Does Sidemount Configuration Have a Place in Public Safety Diving?

By Phil DePalo


Photo by Mark Phillips

If you read this month’s SDI newsletter, you read all about sidemount diving taking a role in the recreational world. Once considered a skill of technical cave divers, sidemount diving has found a place with everyday divers. What role can it play in Public Safety Diving? This question is best answered by looking at the benefits of sidemount diving.

  • First, sidemount diving was originally used by cave divers in order to streamline their profile and aid them in navigating through tight spaces; doubles worn on the back were too restrictive and cumbersome.
  • Second, sidemount diving aligns tanks parallel to the spine providing better weight distribution.
  • Third, since the tanks are clipped to the BCD once in the water, it can reduce the amount of weight that is carried to the dive site because of the ability to carry cylinders one at a time instead of hauling around heavy doubles.

I will not disagree with some of the advantages noted above, but I want to compare those advantages to Public Safety Diving. The first point for comparison is in the ERDI curriculum which highlights standardization of equipment among teams and team members. In order to achieve a high level of efficiency a team must approach each unique operation using methods that are repeatable. This means using the same approach each time, starting from dispatch. As an ERDI instructor, I have had the opportunity to work with many PSD teams. I can tell you one trait of highly effective teams is preparation. Their equipment is always set up and ready to go. The gear is inspected regularly and is always returned in the same configuration. This sets an expectation among the team. If a team member has been away for three weeks, they can immediately respond to a call knowing the setup has not changed. This aids in response time and team member confidence in the operation and equipment. Standardization among team members and the equipment is essential.

Current methods of scuba instruction use back mounted cylinders, and with sidemount diving it is suggested that you have a minimum certification level of advanced scuba diver. Until this most basic training curriculum changes, I would not suggest sidemount diving for a PSD team. One might argue that if a team starts a training regimen involving only sidemount diving then members will now have it as an expectation. Many teams train and work with other local and regional PSD teams who may or may not use this method, but one thing is for sure, they learned back mount diving from the beginning. Keeping with the theme of standardization among teams and team members, we should choose the least common denominator. Pete Nawrocky of Dive Rite, talks about sidemount diving stating, “Hose routing is completely different than what is normally seen…” He continues on, “There are a variety of configurations regarding hose routing for the regulators second stage.” Sidemount setups should be customized to each individual diver, but this can lead to confusion among PSD team members using team equipment. PSD teams do not have the resources to provide each member with their own set of gear.

Another advantage is ergonomic configuration. This is certainly valuable to the recreational diver who dives with only their buddy, or even as an SDI certified solo diver. PSD teams respond with many resources and have roles dedicated to assisting the rescue diver with gear and transport to the dive site negating the ergonomic benefit for the PSD team member. Sidemount also highlights the advantage of carrying single cylinders vs heavy doubles, but PSD teams do not use doubles given the time limited profiles we use. The latest NFPA standards in structural firefighting require air bottles to alarm at 33% remaining time vs the 25% remaining previous standard. Similarly PSD teams will exchange divers well before the accepted recreational standards for remaining pressure. If you choose to use only a single sidemount tank, then you need to compensate with weighting.

PSD teams do require the use of an independent redundant air source as a backup in case of emergency and the ability to share this backup with another diver. One could make the argument that you are already slinging this backup cylinder as you would sidemount bottles, but this is usually a 19 or 30 cf pony bottle vs a full sized cylinder and as such, does not compare in size, usage or configuration. In sidemount diving, both cylinders are used for the primary diver; one is typically associated with the BCD and the other for the dry suit. Sidemount cylinders are also supposed to be used in a coordinated manner to maintain trim, adding the additional task of switching second stage regulators throughout the dive.

Many of the listed advantages of sidemount diving are beneficial for the recreational diver; PSD teams operate in such a way that these advantages are not applicable. In addition, we demonstrated how adopting a new configuration can add to inconsistency and a lack of standardization among teams and team members. This can lead to reduced response times, increased equipment problems due to lack of familiarization and difficulty working with mutual aid teams. A highly efficient PSD team will be consistent in training, equipment and practices so that each operation is routine, even though every operation is unique.

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI

About the author: Philip DePalo is an active Public Safety Dive Instructor in Baltimore County working with the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department Marine Emergency Team and the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Company Dive Team. If you have specific questions, please contact him at

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Dress for the Occasion – The Versatility of Sidemount

One of the most attractive aspects of side-mount diving is the versatility of your gear configurations, allowing the diver to be comfortable and confident in their setup. We’ve illustrated 3 basic configurations to help visualize the idea of sidemount and the benefits that come along with it.

