How to pick the right dive jacket
Broadly speaking, Buoyancy Control Devices (BCDs) are split into three categories: jackets, wings and, the increasingly popular, side-mount harness. There is a lot of debate about which is better – I’ve tried all three and each have their good points, but the most basic principles apply to all three, which is that they must be able to support you both underwater and at the surface, they must be comfortable, and they must be a good fit.
A poorly-fitting device of any flavour will create havoc with your buoyancy and trim, be exceedingly uncomfortable and – in extreme cases – can be potentially very dangerous.
I think the dive community – in general – would agree that the backplate / wing and sidemount are for divers who are a little more advanced than entry-level. There are a lot of beer-table 'experts' who will tell you that ONLY wings can give you perfect control and buoyancy, which is simply not the case. While side-mount is a rapidly growing phenomenon and quite a lot of fun, it does require some training, you need regulators suitable for the configuration, and it’s not for everybody.
The jacket style BCD has been the tried-and-tested mainstay of the diving industry for more 30 years and is what the vast majority of recreational divers will have used during training. It’s certainly what I, and probably most of my colleagues would recommend for a first-time purchase.
You obviously need to try the fit of the BCD and you need to be aware that the size on the label may not be the same as the size in which you buy your T-shirts, because BCD manufacturers need to compensate for the various thicknesses of wetsuit a diver might wear. In my case, I am a “Large” for t-shirts, (although I usually buy XL because I like the baggy look and it’s – er – more flattering around the midriff!) but of the BCDs I’ve owned, two were Medium and one was Small. Remember that if you’re going to be diving in a thick wetsuit, that may add a couple of inches to your chest size, so if you’re trying on a buoyancy device wearing a t-shirt and it’s at the limit of its adjustment in terms of not being able to increase the length of the shoulder straps, then it’s too small. On the other side of the coin, if you’ve pulled everything as tight as you can and there’s still 10cm of clearance between your shoulders and the straps, then it’s probably too big. Look for a comfortable fit where you have some possibility
In my case, I am a 'large' for t-shirts, (although I usually buy XL because I like the baggy look and it’s – er – more flattering around the midriff!) but of the BCDs I’ve owned, two were medium and one was small.
Remember that if you’re going to be diving in a thick wetsuit, that may add a couple of inches to your chest size, so if you’re trying on a buoyancy device wearing a t-shirt and it’s at the limit of its adjustment in terms of not being able to increase the length of the shoulder straps, then it’s too small. On the other side of the coin, if you’ve pulled everything as tight as you can and there’s still 10cm of clearance between your shoulders and the straps, then it’s probably too big. Look for a comfortable fit where you have some possibility for adjustment in both directions. Bear in mind that the cummerbund and belly strap should comfortably sit around your midriff – between your tummy button and your waist, as a rough guide.
A correctly fitting BCD should – as a rule of thumb – support you in and on the water. However, if you regularly need to wear a lot of weight when you dive – either because you have to wear bulky exposure suits or because you’re a bit – er – bulky – then you may wish to ask for recommendations as to the amount of air – the bladder size – and, therefore, how much lift a particular model of BC is capable of supporting.
Many buoyancy devices are unisex affairs, but most manufacturers now have ranges that are specifically tailored towards ladies. Women, on average, have slightly shorter backs than men when compared to overall body length, so the shorter backplate may assist with tank and weight placement, with differently configured chest and shoulder straps for comfort and support.
Travel BCDs are also becoming more popular, but some material is sacrificed to make them lightweight and I don’t think they’re as robust as a standard item. If you’re going to be diving once or twice per year in the tropics then they’ll be fine, but for more regular diving or more challenging environments, then they lose their benefits in terms of durability and range of use.
When it comes to integrated weights – some people love them, I really don’t. The main benefit for most divers is that they find them more comfortable than weight belts, but I think they limit – to some extent – the options for weight distribution. Some BCDs have 'trim pockets' where you can place single weights to assist with your position in the water. They might be useful or not, depending on the style of BCD and what other equipment you’re wearing, but again, if you’re uncertain, go with what you know.
For other features such as D-Rings or pockets, consider what type of diving you do and what you will need them for – somewhere to clip an SMB and reel, your camera, torch… If everything is small and lightweight then plastic D-Rings (common on travel BCDs) will be fine, but metal is better for larger and heavier items. Most BCDs have some form of pocket to put things in – if you’re carrying heavy or expensive objects then zipped pockets are better than Velcro to stop things falling out when you’re upside down.
As you can see, there are a lot of options available, but consider what you really need for your first purchase, and don’t be sold on a particular style just because it has more features than another, unless they are necessary for your particular requirements.