Author: David A. Carmichael President, Armor Products LLC 800-487-9485
(This is not meant to be an all inclusive and technical study of bag manufacturing and components. It is not even meant to address all types of sports bags. It is simply meant as an aid, written in layman's terms, to help the consumer with the purchase and care of gear bags designed for diving and watersports.)
Gear Bags for the Diving and Watersports Industries
Most recent update April 22, 2002
Buying gear bags is usually the last consideration in any gear purchase. Often you will find gear bags piled anonymously in the corner of your dive shop. For both the purchaser and the dive shop, the gear bag is the also-ran, the add-on, the after thought, but the gear bag is the single most likely item to ruin an expensive dive trip. Sometimes it's a poor quality bag; sometimes it's the diver who over packs or abuses the bag; and more often than not, it's the airline that destroys your bag.
Imagine this. You've just spent $3000 on your once in a lifetime, paradise dive trip. You took care in choosing and buying your regulator, BC, computer and they all worked fine. But either coming or going, half-way through an airport, with 2 bags under each arm and a roller behind you, the wheels fail. You become frustrated and angry and it ruins your day, if not your trip. Or the bag comes down the conveyor belt (if you're lucky) with components ripped off and clothing hanging out. That's what you end up remembering about the trip.
Airlines and other carriers are increasingly backing away from any responsibility for damage. You name it and they won't cover it! Most have limits of coverage that don't even begin to cover expensive dive gear (and that's not including photography or video gear on top of it!) You may or may not get the manufacturer to repair it under warranty (don't expect the manufacturer to be responsible unless their components or construction failed "under normal use".) Your best bet, and money well spent, is to purchase luggage insurance. It is a minimal price considering the overall expense of the dive trip.
So this article is about bags. Do you even need a good bag? How to identify a good bag, how to choose the right bag for the job, and how to care for your bag. I have also included some charts showing Airline carry-on regulations, Armor bags by size and dimensions, and my personal picks for various applications.
I hope this article will give you some tips that will make the packing and luggage part of your next trip more enjoyable. First, let me state three points about buying gear bags:
1 You don't always need an expensive bag
2 Quality: It costs and it lasts, and it protects the equipment you trust your life to.
3 Quality doesn't necessarily offset damage from abuse (carrier or consumer). Good bags are meant to withstand the conditions they are made for.
Good dive and watersports bags should provide protection for your equipment, and withstand the weight, carry conditions, and saltwater they are exposed to. Good gear bags will be more expensive than your mass retail chain brand. For the protection of the gear you trust your life to, a good bag is important. But you may be able to use a less expensive bag for certain jobs and for limited periods. The bag you take on a boat is a good example. There is no need to take every item you own on a 2-hour boat trip. There is also no need to subject your best bag to the abuse it might take in crowded quarters (people stepping on them, tanks falling on them, etc.) For that purpose, use a good quality mesh duffel, mesh backpack, or mesh drawstring bag. Be sure the material and straps are strong so you don't drop your gear. Beyond that, the mesh bag is inexpensive, you can see your gear, and you can use the mesh bag as a dunk bag to clean your gear after the dive.
Just so we understand each other, here are definitions of the terms regarding gear bag construction.
1. Ballistic material: Ballistic is a trade term that refers to a stronger, tighter weave, higher quality nylon material. It will not stop a knife or a bullet, but it is stronger than your average nylon. Ballistic material comes in 840D, 1050D, 1260D, and 1680D.
2. Zipper chain: This is the long line of "teeth" on a zipper in sports bags. It is made of either molded, block style "plastic" (technically a polyacetal material of various trade names), or nylon coil.
3. Zipper slider: this is the base unit that slides on the chain. Generally they are metal or "plastic". Armor uses PK brand zipper "plastic" sliders in critical areas because they are both non-corrosive and repairable. Not very common, and found only on the very highest quality bags, are Stainless Steel zipper sliders. They add expense to the bag (that's why they are only found on the highest quality bags) but the have the best features of both "plastic" and metal zippers; they are non-corrosive and strong. Armor will be using Stainless Steel PK zipper sliders on its Limited Edition bags set to debut at DEMA 2002. The better "plastic" sliders are often locking or anti-slip, meaning that they won't slide backwards unless the puller tab is lifted up. Not pulling UP on the zipper is often a reason consumers think this style of zipper is "sticking". If security is more important than non-corrosiveness, choose a metal slider (and keep it clean).
