(Published and reprinted from the June 2006 issue of Skydiving Magazine. Also published in Australian Skydiver Magazine. Minor updates every year by Mike Gruwell.)
I spend as much time talking to new skydivers about how and where to buy gear as I do actually rigging, instructing and skydiving. There is a good amount of basic gear information that applies to all new skydivers. If the new skydiver had this basic knowledge first, it would make finding the right gear easier, faster and a safer transaction for all parties involved. So what does the new skydiver looking for gear need to know?
Altimeter, helmet, goggles and a jumpsuit are first on the list. Many drop zones have these items in stock or can order you these basic skydiving equipment essentials.
Start with a wrist-mount altimeter. You'll need to choose between analog and digital based on your preference. Take into account size of the display, lighting options (for future night jumps), durability, location of service center and if it uses batteries. Try it on to see if it is comfortable on your fingers, hand and wrist. Ask the dealer about the reputation of the customer service for the altimeter company if anything goes wrong or the altimeter gets damaged.
An open-faced hard helmet allows ample field of vision as well as being able to listen for other canopies in the air. And of course it's designed to protect your noggin from minor knocks out the door, with other skydivers in freefall and for minor landing mishaps. The helmet should be snug and have a chin cup or chin strap that is easy for you to clasp and remove. As an added bonus, find a helmet that has an internal audible altimeter pocket for a future equipment purchase. Internal pockets tend to have a higher success rate of preventing damage to the audible altimeter or flat out losing it.
Clear, comfortable goggles are next. You should be able to find a cheap pair for $10 to $20 at your local drop zone that doesn't affect your field of vision and are comfortable. Start with clear goggles or lenses. Adjust the strap so the goggles will be sufficiently snug for freefall. While sunglasses such as Gatorz seem to be the latest style, I would stay with a plastic goggle at first to reduce the chance of a severe eye injury from glass or metal in the event of a bad landing as you are still learning the basics of canopy flight.
Jumpsuits help keep your street clothes contained, usually have places for other skydivers to take grips and are custom-fit to your body. Early on, you will use jumpsuits provided by the local skydiving school. Instructors will put you in a jumpsuit that is best suited for your size and made of a material that will help you stay at a comfortable fallrate range. While there are several specialty jumpsuits and jumpsuit variations available today, the two basic suit types are belly and freefly. Each suit is made with a specific type of skydiving in mind. Regardless of the type of suit, the suit should be made to either help increase your fallrate, help decrease your fallrate or keep you at a comfortable average depending on your body shape and size. I highly recommend a belly suit to begin with as most of your initial skydives will be geared toward improving your belly-flying skills so you can jump with other beginning skydivers. A lot of the basic group skydiving skills of fallrate, proximity, movement, docking, grips and separation are easily learned at the slower speeds of belly-flying first and then applied to freeflying at a later date with a different jumpsuit. Expect to spend at least $300 for your first custom jumpsuit unless you come across a used suit at your drop zone that fits right and is made of the material that is appropriate for you. Talk to your local instructors before purchasing a used or new jumpsuit for local recommendations and reputable dealers.
All New Components
If you have $5000-$8000 to spend on gear, buy new. There is nothing quite like the fit, comfort, reliability and latest technology of new skydiving gear. Talk to a trusted instructor, rigger and/or dealer before making your decision on the gear brand and sizes. Your experience, skill level, weight/size, planned number of jumps per year and budget should all come in to play when deciding on this large and important skydiving gear purchase.
Once the main and reserve canopy size has been determined, the next step is choosing the brand of canopies, container and automatic opener. Again, talk to those you trust in skydiving, use your own judgment and go with it. In the end, as long as the canopy size is appropriate when choosing new gear, it's hard to go wrong with any of the prominent manufacturers of canopies, containers and automatic openers. Each has their loyal customer base and have pluses/minuses to their products.
Turnaround time on new gear ranges from a couple weeks to a few months or more depending on the manufacturer and the time of year you place your order. This is the one drawback to new skydiving gear, but it's only temporary. Just keep in mind you will be renting gear during this wait time. Some gear dealers offer discounted or free gear rental during the wait period, so ask about that as well as the projected turnaround time for each part of your gear.
New/Used Blend of Components
If you want to save some money, but still have a custom, well-fitting rig, buy a new container and then fill it with used canopies and a used automatic opener. Expect to spend about $2000 for a basic new container with average dealer discounts. Container pricing starts to skyrocket when you start adding every option the manufacturer offers from tie-dye to custom embroidery. But you can get a custom fit container for less than $2000 if you stay with the manufacturer's standard rig configuration. Again, talk to those you trust in skydiving for local recommendations on container brands as well as container sizing for your skill level.
