Let's assume that your canopy skills are average and you usually do a good stand up landing, and because of your wing loading research you've decided that your canopy range is from 175 sq.ft to 200 sq .ft. (read the wing loading articles written by John Leblanc and John Carter) You can now look for canopies within that range knowing that you've maintained an acceptable safety margin. This is important because even the best skydivers are not always on top form so if you were to make a mistake, and you will, then the chances of walking away are far greater than if you were jumping a smaller canopy.
Having a safety margin is not always about you, if your spot is bad and you have to land in an area that's problematic, i.e. too small or has obstacles around it then you'll be very glad you maintained a safety margin in your canopy size instead of going for the fastest canopy and highest wing loading. Now you've done your research based on your experience level and your frame of reference, then you can confirm your choice of canopy range by talking to your instructors or canopy coaches. Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially if you've been advised to downsize to a canopy that you think doesn't give you a good safety margin. This is based on your knowledge of your current abilities to fly confidently and land confidently in all weather conditions, even if you miss the DZ and have to land in a busy car park.
A good rule of thumb is, if you have below 200 jumps you should be jumping a forgiving canopy design because this is the period that you're prone to make the most mistakes.
If you have between 200 and 600 jumps then you should have gained enough skills to progress onto an intermediate canopy design. If you progress onto an intermediate canopy design below 200 jumps then only do so if you've had some good coaching and you've proven your ability by flying and landing in all wind conditions and are confident in the full range of your canopy i.e. your ability to use control toggles, back risers and front risers and you know when to use them for best results. Somewhere between 600 to 1,000 jumps you can progress onto high performance canopies but only if your skill level allows it. Before you move onto high performance canopies you must be 100% certain of your canopy skills and abilities, and you should attend a professional flight school to learn about the differences and how to transition from your current flying methods to using very different flying methods to maintain a safety margin; yes even on high performance canopies you should still be looking at maintaining a safety margin.
This advise may go against your desire to fly fast and swoop great distances but, believe me, unless you're serious about competing you can get all the fast high performance landings you desire without going to your maximum wing loading. Remember, you could still end up in that busy car park or end up trying to land in a very busy landing area with dozens of other small fast radical canopies and not all of them will be on top form. You should always be prepared for other peoples mistakes as well as your own.
How to decide which canopies are forgiving, intermediate or high performance is and always will be controversial. Canopy manufacturers are now building canopies that perform fairly radically but are very forgiving when flown in a forgiving manner. Designs are changing all the time and you can't always believe in sales literature which is designed for maximum sales. An old fashioned rule of thumb was as follows: If you do a normal 360 degree turn and lose about 1 to 2 hundred feet then it's a forgiving canopy, if you lose between 2 to 4 hundred feet it's an intermediate canopy and anything above this is high performance. This is all based on traditional canopies, your wing loading and frame of reference. Basically, this just gives you an idea of your canopy design features so you have a starting point before making changes.
Ask around the drop zone and get to know what people say about the different designs so you can rule out the canopies that are not suitable for you
Now you've decided what range of canopy size you should be looking for and you have a good idea of the canopy designs that are suitable for you, there is still room for compromises so you can take advantage of a bargain priced rig that may be slightly outside of your purchase plan. Obviously you can go to a lower wing loading or stay with a forgiving canopy even though the recommendation is the opposite. Just be careful that you don't go to the extreme. If you're wing loading is too light it can also give you problems, especially on a windy or turbulent day.
A big myth, however, is that unless you downsize you will get bored with your canopy, or some people feel pressured to downsize so they are within the "in crowd". Getting bored with your canopy will only happen if it's way to big for you anyway and your wing loading is well below the recommendation for your experience level. If someone tells me they are bored with their canopy and it's a descent size for them then it's because they haven't learnt how to fly it properly. Don't forget, it's all about your own frame of reference, so don't take advise from other people "literally".
