The Ultimate BCD Buying Guide – All your questions answered before you ask them

Bob Grundmeyer

Divers call me quite frequently looking to purchase a bcd.  They may be purchasing for the first time or may be replacing a buoyancy compensator that they’ve had for many years, but generally the call goes about the same.  They are excited and have a notion in their head of what they expect only to discover there are quite a few choices, manufacturers, features, benefits and potential drawbacks to bcd’s manufactured today that they were unaware of.  In their mind they have a vision of their instructor, local dive shop employee or resort handing them a piece of gear that held their tank in place, fit (most of the time) somewhat comfortably, and held air when it was designed to.   That’s what they know, that’s what they feel they are comfortable with and that’s what they are looking for on our site.   It’s also why they are calling me quite overwhelmed and often confused as suddenly they are discovering things they’ve never considered.  Jacket style of back inflated?  Weight integrated?  D-rings?  Clips?  Knife mounts?  Accepts this accessory or that.  Colors? 

It doesn’t take long before their head is spinning and something a lot less confusing such as quantum physics begins to look appealing.  But fear not!  It isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds to choose the perfect piece of gear that will give you years of happy diving.  This article will explain some of the differences between bcd styles, features and benefits in order to clear up some of the more confusing points and allow you to make an educated choice on the piece of diving gear best suited for you and your diving.  Regardless of what your dive instructor, the owner of the local dive shop, the gear/gadget junkie you met who’s wallet is bigger than his brain or the divemaster at your last resort who asked you “are you for scuba today” says, there is no right or wrong answer to the question “what bcd is best?”.  It is all a matter of personal preference based on your intended use of the piece of equipment.

The BCD or buoyancy compensator is used to float the diver and equipment on the surface and allows for adjusting for neutral buoyancy at depth. Diving in cold water requires the use of thicker wetsuits. This requires ample weight to offset the buoyancy of the suit thus requiring the BCD will need enough lift capacity to compensate for the loss of that buoyancy at depth. Common features for most BCD’s include: a variety of shoulder and waist adjustments to help you custom fit the BCD to your body. Quick releases on the shoulders make for easy removal. Trim weight pockets typically in the back of the BCD, which allows the diver to balance the placement of weight. Trim weight pockets are usually NOT diver ditch-able and are used for trim only. Integrated weight systems where the weight is carried in pockets of BCD and can be ditched by the diver in an emergency. Other models require the diver to wear a separate weight belt. Number of D-rings, easy access pockets, shoulder dump valves, lumbar support pad and adjustable cummerbunds are all features that make the BC’s more comfortable and easier to use. The Denier number designates how tough and heavy duty the material is on the BC. The average BC will have around 620 denier and can be as high as 1600.

Jacket/Vest Style
Jacket/Vest style BC´s are the most common among recreational divers and are the most often used for training new divers. These encompass an air-cell that wraps around the diver from back to front around the lower rib cage. This provides excellent vertical stability at the surface. There are usually large easy access pockets on the lower front of these BC´s for inboard storage. The harness derives its stability from the cummerbund which usually Velcro´s around the waist line. The quick releases on the front of the pockets and on the shoulder straps allow for quick donning and doffing. The lift capacities of these BC´s are usually suitable for both warm and cold water environments.  One of often over looked advantages a jacket style bcd offers a new diver is in helping to learn proper neutral buoyancy during dives.  Since the diver can feel the air increase inside the air cell of the unit when they push the power inflator button, they can quickly get a sense for how much or how little air it takes to effect a change in buoyancy. 

Examples of this type of bcd would be the Oceanic Ocean Pro or the Sherwood Avid bcds.

Back Inflation
This style is very commonly used by divers that wish to streamline the front of the BC. The air-cell is situated behind the diver, freeing up the front for ease of movement and comfort. The harness derives its stability from the cummerbund or web strap which Velcro´s or buckles around the waist line. Storage is usually accomplished by multiple D-Ring attachment points on the harness or by adding utility pockets to the various straps. Commonly BC´s in this category have a high lift capacity for heavy loads although there are also many light-weight travel models available. Many newer models also have small and medium sized pockets for inboard storage up front without adding bulk. Most models are appropriate for both cold and warm water use. 

Generally speaking back inflated bcds are made with a “soft pack” design, meaning there is no hard backpack built into the unit for stability or to control the tank.  Instead this is accomplished by the air cell cradling the cylinder.  Normally with this design you’ll also find 2 cylinder bands to hold the tank secure rather than the single band found on a bcd with a hard pack.  This feature often makes the back inflation bcd the ideal traveler’s bcd as they pack in a suitcase or dive bag as the lack of a backpack allows them to be folded or balled up saving space and weight.  Lastly, once a diver is accustomed to proper buoyancy control through out a dive they will find the back inflation bcd offers a more naturally buoyancy underwater as the diver is suspended from their air rather than wrapped in it as with the jacket style bcd.

Examples of these bcds would be the Zeagle Ranger or Stiletto bcds or the Aeris 5 Oceans bcd.

For Women
With the ever increasing number of women enjoying scuba, bcd’s made especially for women have become more popular.  BC´s that are made specifically for women have three features that distinguish them from unisex or men´s BC´s.  Similar in design to the back inflated bcd they are built shorter in the length of the torso.  Also, the shoulder straps are not as wide, and they usually have a padded or velour lining for comfort. The shoulder straps are often designed to curve away from the chest and back toward the lumbar support. The overall pattern and fit takes a woman´s body composition into great consideration for comfort and ease of use. Most models are appropriate for both cold and warm water use.

Examples of this type of bcd would be the Oceanic Hera, theMares Kaila or the Zeagle Zena bcd.

Technical
These BC´s are built for long dives and long wear. They are built out of heavy material and have high lift capacities allowing the diver to take spare or decompression tanks or set their gear up with multiple tanks all tied together allowing for extended stays underwater.  They have places to attach specialized lighting systems with large battery canisters or heavy photographic equipment. They are built around the idea of being "modular." A harness may be quickly re-fit to encompass a back-plate, different air cell and multiple tanks. They can also be fit with light-weight air cells for travel. There are multiple attachment points on the harness for a wide array of equipment from light canisters and reels to surface marker buoys to multiple cylinders for long dives. Most models are appropriate for both cold and warm water use.

Examples of these types of bcd would be the Zeagle Ranger LTD, the Hollis HD-100 or the Zeagle 911 bcds.

As you can see there are many choices of bcd to choose from, but the vast majority of your search comes down to comfort and your intended use.  Keeping these tips in mind should help you narrow your search down dramatically and assist you in making an educated decision on what style is best suited to you and your diving needs.  If you have any questions at all the friendly staff of instructors at Scuba.com will be happy to help with any concern you may have.