientific
tests and ratings. These reviews are available on RSD's web site at
Nobody enjoys working the dive tables, but they're an invaluable tool
for safe diving. Dive computers are an even better tool for the same
reason a laptop is better than a slide rule.
What They Do - By constantly monitoring depth and bottom time,
dive computers automatically recalculate your no-decompression status,
giving you longer dive times while still keeping you within a safe
envelope of no-decompression time. Computers can also monitor your ascent
rate and tank pressure, tell you when it's safe to fly, log your dives and
much more. That's why dive computers are almost as common as depth gauges
What to Look For - User-friendliness. The most feature-packed
dive computer does you no good if you can't easily and quickly access the
basic information you need during a dive: depth, time, decompression
status and tank pressure. Some models have both numeric and graphic
displays for at-a-glance information.
Mounting options are an important feature to consider and let you
position computers on your wrist, gauge console, hoses or attach them to
Some computers are conservative in their calculations, automatically
building in safety margins; others take you to the edge of decompression
and trust you to build in your own safety margins. Only RSD publishes a
chart ranking the relative conservatism of dive computers on the market
Before you buy, ask to see the owner's manual and check it out.
Complete and easy-to-understand instructions are important, especially on
Cost - $300 to $1,300.
Our Advice - Begin with an honest evaluation of your diving
needs—do you plan to use mixed gases someday to do decompression diving?
Study the features of different computers and choose the one that offers
the mix of features you need at the best price. For help sorting out
features, performance and prices, check out RSD's past ScubaLab computer
Where Should You Buy Gear?
Scuba equipment can be purchased in dive stores, at other retail
outlets, by mail order or as used equipment from private parties. There
are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each.
Private party. Buying used gear from a private party may be the
cheapest possible way to go, but provides absolutely no guarantees. Unless
you are extremely knowledgeable or an equipment technician, you will not
know if a regulator, for example, can even be serviced. You will also not
have any performance data. The seller's statement that the regulator
"breathes fine" and your breathing on it out of the water are both
meaningless. We recommend not buying used life-support equipment from
Nondive store retail outlets. Sporting goods and discount stores
may have scuba gear for sale. Some of these stores actually have scuba
departments and should be considered dive stores. However, most are simply
retail outlets and cannot provide the service, support and expertise that
a dive store can. Other than price, there is no reason to buy at these
nondive store outlets. And even price may not be an advantage since
name-brand gear can often be purchased at dive stores at discount prices.
Mail order. Catalog buying is a popular and useful way to shop,
particularly when some products are not available locally or may be
purchased through a catalog for significantly less money (including
shipping and handling charges).
But buying scuba gear through the mail is not like buying a sweater
from a clothing catalog. In particular, our concerns are these:
- Diver life-support products should not be sold to unqualified
- 2 Dive gear should not be sold when operating incorrectly.
- Gear should not be sold to a diver without regard to proper fit and
- Little service or support is available by mail order, and gear that
is not purchased locally may not be able to be serviced locally and may
have no warranty.
If cost is your compelling selection criterion, we suggest consulting
RSD's "Best Buy" lists for those products that offer the best performance
for the price. The least expensive is not necessarily the best buy.
Dive Stores. Retail dive stores have been the focal point of
local dive support since recreational diving became popular. Your local
dive store can provide instruction, dive travel, local dives, inspection
and repair services, compressed air, rental equipment, equipment advice
and the opportunity to look at, feel, compare and test equipment before
purchase. In addition, the store can back up products immediately if
necessary. Personal contact is also an important part of a dive store's
value. In short, a dive store is in a better position than a mail-order
dealer to provide the service and support you need and should expect.
A wetsuit keeps you warm in two ways:
Keeping Water Out. Any water that gets inside the suit is going
to leak out again. When the water is inside, it absorbs some of your body
heat. When it leaves, it takes that heat with it. So the first thing a
wetsuit has to do is keep the cold ocean from flushing through it. A good
fit, one that feels equally snug everywhere, is critical, so the space the
ocean wants to use to flow along your skin is as small as possible.
Providing Insulation Against Heat Loss. A little science here:
Solids and liquids conduct heat well; gases do not. Air, for example, is
about 20 times less conductive than water. As a practical matter, good
insulation—above or below water—is all about trapping air. That's why
neoprene foam works so well. Gas bubbles are permanently trapped inside
the "closed cells" of the wetsuit material.