Whether you are diving a single tank, doubles or tech you will enjoy these mutual benefits of sidemount configurations.

  • Lower profile for confined spaces
  • Less drag with a more streamlined profile
  • Easy trim
  • Adjust the gear to your body shape
  • Enter and exit the water with or without your tanks
  • Easier access to valve(s), keeping it in-sight
  • More manageable and less load bearing for disabled divers or divers with limited or restricted back and body movements
  • Easier to carry your gear for longer distances

Additional benefits to diving sidemount with doubles or technical configurations include:

  • All the points above
  • Longer dives
  • Redundant gas supply

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI

If you would like more information, please contact our World Headquarters or your Regional Office.

Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201





The Sidemount Diver: an Interview with Pete Nawrocky


Pete Nawrocky

SDI sat down with avid sidemount diver and instructor Pete Nawrocky with Dive Rite to discuss how and why divers get involved in Sidemount Diving.

SDI – How long have you been diving?
Pete – I started diving in 1971 and then in 1998 started with sidemount.

SDI – Why did you want to dive sidemount?
Pete – Caves. I got into it because I simply could not fit safely with backmount. And back then, the only way to do sidemount diving was to build your own harness.
Originally that was the whole intent, and it was more in terms of getting into areas that were not accessible with backmount. Now, it’s changed to the point where it could be called a lifestyle change where people actually make the commitment to diving sidemount. Here are a couple of factors that make that decision:

  1. The inability to carry weight because they have a back problem, lack of mobility, or shoulder problem, is usually a reason people switch to sidemount.
  2. People feel comfortable with it once they have it on in the water; they find it a lot easier to work with after they have been trained and they are using the unit for a while. They seem to stick with it, whether boat or shore diving.
  3. And another common one is ahh… ‘cause it looks good. It’s a lifestyle change. People want to do something different than they have been doing before.

SDI – Who is the ideal candidate for sidemount diving?
Pete – The minimum certification level a diver should have is advanced scuba diver, but there is no ideal candidate. It really comes down to somebody who has a desire to do this type of diving and they make a commitment to it.

SDI – Are there pre-requisite experiences for sidemount? If so, what are they?
Pete – We want to make sure divers are comfortable in the water and with their equipment before trying a different style. A lot of people think in terms of wearing 2 tanks when talking about sidemount. Well, you don’t have to wear 2 tanks; you can wear a single tank while diving sidemount, and deciphering between 1 or 2 tanks really depends on the person. By and large the people that want to be in sidmeount have already made that decision, and the way they made that decision is most times they have tried it, whether they tried at the pool or a demo day event, or they have talked with their friends or seen people with it. Once they get started, they tend to stick with it.

SDI – As a sidemount instructor, what advice would you like to share with divers who are considering the course/style?
Pete – The first thing they should do is try it before they get involved in anything else. There’s a lot of events and demos for divers to actually get the gear on in water, so they can get a feel for the equipment. I strongly recommend that they take a course because it’s not difficult to dive with, but it is about gear management and gas management while you’re making the dive. You just don’t buy it, slap it on and go; it has to be fitted to an individual’s body shape for a proper wear.

SDI – Once the diver has committed to trying sidemount, do they have a learning curve when transitioning from backmount to sidemount?
Pete – Yes, there is a learning curve, and that curve is getting the gear configured to your body shape and learning to manage the equipment in the water as well as managing your gas consumption. Diving is both a mental and physical sport. Some people pick up on it right away and feel very comfortable with the configuration, and others have to change the way they swim in the water, since a frog kick is the preferred method of locomotion underwater and they have always been doing a butterfly, so mastering the frog kick and the equipment is the most important learning curve.

SDI – You recently taught an SDI headquarters’ staff member, Taylor. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Pete – Taylor did great during the course; her trim was good, her fin kick was good, she handled it well, she did all the drills properly and took her time. The major skill in sidemount diving is the ability to handle your gear by yourself. There is no reason for a sidemount diver to have to have someone help them get dressed, that’s all part of the class. She learned how to get dressed on the surface and in the water as well as de-kitting on the surface and in the water. That’s the major thing about sidemount diving, you’re not supposed to need a caddy, so-to-speak, to help you get dressed and in and out of the water.

SDI – If I want to try sidemount, where would I go to learn more?
Pete – Demo Days are a great place to learn more. Most dive centers and manufactures will have demo days so divers can try out new equipment. Dive Rite and TDI are partnered up this year at several locations, one being at Dutch Springs on June 8, 2013.