4. Zipper puller: This is the piece you pull on. It can be metal or "plastic" and can have features that allow locking devices. If it is "plastic", it is the most likely part of a zipper to break. Therefore, repairable sliders are preferred. Armor uses repairable PK brand zipper slider/pullers on its large bags (#1/99 and #2/01). If security is more important than non-corrosiveness, choose a metal puller.
5. Zippers: There are two general types used in this industry, nylon coil and polyacetal ("plastic") sold under trade names such as Delrin™ or Vislon ™. When choosing a bag you should decide if your bag will be mostly exposed to salt water or mostly used for travel (keeping it away from saltwater exposure) and buy one that has either a metal slider/puller for more security or a "plastic" slider/puller to resist salt water corrosion.
a. Coil zippers are generally smoother and work better in corner situations. They are not as resistant to direct heavy side pressure as block chain plastic zippers. They are often referred to as "self repairing" because when they do come apart you can generally zip back over the affected area to fix the problem. Coil zippers are (as the name says) made of one continuos coil of nylon, so when that coil is cut or broken it is impossible to repair it. Fortunately, this seldom happens unless cut in some manner from abuse. They are a more economical zipper than the "plastic" style and they are used to keep the cost of a bag down. They are the most common zippers used in luggage, but they always come with a metal zipper puller, which, if not kept clean, will eventually corrode around salt water. However, those metal pullers are more easily lockable and stronger for travel security.
b. Molded zippers (polyacetal or "plastic" made under trade names such as Delrin™and Vislon™) have a block style chain that is more resistant to side pressure but is not as impervious to pressure which may separate the teeth up/down. Generally this is not a problem with good quality zippers. This style zipper does not operate as smoothly in corners as coil zippers do. These zippers are often referred to as "self-lubricating". In fact, they don't lubricate at all, but the petroleum base of the polyacetal material is functionally "lubricating" because smoothness doesn't degrade like it might with a metal chain. This type of chain will not unravel like a broken coil chain, but they will occasionally lose teeth, making the zipper less than fully functional. When this happens, the only remedy (short of the expensive proposition of replacing a whole zipper) is to place a clamp in that area, which requires the zippers to open and close at that point only thereafter. You want this style of zipper if your bag will be exposed to saltwater often.
6. Delrin/Vislon (both trademarked names) zippers: Refer to a polyacetal or "plastic" material used in the square tooth zipper chain and zipper slider/puller, which (most important in the diving industry) are non-rusting and non-corrosive.
7. YKK ™ is one of the most commonly used zippers in quality bags. However, there are other good brand zippers available, including PK brand. In the dive industry YKK and PK become popular because they make high quality "plastic" zippers which are non-corrosive. Armor uses both brands. Where zippers are more likely to be broken (main compartment zippers, zippers which are more likely to be locked) Armor uses #10 size PK brand zipper because they are easily repairable. Should a PK zipper puller ever break just contact Armor to get replacements parts that are easily repairable.
8. "Cloth" Materials:
a. Denier: Materials are normally referred to by their denier. Denier is the size and thread count that indicates the construction of the material. Generally the higher the Denier number the larger the thread base and therefore the thicker and more course the material looks and feels. Denier is normally referred to by one number but is in fact a factor of both the horizontal and vertical threads in a weave pattern. There is 600Dx600D material (generally referred to as a 600D material) but you will also find claims of a 600D material which may in fact be a 600D x 300D. Since Denier is a factor of 2 numbers, they are sometimes added together to describe the Denier. An 840D x 840D weave is variously referred to as 840D or 1680D. In the latter case it might be considered a marketing move to describe the fabric since higher numbers have been equated with quality. However, that is not always the case. Deniers of 1800-3600 are common in the polyester materials used in bags sold in the hunting industry, but not favored in the dive industry because the heavy thread will absorb water.