I jump a 120 sq.ft canopy which is perfect for me for the majority of my skydives, however, I do like to jump a 70 sq.ft canopy from time to time but only in the right conditions i.e. the weather is right, I've got a large safe landing area, or swooping area and I know I'm not going to get stuck in traffic on landing and the jump is usually solely about me enjoying that canopy. I won't jump it when I'm teaching AFF or doing a 16 way competition because my minds on other things. On the opposite side of the coin I also love to jump my 170 sq.ft canopy for CF. Even if I'm jumping this when not doing CF I never get bored with it even though it is slow and docile compared to my frame of reference. This is because I 'now how to fly it for the best performance.
If you increase your wing loading and upgrade your canopy design at the same time then be cautious. For example, going from a forgiving canopy with a wing loading of 0.8 lbs/sq.ft to an intermediate canopy with a wing loading of 1.0 lbs/sq.ft is generally ok, but going from a forgiving canopy design with a wing loading of 0.8 lbs/sq.ft to an intermediate canopy design with a wing loading of 1.3 lbs/sq.ft is a big step which loses your safety margin and puts you in the high risk bracket. However, it all depends on "you". If you're in the "learning curve" then accept your limitations, if you have mastered your canopy skills and been properly coached then and only then can these big steps be justified, and it's also very wise to concentrate on your canopy piloting skills for the next fifty plus jumps and forget other disciplines until you've mastered your new canopy skills in all weather conditions.
The final consideration is your currency level, how often do you jump and how many jumps do you do to ensure consistency.If you're planning on jumping to the maximum wing loading and the highest performance canopy then you should be a full time professional skydiver who's always very current and active. If you have a long lay off between jumps then you need a safety margin built into your canopy wing loading and canopy design. I'm a full time professional skydiver and I jump a 120 sq.ft canopy but I could buy the 70 sq.ft canopy. However, I don't compete in swooping competitions and I often jump in unfamiliar locations. I travel to drop zones all over the world and I've found myself low in a crowded sky and I have landed in a busy town. When things got it wrong. I like my safety margin.
Choosing a container is a lot easier than choosing a canopy but there are still some safety issues to consider as well as some practical issues. Buying a used container means that it's been manufactured to fit someone else and having a badly fitting container can cause you problems. Put the rig on and tighten the harness as you would prior to a skydive. Make sure you can easily reach and deploy the main pilot chute; if you struggle to reach it when standing up or lying down then the container itself is too big for you. If you have to stretch your arm or twist your body to take hold of the deployment toggle then don't even consider buying it.
Practice your emergency drills to make sure you can easily carry them out; do a real cutaway to make sure you can release the canopy. Where possible, do a real reserve deployment as well to ensure that you can deploy the reserve. If you have any problems with cutting away and deploying the reserve then don't even consider buying it.
If the harness is too big for you then it can be re-sized by an advanced rigger, however, this can only be done once so it's worth having it inspected to ensure that this is an option prior to buying the rig. If the harness is too small then it becomes a very expensive job to replace the harness. When re-sizing or replacing the harness for a better fit, you also have to take into account the leg strap padding which may have to be replaced at the same time.
Do a maneuverability test. Can you easily arch or does the container restrict this. Do you have full body movement without being restricted or does the container hinder your movement. Pay particular attention to shoulder restrictions, if the container restricts you reaching up for the control toggles it can become a serious problem. When you twist and stretch, does it affect the container in any way? For example, does the riser tuck tabs release? A suspended test is always advisable after the main has been deployed. Make sure the chest strap is not going to strangle you, and you can take control of your main control toggles and carry out your reserve drills. Risers are manufactured in different lengths so if you can't easily reach the toggles it may be possible to buy some shorter risers, but always consult a rigger about this first.
Finally, is the container suitable for your skydiving discipline? If you want to freefly then it has to be designed for freefly or modified to ensure it's freefly friendly. The same goes for back flying, speed flying, canopy formation etc. Each discipline has specific safety requirements that you need to be aware of.
