The Ultimate Guide To Scuba Diving Reels & Spools

The Ultimate Guide To Scuba Diving Reels & Spools

The Ultimate Guide To Scuba Diving Reels & Spools is ideal for you if you looking for more than just features that a reel or spool offers. This guide will explain what each type is for and the pros and cons of each.

Before we start, this guide I just want to share my background. I have been diving since the mid 1990's, yeah, I am that old. Over the years I have succumbed to ever fashion, fad, gadget and gizmo because it was the "in thing". This applies just as much to reels and spools as it does any other bit of dive gear. I have owned literally dozens of different types, designs and brands made from Delrin, aluminium, stainless steel and cheap plastic versions, all have led me down this path; to a dive box full of unwanted junk reels are so poorly made they I won't even give them away.


Lets get started

This Step By Step Guide To Preparing A Diving Spool includes:

  • A Very Brief history of Lines & Reels
  • Why do you need a reel or spool when scuba diving?
  • Is there one reel or spool to rule them all?
  • Is a spool or a reel better for scuba diving?
  • Reels & Spools For Deploying an SMB
  • Wreck Diving Lines
  • Cave Diving Lines

Lets dive in.

A Very Brief History of Spools and Reels

You are here to find out more information about specific about reels and lines. Before Google became a verb, our main resource for this was Technical Diving books. Whether you're brand-new diver or seasoned technical divers like me, we all want to learn from other experienced people's mistakes, hidden in the pages of these fascinating and educational books are years of mistakes and solutions that we can learn from. I went back to one of my old books while thinking about writing this post and found this list in a book by Kevin Gurr called “Technical Diving - From The Bottom Up”

  • Ratchet Reels
  • Up Line Reels
  • Friction Reels
  • Primary Reels
  • Safety Reels
  • Jump or Gap Reels
  • Explorer Reels
  • Jon Lines

Confused yet. Well, thankfully everything moves on. There are still some amazing pearls of wisdom in this book and some of the phrases above will become apparent in this post. Thankfully, although in certain niche areas of diving some of these names are still used, there are primarily three types of reels.

  • Spools
  • Ratchet Reels
  • Guideline Reels


Why do you need a reel or spool for scuba diving?

A reel or spool is an essential tool for every diver. There are three main categories, SMB deployment reels, wreck diving reels and cave diving guidelines; however there is some overlap between these types of divers. Other uses include navigation purposes such as search patterns and jump lines that also fall into their own category outside the list above but still serve a purpose to help improve safety during dives in certain situations. But for most divers the three primary uses are:

  • Deploying a Surface Marker Buoy (SMB/DSMB).
  • Line laying into a wreck or cave system.
  • Navigation and search patterns


Is there one reel or spool to rule them all?

Scuba diving is not like the Lord of The Rings where there is “One Ring to rule them all”. Different diving applications require different tools, the same is true with lines and reels. Divers are often quick to think that one reels or spools will work for all scenarios, but this is not always the case. Before using a reel in any scenario, know what its primary purpose it and if it fits your task at hand. For example, carrying 120m ratchet reels on 20m dives doesn't make much sense as they're too heavy while finger spinners aren't ideal when penetrating into caves because of entanglement concerns . We are going to run through these and give you a couple of examples that will work nicely for you chosen application. Remember this is not Mordor, so there is not always one reel to rule them all.


Is a spool or a reel better for scuba diving?

Sorry, there is no right answer to this. It really depends on your application. Neither is right for every application, but as a diver, you need to identify what you need to achieve and then, hopefully, by the end of this post you will be able to make a more informed decision.

Pros & Cons of Spools

Spools range in price from around £25 to £95 and they differ widely in that range. The simple spool has quite a lot going for them in their favour. Here are some of the pro’s and con’s.


  • They are generally cheaper, so you can often afford a back up without breaking the bank
  • Spools are far more compact and can easily fit into a pocket
  • Less chance of getting a spool entangled on something underwater as they are low profile
  • Less chance of getting a spool tangled during use, unless you try hard


  • They can come un-clipped from a d-ring
  • They are more awkward to wind in, especially over longer deployments (20m or more)

I feel that the trusty spool has more benefits than negatives. They are the choice of most of the technical diving community for obvious reasons.

Pros & Cons of Reels

Reels range in price from around £45 to £300 and they differ even more in quality between the cheap plastic models and the machined aluminium models than spools do. To be fair, the trusty reel does not seem to have as much going for it as the spool, but they do trump spools for certain tasks:


  • They are much better at managing longer lengths of line.
  • They are easier to wind in over longer deployment lengths.


  • The general starting price is higher, and the better-quality reels start over £100.
  • Reels are bigger and are unlikely to fit into a pocket.
  • Reels are more prone to entanglement or jamming.

The newer designs on the market, such as the Apeks LifeLine Guide Reel 120m or the DIRZone Reel 120m have worked hard to remove the entanglement and jamming problems divers have had over the years.


Reels & Spools For Deploying an SMB

This is the most common use for a diver to use a reel or spool. The boat captain will ask you to launch an SMB whether you are at Scapa Flow diving the German High Sea Fleet from WW1 or surfacing from a wild ride at the Kuredu Express in the Maldives after an awesome shark dive.

