How To Transport Scuba Tanks: Properly and Safely

Transporting the air tanks properly is vital for keeping yourself safe and ensuring your dives goes smoothly. Many people are concerned when going to any dive destination, whether by car, tour bus, or plane, that the hassle is much greater taking your own equipment than simply renting equipment at the dive location. 

How do you transport scuba tanks properly and safely? Regardless of the mode of transportation, it is critical to keep your scuba tank secure, within a normal temperature range, and empty. This minimizes damage to both the tank and your car or luggage. But, transporting the tank is most commonly done by hand – to and from a vehicle and the dock. 

The recommended way to carry a scuba tank is to form a “V” between your index and second finger and place them around the valve stem. Then insert the spread fingers palm up behind the air control knob and air disperse flange. Tanks should always be carried vertically and any pressure when carrying the tank on the air control knob, the hands should be positioned to ensure the knob rotates clockwise so air will not escape. 

Scuba tanks are at most risk when loading and unloading from a vehicle and then walking to the dive boat location. Scuba tanks are relatively heavy (35 pounds), so it is best to even your load by taking two tanks at once or a tank in one hand and perhaps your gear bag in the other.  This avoids accidents, makes walking much easier, and minimizes damages to the tank . . . and your back.

Transporting a Scuba Tank and Your Gear By Car

Now that you are certified and got your gear, it’s time to get to the dive!  Even if traveling by some other mode of transportation, you almost always will be using a car at some point in the journey.  The car presents a couple of challenges to safe scuba tank transportation in the way of loading, traveling, and then unloading.

Loading

The first step is to open the control knob and drain the tanks of all air.  Whether traveling by car or airplane, this is mandatory. These tanks are composed of pressurized air and while not explosive there can be complications if a valve would become damaged or loose if jarred.

It may seem logical but cannot be understated. Secure the tanks from moving and always put them in the initial layer of gear. The tanks are circular in design which makes them more prone to any movement – especially side to side. The tanks are heavy and roll easily.  If they are not secured and begin to roll, they can damage your car and the tank.  

There are many inexpensive scuba tank car racks that are made of Styrofoam cylinders that are lightweight and hold tanks securely. Many divers use their individual belt diving weights and secure them under the tanks at each end and on both sides. Valve ends need to point to the front of the vehicle either in the trunk or back seat. 

Another way to secure the tanks is to cut triangle lengths of cardboard to fit the tank and then secure on both sides. Finally, many divers actually shrink wrap their tanks with bubble wrap.  This method protects the tank, gear, and all areas around it.  

Finally, make sure this is plenty of ventilation. Cars with the windows closed can heat up to more than 150 degrees.  If you haven’t drained all the air out of the tank it risks expanding and damaging the tank or blowing out the valves. We’ve previously discussed leaving them in car in this post.

Driving With Scuba Tanks

Remember you are traveling with heavy gear that may have compressed air.  Even if you have done this before loading, double check the condition of your tank.  If you have damaged this while loading and you don’t want to get to your dive location of a lifetime with no usable gear.

Double check before leaving your location to ensure the tanks are properly secured and there is no air.  Place the valves forward to the vehicle and in the farthest rear location from the driver. It’s best to avoid any extreme movements of any direction so the gear doesn’t shift and damage the equipment.  Keep windows vented or open for proper ventilation when the vehicle is in motion or not.

Unloading

After your driving is done, pretend you are unpacking a birthday gift. You really don’t know what to expect until after you inspect the tank. Carefully open the tailgate or door to avoid your equipment falling to the ground and rolling against the sides of the car. The equipment, like traveling on an airplane, will shift during the trip no matter how carefully you packed it.

Look and determine the logical order of unloading the gear. Take the top layer and usually lighter gear out first and place it all on the ground behind or near the vehicle.  When unloading the scuba tanks, pick them up by putting the valve stems between your index and second finger and then placing your hand at the bottom of the tank so you can easily and safely lift the tank out of the car or truck.  

When all the gear is unloaded, inspect the tanks to check leaks, damage, or rust you may not have noticed when loading.  Check to see if the air control knob is still in the wide-open position so no air is in the tank. 

Quick Loading Checklist For Vehicles

  • Inspect all gear, especially scuba tanks, for damage
  • Ensure all air or gas is out of scuba tanks
  • Place scuba tanks in first and secure them properly
  • Make sure valves are pointed toward front of the vehicle
  • Do not place heavy items on or near the valves
  • Open or crack windows to allow proper ventilation
  • Avoid quick movements, turns, starts, and stops
  • Carefully open doors or trunks when unloading
  • Properly remove scuba tanks by grasping the valve stem housing and bottom of the tank
Cartoon empty scuba tank twisted and collapsed to illustrate damage that can occur when transporting tanks

Is it Worth it to Transport Your Scuba Tank?

