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Is Sidemount Diving Technical Diving?

As a technical sidemount diving instructor, I have seen the growth and popularity of sidemount diving increase dramatically since it was embraced by mainstream recreational dive training agencies in 2012. Despite sidemount diving flourishing as a recreational diving option, I often see divers arguing the question: “Is sidemount diving technical diving?” The answer to this question is not as simple as a yes or no, as it depends on a number of factors and perspectives.

Sidemount diving is a type of diving where the diver wears the tanks on their sides, rather than on their back. This configuration provides many benefits, such as improved streamlining, greater control over the tanks, and better access to equipment and valves. However, sidemount diving also has its own set of challenges and complexities, such as the need to manage multiple tanks, the need to monitor and control buoyancy, and the need to maintain trim and stability in the water.

Technical diving, on the other hand, is a form of diving that involves diving beyond the limits of recreational diving, such as diving beyond the 40m/120ft depth limit, dives that incur mandatory decompression stops, and dives beyond the light zone in caves and wrecks. The nature of technical diving exposes divers to more frequent and more severe risks. To mitigate those risks, technical diving requires advanced training, specialized equipment, and a higher level of skill proficiency and experience. Technical diving also involves significantly higher levels of physical and psychological demand.

So, where does sidemount diving fit into this spectrum of diving? Is it technical diving or is it simply another form of recreational diving? To answer this question, we need to consider the technical aspects of sidemount diving, such as the skills and equipment required, the procedures and protocols followed, and the level of physical and mental demand. We also need to compare sidemount diving to other forms of technical diving, such as decompression diving, cave diving, or advanced wreck penetration diving.

In this article, I will examine the technical aspects of sidemount diving and suggest whether it qualifies as technical diving. I will also discuss the implications of this answer for divers, dive training organizations, and the diving industry. Whether you are a sidemount diver, a technical diver, or simply someone who is interested in the topic, I hope that this article will provide valuable insights and information on the subject.

What is Sidemount Diving?

Sidemount diving is a scuba equipment configuration in which the diver carries their tanks suspended on the sides of their body, rather than worn on their back attached to their BCD. The tanks are attached to the diver via an elasticated bungee system to provide stability, security, and the ability to keep the tanks in horizontal trim relative to the diver.

Is Sidemount Diving Technical Diving?

Advantages and disadvantages of sidemount diving

Sidemount diving offers a number of benefits compared to traditional backmount diving, including improved streamlining, increased mobility, and greater ease of access to the tanks and regulators.

One of the main advantages of sidemount diving is the increased freedom of movement and flexibility. By wearing the tanks on the sides, the diver is able to swim through narrow openings or tight spaces with greater ease. This is particularly useful for divers who are exploring caves, wrecks, or other overhead environments.

Another advantage of sidemount diving is the improved safety and redundancy. By carrying two tanks, the diver has a backup supply of air in the event of one cylinder or regulator failing. This is especially important for dives that do not allow immediate ascent to the surface, such as in caves, wreck,s or when a mandatory decompression ceiling is present. It is also a substantial safety benefit for recreational divers who wish to be self-reliant should an emergency occur. Gas redundancy ensures that a critical failure does not become an emergency.

Additionally, sidemount diving can be less physically demanding on the spine, especially as cylinders can be attached and removed when the diver is already in the water. This is a big advantage for divers with back injuries.

However, sidemount diving is not without its own set of challenges. One of the main challenges is the need to manage multiple tanks and valves, which can be complex and increase cognitive loading on dives. Sidemount diving also stresses the need to maintain proper trim and stability in the water, which can be demanding for less experienced divers. Configuring sidemount gear is also more complex than backmount dive kit, and the diver needs to understand specific principles that have to be applied. Additionally, the diver must be trained in the proper procedures and protocols for sidemount diving, such as how to don or remove tanks, how to monitor and balance their gas supply in two cylinders, and how to handle emergency situations in different kit than they were originally trained to use.

Read this comprehensive article that examines the pros and cons of sidemount versus backmount diving in detail:

How did sidemount diving develop?

