Is Sidemount Diving for Me?
Sidemount diving – like Marmite and the Kardashians – attracts a lot of strong opinions.
It has many benefits to offer – be it for the recreational or the technical diver. But some say it’s a tool for a specific job – namely, for dives requiring tight penetration – and for nothing else.
In this article, we’re going to cover the history, benefits, and drawbacks of sidemount, and let you decide what you think.
If you’re already set on becoming a sidemount diver, then contact us to take your course here in Dahab, Egypt!
History of Sidemount Diving
If sport diving is still young, then sidemount diving is its baby sibling. Here’s a quick overview of the history of sidemount diving.
The Birth of Sidemount Diving
Sidemount diving began in England in the 1960s – but it didn’t come from divers.
Rather, it originated from dry cavers who encountered submerged passage ways (sumps) that prevented further exploration. The cavers decided to take small hip-mounted tanks filled with compressed air with them, alongside a regulator and a mask, in order to further explore the cave systems.
As their exploration was mainly in dry, tight cave systems – with the occasional sump to pass through – this meant their equipment was as minimalistic as possible. And as sumps were mainly crawled through, there was no need for buoyancy control devices or fins.
This equipment configuration became known as the ‘English System’.
The ‘English System’ Goes Abroad
In the 1970’s and 80’s, cave divers in America and Mexico, influenced by the ‘English System’, began to develop the configuration further.
The caves of Mexico and Florida are mainly submerged, with large sections calling for extended swimming. This is where the techniques of caving and diving truly met and where the modern sidemount diving configurations of today were born.
These cave divers developed their own buoyancy devices, from things such as Camelbak bladders or car inner tubing. At the same time, tank sizes increased to support longer and deeper dives, which caused divers to shift sidemounted tanks from the hips onto the torso. This in turn put more emphasis on the importance of trim, balance, stability and lift when designing sidemount diving configurations.
From this importation of the English System into Mexico and Florida, two new schools of sidemount diving were born, reflecting the environmental differences of the two regions:
- The Florida Style System
- The Mexico Style System
Let’s take a closer look at these.
Florida Style Sidemount System
Generally speaking, the Florida Style system is designed for high capacity steel tanks and cold water.
Florida style harnesses and wings tend to have high lift capacity, with an even distribution of lift on the torso. They usually come with butt rails to support the steel tanks, and use a thick bungee system such as the DiveRite Ring system or independent bolt-snapped bungees.
The rig is overall bulkier in order to support the often higher buoyancy requirements associated with steel tanks, increased weighting and thicker exposure protection.
Mexico Style Sidemount System
The Mexico Style system, on the other hand, is designed for aluminium tanks and relatively warm water.
The Mexico Style system is minimalistic, mimicking DIR principles, with a smaller bladder that concentrates lift on the hips (to compensate for the buoyancy changes of aluminium tanks). The harness itself comes with D-rings on the waist belt – in order to adjust the tanks as their buoyancy changes – and utilises either an independent, continuous and/or floating bungee system – allowing for maximum flexibility.
The harness and wing are as minimalistic as possible, allowing for maximum penetration potential.
Sidemount Diving Today
From the 1990’s onwards, commercial sidemount rigs became available on the market.
Notable models, reflecting the differences in the Florida versus the Mexico style systems, were:
- The DiveRite Transpac – the very first commercial sidemount harness and wing system
- The Razor System – developed by Steve Bogaerts, a now extremely popular sidemount diving configuration
Over the last two decades, sidemount diving has moved away from its origins and is now a popular equipment configuration for open water diving, as well as technical diving too.
Sidemount Diving Benefits
Sidemount diving comes with numerous benefits, for divers of all types.
Increased gas capacity
In carrying two tanks instead of one, the sidemount diver has double the amount of gas compared to the normal diver. This itself comes with multiple benefits.
Firstly, increased gas capacity means the potential for longer dives. If you’re used to dives of 40-60 minutes, then expect this number to be doubled!
On top of this, if you combine sidemount diving with nitrox diving, then the potential for longer dives is even higher!
Secondly, increased gas capacity increases the overall safety of your dives. In case you ever get lost, have a buddy who’s low on air, or experience any other problem, the sidemount diving configuration gives you extra gas to reduce the danger and stress of such situations – making for more relaxed dives.