This may sound like a lot of work just to have your own tank with you. Renting is certainly a consideration and acceptable, but remember that diving is a sport where danger is always lurking around the corner so ensuring proper preventive care and understanding your equipment is simply mandatory. 

I have rented equipment around the world in diving and I have found that I am much more comfortable when I have my own equipment that I know and trust, so I always try to take it with me. I have to admit, though, tanks are often rented because of all the difficulties in transporting them.

Up, Up, and Away – Flying Safely with Your Scuba Tank

Many veteran divers prefer to use their own equipment when traveling to exotic and foreign destinations. Many times, when visiting resorts, the property’s equipment may be in questionable condition, damaged or even unavailable. 

You may opt to carry your own equipment.  If you have ever experienced any of the above, then you probably promised yourself that you would never travel without your own dive gear again – especially if this is a bucket list dive.  

You may bring regulatorsbuoyancy compensators and maskssnorkels and fins as carry-on or checked baggage. Scuba tanks, knives and spear guns are prohibited from carry-on luggage. These items should be packed in checked luggage. 
 – The U.S. Transportation Security Administration Website

Traveling by air is a bit more complicated than loading up the old Chevy and driving away.  But with careful research and planning, it might be worth the effort.

  1. Follow the Rules – Ever since the NYC attacks on 9/11 there is more attention given to checked luggage, so you must follow all the rules of the airlines and government. Scuba tanks are regulated by law. 

The US governing body for transporting equipment is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which requires scuba tanks to travel empty and without the valve attached.  This required so the interior of the tank is open for inspection.

This also means that you must remove the valves from your tanks to make sure there is no air or enclosed pressure in the tank. You have to hand it to the TSA and their website for making things a bit easier for travelers. The site contains a “Can I Bring It? “macrotool.” 

The application allows you to pull up specific scuba gear and determine if it is allowed as a carry-on item or must be checked. Additionally, the site has functionality to show security wait times at various airports, airport status, and general travel guidelines.

  1. Inspect All Your Equipment – This is a good idea before every trip but even more important before getting on a plane. Inspect all your equipment thoroughly and pay special attention to the tanks. Remove the valves to be in compliance with regulations and ensuring there is no air in them so they can be readily inspected by the authorities.

Tanks are especially prone to damage in transit because of their size and weight.  You will need to know their condition before you leave. Even if you decide to leave your full tanks at home, taking your Spare Air May be worth it. Most shops won’t provide these for rental. You can buy the set up below set on Amazon and pack it in your gear bag easily. Just follow the rules.

Spare Air kit available on Amazon

Pro’s Tip:  For all your gear including your scuba tanks, buy a nondescript carrying bag that is solid, durable, and as lightweight as possible.  You don’t want to advertise what’s in the bag and bright colors and designs scream “Open me!”

  1. Know Weight Limits – A bit of pre-planning will make your trip go smoother.  Check with your airline to ensure you know all the baggage weights and limits.  These constantly change and are different from airline to airline.  

What once may have been acceptable now may very well have changed and be lower. The current common standard is a bag shouldn’t exceed 50 pounds for each bag.  Your tank will probably be your heaviest item. 

  1. Be Prepared – After you have removed the valves, it is a good idea to place the valves in your carry-on baggage. One idea I like is to put the regulator with its metal washer and O-ring, etc. . . in a zip lock bag. Later, you can screw the unit back in without anything missing. 

A prudent idea is to bring new O-rings for re-assembling the cylinder if some are damaged. Scuba tanks are sturdy, they can be damaged. 

Since many unforgiving hands will be handling your tanks you might consider protecting the tank with cardboard or bubble wrap that protects the tank from bottom to shoulder.  At the very least, protect the area that begins to narrow to the valve aperture and secure with packing tape. 

Important! If you remove the valve to fly, most dive outfits simply will not fill your tank until it has a new visual inspection completed. Another hurdle may be local regulations.  Some jurisdictions require the tank pass a hydrostatic test as required thus needing a stamp or certificate of the country where the cylinder is to be used.

Another way to be prepared is to think about flight and gear insurance.  You do not want to have to start over and buy all new equipment if you are the victim of a robbery.  You may not know the dive area you are going to, so it is just so much better to be safe than sorry.

