Choosing a BCD: Jacket or Wing?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions we receive. Should I choose a jacket style BCD or go for a backplate and wing setup?

Most of the recreational divers that you will come across these days use a jacket style BCD. For many this may be a simple continuation of their Openwater training BCD. It’s familiar, comfortable and easy to use to get the job done. However at some point in time, you’ll come across divers in backplate and wing style BCs. What’s the difference, and which is right for you? Well let’s take a deeper look into the different styles and examine the pro’s and cons of each.

Jacket style BCDs

By far the most common type of BCD on the market these days is the jacket style BCD. These have been in use since the early 1980’s and are manufactured by all of the leading Scuba brands due to their popularity and ease of use.  Jacket style BCD’s come in all types of shapes, colours, weight integration options, and of course sizes. Nowadays you can also select between Mens or Womens style BCD’s to ensure yourself a better and more tailored fit as well.

The main advantage of a standard jacket style BCD is the shape of the bladder within the BCD itself. A jacket style BCD has a larger bladder that comes around the front of the divers chest and waist area with air also being held between the divers back and the tank. By having the majority of the air trapped around the chest and the waist a jacket style BCD once fully inflated, will hold the diver vertically upright on the surface with excellent lift, even in choppy and demanding ocean conditions. This type of jacket style BCD also allows you to lie on your back easily if surface swimming short distances. These can all be be major advantages for newer divers just starting out, particularly if their in water comfort level is still being improved upon.      

However, when underwater the movement of air inside a jacket style BCD can make it more difficult to achieve an even horizontal, or prone, position. Consequently, even when neutrally buoyant, many divers will swim a little “leg down.” This is not as streamlined as the prone position (think of how a skydiver lies). Getting the wrong fit can also make buoyancy control more difficult, especially if you’ve got a BCD that is too big for you. The air can move around more, which can make the unit feel unstable.

Generally, jacket style BCDs tend to have large pockets, which come in handy for carrying all kinds of things like torches and spare masks although these can be somewhat difficult to access when you’re fully inflated on the surface. So if you do choose this style of BCD then it’s sage advice to be careful to not carry more equipment than you need just because you may have the capacity to carry it.

Many jacket style BCD’s now include Integrated Weight carrying systems which can be a godsend for divers with lower back problems. These are a great alternative to wearing a weight belt or weight harness when drysuit diving, and make it much easier to drop your weights in an emergency situation. As with any weight system always remember to consider the ease of operating the quick release system when choosing between different models.

Many divers also like how easily jacket style BCD’s attach to the scuba tank, and how effortlessly they are to don and doff. However, they are bulky and can take up a lot of space when traveling, which is a big consideration when going on a dive holiday. Fortunately there are now lots of lighter, travel minded BCD’s on the market. Overall however, jacket style BCD’s are still by far the most popular selling choice among divers.

Backplate and Wing style BCDs

Originally designed to cater for technical diving, where divers are using twin scuba tanks, possibly carrying side bailout stages and / or diving rebreather units. In recent years, backplate and wing style BCD’s have made more inroads into recreational single tank diving. The concept is very simple: the diver wears a harness that is attached to an aluminum or steel back plate. The inflatable wing is attached to the back plate and sits on the diver’s back between the diver and the cylinder. Wings are available in doughnut and horseshoe shapes, but the most common is the doughnut thanks to it’s continuous bladder design which allows the air to move around the entire outer part of the wing.

Backplate and Wing style BCD’s have a few major benefits. You can easily swap the Wing for a larger one if you’re doing a technical dive requiring greater lift such as when using a twinset. In this way, you have the same harness system for each type of diving, just swap over the wing. Since the wing sits on your back, it’s easier to achieve that horizontal prone position underwater making you very streamlined and less of an entanglement hazard. With a wing style system, there is nothing around your waist apart from the harness, so you will feel less encumbered and more free in the water. Just as with a jacket style BCD most wing style harness systems now have optional weight pockets and you can also add additional storage pockets if so desired.

Backplates are available in two main options: Steel or Aluminium.  If you want to minimise your dive lead, a thicker Steel back plate is a sensible choice. If you go on lots of dive holidays and luggage weight is a major concern, then go for an Aluminium back plate which is thinner and much lighter. There are even some companies now producing backplates manufactured from Carbon Fibre, however they are considerably much more expensive and must be handle with a higher degree of care.

One disadvantage of a backplate and wing style BCD is that it can be more difficult to stay vertical on the surface. Since the air is only on your back, there is a tendency to go either face down or back down like a bobbing turtle on the surface. This can be quite annoying. However, you can easily remedy this with greater experience and by remembering to lift your knees up slightly and tilting your head back. Technical divers swear by this set up, and among the wider diving community, wing style BCD’s are becoming more popular every year because they are so adaptable.

Hybrid – Back inflate jacket style BCDs

The hybrid style BCD’s offer a combination of both the above styles of BCD’s and are designed to take advantage of the best of each in one system. There are quite a few different models available, each with their own characteristics.

Hybrid back inflate models all strive to fit like a jacket around your waist and shoulders and also provide the lift from a bladder on your back. This makes it easy to attain that horizontal position without a separate wing and backplate. They still have large pockets at the waist, but as with jacket BCD’s, it can be a little more difficult to feel steady in a vertical position when at the surface.

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