Sidemount diving was originally conceived by sump divers in the UK, who needed a rudimentary gas system to pass through flooded cave sections. Traditional scuba gear was too bulky for their needs, so they adopted a method of attaching smaller cylinders to the waistbelt of their climbing harnesses. The potential of sidemount configuration quickly caught the attention of the wider cave diving community and it quickly began being incorporated for cave exploration in Mexico and Florida. Through the 1980s and 90s, leading cave explorers adapted rudimentary sidemount configurations into fully functional diving systems; including a BCD, inflators, pull dumps, and a variety of more diving-specialized harness designs.

Sidemount diving remained in the cave diving niche until 2012 when mainstream dive training agencies recognized the benefits and appeal of sidemount diving for recreational divers. Within 1-2 years most dive training agencies had released sidemount courses for recreational diving and, in some cases, also for technical divers. Sidemount has exploded in popularity since, with a recorded growth of about 10% per year (TDI/SDI training figures 2017/18).

Read a full description of the history of sidemount diving:

When and where sidemount diving is commonly performed

Sidemount diving remains very popular amongst the cave diving community but is now also frequently used as a configuration for technical decompression diving in the ocean. As many thousands of recreational divers have qualified to use sidemount over the last decade, it is also frequently seen on dive boats and at vacation dive resorts across the globe. Rebreather divers have also adopted sidemount configuration; with an increasing number of sidemount CCR systems available to buy.

What is Technical Diving?

Technical diving is a form of diving that involves diving beyond the conventional limits of recreational diving. In particular, it is associated with diving that involves:

  1. No immediate access to the surface: cave and wreck penetration or mandatory decompression stops.
  2. The use of multiple gas mixtures on a single dive.
  3. Complex dive and gas planning
  4. Uncompromising risk mitigation
  5. Depths below the recreational limit of 40m/130ft
  6. The use of oxygen mixtures above 40% O2
  7. The use of helium in breathing gasses (trimix) to manage narcosis, oxygen toxicity, and gas density risks.

Because it is more complex to perform, technical diving requires very advanced training, specialized equipment, and a higher level of skill and experience compared to recreational diving. Technical divers are accustomed to conducting dives with significantly higher levels of physical and psychological demand.

Read more in my comprehensive article explaining what technical diving is:

Main differences between technical diving and recreational diving

The main differences between technical diving and recreational diving include the maximum permissible depth and duration, the complexity of equipment and procedures utilized, the gas mixtures used, and the uncompromising nature of the training required. However, the key difference between tech and rec diving is that technical divers do not have immediate access to the surface in the event of an emergency arising. Recreational diving is limited in scope to specifically retain the ability for a diver to quickly reach the surface whenever something goes wrong. Technical divers do not have that option: they must be planned, prepared, and capable of dealing with any eventuality that arises without surfacing.

Examples of technical diving activities and specialties

Technical diving is most frequently used to describe decompression diving, but is also commonly used as an overarching term to include overhead environment diving; cave diving, and advanced wreck diving. Each facet of technical diving has its own unique set of skills, specialist equipment, and procedures, and each requires a highly specialized training program. Some of the most popular technical diving specialties include Advanced Nitrox, Decompression Procedures, Trimix, Technical Wreck Diving, and Cave Diving.

How technical is sidemount diving?

Sidemount diving is slightly more complex than standard backmount diving; especially with respect to the configuration and setup of sidemount gear. To achieve optimal diving performance, there is a need to understand specific principles on how the sidemount harness has to fit the individual, different methods of using bungees to retain the cylinders, and a variety of considerations for different cylinder types and diving environments.

That attention to detail with equipment configuration is more reminiscent of technical diving. Technical divers typically use a harness-based wing BCD that requires individual sizing; rather than a jacket BCD which is simply adjusted pre-dive with quick-release toggles. Sidemount diving also involves cylinder handling in water and the use of boltsnaps to secure equipment to D-rings on the harness; common tasks in technical diving, but rarely used in backmount recreational diving.

