Sidemount: The New Revolution in Tech Diving Equipment.
Sidemounting traces its roots to the UK, where cavers would strap small air bottles to their thighs, enabling them to traverse sumps — short, water-filled passageways that connected air-filled chambers, often far into a cave. Cave divers in the USA began adopting sidemount in the early 1980s, as a means of passing through bedding planes — cave passages that can be several feet wide, but only a few inches high.
Among the earliest adopters of sidemount in the USA were Wes Skiles and Woody Jasper, who recognized sidemount as the best way to explore cave systems such as Cow Spring and Jug Hole. (You can read more about the early exploration of Cow Spring on the NSS-CDS website.)
The rigs created by these early cave explorers differed from those employed by their British counterparts in that the cylinders used were substantially larger, and the divers wore them under their arms for better balance and body position. Still, until the mid-1990s, any sidemount rig you saw was going to be homemade.
Things started to change in 1995, with the introduction of the Dive Rite Transpac. Shortly after its introduction, Dive Rite’s Lamar Hires began offering a variety of hardware solutions designed to help users adapt their Transpacs for sidemounting. Still, in many respects, these solutions were only slightly removed from their homemade predecessors.
The real sidemount revolution began ten years later, with the introduction of the Dive Rite Nomad, a ready-made, out-of-the-box harness designed specifically for sidemounting. Simply stated, the Nomad changed everything.
Prior to the Nomad, sidemounting was seen as solely for cave diving, and solely for those few cave divers who “pushed” the tightest of passageways. With the Nomad, sidemounting became mainstream — something that any cave or technical diver could adapt to, and something with benefits that went far beyond cave diving.
* With the diving population’s aging comes a realization that prancing around in heavy, backmounted doubles may not be the healthiest thing past your 50th birthday. When the possibility of back, neck, knee and ankle injuries increases, it’s time to look for alternatives.
* Sidemount divers don’t have to wear their tanks to the water. You can carry cylinders to the water’s edge, one at a time — or roll them there on a standard hand truck.
* Sidemount provides true redundancy, free from the worries associated with catastrophic manifold failure.
* Without the manifold constantly hitting you in the back of the head, you can actually look up and see what is going on in front of you.
* For traveling technical divers, sidemount means they no longer have to be hampered by the lack of manifolded doubles at their destination. As long as there are single 80s available, tech diving is possible.
* Harnesses like the Nomad also offer an excellent solution for rebreather divers. Technical rebreather diving requires that users carry one or more open-circuit bailout bottles. By mounting their rebreather on a harness like the Nomad, rebreather divers have a means to carry those bottles in a way that is both streamlined and efficient.
No good deed goes unpunished. As validation of its concept, Dive Rite now finds competing sidemount harnesses made by Golem, OMS, OxyCheq and others. On the flip side, sidemounting has been recognized as a an alternative tech and recreational configuration by agencies ranging from the NSS-CDS to PADI.
PADI course director Jeff Loflin now offers a PADI distinctive Specialty Diver course for recreational sidemount diving, along with a corresponding distinctive specialty for instructors.
Despite its growing popularity, sidemounting is not a panacea.
* You most likely don’t want to jump off a dive boat with high freeboard wearing sidemount — nor do you want to have to worry about getting back on board. (Sidemount may, however, be the better solution for diving from inflatables.)
* When diving in places like the caves of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, backmount is better suited for passing through the narrow openings between stalactites and columns.
Still, interest in sidemount is growing, by recreational and technical divers alike. In fact, there is a joke circulating in cave country about the veteran diver who shows up to dive with a much younger buddy. Looking over this elder’s highly Hogarthian doubles set up, the younger sidemounter remarks, “DIR? That’s so 90s…”