Diving reels are some of the more unsuspecting pieces of important diving equipment. They are the unsung heroes of an equipment set, providing a multitude of applications, thus it’s important that you pick the best dive reel for your needs. Diving reels are most commonly used for the deployment of SMBs, or surface marker buoys, used to notify surface vessels of a diver’s presence below or indicate your location to your dive boat. They are also an integral tool for retracing your route in potentially dangerous to navigate dive sites like wrecks and caves. Reels can also be an excellent device in marking the areas covered during a search and recovery.
There are essentially four main categories reels will fall under: SMB deployment, finger spools for shallow SMB deployment, reels designed for wreck penetration, and lastly reels designed for cave penetration and navigation. A warning to heed, though: many divers try to find a reel that will suit a variety of needs, when such would be a mistake. A great example I give is asking whether a diver would solely rely on air integration and not take an SPG as a backup. The answer is usually no and the same logic should be applied to reels. Luckily they are some of the cheaper equipment components in the diving industry, so accumulating a few to address a variety of needs shouldn’t break the bank.
Reels are not just a spool of string on a wheel. As I mentioned, their designs are very specific to their intended uses. Marker buoy reels are generally around 40 meters in length and need to be very easy to release and free spin, without the risk of snagging on anything that could potentially jeopardize your buoyancy and safety underwater. Jump spools come in a variety of lengths, generally around 20 meters though much longer varieties are available. They are fairly simplistic, though take a bit of practice to achieve proficiency, and are ideal for shallow deployment of marker buoys and connecting to existing lines when cave diving. If you intend to penetrate a wreck, a dedicated diving reel is mandatory. These feels are usually up to 100 meters in length and highly durable to avoid breakage on sharp surfaces-usually made from metal or resin with reinforced lines. It is essential cave reels are light in color and negatively buoyant, often coming in lengths of 200 meters or more. Below I have compiled my top 5 best diving reels for these variety of uses, some offering more versatility than others and a couple very specific to their designated function.
AP Diving Ratcheted Pocket Reel, 45 Meters
I love this reel because of its incredibly effective design. This is a phenomenal example of what I emphasized previously: choose a reel specific to your need, rather than trying to find a one-size-fits-all. The AP Diving Ratcheted Pocket Reel boasts some of the most efficient and simplistic technology out there for surface marker buoy deployment. This 45 meter reel of high-visibility Dyneema Floating Line is compact and sleek. It will fit in nearly any BCD pocket and is the answer to bulky, heavy reels. It is incredibly lightweight and the line is enclosed to prevent tangling. It is highly unlikely you will break this reel either, with the line offering nearly 50kg of resistance.
My favorite feature of the AP Diving Ratcheted Pocket Reel is undoubtedly the thumb lock switch to switch between free-running and ratcheted modes when deploying your SMB. There is a loud ratched click when winding in that helps the diver monitor their ascent rate and even cooler, lets other divers nearby know you are ascending to the surface. Be prepared to dish out a little more cash than you would typically spend on a reel for all these stylish, convenient features. Coming in at approximately $160, this durable, little powerhouse is worth every dollar.
- Fits comfortably in palm of hand and easy to stow
- 45 meters of high visibility Dyneema Line
- Audible ratchet clicking
- Totally enclosed design
- Wrist loop
- Thumb lock
- Positively buoyant
- Won’t tangle
- Highly visible underwater
- Small and lightweight
- Will float to the surface if lost
- Hefty price tag for a diving reel
- Limited versatility with 45 meters
- Small size may result in easier to misplace or lose
IST Proline Finger Spool Reel, 30 Meters
If it has not been clear by my previous equipment reviews, I tend to gravitate towards the simplistic. That is exactly how I would describe the IST Proline Finger Spool Reel. This is an incredibly basic design, with 30 meters of multifunctional finger spool for surface marker buoy deployment or search and recovery marking. It includes a highly visible, yellow line equipped with a double hinged clip attached to the end. The clip is marine grade brass and the wheel itself is made of durable plastic.
Why did this reel make it so high on my list when it really offers no innovation or new diving tech? The IST Proline is the best low profile reel and an excellent value at approximately $25. You really can’t go wrong for a reel of this quality in this price range. Simplistic is also my preferred calling card when using equipment for training purposes and the reel is no exception. I prefer my students learn the fundamental skills and handling before they are spoiled by expensive technological innovations.
- For SMB or Short Distance Exploration
- Large Finger Holes
- No Mechanical Parts
- Small and Simple Design
- 30 Meters of Line
- Marine Grade Brass Clip
- Fits nicely in BCD pocket or to D ring
- No mechanical failures
- Easy and simplistic to use
- Good for training purposes
- Can be tricky to operate proficiently at first
- Potential for snagging
Scuba Max Dive Reel with Thumb-Stopper, 80 Meters
This next reel is also fairly simplistic, but a stand-out when it comes to cave or wreck diving. Despite my warning of finding a one-size-fits-all reel, this is a very versatile reel. Divers may find the different shape and size than a typical reel to be more suited to their needs and comfort. The thumb stopper really gives the diver so much more control over the line than in other models. The line is made from incredibly tough nylon, with a plastic wheel featuring stainless steel clips.