On the other hand, sidemount diving doesn’t really involve more complex protocols or procedures. In most cases, existing backmount skills are simply converted for the differing equipment. Sidemount divers need to know how to share air, control their buoyancy, deal with a free-flow, and assist another diver in distress; all of which are skills taught at open-water level training. Recreational divers can use two diving cylinders on a dive; for instance, a primary cylinder and a pony cylinder, so that factor really doesn’t push sidemount diving into a higher level of categorization. The only additional skillset that doesn’t apply to backmount divers is the need to balance the pressure in two cylinders; achieved by swapping regulators routinely during a dive.

Specialist equipment does not equal technical diving

Sidemount diving is certainly a specialist, equipment-focused, approach to diving; but it doesn’t meet any other definitive metric of technical diving. The core skillset is adapted, but otherwise near-identical to what any recreational diver learns. Basic sidemount certification does not include decompression or overhead environment diving; it does not increase the limits to which the diver can dive, or the risks they are subjected to.

Technical diving involves very specialist equipment, but that alone does not define it. It is an entire approach to diving, not just an equipment configuration. Technical diving has to encompass the risk-averse mindset, detailed planning, preparation, and comprehensive protocols necessary to mitigate foreseeable problems when returning to the surface is not an immediate option.

sidemount diving is specialist, not technical diving
Specialist knowledge is required to configure sidemount gear, but that by itself is not indicative of technical-level diving.

The training and experience necessary for sidemount diving

The level of training required for sidemount diving varies depending on the certification agency, but typically recreational divers are required to complete a basic 2-3 day sidemount specialty course before they can engage in sidemount diving. In general, a sidemount diving specialty course will include both theory and practical components. The theoretical portion covers the fundamentals of sidemount diving, including gear configuration, dive planning, and emergency procedures. The practical portion involves in-water training sessions, where the student will learn how to properly set up and use the sidemount gear, how to perform skills specific to sidemount diving, and how to manage gas and buoyancy during a sidemount dive.

Sidemount certification is not comparable to the much more comprehensive and intensive training necessary to become a technical diver. Technical diving courses are far more detailed with respect to decompression theory, advanced dive planning, the use of different gas mixtures, and skills training including team diving principles, a wider spectrum of emergency protocols, and the certification performance standards typically demand reliably ingrained responses.

Recreational sidemount divers in training
Recreational sidemount divers in training: it is a fun course, but not on a level with intensive high-capability tech training

The level of certification required to take a sidemount diving specialty course varies, but most agencies require a minimum of Open Water Diver certification. Again, that pales in comparison to the prerequisite certifications and logged dive experience necessary to enroll in a technical diving course. As a bare minimum, most entry-level technical courses require Deep Diver, Nitrox, and Rescue Diver certifications, along with a minimum logged dive experience which usually includes a stated proportion of deep recreational dives and nitrox use. Some technical diving agencies also require a robust pre-course proficiency assessment to ensure that a competent level of fundamental diving skills exists.

Why do some divers argue that sidemount is technical diving?

Over the years, I have seen encountered divers who express strong opinions that sidemount diving is technical diving. The reasons for those opinions vary, but here are a few examples:

Anything beyond the bare minimum is considered ‘technical’

For some recreational divers (and instructors), anything beyond simplistically flinging on a basic jacket BCD is considered to be technical in nature. These tend to be the same divers who express a belief that robust fundamental diving skills (precision buoyancy, horizontal trim, and efficient propulsion) are also “technical diving”. In short, anything beyond the most basic training and knowledge provided on an Open Water course is knee-jerk dismissed as being too complex and advanced for a recreational-level diver.

Snobbery and elitism

Where I have observed technical or cave divers suggesting that sidemount is only applicable at tech levels, there is little justification to substantiate the opinion. Those divers are fully aware that sidemount is a popularly taught recreational diving specialty, but dismiss it as a passing fad. It is over a decade since sidemount went mainstream, and the “passing fad” criticism should be laid to rest: it was incorrect.