  1. Return Trips – Follow all the same procedures that you did for the first leg of the trip. There are some key things to remember, however.  Make sure all gear is dry and in good condition.  Hopefully, you have kept all the scuba tank protective materials and packed an extra role of duct or safety tape so you can pack it up going home as you did when before you arrived. 

Wipe down and dry the tank while removing the valves and inspecting the tank.  Double check all the zippers and safety locks as you are a prime target for diving destination thieves.

Finally, just a word of advice about packing something you may not have thought about – a good, positive attitude. Your gear, especially your scuba tanks, are out of the ordinary, heavy and many restrictions need to be followed. 

Gate agents, baggage handlers, and especially security agents are constantly dealing with irate passengers on an hourly basis. You are asking them to treat your gear with the same care you do.  A security agent has much more power and flexibility than you think because the agent determines which bags are searched and those which are not. 

That means that you really need to consider what you want to pack in your carry-on items.  The baggage handler sees your tank as a real problem instead of a treasure. It’s heavy and bulky. These transportation workers can actually determine if your much-awaited dive trip is a dream or a nightmare.

The “Dos” and “Don’ts” of Traveling With Scuba Gear

I can’t stress enough how pre-planning when traveling with scuba gear, especially scuba tanks, will make your trip better and result in less headaches. Here are some quick travel tips that will help you cut down the learning curve and potential issues.

Traveling By Car – “Dos”

  • Inspect your scuba tanks for damage or repair issues
  • Carry the tanks to the car between your index finger and second finger with the palm up and the tank vertical
  • Open the air control valves so there is no air in the tank before the trip
  • Pack the scuba tanks at the bottom of the vehicle with the valves pointing toward the front
  • Secure the tanks so there is little chance of movement
  • Ensure proper ventilation while the tanks are in the car
  • Avoid sudden starts, stops, and swerving
  • Open car doors and trunks slowly when opening to unload
  • Inspect all gear after arriving at the dive location but before placing it on the dive boat
  • Reinspect all equipment before and after returning home

Traveling By Car – “Don’ts”

  • Stuff scuba gear in the vehicle without a plan that includes placing tanks as the first and bottom layer
  • Forget to drain all the air out of your scuba tanks
  • Sit the scuba tanks upright in the car
  • Stack heavy gear or items on top of the scuba tank especially near the valve stems
  • Leave tanks in the car without proper ventilation

Traveling By Air – “Dos”

  • Take time to do research on restrictions and laws concerning air travel with scuba gear
  • Investigate replacement insurance so you are covered if scuba gear is lost or stolen
  • Carefully inspect all equipment with special attention to the scuba tank
  • Develop a packing list and double check it as you pack
  • Bring scuba certification materials
  • Pack light and understand all the airlines restrictions for carry-on luggage and checked baggage
  • Unscrew valves from tanks so the tank can be inspected by airport security officials
  • Put the valve assemblies and key extra parts in your carry on as a back up plan upon arrival
  • Place protective materials such as bubble wrap or cardboard around the tank 
  • Confirm all laws of the dive location to ensure you can refill your scuba tank and use it on the trip
  • Portray a positive attitude and understanding when dealing with equipment issues

Traveling By Air – “Don’ts”

  • Hastily stuff bags of gear without carefully considering the right equipment for the dive 
  • Disregard possible safety issues with your scuba tank’s condition such as corrosion
  • Place illegal equipment such as a dive knife in your carry-on bags
  • Forget to unscrew valves and leave compressed air in the scuba tank
  • Pack your gear in identifiable or brightly colored gear bags

Why Do I Need to Be So Careful? The Basic Anatomy of a Scuba Tank

Scuba tanks are manufactured with different specifications, but the common scuba tanks have several common characteristics. The tank is basically a large enclosed cylinder for carrying different types of gases but almost always compressed oxygen. 

Made primarily of aluminum or steel alloys, diving cylinders (tanks) are fitted with several common types of cylinder valves for filling the tank or a standard connection to the regulator. There may be some accessories added which may be manifolds, cylinder bands, protective nets and boots, and carrying handles.

There is no doubt that scuba tanks can be a bit intimidating. Think about it. You are strapping compressed air on your back, yet you depend on it for breathing. There are many types of tanks for specialized diving situations such as extreme depth diving, cave diving, or ice diving.  However, 95% of diving is in either saltwater or freshwater applications of 100 feet or less.  

Scuba cylinders typically have a volume capacity of 0.11 and 0.64 cubic feet with a maximum working pressure rating from 184 to 300 bars which is measured in pounds per square inch (psi). Most tanks have ranges from 2,670 to 4,350 psi. 

