The most important part of any piece of dive gear is fit and function – these go hand and hand. Fit is how the item sits on you and what it feel like when it is on you. Function is often thought of as a simple thing – does it do the job that you need it too. This is actually more difficult to answer than most people think, but we will address this later. Once these two requirements are met, we can then evaluate other requirements of the gear but often everything else fall into place.

A buoyancy compensator device (BCD) is possibly the one piece of scuba gear you can buy that will impact your enjoyment (or not) of diving the most. BCDs come in a few different varieties – “jacket” BCDs which inflate all around, “back inflating” recreational BCDs which have an air cell only in the back, and the less-well known backplate/harness/wing BCD. At Submerged, we train all of our divers in a backplate/wing configuration – it’s not because we want to be different, but because of the major benefits it provides for divers of all levels of diving from beginner through advanced technical diving.

When divers come in to the shop looking for a new BCD, sometimes they’re a little unsure of the backplate/wing because it’s less familiar. So let’s help you get a little more familiar with them, and hopefully you, too, will try one out and realize how great they really are!

Fit
BCD jackets or even back-inflating BCDs only come in generic sizes like Small, Medium, Large, X-Large. They are designed to fit a range of body types and sizes – you snug the Velcro cummerbund around your waist, cinch down the straps, and you’re in. But does it really hold you securely, and move with you, or are you literally “swimming” in your BCD?

Alternatively, a backplate and wing system is infinitely adjustable to fit any size diver regardless of sex, weight, or height. The harness is made of one continuous piece of webbing. So no matter how big or small you are, a backplate/wing BCD is CUSTOM SIZED to you. When it’s sized to you, it fits you perfectly. Not kind of closely…. simply perfectly. When you have this custom fit, your gear moves with you. You are “diving” your gear, not letting your gear dive you – you are in control.

Function
Why do we use a buoyancy compensator? What does the buoyancy compensator do for you in the water?  Buoyancy compensator devices have two jobs – offset the negative weight of the gas in your cylinder and keep the cylinder on your back. The job of a buoyancy compensator device is NOT to keep you floating vertically at the surface or to be used to move you up and down in the water column.  

It’s really confusing when divers say to us: “I prefer jacket style BCDs because it’s easier to stay upright when on the surface.” Honestly, how much time are you REALLY spending on the surface? The majority of a dive is spent underwater, so let’s go for a BCD that’s going to help you be streamlined, be in good horizontal trim, and move efficiently through the water! You’re only on the surface when you’re waiting for your buddy to enter the water at the beginning of the dive and then when you’re waiting to climb up the ladder at the end of the dive. That’s really a small amount of your time. Why would you want to spend the majority of your time in a piece of gear that is really good at keeping you in the wrong position in the water - vertical?

If your BCD is pushing you into a vertical position, you will be expending extra effort to remain in trim, and thus using more gas and expending excess energy, leading to a shorter, less comfortable dive. Proper positioning reduces the effort necessary to propel yourself in the water. When you wear a heavy weight belt or put lots of weights in your integrated weight pockets around your waist, your center of gravity is near your hips while the lift is up around your chest, pivoting you head-up.

With a backplate, the weight of the plate is directly above your lungs, a major source of lift, so these forces help counteract each other. The backplate itself serves as a majority of your weight, eliminating the need to shuffle bricks in and out of your BCD pockets. Also, placing your center of gravity directly above your lungs, the body’s internal source of buoyancy, has the same effect, keeping downward force parallel with upward force

Some users of back inflating BCD’s claim that they are being pushed face down on the surface. That’s simply because they overinflate the BCD that never fit them well and the bladder lifts off their back (towards the bottom of the BCD) and pushes their face down. The backplate, harness, and wing doesn’t do this because it fits you correctly. Also, a little trick on the surface to stay upright in a backplate/wing or back inflating BCD on the surface is to just lean back a little and not over-inflate the wing. That’s really all it takes.

Durability:
A backplate/harness/ wing is as durable as it gets.
  • The backplate is made of solid metal – it will never break.
  • The harness is a single, continuous piece of webbing.  It might wear out over several years, but it’s cheap to replace. You replace the nylon webbing – try that with a BCD!
  • The hardware (buckle and d-rings) are stainless steel – again, not going to break.
  • The wing is a separate item that gets bolted to the backplate. Wings usually consist of a heavy duty polyurethane air cell covered by a strong protective Cordura cover to protect them from abrasions and tears. This part is just as prone to damage as the air cell on a jacket style BCD. The difference is that if it’s damaged, all you need to replace is the wing. If you damage the air cell on a jacket BCD, you have to replace the entire BCD. Also, keep in mind that traditionally, divers buying “wings” were headed into tougher environments, so they are made to withstand those harsher conditions.

Weight and Buoyancy of the BCD
This is a really interesting characteristic of buoyancy compensator devices, no matter the type. BCDs, like everything else, weigh something. Let’s say a BCD weighs 10lbs out of the water. A stainless steel backplate/wing system is made up of a 6lb SS backplate (1lbs if Aluminum), a SS single tank adapter that weighs about 2 pounds, the harness with all the hardware, and then the actual wing itself, so probably all said and done, the systems weighs about 10lbs also. The real difference is the buoyancy characteristics of these two types of BCD once we get in the water. A stainless steel backplate and an empty wing are going to sink. An empty jacket style BCD, however, will float. This is because the jacket BCD displaces a lot more water since it is a lot bulkier and has a lot of extra unneeded “features”. All of that extra material – the pockets, the padding, the integrated weight systems – it adds bulk which adds positive buoyancy.

So what? You could just add more weight to your weight belt or put it in the integrated weight pockets, right? Of course you could. But why would you want to? Why not dive a system that is naturally more negatively buoyant (or neutral)? Now it can accomplish three jobs instead of just two - it can provide some of the ballast that you need to sink! Instead of wearing a 10lb weight belt, you could get by with just 4 lbs, for example. That’s AWESOME!! You see, with a backplate you have weight integrated into your system automatically, so no need for anymore heavy weight belts.

Price
The initial cost of a backplate/wing BCD is very comparable to other styles of BCD. Depending on exactly what you purchase you might be spending a little bit more initially, but the overall durability and longevity of the system will far outlast any other style of BCD you could possibly have. In the long run you will spend far less on BCDs if you start out with a backplate/wing BCD.

Scalability (modular) and Consistency
A backplate/wing BCD can grow with you from your Open Water class through any level of diving that you could ever possibly want to do. If you start with a jacket BCD, you will need to learn a new type of gear if you get into technical, or cave, or rebreather. With a backplate and wing your training and your gear stays consistent throughout your diving career. Even if you stick with recreational diving forever, it’s still the best type of BCD to use. If it’s good enough for going deep into a cave, it’s certainly good enough for enjoying a 30ft reef!

Comfort:
This is possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome when talking about backplate/wing BCDs. They don’t LOOK comfortable, especially if you’re used to the super deluxe padding on those jacket BCDs. All of that padding is really good at looking super comfortable and adding a ton of bulk to the BCD. All of that extra bulk adds buoyancy, as discussed above, so you’re trading function for unnecessary padding that actually makes you LESS comfortable.

If you think about it for a second, your gear is supposed to be weightless in the water, so why do you need all that padding on your back anyway? For the 2% of the time that you’re not in the water? You also have some padding with your wetsuit, so it’s really not a big deal.


So hopefully you give a backplate/harness/wing style BCD a try so you can see for yourself how it can really make a huge positive change in your diving comfort and enjoyment.
 


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