SDI – Last year SDI/TDI and Dive Rite teamed up with Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire for a week of tech dive demos, presentations and training. Was sidemount included in the camp?
Pete – Yes it was, and we will be doing it again this October, 2013. Bonaire was a blast! We had a pre-dive briefing and then off to the water. We demonstrated how to get dressed in the water while floating on the surface. Then with a sidemount instructor, they went on a guided dive, so they got the experience of actually diving sidemount. And for those who were qualified as instructors, we helped them work toward their instructor level.

SDI – If you could rectify one myth about sidemount diving, what would it be?
Pete – The first thing you have to understand, sidemount diving was propelled to where it is today by the consumer, not the manufacturers. This is what the people wanted. They saw the advantages, they tried it and they enjoyed it. The only thing I can say this is akin to is if you are a skier, and if you remember about 30 years ago when the snowboards started showing up on the slopes, everyone said it was a fad and it wasn’t going to stick. Now, it’s an Olympic sport.
Sidemount diving is viewed upon the same way. You can see people discussing it, saying it’s not necessary, its only mission specific, but what it comes down to is that this is something that somebody wants to do and they make the active decision to dive this way and that’s why it took off, because they liked it.

SDI – Whats next from sidemount?
A – Sidemount is just a different way of carrying your gear. So to make it simple, the sport diver with a single sidemount may want to make that jump to deep dives, requiring decompression diving with a double sidemount, wearing two tanks. And after that, the next step would be technical sidemount, where you might be doing mixed gas dives, carrying 2 cylinders or you may be up to four or more because you’re doing trimix dives that require switching to different breathing mixtures.

SDI – That leads me to my next question: is 2 tanks technical diving?
Pete – No, technical diving isn’t what you’re wearing; technical diving is what you’re doing. Some people like the 2 tanks even though they are not doing deco, but they are planning 2 dives that day. Wearing both tanks on the first dive is all about gas management so they have enough gas in both tanks to make the second dive without changing their rigging.
Individuals considering solo diving may look at sidemout diving as one of the best configurations to go with because you have full control over your equipment. In terms of gas management, if you have any problems with your hoses or regulators, you can actually see what you’re working with.

SDI – And finally, is sidemount your preferred configuration for diving?
Pete – Yes. If I’m not diving the rebreather, I prefer to dive sidemount.

For more information on sidemount diving or to find an SDI sidemount instructor near you, visit us at

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI

If you would like more information, please contact our World Headquarters or your Regional Office.

Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201





Sidemount…It’s Not Just for Cavedivers Anymore!

Sidemount diving has been a staple of the cave diver’s toolkit for a generation, but these days, more and more non-cavers are wearing their bottles at their sides.


There are probably a handful of things happening in the dive industry that we could peg as the latest and greatest idea or innovation. I’d add developments in lighting technology, dive computers, and thermal protection to my list, but surely the hottest trend right now has to be sidemount diving (wearing a totally independent cylinder and regulator system slung on each side of the diver’s body).

Any technical diver old enough to remember “Friends” as a new television series may also remember when sidemount was a very specialized technique with a small and almost cliquish fellowship restricted to England’s Mendip Hills and North Florida’s Karst Country. Finding sidemount training and uncovering a mentor to help you progress in the technique was a lot like joining a mediaeval secret guild; you had to know someone, or have a solid recommendation from an existing initiate; and those outside the circle suspected witchcraft.

In the early days, gear was centered on mostly hand-sewn adaptations of the classic open water stab-jacket style BCD, a few welded bolt-snaps, and lots of bungee cord. The application was ALL about exploring small silt passages; what a good friend of mine describes as “a mighty tight squeeze.”

But that was then and this is now. Times and attitudes have changed. After all, back when NBC first aired “Friends,” the largest sport diving agency had branded TDI’s popular nitrox courses as too complex for the average diver while decompression diving was totally verboten. Now of course, nitrox is the usual choice for most divers regardless of which flavor C-Card they earned as an open-water diver. Most weekend charter rosters include at least a couple of divers planning staged deco; and often a full boatload of weekend warriors all planning for a deep, long dive.

These days, it seems that sidemount really has come out of the closet. To begin with, gone are the hand-wrought BCs. Mainstream manufacturers such as Dive Rite, Oxycheq, Armadillo, Hollis and OMS are producing beautifully crafted harness, butt-plate, wing combinations specifically for sidemount diving. Cam bands – used to convert regular tanks to sidemount tanks in an instant are in several manufacturer’s catalogs. And plenty of stores sell “regulator conversion kits” – an assortment of custom-sized hoses and 90-degree fittings designed to help make the transition from traditional backmounted doubles to sidemount a one-step process. Perhaps best of all, sidemount instruction is readily available and several agencies –SDI and TDI among them – offer specialty ratings and sidemount options for their existing curriculum. This is available to all skill levels in addition to the more traditional cavern and cave.