Reserves are usually one size smaller than the main parachute, however, there are exceptions so you have to be aware of this. Make sure the reserve is one that you can fly and land safely and always expect a reserve ride at the worst possible moment. For example, if you do displays then murphy's law tends to give you a reserve ride during a display instead of at a parachute centre and you may need to land in a very tight and difficult area
By nature a reserve ride means that you'll probably be low and have to choose an alternative landing site to your normal one. murphy's law will probably give you a bad spot to compound the problem. In other words don't just dismiss your reserve until you need it, make sure you're happy and confident in flying and landing it. If you're already at your maximum wing loading on your main then you could be over your maximum wing loading on your reserve and the landing characteristics will be completely different to your main. Landing injuries on reserves are higher than on mains for the same ammount of jumps. Please keep this in mind when considering your safety margin.
If you're happy with the fit of the container and the canopies are the right size and type for you then it's time to consider the details. Start by doing a visual inspection of the complete rig when it's packed ready to jump. Read through the "used kit - inspection report form" and follow the check list to ensure you don't miss anything. If you're not confident when inspecting equipment for wear and tear then make sure you get this done by an independent rigger or instructor who's familiar with inspecting used equipment for serviceability. If it needs a new pilot chute then this is a relatively cheap item, however, if your canopy needs a new line set it's fairly expensive and some repair jobs can be so complicated that it becomes a very expensive job to resolve the problem.
Over time used equipment will have had some components replaced. The biggest question that you need answered is; are all the components on the used rig compatible with each other? This is a big problem in the industry and it should be given a great deal of consideration. A rigger who's familiar with the complete rig is best to give you advise on this matter. Do you have a history of the service record? As I write this I can hear a lot of people laughing. The rules are simple, yet unfortunately they are not always common practice. Every reserve inspection and repack has to be recorded with details of any service or repair work and any components replaced etc. If the person selling the rig can provide all this then that rig has probably been well looked after. If the rig does not have an in depth service history then it's even more important to get a thorough inspection by a rigger who's experienced on that rig.
If you want a particular type of canopy or container then there will be fewer rigs for you to choose from and it'll probably be more expensive. Limiting your options means that you may have to wait quite a while for your choice of rig to become available. Knowing why people choose a particular container or a particular canopy might help you to decide what's best for you. If you compare popular containers then you can become biased to your local environment. For example on one drop zone I visited they had almost 70% of one type of rig, yet on another drop zone just as big, the same rig was being used by about 10% of the skydivers.
What's popular on one drop zone is not so popular on another. The reason for this has nothing to do with the container, they areboth equally popular on a world wide basis. The reason that one drop zone had more of one type of rig is usually because they have a manufacturer or dealer promoting in that area. What's popular is based on your own frame of reference; what you're used to seeing. Every skydiver, however, will tell you a story about why their rig is the best, but in reality it's probably only the best because they own it or they believed someone else who told them it's the best. When you're buying a new rig you have the option of choosing every little detail that you desire in a rig, that's when you can compare the sales literature between manufacturers and decide if you want to believe it or not. In reality one rig may be more comfortable than another rig you try on, however, it's usually because one has a good choice of canopy sizes for that container and another has canopies slightly too big which affects the comfort. In other words, there is not a great deal to choose between the design of the majority of rigs, because it depends on who it's fitted for and what size canopies it's fitted with.
When buying a used rig you have to see what's available first and then evaluate it's benefits and how it suits you and your skydiving needs. Buying a used rig which is value for money means that you need to know if it's suitable for you, how long it's life circle is, for all components as well as main items. Will the resale value be good when you come to re-sell it and is it in good condition. If the main canopy and the container is popular in your location then the resale value will be good in your location, if they are not so popular then you may have to sell it at another location for better results. You also need to take into account how big the second hand market is for your rig, if it's a small and specialised rig then the market is fairly small and the resale value might be low due to fewer buyers. If it's a typical first rig for those coming off student status then the market is fairly big and the chances of an easy sale and a good price is fairly good. Also how much you have to invest into maintenance before it will sell due to wear and tear.