Sidemount diving is an amazing tool for opening up the world of diving to those physical disabilities.
As a sidemount diver, you’re extremely flexible in how you enter and exit the water. If you have any sort of back or leg injury, or any other physical disability, you can opt to don and doff your tanks in the water – meaning you don’t ever have to wear a tank on land!
Equally, for those wanting to break into the world of technical diving, but are afraid of or simply can’t handle the weight of a twinset, then technical sidemount diving offers an alternative route.
Similarly, the in-water experience of an extremely flexible harness makes for an unmatchable feeling of freedom.
Easy access to valves
In sidemount diving, you can see the valves, first stages and handwheels of your tanks – they sit directly under your armpits. This means that you can see any issues with your tanks and regulators, as well as access them during the dive.
This increases your ability to prevent and solve problems underwater, compared with traditional backmount configurations.
Additionally, for those struggling with valve shutdowns in a twinset – due to flexibility problems or previous shoulder injuries – sidemount diving makes this a non-issue. Life-saving manoeuvres become one step easier.
A redundant diver is one who carries back-up equipment for the event of a failure. By diving sidemount, you increase your redundancy, as you now have a second tank (gas supply) and a second first stage and second stage regulator.
Redundancy increases your options in emergency situations and increases the overall safety of you and your buddy. Redundancy makes you a self-sufficient diver.
Similarly, for those interested in deeper diving, while still staying within recreational limits, this added redundancy increases the safety of such dives in particular.
Trim and stability
Streamlining, trim and stability – sidemount diving simplifies all three.
By having our tanks on our lateral plane, our centre of gravity is lower, making us more stable in the water. This increased stability, combined with added flexibility in our spine, allows us to achieve and maintain horizontal trim more easily.
On top of this, by having our tanks on our side, we reduce our surface area to the minimum. This means less drag when swimming, increasing streamlining. This is a major benefit – increased streamlining reduces gas consumption, CO2 build-up, the risk of oxygen toxicity and increases efficiency in strong current/flow environments.
Sidemount Diving Drawbacks
Given all the benefits of sidemount diving, are there any drawbacks?
Increased gas management and task loading
Sidemount diving is not just another speciality – it’s a completely different configuration. This means that it takes time to become fully confident using it.
In the beginning, you have to practice switching between tanks in order to keep them in equilibrium – buoyancy and gas wise. Similarly, donning and doffing your tanks can take a little bit of time to get used to.
However, this increased task loading and gas management is not so much a drawback, but rather something that you simply have to learn to overcome in the beginning – just in the same way buoyancy control takes time to learn during your Open Water Course!
With the correct instruction and continued practice, you’ll be just as quick and proficient in sidemount as in any other configuration.
Sidemount Regulator Set-up
Depending on the environment and needs of the dive, sidemount regulator set-ups can vary.
However, the traditional sidemount regulator set-up is as follows.
The left tank consists of:
- An SPG on a short hose
- A short inflator hose for the wing
- A comparatively shorter second stage regulator hose with an elbow connector for ease of identification and streamlining
The right tank consists of:
- An SPG on a short hose
- Another inflator hose if using a drysuit or redundant bladder
- A second stage regulator with a long hose and bolt-snap connection
DIN regulators are recommended for sidemount diving, as INT first stages are bulkier.
How to Become a Sidemount Diver
There are two different routes to becoming a sidemount diver.
Either, you can complete a recreational sidemount diving course. Or, you can jump straight into a technical sidemount diving course.
In each case, the course lasts a minimum of two days, with around 3-4 open water dives and 1 confined water dive, depending on the agency.
Technical Sidemount Diving
Technical sidemount diving is a popular alternative to traditional twinset tec diving.
The benefits of direct access to valves, increased streamlining and trim, as well as the flexibility of the equipment when accessing tight environments, makes the configuration ideal at the technical level.
If you’re already a technical diver and want to convert to sidemount, or if you’re already a recreational sidemount diver and want to move into tec diving, then jumping straight into a technical sidemount course is your best bet!
Feel free to contact us to organise your next recreational or technical sidemount diving course!