b. Materials: There are many types of materials, but the most common in the dive industry are nylon and polyester. Marketing names such as "Ballistic" and trade names such as Cordura ™ are used. Nylon materials have a shinier look and polyesters have a brushed look. The primary consideration in materials is that the denier be equal to the task, and that the coating/backing used (PU-Polyurethane or PVC-Polyvinylcloride), a rubbery or clear coating, be properly applied to the material and sufficient to the task. PU and PVC coating make the material stronger and also impermeable. Consumers often ask if a bag is "waterproof". For the average diver, the coated material makes the bag "waterproof" enough for most dive boat/rain shower conditions. However, unless a bag has a dry zipper or other 100% dry feature, they are not 100% waterproof, but only splash proof. The PVC coating will keep water out as long as the water doesn't get past the zipper.
c. Padding Materials: These can be a light laminated material, open cell foam (will soak up water), and a closed cell foam (won't soak up water.)
d. Hardware: (Buckles, clips, axles, grommets, rivets) In dive bags, these should be stainless steel, brass, or "plastic". Aluminum is also acceptable, but is not fully non-corrosive. Stainless steel varies in its "stainlessness". Make sure you clean it too. And contrary to rule of thumb, stainless steel IS sometimes magnetized (especially in round stock) so you can't always tell if you have stainless just by putting a magnet to it. Keep in mind that these components are best but there is a trade off in cost and you may not need this in every bag you use.
e. Wheel Bearings: Most wheel bearings are made of steel and will rust. Stainless steel bearings are hard to find in bags and will be very expensive. The manufacturer uses high-end in-line skate wheels. They are nice, but you pay the price. If the bag is a backpack or other bag designed to be carried more than rolled, or only rolled for short distances, OR if it will be used around water, then bearingless wheels are better and will be sufficient for the task. Larger, luggage-style bags should have wheel bearings and conversely, don't need to be in contact with water. One final note about hardware: Consumers want every work-saving convenience they can get in a bag (handles and wheels everywhere), but every added rivet, moving part, and connecting point, is an added point of potential problem. To get maximum life from a bag, stay simple.
What are you paying for? What components and features increase the cost, value and life of a bag?
1. Brand name of components: Generally the brand name component has achieved that recognition for a reason; they work, and they charge a premium for that recognition of quality. This doesn't mean you can only get quality with brand name components, but it does mean you will pay for the name (and probably get the quality that goes with it).
2. Zippers quality: Look for oversize zippers. You want a #10 size zipper for your main compartments and a #8 for other, with #5 being only good enough for small accessory pockets. PK and YKK brand zippers are widely respected in the industry for their quality and non-corrosive characteristics. They are not the only brand that provides these quality characteristics but they are currently the most wide recognized. Using PK or YKK brand zippers increases the cost of a bag. Using a coil style zipper (instead of a PK or YKK Delrin ), or another less expensive brand will reduce the cost of the bag, and the bag may or may not be as functional.
3. Frames: If a bag uses a frame, the best is a honeycomb (aluminum or PVC) frame which will bounce back when bent, unlike steel frames (which will also rust.) They are also lighter, and are much more durable that PE (plastic) board frames.
4. Wheels: Good wheels are wrapped with protective covers and are large in diameter (68mm or larger.) Some of the best bags use large wheels. Armor's #1/99 Ballistic Pullcart is unique in that it uses the largest 3.5" rubber wheels which will easily roll on many surfaces on or off cement. Wheels with bearings are the best rollers and last longer, but beware of bearings around water. Very few, and only very expensive luggage use fully stainless steel bearings. For a backpack with wheels you don't need them.
5. Material Selection: Good quality materials are made in many parts of the world. Bags are often marketed using trade names such as duPont brand Cordura ™. Cordura ™ is a trade name that refers to material made by duPont It has become almost synonymous with 1000D nylon but it is used to refer to other Deniers, and there are other manufacturers of 1000D Nylon material. While some may argue about quality, good material of a particular Denier is not exclusive to any single company.
6. Thread selection and construction methods: In bags used around water, nylon or dacron thread is preferred. Avoid cotton threads if the bag will be exposed to water. The thread is stronger if it is "bonded" thread (simply defined, fibers "glued" together in the thread). Stitched areas will be stronger, (and again you may or may not require it) with the use of higher stitch counts (i.e. number of stitches per inch) as well as box stitching, bar tacks, and backing materials at lift points.
7. Padding usage and materials: Closed cell foam is generally better for water sports because it will not retain water, however, open cell foam can be used with a non-permeable inner liner (which will cover all padding inserts.) It follows then, that bags with padding have the added cost of the padding, the liner and the added labor cost, but they also provide important protection (if you need it.)