The strongest feature of the Scuba Max Dive Reel with Thumb-Stopper is the incredible control of the line it gives the diver. One of the most difficult challenges new divers face with reels and SMBs is learning to control them underwater–not getting tangled, too much slack, snagging on rocks and corners, shooting up an SMB too fast, buoyancy problems, and so on. The Scuba Max will greatly reduce any difficulty with control over your reel. This reel also made it fairly high on my list for being such a great value. The Scuba Max Dive Reel with Thumb-Stopper comes in at approximately $25.
- Thumb/finger Stop
- Durable Construction
- Simplistic Use
- Great for Cave or Wreck Diving
- Nylon Line
- Stainless Steel Clips
- Unique Shape
- Very durable and ages well
- Lightweight plastic design
- Increased line control
- Budget price
- May be unable to accommodate heavy loads
- Size and shape could be more difficult to use
Dive Rite Finger Spool with Double-Ended Snap Bolt
I’ve said it once and I will say it again, I prefer simplicity. This model from Dive Rite is another prime example of an affordably priced, durable, versatile finger spool. As I’ve said, I would much rather teach new divers skills like SMB deployment with a simple and solid finger spool than a fancy, overpriced reel. The same goes for most pieces of dive equipment–save the over-the-top, high tech gadgets for when you are certified and learn essential skills with easy-to-use equipment. This reel will easily attach to your D ring or slide into your BCD pocket. It comes in lengths of approximately 20 and 40 meters, respectively.
The real stand-out with this reel is the line itself. Braided Dupont fiber provides a line that is not only incredibly durable boasting a breakage limit of 220lbs, but is also less susceptible to fraying and snagging. While reels may be cheap, especially the Dive Rite at around 20 bucks, it is an essential piece of diving equipment and must be reliable. The Dive Rite Finger Spool with Double Ended Snap Bolt has to be one of the most reliable finger spools out there for its price point.
- Double Ended Snap Bolt
- Braided Dupont Fiber
- Brightly Colored Line
- Lightweight and Compact
- High Breakage Point
- Highly unlikely to break
- Less prone to fraying
- Simplistic and durable design
- Maximum length of 40 meters
- Wheel is made of plastic
Sonar SMB/Wreck Dive Reel, 82 Meters
The last reel to be featured on my list is also the only one that boasts a traditional handle for easy maneuvering with or without gloves. This reel is ideal for the deployment of an SMB but will also work beautifully for divers intending to explore overhead environments. Many consumers also specifically mention its aptitude for lift bag deployment. This reel has a handle positioned on the top for divers who use a handheld light, pointer, or any other handheld device to easily hold both in one hand while allowing a free hand to control the reel.
The best feature of this reel are the added friction brakes, designed to help prevent tangling, bird nesting, and run on. This reel is of a higher price point than most of the others listed–however, you are paying for high quality here. The Sonar SMB/Wreck Dive Reel is built to last and will surely function beautifully for a long time. While the price of $99 may be a deterrent for some compared to its $20 counterparts, the Sonar gets the job done reliably.
- Corrosion Resistant Aluminum
- Traditional Handle
- Friction Drag System
- Swivel Bolt Snap
- Simple operation
- Convenient design for multitasking
- Reduced tangling, snagging, run on
- Easy to store
- Great for lift bags
- High price point for a reel
- Not as compact as other choices
- Limited versatility
Considerations Before Making a Purchase/ Frequently Asked Questions:
Does it really matter what kind of reel I purchase?
Yes. As I specified in the beginning of the article, while reels can be versatile, it is a common mistake to try to cover multiple functions with one reel. Though often cheap and underrated in actual importance as a component of an equipment set, reels are in fact designed for specific purposes. While you might find some common ground between different uses, generally speaking you would not use an expensive, high tech, long, cave diving reel to train a student in simple SMB deployment. You wouldn’t use a short finger spool for penetrating a wreck. Of course crossover is convenient at times, but be weary.
Is it necessary to own a reel as a recreational diver?
Once again, yes! I often get this question, to some people’s surprise. The reason is, as certified divers, we still often dive with divemasters or other professionals, and dive buddies–meaning it will not usually be the newly certified Open Water Diver of the group deploying and SMB, unless for training purposes. Regardless, it is essential, even mandatory, all recreational divers have a reel and SMB. This is a fundamental piece of safety equipment.
How much should I be spending on a reel?
It depends of course from person to person. We all have different needs and budgets. From my personal experience working in dive shop storefronts–I would never spend more than approximately $40 on a reel. Like I said, it depends entirely on the person and some of the higher-priced products I’ve mentioned are wonderful, but I can typically find a model that suits my needs at a more modest price.