For extremely long dives, many divers use dual tanks. The specifications above are for a standard size tank but there are “mini” tanks that only contain 2 liters of air but most of the time these are not used for diving but for inflating surface marker buoys, drysuits, and buoyancy compensators rather than supplying air for dives.

All tanks have a cylinder valve. There are usually one or more optional accessories depending on the specific application. The valve is to control gas flow to and from the tank and then provide a connection with the regulator or filling hose. Made normally from machined brass, cylinder valves are finished with a protective and decorative layer of chrome plating. 

This is to protect the metal from saltwater and give the equipment a better appearance. There are four classifications for cylinder valves: the thread specification, regulator connection, pressure rating, and distinguishing features.

The other main attachment to the scuba tank is the pressure gauge. This is the most critical safety attachment to the scuba tank for the diver.  This gauge tells how much air is left in the tank so the diver can monitor and plan for the remaining time of the dive. 

These components of the scuba tank are critical but can be damaged when transporting tanks to and from locations or during transport.  While made to strict standards governed by the Department of Commerce’s division called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scuba tanks are not indestructible and need proper care and maintenance.

Time to Pack Up The Gear and Go!

You may have wanted to be a diver for a very long time and now you decided to take the plunge.  You must be certified to be a diver by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).  Proving you are a certified diver is the only way you can have your scuba tanks filled or repaired.  

Diving, like most sports, is dependent on a significant amount of bulky equipment that is not conducive to packing and transporting.  Scuba tanks are the largest, most bulky, and awkward piece of equipment a diver must contend with traveling.  Other gear that you will most likely be packing and transporting is:

Good summary of which gear is most important to take

Regulator. The regulator is the conduit of the tank to instrumentation and the diver’s breathing apparatus which allows you to breathe underwater through a small-placed device secured by your teeth. The name says it all. 

The regulator regulates the pressure of the breathing gas for diving. Routed to the right side of the diver, the regulator includes a backup airflow device in case of an emergency called an “octopus” which is simply a second breathing mask.

Dive Mask & Snorkel. Almost everyone is familiar with this, but the mask and snorkel allow the diver to see clearly through a mask covering the eyes and nose.  It can be made of many materials, but all create a small vacuum of air, so water is not against the eyes and nose to greater vision and comfort.  

The snorkel is a tube with a mouthpiece that hangs off the mask and is used to keep your head underwater near the surface, but you can still breathe.  It is mostly used swimming to the dive location or waiting for the pickup boat when you are out of air.

Buoyancy Compensator (BCD). The BCD’s primary responsibility is to help you control your position in the water column.  It fits somewhat like a backpack or vest and holds and secures most of your equipment such as the scuba tank, regulator, gauges, and other instruments when in the water.  

The BCD has a power control to quickly inflate or deflate air when in the water. This is done by a control tube attached to the BCD.  This controlled balancing of air allows the diver to regulate depth – easily surfacing or diving when needed.

Wetsuit.  While there are many new styles and materials, the wetsuit is a protective garment that fits tightly around the diver.  Being skintight, the wetsuit protects the diver from cold temperatures and obstacles in the water that might cut or puncture skin.  These are almost always made of light, durable neoprene.

Depth Gauge.  Diving requires a bit of understanding of science and physics properties.  You can’t simply dive as long or deep as you want. The deeper and longer you dive because it affects your body in many negative ways. 

The depth gauge tells you how deep you are at all times.  It is also critical on deeper dives because a diver must ascent in stages at certain depths to avoid a life-threatening condition known as the “bends.”  A diver must stop and wait at certain 30-foot depths to level out pressures before surfacing.

Dive Computer.  Like many things in our daily lives, technology is making diving safer and more enjoyable.  Many divers are now purchasing dive computers which hang off the regulator, so it allows a diver to quickly review the entire dive.  These marvels measure depth, time below on the dive, distance, and even the amount of air that is left in the tank.

Fins.  These make you look and swim like a frog.  They fit over your feet and increase your swimming capacity by translating your kicks into smooth, efficient movement through a medium that’s 800 times denser than air. Fins conserve energy and allows you to cover more water than with just bare feet.

Besides other accessories such as a dive knife, lights, and a dive case, you can see how transporting a large, heavy scuba tank along with all this gear can be a recipe for bumping, damaging, or disabling your scuba tank when loading and unloading. 

Dive Right In

There is no more exciting sport than scuba diving. While there are many dangers associated with the sport, most issues begin with the scuba tank.  There is no way to avoid transporting your tank whether it is by car, plane or bus. By following some simple rules and applying common sense, diving can be a sport you can enjoy for a lifetime and share with others.


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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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