8. Edge Tape: Nylon has a nasty tendency to unravel if the edges are not taped. That unraveled thread can clog zippers. Tip: Nylon will melt under flame, so the quickest remedy for fraying thread is to cut off the excess and melt the edge of the nylon by running a cigarette lighter quickly along the edge. The best way to prevent fraying is to cover the edge with an "edge tape" as part of the construction process. The best edge tape is normally nylon or polypropylene webbing. Cost cutting measures include the use of "self tape" (the same materials as the main material cut into strips) or plastic tape is used.
9. Construction methods: Features such as continuous webbing (webbing that goes all the way around the lift point), overlapping (not butted) webbing joints, increase the strength (as well as material and cost) of a bag. Heat cut webbing keeps the ends from fraying. Adequate seam allowance keeps seams from pulling apart. It is part of the construction you can't see (and it's a place to cut costs) but it may affect longer term seam integrity if enough material is not left on the other side of that stitch line.
10. Manufacturers and Quality Control: The quality of a bag lies in the selection of materials, the overseeing quality of the work force, and the quality control management. This quality is NOT exclusive to any one country. The old adage is still true: "You get what you pay for", and you make sure you get what you pay for with oversight of the process. When producing or purchasing bags from any particular manufacturer (domestic or foreign) a company (like Armor) gets the quality and final product they demand, and are willing to pay for, in terms of QC oversight and materials.
11. Marketing, Distribution and Overhead: In a niche industry like the diving industry, demand for quality is high and volumes are relatively low compared to any other industry. In manufacturing, volume is KING. So when manufacturing orders are smaller, manufacturing costs (and the cost of your bag) goes up. It's the price we pay to have the type of bags we need for our sport.
12. Warranty: The best companies offer a "Life Time" warranty. Someone's paying for the "Life time" warranty. First they pay for it by making a quality bag that they hope they won't see again after the sale. Secondly, there is probably a premium built into a company's overhead so they can cover that warranty promise should they need to. You in turn, get peace of mind and satisfaction when you do have a problem (see Warranty Tips
When companies offer warranties you will find phrases like "Under Normal Conditions" and "Usable Life of the bag". "Normal" conditions are the key words. You should understand that companies are warranting their products from defects in workmanship and materials; not problems caused by others. Anything that deteriorated at a normal rate over the life of a bag should not be considered a defect. That would include abrasion to the material, deterioration of the foam padding, and wear on the rolling surfaces of the wheels. If you purchased a bag made with steel rivets or metal zipper pullers, don't expect them not to rust and don't expect it to be warranted. (If no-rust is important to you make sure you buy a bag with brass or stainless steel parts.
"Normal" depends on what the bag is marketed to do, but it generally means that the bag is not overloaded, dragged on anything other than its wheels, and not in contact with other abrasive elements. It means no abuse (handling or exposure to extreme elements, including salt water if the bag is not designed for salt water). Normal depends on the bag. On large bags it may means 50-70 lbs / 22-32 kg maximum. For a mesh bag, or small bag it might be 20-35 lbs / 9-16 kg and for a duffel bag it might be 30-45 lbs/13-20 kg. Here are some things you should expect from your warranty and warranty service:
- Expect the seams to stay stitched under normal carry conditions and weight. Do not carry tanks or weights and expect the bag to hold up.
- Expect the rivets to hold.
- Expect the wheel housings, wheels and wheel axles to stay attached.
- Expect the fabric to hold up, but don't expect it to ward off sharp objects, or abrasion if it does not specific protection for that purpose (PVC coverings and PVC corner piping.
- Expect the retractable handle system to operate in an up and down manner to pull the bag; not to lift up the bag, and not twisting on the full weight of the bag.
- Expect all carry straps and attaching points to hold under normal load.
- Do not expect metal components (axles, wheel bearings, or metal zippers) not to rust if you expose them to salt water and don't keep them clean and lubricated. Remember most bags do not have fully stainless steel wheel bearings or handle systems. Better bags, however, will have brass rivets and strong plastic components.
- Do not expect plastic zippers to last if you use locks. They aren't made for locks; they are made to handle salt water.
- Do not expect abrasion to be covered. Decide how you will personally use the bag and buy one that has the protection you need. Good bags have a lot of abrasion protection, and although the protection should work in the areas it's meant to protect, not all surfaces are designed to be protected.
