HOW TO BUY A GEAR BAG
For many divers, your first "gear bag" is the plastic bag your merchandise comes in when you initially buy mask, snorkel, fins, booties, and gloves. However, it soon becomes readily apparent that something more substantial will be needed and that a gear bag suitable for the specialized needs of diving will be a good purchase.
SIZE MATTERS -The first thing is to decide how big a gear bag youíll need. Thatís predicated on the type of diving youíll be doing. If youíre taking a basic class, a smaller-size bag that holds personal gear will be adequate. If youíre doing ocean diving and need room for your wetsuit, BC, and reg with computer, then something larger will be appropriate. And if youíre going to be traveling, you might need something even bigger to hold dive gear and other items for your trip.
Also factor in geographic location of your diving when considering the size of the bag. California divers, because theyíre packing bulky wetsuits or drysuits in their bags, need bigger bags than warm-water divers, who will be carrying 3mm suits or polartecs.
BRING YOUR FINS - Once youíve determined what size bag will be best for you, it is essential that you make sure your fins fit inside the main compartment. Nothing will be more frustrating than finding a bag you really like and discovering (after youíve made the purchase) that itís too short for your fins. Bring your fins with you when shopping (bring them both). Just about every piece of dive gear youíll put in a bag (reg, BC, wetsuit) can be size-adjusted by twisting or folding. But even though fins are flexible, you canít fold them in half so you need to find a bag whose main compartment is at least as long as your fins.
COMPARTMENTS AND POCKETS - Youíll find that some bags are one big, open area while others have various (usually zippered) pockets and compartments. Either one can work. Personally, I like having a couple of pockets to separate my spare gear, lift bags, lines, etc., from my regular diving gear. But the trade-off is that my main compartment becomes a bit smaller. And some people would rather be able to access everything at once that trying to remember which pocket holds which item.
STRAPS & WHEELS - Just about all (but not every) bags come with some sort of a shoulder strap. Itís much easier to carry a tank using the shoulder strap than it will be just using handles. However, if the bag you like only has handles, if it has some grommets or d-rings on the corners, a should strap can easily be added. Some bags (especially those designed for travel) have backpack straps to leave your hands free for those walks through an airport or down a loading ramp.
Perhaps the most welcome innovation in recent years has been wheeled bags. Some bags have a set of wheels mounted on one end of the bag and a small handle at the other end for dragging it around. Other bags have not only wheels, but a telescoping rigid handle thatís bolted to the bottom of the bag. The rigid handle makes the bag easier to handle, but the disadvantage is that the handle mechanism usually protrudes through the inside compartment, robbing you of a little space and making for an uneven bottom. But many divers feel this is a small sacrifice for the added benefit of being able to roll, instead of carry, what is often a heavy bag.
REGULATOR BAGS - Because your reg/computer is probably the most expensive and most easily-dinged piece of your dive gear, some bags have not only a separate compartment for the reg, but a specially-padded regulator bag as well. Even if the bag you want doesnít have this feature, a number of manufacturers (Stahlsac and Armor immediately come to mind) make small bags specifically designed for regs and gauges, that can either be stored inside a gear bag, or carried on the plane and stored in the overhead compartment.
TRAVEL CONSIDERATIONS - If youíll be doing a lot of traveling with your gear bag, here are some other factors to consider:
Material - Because airlines are not known for handling baggage gently, youíll want to get a bag that will hold up well under rough handling. Ask about the thread count of the material. Higher (denser) thread count should translate into longer life, although it will add to the cost of the bag.
Stitching - Take a look at the stitching. The heavier the stitching, the more durable the bag should be. Nothingís perfect, but heavier, denser thread will probably hold up better in the long run, but will also add to the cost of the bag. (But you get what you pay for.)
Padding - Itíll protect your gear, but you sacrifice some interior space.
Security - Although no bags (that we know of) come with built-in locks, they all have dual zippers that can be locked together with inexpensive small travel padlocks. Just make sure that the holes on the zipper tabs are big enough to slip the hasp of the lock through.
Dry area - Chances are youíre coming home with wet gear so itís nice to have a separate area, sealed off from the rest of the bag, for wet items. However, if you find a bag you really like and it doesnít have a dry area, realize you can get the same effect by traveling with plastic garbage bags if you use them to encase your wet stuff.
Color - A colorful bag is a lot easier to spot than basic black when it comes down the baggage chute. (Also easier to spot if someone picks up your bag by mistake.) But if your gear bag of choice only comes in black, you can always add a splash of color with electricianís tape from a hardware store.
MULTIPLE BAGS - Donít think one bag has to suit you for all purposes. Thereís nothing wrong with having two of three different-sized bags for the different types of diving you do. I personally have a snorkeling bag for pool sessions or my weekly dives at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific (it also doubles as my drysuit bag), a "regular" gear bag for local trips, and a third wheeled bag thatís better suited for traveling.
LOAD IT UP - The final thing to do once youíve settled on your new gear bag is to make sure all your stuff fits inside. Donít be shy about laying out the bag on the floor of your dive shop, and loading in the typical gear youíll be using (or even bring all your own gear with you on the shopping trip). Thereís no sense in buying a gear bag that seems great in the store, only to find out that itís too small once you get home.
Having a gear bag that works for you means youíll have a place for everything youíll need and everything can stay in itís place. Believe it or not, the right gear bag can make diving more fun and enjoyable as it adds order to a sometimes chaotic sport.