All Used Components
That leaves us with what at times is the riskiest way of buying skydiving gear: used. It is imperative that when buying used gear that a local or trusted rigger complete a "pre-buy" inspection of the gear to determine if the gear is as advertised, is airworthy, will need any additional work and if it is appropriate for you as far as fit. You should also involve a trusted instructor for determining appropriate canopy size for your skill level if the rigger is not familiar with you and your skydiving history. Any reputable used gear dealer or skydiver should allow a known rigger, rigging loft or drop zone to act as an escrow service during this pre-buy inspection. If the person selling the used gear won't agree to this arrangement, look else where for your used gear. There is plenty of used gear available.
Because fit of the container is so important, first look locally if you decide to go the used route. This will save money on shipping. If you can't find a good fit or deal locally on a used container, then take extra steps to find out if the used rig you are considering will be a close fit before having it shipped. A local rigger or gear dealer can measure you, contact the manufacturer and find out if the harness size of a rig you are considering is sized close enough to fit.
Other items to consider with a used rig include date of manufacture, number of jumps, damage/repairs, completed service bulletins, type of main deployment system, type of cutaway/reserve handles, RSL or Skyhook, and if all parts are included. And when asking about all included parts, keep in mind a container includes the harness, container, main risers/toggles, cutaway/reserve handles, reserve freebag/pilot chute and main deployment bag/pilot chute. You'll want to find out if all the parts came originally with the container or are newer replacements. If any of the parts have been replaced, find out if the parts were ordered from the appropriate rig manufacturer. While some parts are interchangeable, it is critical that the main deployment bag and reserve freebag/pilot chute are from the manufacturer and the appropriate size for the container.
Finally, you'll want to decide if the price is appropriate for the container as advertised. Find out how much the container would be new and determine if the used price is appropriate given the advertised condition. If you are satisfied, then have a pre-buy inspection completed by your chosen rigger.
Once you've determined the size of canopies you are looking for, you will want to get some trusted advice on the type and brand of canopy appropriate for you. If you are buying the canopies separate from the container, make sure the sizes are compatible.
Consider the number of jumps on a used main canopy, damage/patches, type of lines, if/when it was relined, if the slider is collapsible and what type of links are included with the canopy. A canopy should include the parachute, lines, slider and links. In general, canopies need relines approximately every 600 jumps. The cost of a reline is approximately $300, depending on type of line and manufacturer.
Find out the new price of the used main canopy you are considering. I tend to follow a used price rule of taking $1-$2 off per jump from the new price, but adding back the price of a reline if completed recently. Damage, patches, prematurely worn lines, water landings and type of links will also affect the price of the canopy.
Number of repacks, deployments and age are the three main contributors to the price of used reserve canopies. Know the new price of the used reserve canopy you are looking to purchase. Some reserve canopies have to be sent back to the manufacturer for testing after a certain number of repacks or deployments. Also find out if the canopy has been wet from a water landing or has any damage/patches. You can also ask if the reserve canopy fabric has recently been strength tested. Take all of those factors into consideration when determining if the price quoted is appropriate.
Make sure the purchase of the used main and/or reserve canopy is conditional upon a pre-buy inspection by your rigger.
Used automatic openers are pretty straightforward as long as the person selling the unit is being honest with the dates. You will need to know if your reserve container has one or two closing pins and look for the appropriate automatic opener with the correct number of cutters (most containers are 1-pin).
With a Cypres I or II, you are looking for an Expert unit. Start with the base price of a new unit (check with your local dealer) and take off a $100 per year since the date of manufacture (as long as the unit is up-to-date with service and batteries). SSK Industries has a "Cypres Estimated Value Calculator" on its web site at www.cypres-usa.com, which is a great resource for determining price. Just keep in mind the 12-year lifespan of Cypres units and the required 4/8-year servicing. Furthermore, the Cypres I units need the batteries replaced every two years.
Vigil, Vigil II and Vigil 2+ automatic openers have a lifespan of 20 years and require new batteries every 10 years. All Vigil units can be setup as "Pro" which is what setting you will be using with your rig. Take the base price of a new unit and subtract $60 per year.
m2 AADs have a lifetime of 15 yeares with no scheduled service and a battery life of 15,000 jumps.
Argus AADs have an unlimited lifespan (as long as it passes each 4-year service). Still a good used price estimate would be approximately $60 off per year. Argus units do require new batteries once a year and service every 4 years.
Again, have your local rigger make sure everything is in order through a pre-buy inspection.
Keep in mind buying you are buying thousands of dollars of gear for a sport you may have just learned about over the last few months. Find an instructor, rigger or drop zone owner who knows your skydiving history, future skydiving goals and budget. These people will be your lifeline during this purchasing process. Once the purchase is complete, you can get back to having fun in the sky and thinking about the next rig or canopy you want.
Mike Gruwell is an AFF Instructor, Tandem Instructor, FAA Master Rigger and DPRE. He owns ChutingStar Enterprises Inc., based out of Georgia and Florida.