One specific sentiment I have seen suggested is that sidemount diving only has real benefit as a configuration to enable exploration in confined overhead spaces, or that sidemount is too complex to have practical merit on recreational dives. Tens of thousands of passionate, active, and capable recreational-level sidemount divers seem to objectively disprove those subjective opinions.

Sidemount has a spectrum of benefits and appeals to a wide range of divers; no single diving niche has a sole claim upon it.

Masking gaps in their dive knowledge

It’s sad to say, but some divers (and instructors) will dismiss, belittle or disinform others to mask deficits in their own knowledge and capabilities. Ego-defensive behavior can be to blame as some divers simply loathe to admit that they don’t know, or cannot do, something. I have heard recreational diving instructors telling divers that sidemount is technical diving purely to mask and deflect from their own ignorance on the topic. It’s sad, but it happens.

Sidemount is not consistent with a driving philosophy

There is one dive training agency, GUE, that retains sidemount diving until very advanced levels of cave diving. This is not because they believe that sidemount is technical diving, because they openly recognize sidemount as a legitimate approach for recreational diving, but rather because sidemount is not consistent with their own highly standardized system approach.

Sidemount diving is not technical diving

Technical divers may utilize sidemount equipment, and it did originate from high-level cave explorations, but that does not make sidemount a technical level of diving. Many evolutions in diving approach and equipment have emigrated from advanced-level diving down to be adopted within mainstream diving; that’s simply how development works.

Sidemount requires specialist knowledge, especially in gear setup, but that should be true for any diving specialty. It is unfortunate that the modern dive training industry has seemingly lost sight of the need for specialist knowledge and instructional expertise.

Sidemount can be considered slightly more complex to operate and dive than traditional backmount jacket systems, but that slight increase in complexity is not comparable to the high complexity of technical diving. Ultimately, a sidemount diver requires only the same fundamental capabilities that every scuba diver should possess.

If the ego is removed from the equation, there are no defensible factors to realistically substantiate that sidemount is exclusively suitable only to technical or cave divers.

Sidemount is a modern approach to diving that offers a wealth of benefits to the divers who use it. The soaring popularity of sidemount within the recreational diving community over the last decade supports that claim.

sidemount is not exclusively for technical diving
Sidemount is not exclusive to technical and cave diving. It is phenomenally popular with recreational divers.

Are you a sidemount, technical or cave diver? Share your own views on this debate in the comment section below!