Our tests have shown that other "innovations"—such as metal foils and
fleece linings in suits—do nothing to enhance insulation. However, some
features can help the suit do its job. They include: wrist, collar and
ankle seals; sealing flaps behind zippers; pre-bent arms and legs; and
smooth inner coatings to minimize water flow inside the suit.
So What's This Going To Cost
No doubt about it: scuba is a gear-intensive activity. But scuba gear
is also built to last. When properly cared for and regularly maintained,
your first set of gear could conceivably be your last. Here's a breakdown
based on suggested retail prices of gear reviewed in the pages of Rodale's
Go Local. At RSD, we believe in supporting your local dive store
for reasons of diver safety (see "Where Should You Buy
Gear?"). However, not every store carries every brand of gear. If you
decide on a brand or model that your favorite store doesn't have, ask them
if they can order it for you. Don't feel obligated to buy what a store
carries in stock unless you're certain the substitution meets all your
criteria for a piece of gear.
Invest Wisely. Yes, owning your own gear requires a considerable
investment. But you can expect quality gear to last, literally, for years.
You aren't buying running shoes or roller blades that eventually wear out
and have to be replaced. When properly cared for and maintained, your gear
should last as long as you want it to. Now that's a bargain.
When You Get It, Take
Care of It
Scuba gear is designed to be rugged and durable. Most items will last
you many years—if you take care of them properly. Some top tips from old
- Immerse your gear in fresh, clean water after use. Do not spray.
- Partially fill your BC with fresh water, slosh it around, then
- Allow each item to dry thoroughly before storing in a cool, dry and
- Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight, heat and chlorinated water.
- Do not allow contact with petroleum products or other solvents.
- Protect your gear from physical shock when transporting it,
especially on airlines.
- At least once per year (more if you dive frequently) have your BC,
reg and computer serviced by your dive store. The leading cause of
equipment failure is lack of maintenance.
- Do not allow moisture into the air intake of your regulator's first
stage, and do not depress the purge on your second stage unless the unit
- Inspect each item of gear well before a planned dive trip so there
is time for repairs. Do not dive if your equipment is less than 100
aluminum-80 The most common scuba cylinder, so named because it
is supposed to hold 80 cubic feet of air. In actuality, it usually holds
about 77.4 cubic feet.
annual The required yearly visual inspection for scuba tanks.
Also, a similar checkup for regulators.
BC Buoyancy compensator. Also known as a BCD, or buoyancy
Boot Protective covering on the bottom of a tank.
Booties Footwear for divers.
Bottle Another word for scuba tank.
console A unit attached to a hose from the regulator first stage
for holding and displaying instruments, including dive computer, depth
gauge and compass.
doubles Two tanks linked together for use on a single dive.
DPV Diver propulsion vehicle, an underwater scooter.
dump A valve used to deflate a BC.
farmer john Wetsuit pants that extend over the upper body and
shoulders (similar to overalls).
first stage The part of the regulator that attaches to the tank
and reduces the pressure of the air in the tank to an intermediate
free flow An unwanted loss of air from a regulator.
glow stick A chemical light stick usually attached to the tank
valve during a night dive so a diver can be seen in the dark by his buddy
and other divers. Also called a cyalume stick.
hydro Short for "hydrostatic test." A pressure test for scuba
tanks, performed in water. Required for every scuba cylinder in the U.S.
every five years.
lead The weights worn to offset a diver's positive buoyancy.
mil Short for millimeter, usually used in reference to wetsuit
thickness (i.e., a three-mil suit).
octopus A backup or secondary regulator second stage.
o-ring A pliable ring that forms a high-pressure seal on tank
valves. Also used on underwater cameras and other equipment to provide a
port An opening in the regulator first stage for hose
Primary The main regulator second stage, as opposed to the
backup or octopus second stage.
quick disconnect Any one of several different types of fittings
that can be used to remove a hose or strap quickly with one hand.
rebreather An underwater breathing unit that recycles a
breathing gas, removing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen.
second stage The part of the regulator at the end of the hose
that includes the mouthpiece. The second stage reduces the pressure in the
hose to a breathable pressure.
shorty A one-piece wetsuit with short legs and short sleeves.
spg Submersible pressure gauge.
Scuba Diving Magazine online.