Backmount: Not Dead Yet

Our recent survey of certified cave divers asked, What is your primary cave diving equipment configuration? The results were:

  • 38%: Sidemount
  • 33%: Backmount
  • 29%: CCR

Can this be right? Are there more divers sidemounting in caves than backmounting? Possibly, but not necessarily.

  • The split between sidemount and backmount was 54%/46%. When you allow for the limits of statistical accuracy, this difference is insignificant. The actual numbers could easily be the reverse of this.
  • The number of respondents claiming CCR as their primary configuration also seems a little on the high side. It may be our respondents represent a more experienced (and better-heeled) group of cave divers. This would affect overall numbers.
  • The survey respondents were primarily from the USA. Were we to have surveyed just cave divers from Mexico, the overall results would undoubtedly be different. (Although we see a helluva lot of sidemounters in Mexico.)

It other words, don’t take the survey results too literally. It’s perhaps best to say sidemount and backmount appear equally popular and leave it at that.

Trends have their limits

Twenty years ago, cave divers in sidemount were relatively rare. Experts considered sidemounting an advanced cave specialty. Only those who needed to push the tightest passages would likely use it.

Today, sidemounting is mainstream. The consensus? “Just another way to cave dive.” It’s reached a point where we’ve had to alter how we train cave instructors to accommodate candidates who’ve never backmounted.

Clearly, sidemount has been a major trend — if not the major trend — in cave diving over the past 20 years. And while we may see further increases in the number of cave divers who sidemount, it by no means eliminates the need for backmount.

Not a fanatic

Admittedly, I’ve not used backmount in a cave since 2007. Sidemount is also what I use when filming in a place like Blue Grotto. It allows me to look through the viewfinder without hitting my head on a manifold.

Past this, however, you will not see me in sidemount. This comes as a shock to people who think I’m one of those fanatics who feel sidemount is the answer to everything. The fact I literally “wrote the book” on sidemount (if you consider the SDI/TDI Sidemount Diver manual to be “the” book) doesn’t help.

The fact is, I like backmount. I use backmount any time I’m not diving in north-central Florida. Especially if on a dive boat. And I firmly believe backmount is the best choice for many cave divers. I’ll use the balance of this article to explain why.

Simplicity is a beautiful thing

Compared with most sidemount rigs, backmount is simple and elegant. With a properly fitted harness, backmounted doubles can feel as though they are an extension of your body. This is in contrast to sidemount cylinders, which are always in motion.

With backmount, you can unwrap your long hose, check it for deployability, then put it back without screwing things up. This is harder to do with sidemount.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of using backmount is gas switches. There aren’t any. You keep one second stage in your mouth and monitor one pressure gauge for the entire dive.

Entries and exits made easier

For divers with back problems, sidemount provides the opportunity to make multiple trips to the water with gear and don cylinders in the water. However, this benefit can easily be a drawback when you have to park some distance away.

In contrast, all a backmounter must do is don his cylinders and make a single trip to or from the water. You needn’t worry if the water is shallow enough to stand. If it isn’t, you simply hop in and float on the surface.

If you must make an entry from height, it’s better to be in backmount than sidemount. This is doubly true if you then must exit up a narrow ladder.

Way better for boats

I may be what people think of as “the sidemount guy,” but I was a dive boat captain for over a decade before this. My personal vision of Hell would be to have my soul sent to a place where I have to captain a dive boat populated by sidemount fanatics.

Dive charter vessels are typically long and narrow. There can be limited space between rows of seats. Entry gates can be a long way from the water below. It’s a rare dive boat which accommodates sidemount well.

Being a “widemount” fanatic generally shows lack of consideration for the captain, crew and your fellow passengers. Of course, the crew may get the last laugh if you have to get up the ladder in rough seas or try passing up bottles in heavy waves. More than one would-be sidemounter has attempted doing so only to drop a bottle in 30 m/100 ft or more of water.

What we tell students

Students who enroll in our cave diving courses often ask if this is also a good time to learn to sidemount. We tell them Yes only if cave diving is likely to account for the vast majority of their technical diving.

We tell students who already backmount and who are likely to continue diving from boats to stick with backmount. It’s the rig which works best for both. Not only does sticking with one configuration save you money, you’ll maintain a higher level of proficiency by using familiar gear every time.

Not without drawbacks

Obviously, there are drawbacks to backmount. Especially if you dive primarily in caves.

  • Manifolds are a potential failure point which doesn’t exist when sidemounting.
  • When sidemounting, you can do your own bubble checks and more easily diagnose and deal with a leaking valve or regulator.
  • If sidemounting, you should never need to depend on another diver from air. Well, at least in theory.

These factors along with others help explain sidemount’s popularity. Still, backmount remains the best choice for many divers. You shouldn’t assume sidemount is the only choice for you simply because it’s what others do. Analyze your needs carefully. Then make the best choice.

For more on this topic, be sure to read Reggie Ross’s article on Sidemount vs. Backmount.

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