- Don't expect the warranty to cover something you, or a carrier did through misuse. A good manufacturer, however, should be willing to repair the bag for you at your expense.
- Do claim your rights for repair or replacement from a carrier who abuses your bag.
- Do not expect your dive shop to automatically replace the bag. Most manufacturers reserve the right to repair or replace a bag (they wouldn't stay in business if they replaced every bag without question). They may hold your dive shop to that, and your dive shop may wish to comply.
- If it's simply not what you wanted in a bag, don't ask for a full replacement of a bag you've already used.
- Do expect to be asked to show when you purchased the bag. Some warranties have limitations.
- Do expect to get your bag back, with warranty issues repaired, in about 4 weeks (1 week shipping each-way, and 7-10 days to repair it).
Caring and Packing of your Gear Bag
1. First choose a bag that fits the way you will use it. Get a bag with wheels that are large enough for the surface you will pull it on. If you can't lift it, don't drag it, get wheels. If you are going to be in direct contact with saltwater, get a bag with fully non-corrosive components or a bag you are willing to discard after a year.
2. Use a boat/water bag when on a boat instead of your large/expensive bag. Taking an expensive bag on most dive boats just takes up extra room and it will probably get stepped on (or worse) and certainly get salt water on it. It's not worth the trouble and cost when you can use a mesh bag for that purpose.
3. Clean AND DRY your equipment before putting it back in your bag.
4. If your bag does get wet, clean it. If you don't, at the very least it will develop unsightly salt stains on it, and at worst, your metal components may corrode. Use a soft brush and mild soap. If your bag has closed cell foam you can submerge the bag to clean it; if it has open cell foam just use soap and water on the surfaces. If it doesn't have either, don't worry about it.
5. Clean and lubricate metal parts, wheel bearings, and zippers every time they come in contact with water. There are special zipper lubes that you can buy or just use a silicone grease.
6. Don't carry tanks or weights in a bag no matter how large it is, unless the manufacturer specifically advertised it for that use (almost no one does). Most bags are rated for 50-70 lbs / 22-32 kg (70lb / 32 kg maximum).
7. Pack the bag well to prevent problems. Wrap any item with rough edges. When possible use your wet suit or other clothing for padding.
8. When you pick up a bag use, all available handles. Don't snatch up a heavy bag by one handle. Tie a bright tag or cloth on the handles so baggage handlers can identify them quickly.
9. Don't over tighten compression straps. It places unnecessary strain on seams.
10. Don't leave your bag in a very hot place (in direct sunlight, under pick-up bed covers). The material will deteriorate and the lamination may even come apart under extreme conditions.
11. Take off or tuck away all straps, buckles and exterior hangings when they are not in use. This will prevent them from being caught in conveyor belts, other luggage, or stepped on. Most quality backpacks have a zippered compartment to stow the backpack straps when not being used.
12. Treat that bag like its your baby. If it has a pull handle, don't jerk it over curbs, and try not to let the weight of the bag twist the handle during odd movements. Don't slam it around. The best built bag in the world is not designed for too much abuse.
13. Use a good quality lock. Most luggage locks use generic keys. Cover locks with tape (if the bag doesn't have lock cover). Locks will get caught in other luggage and tear off zippers.
14. Don't use locks with "plastic" zipper pullers. Use a small nylon lock tie and thread it through the lowest point in the zipper slider or puller that you can get it. This will minimize "leverage" which causes breakage. Note: Locks only keep honest people honest anyway. If they want to get into your bag they can easily cut through the fabric.
15. Don't identify your bag as a dive bag. Otherwise, you may get hit with additional airline surcharges (for bags with sports equipment), and/or you will identify your bag to a thief. While we're on the subject of security, let me make this point; you are only fooling the amateur, "opportunist" thief. To keep "honest people honest" keep your luggage in sight and use a luggage strap to keep opportunists out. It will also help you identify your bag. But don't expect to fool the professional airport thief. Tip: Cover yourself; get that $50 luggage insurance. It's well worth it. Armor is coming out with a "Cover" bag that will be designed to hold and protect your primary bag. When you check in your luggage you will put your "nice" bag inside this "cover bag (made of heavy material) and send it as checked luggage in this manner. The "cover" bag will conceal the look of your dive bag and protect it from damage.