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Sidemount diving FAQs

  • What is the difference between sidemount diving and backmount diving?
    • Sidemount diving and backmount diving are two different configurations for diving with scuba equipment. In backmount diving, the diver wears a cylinder, or cylinders, on their back. This is the traditional and most common way of diving and is suitable for a wide variety of diving environments. In sidemount diving, the tanks are mounted along the sides of the diver’s body, rather than on the back. The tanks are attached by elasticated bungee and boltsnaps to a harness that also holds a buoyancy wing. Sidemount diving is growing in popularity because it offers several advantages over backmount diving, including easier access to tanks and valves, better stability in the water, redundant gas delivery as a fail safe, and the ability to carry multiple tanks delivering more gas for longer dives.
  • Is sidemount diving more difficult than backmount diving?
    • The difficulty of sidemount diving compared to backmount diving is largely a matter of personal factors and can vary greatly from one diver to another vary depending on the individual diver’s experience, skill level, and personal preferences. Some novice divers find sidemount diving to be more challenging because it requires an adapted set of skills and techniques, such as proper weight distribution, trim, and more detailed gear configuration. However, other divers find sidemount diving to be easier than backmount diving because it provides greater freedom of movement, improved comfort, and better stability underwater. Additionally, sidemount diving is often favored by divers with physical limitations, such as back pain, as it eliminates the need to carry heavy tanks on the back.
  • What equipment is required for sidemount diving?
    • Sidemount diving requires a specific set of equipment in addition to the standard scuba diving gear. The following is a list of the most common equipment used in sidemount diving:
      • Sidemount BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) – A sidemount BCD is designed to hold the tanks in a horizontal position on the sides of the body using bungees and boltsnaps. It consists of a harness and a wing.
      • Regulators – A pair of regulators is required for sidemount diving, one for each tank.
      • Harnesses – A sidemount harness is used to mount the buoyancy wing and to provide attachment points cylinders. Harnesses may be modular, constructed of webbing with shoulder/lumbar plates (Mexican-style), or can be single systems comprising a soft backplate system (Florida-style).
  • Can recreational divers perform sidemount diving?
    • Yes, recreational divers can perform sidemount diving. Sidemount diving is a popular specialty diving course that is open to any certified recreational diver. The prerequisites typically include a minimum certification level of Open Water Diver. Sidemount diving is considered a more advanced diving technique compared to traditional backmount diving, so recreational divers should have a solid understanding of basic scuba diving skills and equipment before attempting sidemount diving. Additionally, sidemount diving requires additional training and equipment, so recreational divers should be prepared to invest in both. Before attempting sidemount diving, recreational divers should seek out a qualified specialist instructor and enroll in a sidemount diving course. The course will provide the necessary training and experience to safely and confidently perform sidemount dives.
  • What are the benefits of sidemount diving?
    • Sidemount diving offers several benefits compared to traditional backmount diving, including:
      • Improved comfort and freedom of movement – Sidemount diving eliminates the weight of the tanks from the back, which can reduce back pain and improve overall comfort. Additionally, sidemount diving allows for greater freedom of movement underwater.
      • Better balance and trim – Sidemount diving facilitates better balance, increased stability and improved trim underwater, as the tanks are positioned in a more natural and streamlined configuration on the sides of the body.
      • Increased gas safety through redundancy – Sidemount diving allows divers to carry two tanks, which can provide increased gas management and redundancy. In the event of a tank failure, the other tank can be used as a backup.
      • Ease of entry and exit – Sidemount diving typically requires less physical effort and can be less cumbersome than backmount diving, making it easier to enter and exit the water.
      • Improved access to tight spaces – Sidemount diving provides improved access to tight spaces and narrow passages, as the tanks are positioned on the sides of the body rather than on the back.

Read more of my sidemount diving articles!

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Andy Davis Technical Sidemount Wreck Diving Subic Bay Philippines RAID Courses Training

About The Author

Andy Davis is a RAID, PADI TecRec, ANDI, BSAC, and SSI-qualified independent technical diving instructor who specializes in teaching sidemount, trimix, and advanced wreck diving courses.

Currently residing in Subic Bay, Philippines; he has amassed more than 10,000 open-circuit and CCR dives over 30 years of diving across the globe.

He has published numerous diving magazine articles, designed courses for dive training agencies, and tests/reviews dive gear for scuba equipment manufacturers. He is currently writing a series of advanced diving books and creating a range of tech diving clothing and accessories

Prior to becoming a professional technical diving educator in 2006, Andy was a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Belize, and Cyprus.

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One comment

  1. YES! SM (sidemount) is slightly more complex than basic BM (backmount) diving, but no where as complex or additional risk as technical diving.

    Fitting the SM equipment to the diver is more individual than with BM, but not hard and both the harness and tanks could easily have quick adjustments. I do just that with my tanks (which are sourced locally) when traveling. Even having left/right valves is just nice, but not necessary.

    More importantly, diving SM should not really be any more complex than diving BM.

    1. Gas management. Shouldn’t ALL divers pay attention to their gas supplies?
    2. Swapping regulators? Isn’t breathing off the buddy’s octo part of every OW class? Is there really anything different than going between two of your own regulators?
    3. Improved trim needed. I don’t really see that as required, but is that really such a downside? Our poor reefs sure don’t think so.

    SM isn’t embraced by many divers, instructors, etc because it is not understood. That will change with article like the above and time. Personally I have made the change (strictly Rec profiles) and can’t ever see a reason to go back. That is after 53 years of diving and using a eclectic variety of equipment.

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