The real kicker perhaps is that sidemount divers are beginning to pop up on dive boats and at open-water sites, proving that the equipment isn’t just for cave divers anymore. On a brilliant Saturday morning at a popular quarry in Ohio this past summer, I noticed a handful of “tech divers” wearing sidemount kits. On local charter boats too, sidemount divers are starting to make a showing, especially among divers who are trained to execute wreck penetration.

Lamar Hires, head of Dive Rite and one of the early promoters of sidemount diving, files the reasons for using sidemount into two main categories – Lifestyle and Mission Specific. Let’s use Lamar’s definitions as a starting point to explore the overall features and benefits of SM diving.

The ubiquitous North Florida Cave Diver’s Rig consisting of a backplate, simple harness, wing and manifolded doubles, began to establish itself as the gold standard for technical divers sometime in the early 1990s. By the time TDI opened its doors in 1994, this kit configuration, with long hose on the right post, backup regulator and SPG on the left, and a generally minimalist approach to gear selection was what technical divers wore almost universally. But its one-size-fits-all approach and promotion as the universal solution to all dive applications has lost some of its luster over the years and technical divers have looked at other options with an open mind.

With a sidemount configuration, the tanks are carried independently of each other and can be attached to the diver in the water or close to the water. This makes pre- and post dive prep easier on the diver’s back and knees, since the stain of one tank is about half of the stain of two. A good buddy of mine swears that diving sidemount has helped her enjoy dive trips more and use aspirin less!

“There’s no way to describe how good it feels to take all my tanks off in the water, attach them to an equipment line and then walk up that boat ladder wearing nothing heavier than my harness and drysuit,” she says.

Also, the sidemount diver’s gas supply is fully redundant and carried in completely separate systems each with a first and second stage plus an spg (and usually a LP hose). This offers similar gas management options as a set of doubles (some argue more options than doubles) but the valves and first stages are within full sight at the diver’s side rather than behind her back. This obviously makes options during either simulated or real situation shutdowns very simple! There is never any guessing which first stage is giving the diver grief… real or otherwise. This alone has many SM divers-including myself- arguing that there is a safer option in the case of a free-flowing second stage, runaway wing inflator, runaway drysuit inflator or other gas leak

The final “lifestyle” benefit has to do with the ease sidemount diving when traveling. Number one: An SM harness doesn’t have a heavy backplate, keeping luggage within airline baggage allowance. Number two: renting “bottles” at one’s destination is easy! Standard scuba cylinders can be ready for service as sidemount primary tanks quickly, with minimum fuss, and very little extra gear. The addition of a couple of cam straps to the traveler’s luggage makes conversion of almost any sized scuba cylinder the work of a few minutes, making standard stage bottle kits very workable in a pinch.


Going back to the genesis of sidemount diving, we arrive at the original reason to move one’s primary cylinders from one’s back to one’s side: low ceilings and flat bedding planes. While this reality has informed the decision making of cave divers for more than a generation, more and more wreck divers feel that sidemount offers real advantages inside a wreck.

The interior of most wrecks, even those intentionally sunk and cleaned out ahead of time, present special challenges because of the likelihood of entanglement with overhead cables and other debris. A staple of the traditional Advanced Wreck class is a great session to take advantage of. The diver learns the best techniques to free oneself or a buddy from the clutches of a couple of metres of electrical wire and rotting wood typically found in various doubles. Not to say that entanglement in this sort of situation is a non-issue in sidemount, but the number of potential line-traps behind the diver’s head is significantly reduced when he is wearing sidemount kit.

I also find the inherent lateral stability against the effect of roll while wearing a sidemount setup is a huge benefit when scootering; but perhaps that’s a story for another day.

All this said, it is important to remember that no single kit configuration is right for ALL applications. Sidemount is not the silver bullet and is certainly not the best option always and everywhere. However, a growing number of tech and sport divers are finding SM an interesting and enjoyable way to dive in many different environments.

If you’re curious about Sidemount diving, find a workshop-it’s a great way to learn about the best ways to route hoses, hang lights, and configure deco bottles. Having a very flexible alternative to the traditional tech diver’s kit for many divers is worth the extra effort.

Take advantage of the NEW Sidemount program offered by SDI & TDI, visit /index.php?site=2&did=129 to get started today!

Photo Credit: Diverite