Renting vs Buying Scuba Diving Gear

In early 2009, as I write, there’s no question that money is tighter. So the burning question for those who’ve just discovered that they love scuba diving is, “What do I need to buy and what can I rent scuba diving gear? How can I finesse this and still dive well and dive safely?”

It depends on your diving choices, of course. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and want to go on local charter boat dives, you’re going to want the whole kit. If you’re flying out to Cozumel to dive with an established charter operation, you might find you only need to bring your own mask, snorkel, and fins.

But even with the new airline limits on baggage, many of us can easily fit everything we need (except tanks and weights) onto a flight without extra charges. We just don’t bring a lot of clothes. After all, we’re going scuba diving!

So let’s break it down. First the snorkeling part (mask, snorkel, fins, boots and gloves if you’re in cold water). Then the exposure suit (wetsuit or drysuit). Then the core dive kit, the BCD, regulator, and gauges. Then the heavy stuff, tanks and weights. We’ll close with a few words on how to make sure you don’t have to buy anything twice.

Snorkeling Gear

Almost all divers own their own mask. A dive with a leaking or uncomfortable mask is worse than no dive at all. The snorkel is important for surface swims to boat or shore, and given the low cost most divers own their own from the get-go. In warm water a diver may be able to find fins in the boat or shop bin that work, but in cold water the fin-and-boot combination has to work well, so most cold-water divers own their own.

Exposure Suit

There are fortunate individuals who can dive warm water day after day in a swimsuit and never get cold. For the rest of us, even warm water takes its toll after a few five-dive days. So some protection is needed, from a Lycra diveskin to a rash-guard vest to shorties to full wetsuits.

A wetsuit keeps you warmest when it’s closely fitted to your body. If you’re not a standard body size, owning your own is a smart move. It can make a week of diving off Kona (70 to 75 degrees) much more agreeable. Rental suits tend to get a lot of wear, neoprene’s insulating qualities degrade with use, and there is often an odor issue. But if you’re traveling and want to rent, call ahead, find out what’s available, and reserve it if possible.

While many cold-water divers start out in seven-mil wetsuits, they will eventually move to drysuits if they want to continue diving cold water. Few shops have rental drysuits, because of the expense of stocking a range of sizes and keeping them cleaned and properly working. But a drysuit, while expensive up front, will easily outlast three heavy wetsuits over its life. So most cold-water divers own their own, love them, and will sing their praises at the slightest provocation. Just ask us.

BCD, Regulator, Gauges

These are the highest-cost items. They are also the items most crucial to your survival underwater. Until you’re sure what type of diving you’ll be doing, renting can be a prudent course, providing you know how to test the gear on site.

The buoyancy control device (more usually called the “BC”) should fit you well enough that it holds the tank steady on your back while underwater, and holds your head well out of the water on the surface. Rental BCs are widely available at popular dive destinations, and are simple to test to verify that the inflate and dump controls are working (ask your local shop for a quick lesson). But the more challenging the conditions in which you dive, the more you’ll want a BC you don’t have to think about. Great buoyancy control means being able to add or release air quickly and without looking.

The regulator, as your primary life-support system, is of course important. The good news is that modern regs are quite sturdy and reliable if properly cared for and regularly serviced. Most dive shops and charter operators have regs available for rent. If you do rent, you will want to know how to examine and test a reg for good function. Again, your local dive shop will probably be happy to go over the details of what to look for.

And like BCs, the less ideal the conditions, the more likely it is that a diver owns his or her own reg. Cold water in particular is a foe which requires special features from regulators.

The depth gauge and pressure gauge (and often a compass) usually come with a regulator purchase. And they should without exception be provided with rental regs. Dive computers, on the other hand, are sometimes available at resorts, sometimes not. Anyone who’s done a week of liveaboard diving knows that a dive computer gives you a lot more time underwater. While the up-front cost is considerable, for anyone who makes one or more warm-water dive trips a year the payoff in dive time and convenience is well worth it, especially when weighed against the cost of the trip and the airfare.

Tanks and Weights

Unless you’re undertaking an expedition to an isolated and never-dived location, you’ll find plenty of tanks and weights available at the dive shop or on the boat. The weight and bulk of these items makes transport prohibitive. If you’re driving to a semi-local dive site for the weekend, of course, you can bring your own or rentals from your local shop.

Weights are inexpensive, and buying your own can be cheaper than renting if you do a lot of local diving. The same logic applies to tanks, but to a lesser extent. Compare the cost of tank ownership (including annual visual inspections) to local rental rates. Most divers put off tank purchases until they’re committed to the point where they want to be able to go diving at the drop of a hat.

When to Buy

The ideal is to know what kind of diving you’ll be doing before you buy gear. Water conditions (cold versus warm, clear versus silty, calm versus currents) play a big part in what gear will work best for you, from fins to BCs to regulators.

Of course, most of us have to dive a while before we discover whether we’re going to limit ourselves to warm water or stretch the envelope much further. The good news is that most dive operators at popular dive destinations have gear suited to the conditions. And most local shops in the US have rental gear suitable for their own conditions. The key is to know what to look for, how to test it, and how it should fit. Before renting, ask an operator to describe any rental options (such as a “high-end” or “pro” system, often with dive computer).

Ask shops and individual divers for advice, too. They’ll be happy to help. Ask divers you meet at resorts and on charter boats. Ask them what they like about the scuba diving gear they own. Once you know that diving is the sport for you, and once you have a sense of how far you might want to go in diving, the range of choices should start to narrow down. Keep asking questions, try out a range of gear, take notes of what worked and what didn’t.