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Is Sidemount better?

If you ask any Sidemount diver if Sidemount diving is better than back mounted twinset diving the inevitable answer will be YES! But why are the two sides divided? Can you enjoy both backmount and Sidemount diving? Is one actually better than the other?

I write this as an instructor who teaches Sidemount recreationally and uses it for Technical and Cave diving but this is not going to be a post about how Sidemount is the answer to all your problems and that you will instantly look like a diving ninja with perfect buoyancy and trim as soon as you get in the water! It´s also not going to criticise any other styles of diving / agencies or methods of teaching. Instead, I will try to give you a balanced perspective so you can decide if Sidemount is something you might want try and if it is the right configuration for you. Whatever you decide, Sidemount or backmount, you will need to master fundamental skills through training and practice!

Sidemount diver
Jo Golder Sidemount instructor @ Scuba Murcia

What type of diving will you be doing?

Some things to consider when making the decision about tank configuration are: What path you see your diving journey taking and water accessibility. There are also lists of pros and cons for each configuration but if we go down that rabbit hole in this post you will be reading and I will be writing for a very long time!

Sidemount has become increasingly popular in recent years and is no longer restricted to being used solely by cave divers. It´s flexibility of configuration, streamlining and accessibility have seen Sidemount used regularly in open water, however it´s not always the best option. This is where we need to look at water access and your future diving plans which I´ve broken down into just 3 categories :

Boat diving – when diving from a boat, especially a RIB you need to be able to don and doff your cylinders without really needing to see what you are doing and doing it by feel, having this muscle memory only comes from training and practice, I cannot stress this enough. Without this procedure being second nature you may end up being ‘that diver’ on the boat who takes forever to get ready, it is also a key contributor to stress before the dive.

You need to bear in mind it is not always possible to put your cylinders on in the water, if there are waves or strong currents you may need to kit up on the boat, and at the end of the dive if conditions are choppy or the current is strong you will likely need some assistance from the boat crew. We all need help sometimes and don´t be afraid to ask, especially when you are learning, but practice, practice, practice until this procedure is easy. Preparation can be slower with Sidemount than with a twinset and that’s OK, I often teach the mantra that SLOWER is FASTER!

Sidemount Diver sitting on boat
Peter kitting up on the boat, ready for a deco dive

Shore diving/Lakes and Quarries – diving from the shore is a great alternative to boat diving and in many places around the world the majority of dives will be based from the shore, or if you are not near the coast (shout out to a lot of our European divers) then you will be very familiar with quarry and lake diving. In nearly all posts about Sidemount people talk about the ease of carrying down cylinders before kitting up, having less weight to carry at one time, accessibility if you have back / mobility problems and these are great reasons to choose Sidemount over twinset however the positives of Sidemount in this scenario also have their counterpart negatives. You need to consider the ‘lesser of 2 evils’, using Sidemount tanks means carrying your tanks to the water twice (if you can’t carry 2 tanks at once like me!), then in some instances going back, kitting up and making a 3rd trip to your entry point. At the end of the dive, it´s the same again so you’re potentially making 6 trips backwards and forwards per dive. In a twinset, it´s heavier yes, but you are only making one trip each way!

If you are regularly diving inland or from the shore and deciding if this way of diving is the most suitable for you be sure to consider : The distance you are travelling from your base camp to the water entry point, the terrain you are walking across, are there any time constrains and also your physical abilities. Personally when we dive from the shore here (there are 42 steps!) or to the cave which has steep and uneven access I prefer to make 3 lighter trips.

Diver on sidemount
Anne showing good trim on her training dive

Caves – UK dry cavers in the 1950´s and 60´s needed a solution to access the waterfilled sections of a cave system, thus homemade Sidemount was born. You cannot get away from the relationship between Sidemount and Cave diving. Thankfully over the years sidemount has become a little less homemade and now modern streamlined Sidemount systems are used by Cave divers all over the world. Sidemount cylinders allow divers to pass through more restricted sections of a cave system that would not necessarily be accessible in back mount and also potentially limit their impact on the environment as the risk of damaging formations is reduced. Cave divers regularly using Sidemount will be true masters of this form of diving, they will have spent hours honing their skills and show true mastery in Sidemount diving. If you want to achieve this there are no shortcuts. In an overhead environment it is difficult to find negatives for the Sidemount system so it again comes down to accessibility of the cave you will be diving in.

Cave diver
Jo in full cave equipment.

So..Backmount or Sidemount? We´ve all seen the photos and videos of Sidemount divers looking perfectly trim and effortless as they move through the water, tanks positioned perfectly at their side with their back free of bulky cylinders (we have used some ourselves in this post) but remember this is a snapshot in time and usually after hours of practice. Before signing up to any training remember that there can be considerable effects to your diving comfort and safety if your equipment is not suitable for the environment you are diving in.

As mentioned, you need to consider where you are going to be doing the majority of your diving before deciding on any diving setup. And it doesn’t matter which one you choose, with the availability of training, if you have time, you can try both Sidemount and back mounted twins before committing to a full course. A majority of the skills you learn in each will be transferable, so you are not starting at square one each time. By trying both you will learn the advantages and disadvantages of both systems, your preferences, your physical limitations and in general become a more rounded diver. Be it Sidemount or back mount with either set up if you work at becoming a safe, comfortable diver who is enjoying their diving then that decision is the right one for you. Find yourself a good quality instructor and commit to being the best you can be.

Scuba diver
Ed, not wanting to leave his twin set behind!

Sidemount, in the right circumstances can definitely be a benefit when diving in a recreational or technical set up however it is not an instant fix to becoming a streamlined and safe diver and there is no one size fits all. If it interests you give it a try and see where it takes you, you may never look back!

So.. "now i'm Interested in learning how to dive Sidemount" :

Decided it´s not for you and back mounted twins are the best option, we can help here too :

Jo Golder is a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, Technical Sidemount cave diver and diver centre owner. The views expressed in these blog posts are personal opinions based on many years of diving experience and teaching, however they may differ from other instructors or professionals. These blog posts are for information only and nothing should replace proper, professional training.

Dive safe.


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