Whether you are in warm water or cold water, you need to be familiar with your choice of reel or spool. The task should be easy to complete and you should be well practised. A quarry or swimming pool are great training grounds for this skill.

  1. You must ensure that your reel or spool is easy to attach and unclip from you. Remember, never deploy an SMB while your reel is attached!
  2. The line must freely and easily unreel without effort, so either a spool or an extremely easy to use ratchet reel.
  3. Your line must have little or no chance of snagging.

You have two main choices, a spool or a ratchet reel. My preference for DSMB/SMB deployment is always a spool. I have been using exclusively spools for deploying a marker buoy deployment for over 10 years. Problems with this skill only come from lack of good training from an instructor. The PADI SMB Specialty will orient you to different reels, spools and SMB designs, show you different techniques for deploying an SMB from underwater and your instructor will get you to practice the skill multiple times until you master the skills

I primarily use the Apeks Lifeline 45m Spool and carry two of these and carry both on every dive. The 45m line is sometimes seen as slightly longer than required, however, I use the same spool for all my recreational and technical ascents.

A Step By Step Guide To Preparing A Diving Spool

I also keep a Nautilus Coldwater Spool clipped off in my pocket as a last resort spool. Becoming comfortable with your spool is important, hence why I always have two of the same spools with me. They have not let me down so far, even when using dry gloves with two dry glove liners in the middle of winter. Practice, practice, practice.

I stopped using ratchet reels many moons ago. They have not been my go-to reel of choice for longer than I can remember, even though I have owned several of them over the years. I owned them because my instructor who taught me owned one. The same reason as why for the first 10 years of scuba diving, I also used Mares Avanti Quattro fins, because that is what my instructor on my PADI Open Water Diver course used, and he was a Master Instructor, so who was I to question that!

One thing I have noticed over the years is that some divers rely too heavily on their ratchet reel during their ascent. Using the ratchet to slow their ascent. Do not do this. Master your buoyancy and ascend using your wing/BCD and use the reel or spool as intended, to let the boat know where you are.

Some things to keep in mind when using a ratchet reel include:

  • Make sure you have the thumb release engaged before inflating the SMB.
  • Ensure you keep this engaged until the SMB has fully surfaced.
  • Ascend using buoyancy control and not the ratchet mechanism.
  • Watch for snagging of the line during deployment.

Snagging of the line used to be a common problem area in ratchet reels and is still a problem with some cheaper models. Thankfully the design and functionality has improved, and with the launch of the Apeks LifeLine Ascend, there is now a high-end ratchet reel on the market with good functionality as well as light weight enough not to sink a battle ship.


Reels & Spools For Line Laying

Earlier in the post we talked about there not being one reel to rule them all. But there can be a crossover. Reels that are designed with wreck diving in mind tend to hold 50m or more line. Depending on who you ask, some wreck dives will tell you that different colours can be useful, with one colour indicating a specific route or a specific buddy team. I have not come across this in over 25 years of diving underwater or on a boat, only in forums. When deciding what wreck diving reel is for you, you will want to consider the following:

  • Material the body and handle are made from.
  • The length, colour, and strength of the line.
  • Ease of line deployment.
  • Tie off techniques you will be using.

Ensuring you are trained by a dive professionally and earning a Wreck Diving qualification is essential before entering a wreck. The skills and techniques required to safely plan, navigate, and execute a wreck penetration (overhead environment) dive are quite different from recreational open water dives.

Back to your wreck diving reel. You may have gathered I am a big fan of spools. However, for longer penetration dives a reel is often a good practical option. One thing is for certain, irrespective of what reel or spool you choose, remember this one, most important rule.

Line is evil, yep, I said it, line is evil. It has a sadistic mind of its own. It has a will of its own. Line management underwater is one of the most important things to consider when laying a wreck penetration line. Your reel needs your attention and correct handling. It does not matter if you have the most expensive wreck or cave diving reel in the world, if do not manage your line correctly, it will tangle. Positive line tangles, negative line tangles. Line is evil.

When choosing your reel, make sure it is easy to deploy and easy for you to handle while tying off through the wreck. Make sure the line is strong enough to withstand sharp edges of wreck and make sure your placement of tie off points is not on unnecessarily sharp objects. But that is more for a wreck or cave diving course.

Cave Reels or Guidelines

Cave diving reels or guidelines are generally the largest capacity scuba diving reels on the market. These are long lines, however, they generally run between 120m and 200/250m long. I have seen much longer lines than this in the past by a friend who was lining out an un-lined section of a cave system in UK, but this is not for your average diver. 120m to 200m metres is a more manageable length.

Ideally the line needs to be light in colour — white is the favourite — and made of either 24 or 36 gauge negatively buoyant braid.

As with wreck exploration, it is absolutely paramount that the start of the line is securely fixed to the entrance/exit point. At convenient intervals it is good practice to loop the line around prominent features to keep the line taught and also to mark the direction of the way out with line arrows.

For survey work, small knots can be tied in the line at say three metre intervals so that distances between know points can be measured.

Once again, the diver should be connected to the reel or line and bolt snaps are preferred. Avoid carabiners (suicide clips) as these can attach themselves to lines unintentionally under pressure.

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