You’re a certified diver — congrats! If you love the sport (and how could you not), you’ll likely want to start buying your own equipment. While it might seem like there’s a whole dive boat of BCD options, in reality, most follow one of three basic types. To help you buy your first scuba diving BCD, we’ve put together a brief guide covering those types and a few other things you need to know.
Three main BCD types
Buoyancy Compensation Devices, or BCDs, allow divers to offset negative buoyancy on the surface and maintain neutral buoyancy underwater. As such, the key component of a BCD is its inflatable air bladder. The three basic BCD types have bladders that differ slightly.
If you learned to scuba dive in rental equipment, you probably used a jacket BCD. These are, as the name suggests, much like inflatable waistcoats. A single air bladder surrounds the diver’s back and the part of the diver’s sides where the BCD conforms to the body.
Jacket-style units are easy to use and manage on the surface. As such, many divers choose one for their first-ever BCD. Jackets are user-friendly underwater too. The one drawback is that until divers get a feel for where the air is sitting in the large bladder, getting into a good trim position may be harder.
Wing BCDs differ from jacket-style BCDs as they do not conform to your body in the same way. Instead, wings are doughnut or horseshoe-shaped buoyancy devices that rest on the diver’s back. They are secured in place with straps and a harness.
This style of BCD is more difficult to master at first, but most divers will argue that wings allow better trim in the water. On the surface, a wing BCD’s air placement can push you forward slightly. Choose a wing if you can confidently and competently manage yourself on the surface. Otherwise, stick to a jacket-style unit.
Hybrid BCDs (back-inflate BCDs)
Hybrid or back-inflate BCDs are growing in popularity, especially as the lines between recreational diving and technical diving blur. As the name suggests, hybrids combine features from both wings and jacket-style units. The distribution of air in a hybrid makes maintaining trim underwater easy. They’re also simple to manage on the surface.
Weight Matters: integrated BCD or weight belt?
Another key decision is whether you’d like a BCD with integrated weight pockets, or if you’ll continue to use a weight belt as you did in your course.
BCDs with integrated weight systems feature large, dedicated pockets that you slip weights into. These pockets are then slotted into place and clipped in securely. As you can imagine, having all your required weights at the front of your body can affect you on the surface when you’re new to the sport. Underwater, it’s less of a concern, as you’re horizontal.
To mitigate any issues, many new divers who use integrated weight systems place weights in their trim pockets (located on either side of the tank strap at the back of the BCD) or onto the tank strap itself. Trim weight pockets are generally small and only hold a few pounds.
When you were training, you learned to use a weight belt, whether your BCD had integrated weights or not. Many divers choose to keep using a weight belt and don’t place much value on integrated weight systems. However, it’s largely a matter of personal preference. If you can, try diving with both types of BCD to see which you prefer before you buy one.
If you’re buying online, do a little research on the manufacturer and their sizes. Ideally, you’ll be able to try on a new BCD before you buy it at your local dive shop and purchase it there as well. Certain brands run larger than others, but most BCDs are adaptable when it comes to the size of the divers they can accommodate.
Getting the proper fit can make a lot of difference underwater, on the surface, and to your own comfort levels. BCDs that are too large can end up floating around your ears when you’re on the surface. Too small and you risk struggling with the straps at the waist.
A good rule of thumb is that you should buy a BCD in the same size as the T-shirts you wear. That said, do a little research and make sure the model you’re considering runs true to size.
Do I need a gender-specific BCD?
Unisex BCDs dominate the market and are the norm, but you’ll see an increasing number of units marketed specifically to women. The reasoning here is that BCDs designed for women are more comfortable on the female form.
Plenty of divers will tell you that’s nonsense and that any BCD is fine for women, while other female divers swear by these models. Again, this really comes down to personal preference. As a female diver, you do not need a BCD designed for women, but you may prefer these units.
Pockets may seem like a bit of a trivial concern but trust us — you’ll miss them if you buy a unit without any storage options. Many units come with two large pockets at the front. Divers use these to store stuff like a spare mask, a torch, an SMB, and their reel.
If you go down the pocketless route, make sure the BCD has enough D-rings so you can securely clip your extra equipment to the unit. Some divers hate having bits and pieces dangling off them while others prefer this over bulky pockets.
Standard BCD features
Across models and brands, some things remain standard. All BCDs, no matter the type or the style, have these features:
Your BCD inflates in one of two ways: with air from the tank using the button on your LPI (low-pressure inflator hose), or via manual inflation.
BCDs are sold with LPIs, so you don’t need to purchase one separately. The hose connecting the LPI to the tank may or may come with the regulator you buy.
Deflation and dump valves
To offset increased buoyancy as you ascend (remember that gas expands as pressure drops) you need to remove air from your BCD occasionally to remain neutrally buoyant.
You deflate your BCD using the deflate button on your LPI or through the dump valves. Most BCDs have a dump valve on the right-hand shoulder and at the rear of the BCD, again on the right-hand side.
Getting your own scuba diving gear might feel like a big plunge, but once you’re suited and booted, you’ll find that having your own equipment is wonderful. Most divers feel more comfortable in own stuff and this holds true for BCDs in particular. Do your research and try a few before you buy for the best results, and you may find yourself diving more and more once your gear fits you well.