Whether purchasing your first BCD or replacing your 15yr old BCD, the things you look for are the same. There are a lot of choices, and a lot of things to consider before you cut a check for one of 2 of the most expensive pieces of dive gear you will buy. You need to sift through manufacturers, features, types, safety features, drawbacks, and costs, to make sure you invest wisely. Buoyancy compensator shopping is complicated by the fact that it is life-support equipment, so you need to get it absolutely right.
In the beginning, there was the dive instructor and the dive shop operator, who fit you for certification using dive shop gear. Following certification you receive advice from friends, dive buddies, and “loyalty pressure” from the dive shop/instructor/other involved professionals. Folks tend to dive what they used in class, or something similar, due to the comfort factor. It can be overwhelming, as a new student or diver, to process all the information the market, your buddies, and the dive pros have to offer. This 4 part blog offering should help you develop a general idea of what you need and why, thus making your shopping experience a far less stressful one. Part-1 will explain the types of BCD styles. Don’t get stuck on what your buddy, the boat operator, the instructor, the dive shop, or the online advertisement says. Your BCD needs to be comfortable, rugged, and meet the needs of your diving style, bottom line.
The purpose of the BCD (buoyancy compensator device) is to allow the diver the ability to float safely on the surface of the water, to control buoyancy at depth, and to support the tank and backup breathing source for the recreational scuba diver. The BCD has the following basic parts: “bladder” – holds air during the dive, “power inflator”/”safe second regulator” – inflates/deflates the bladder and serves as a back-up apparatus for breathing at depth, and a harness – the mechanism that carries all the parts. Common types of BCDs are the “jacket”, “back-inflate”, and hybrid styles. There are some other types applicable to technical diving, but they will not be addressed in this blog. Here is a more detailed explanation of recreational diving BCD types:
The jacket style BCD has an air bladder that wraps around from the back to the sides of the chest. As the BCD is inflated it tends to squeeze the divers torso. In doing so, it can feel bulky and restrictive. But, they do the best job of keeping a diver upright at the surface. An example of a back inflate BCD is a Seaquest “Diva”, or a Sherwood “Avid”. The jacket, also called “vest”, BCD´s are the most common. Jacket BCDs typically have large front pockets, they are suitable for warm and cold diving, and they enable the newer diver to feel the air inflate/deflate. This can make learning the skill of neutral buoyancy much easier for the new diver.
Back inflation BCDs have an air bladder on the back, behind the diver. The advantage of back inflation is ease of movement and a slimmer trim, since there is no air at the chest. Back inflate BCDs don’t have front storage pockets, they use multiple extra D-rings on the shoulder harness instead. The air bladder on the back provides more stability with a horizontal trim at depth, but learning this skill can be harder for the new diver. At the surface they tend to push the diver forward, who leans back as in a recliner to compensate. These BCDs tend to have a greater lift capacity, and can be heavier, making them great for cold water diving. But, there are many light-weight travel versions on the market. Examples of back inflate BCDs include Scubapro Knighthawk, Aqualung Balance (a good travel BCD), and the Mares Icon (folds into a small package to travel). I dive back inflate BCDs exclusively, and own 3 for different uses.
The hybrid BCD is just like its category name implies, a combination of jacket and back inflate styles. This type of BCD reduces front clutter and supports the diver well at the surface, and allows for the floating horizontal position and neutral buoyancy like the back inflate. It is appropriate for warm and cold water diving. It is becoming an increasingly popular style in the recreational diving community. Examples of this type of bcd would be the Mares Hybrid, Aeris Jetpack, or the Sherwood Shadow.
Ultimately, your body style will play a critical role in your BCD comfort and choice. There are BCDs designed specifically for a woman, being shorter in torso length and more narrow thru the curved shoulder straps (compare Scubapro Knighthawk-men to Lighthawk-women). You can also find unisex BCDs. And, you buy to form and function. Keep in mind though, nothing is worse than investing in your most expensive piece of dive equipment to find it uncomfortable and unmanageable at depth.
I suggest, especially as a newer diver, you rent the three different styles for test dives. You should get a feel for how each style affects your unique body and trim. Do you like the upright floatation of the jacket, the horizontal trim of the back inflate at depth, or the combination of the hybrid? Do you like more D-rings, or your front pockets? Do you travel to warmer waters, dive the chill, or do a little of both? Look at what you will use the BCD for. Also, look at the weight of the BCD, packing weight and volume is an issue for the traveler. Any dive shop should be able to assist you in your purchase, whether new or pre-owned. Although, be warned, they might push you to the new BCD where there is profit for them. A trustworthy used BCD seller will answer questions, allow you to test the BCD (if you put down a deposit to cover loss/damage/theft), and will educate you as to the specifics of the item you desire to purchase. Some sellers, will gladly answer questions and offer free education, as well as free estimates on equipment you might wish to sell.
I hope part 1 of this series has been informative. Please refer back soon for part 2, where I will discuss more specific options on BCDs and their functions.
Authored by Lisa J Henry
“Be the sea”