During my thirty years in skydiving I've been given rigs by manufacturers and during those periods my loyalty was always with those who supported me. This is the same for the top competition teams. In every case I was always completely satisfied by the equipment and was happy to promote the equipment I used. As a rigger, however, I can give you a detailed report of every advantage and concern on every rig in use and in reality it all comes down to knowing what suits you and what you're will to compromise with. Trendy skydivers who want to be with the "in crowd" will always be seen with a rig that's well marketed at national and world competitions. They expect too pay more and expect a higher resale value.
Value for money is so controversial it really depends on your frame of reference. If you're buying your first rig your main concern should be is it suitable for you? Is it affordable? Is it serviceable? Does it have a long life circle? Will the resale value be acceptable? Will it sell? If you believe in the sales hype or want to be with the "in crowd" then go and buy new because you may end up compromising on safety instead of a second or third suitable alternative.
Finally, when you've made your purchase make sure you learn about your new rig. Learn how to pack it for best results, this method may be very different to your current packing method. Learn how to prevent equipment failures specific to your rig. Every rig is different in this area, including rigs from the same manufacturer made in different years. Find yourself a very good reserve packer who will help you to completely understand your rig and how to inspect it prior to every skydive and a more in depth inspection at the start of every day. It's your responsibility to become completely familiar with every part of your equipment and maintain it to prevent becoming an incident report.
You must also consider the life span of all components on the rig? Some items have a set life span. The AAD could be eight years old with a ten year life circle so has to be replaced within two years. The AAD batteries might need replacing in a month or two. These are fairly easy to determine because they are controlled by the date of manufacture or the date of installation. However, other items have jump numbers which control the service life of the component. A line set could be suitable for 500 jumps, 750 jumps or 1,000 jumps depending on the line type, and size and the manufacturers recommendations.
A pilot chute could be lifed for 100 jumps, 200 jumps or more depending on it's design and the materials used in it's construction. Before buying a used rig you need to know how long each component will last for. If the component came new with the rig then it's fairly easy to see how old it is and find out how many jumps the owner has done since buying it, but in the majority of cases, all components will need to be thoroughly inspected by an experienced rigger to determine it's remaining life span.
Buying new or used equipment when your new to skydiving is without doubt a daunting task. A rule of thumb is do not trust anyone without doing your own research.
Always be aware of why someone's giving you advise, what's in it for them? You'll be amazed at why some people give advise, and even more amazed at the low level of knowledge that some people have, but still like to give advise.
Buying used equipment is even more of a problem; you can only choose equipment that's available, which inevitably leads to a compromise. The biggest problem then, is knowing which compromises give you a safety problem.
Choosing the right size and type of parachute for your weight and experience is the first stage in preventing a potential accident.This is easier said than done as all four of the following points have to be considered equally and this can get confusing.
Before you start looking at used equipment find out what canopy sizes you should be looking for and stick to that range. For example a canopy size of between 175 sq.ft to200 sq .ft. The starting point should be your current canopy size. Find out what your current wing loading is and then find out what you're willing to increase this by. If your current wing loading is 0.6 lb/sq.ft and your recommended wing loading for your experience level is 1.0 lbs/sq.ft then there will be a big increase in your landing speed and your canopy will fly more radically. It will turn faster and lose more height in a turn.
If you can't do a good landing in all wind conditions on your current wing loading then going from your existing wing loading to your recommended wing loading is too much of a jump. Knowing your wing loading will help you choose a canopy range, but remember it's about your frame of reference so you should always start from knowing your current canopy size and wing loading. Down sizing one size at a time in generally not a problem but this is assuming that your canopy skills are good on your current canopy size. If you are down sizing two canopy sizes then be cautious. This can be ok if your canopy skills are very good and your landings are very good, and you've had some good canopy coaching from a coach who agrees that you're ready to down size two sizes.