What is the main thing to consider when I buy my first BCD?

In my book for beginners, Scuba Fundamental, I advise new scuba divers not to buy their own BCD before they take their first course. In fact, you really shouldn’t even think about buying one before you have graduated and done at least a few dives.

After all, a BCD is an expensive piece of equipment and, if you buy one too early and then decide that scuba diving is not for you after all (it happens), you will be stuck with something that really doesn’t have any alternative application. The time to buy your first BCD is once you realise that you have caught the diving bug. You are a diver and you will probably always be a diver. Now is the time to invest in your specialist scuba kit – regulator, computer, BCD etc.

But, how do you choose a BCD from the vast range available? Let me try to simplify things a little by helping you narrow your choice.

As far as BCDs are concerned, there are two main styles – harness and wing or wraparound jacket - and choosing one style or the other is the key decision you have to make first. All the other factors to consider – design, colour, features - are subordinate and subsequent to this one.

In brief, the first option is a parachute harness with an inflatable aircell (the wing) attached to the back the other is a sleeveless jacket with the inflatable aircell all around you.

Two important points.

1. The primary functions of a BCD are:
a) To keep you afloat on the surface before and after a dive, and
b) To allow you to adjust your buoyancy during a dive by adding air to the BCD or releasing it.

Both styles of BCD accomplish these tasks perfectly. Neither is more or less safe than the other. The only difference is that, when you inflate a wraparound jacket BCD on the surface, it lifts your head and shoulders directly above the water. With a harness and wing, all your buoyancy is behind you so the trick is to lean back a little as you add air, letting the aircell act like a small inflatable raft, keeping your head and upper torso clear of the waves.

2. Hybrid models exist, which attempt to offer all the advantages of both BCD styles and thereby an easy solution to the wing or wraparound dilemma. Don’t fall into this trap. I have never seen any hybrids that accomplish this goal successfully. Usually they manage to achieve the exact opposite and combine the disadvantages of both styles.

So these are some of the pros and cons – with a little brief explanation here and there.

Wraparound jacket BCDS - Pros

They are familiar.

Wraparound jacket BCDs are very common. It is extremely likely that you learned to dive with one and that all the BCDs you have subsequently rented have been this style.

They are simple to set up.

They are ready to wear right out of the box. All you have to do is shrug the BCD on, secure the waist buckle, pull the shoulder straps tight and decide which pocket you will keep which of your accessories in.

They are comfortable.

They wrap around you and hold you tight. They have no sharp edges and many have plenty of padding to make you feel even cosier.

They have large built-in pockets.

You will have plenty of room for all the bits and pieces you want to take with you on a dive.

Wraparound jacket-style BCDs - Cons

They have substantial integral buoyancy.

The padding and quantity of material involved in the design makes these BCDs positively buoyant, even when uninflated. Therefore, you need to carry more weight.

It is very difficult to get a perfect fit.

If your wraparound BCD fits too tightly, the side panels can squeeze your rib cage when they are inflated. If it is too loose, then, when the air inside the jacket moves around as you adjust your position underwater, the jacket shifts too, making you unstable.

They are mostly designed for large divers and male divers.

Few manufacturers offer options specifically for women, smaller divers or children. Some do and these are well worth seeking out. Wearing a BCD that is too large poses a risk to your safety.

The large side pockets are not ideal.

The pockets seem perfectly designed when you are standing up, but when you are in a swimming position, they usually open to the side. There is no means of securing the various items within the pocket, so when you pull one thing out, other things can fall out at the same time.

Harness and wing BCDs - Pros

They are adaptable.

The harness is secured to your torso with shoulder straps, chest strap, waist strap and crotch strap. All the straps can be lengthened or shortened, so any harness can be fitted perfectly to any diver - large, small, young, old, male, female.

They are stable.

Once the harness is assembled to fit, the straps keep the BCD in place. It never moves around on the diver. The air in the wing may move as you adjust your position, but the BCD will not move.

They have minimal integral buoyancy

The harness material is neutrally buoyant and, typically, the metalware on the harness offsets the positive buoyancy of the uninflated aircell. Therefore, you do not need to carry additional weight to get it underwater

They are “future proof”.

All technical divers, cave divers and wreck divers use harness and wing BCDs. If you are already accustomed to diving with one your transition to these more advanced forms of scuba will be easier.

Harness and wing BCDs - Cons

You have to set them up yourself.

Typically, you will open the box to find a backplate or soft backpack, cylinder bands, webbing, straps and some metalware. It is up to you to put it together. Your local dive store or instructor can help or there are plenty of “how-to” videos on YouTube.

Some divers find them uncomfortable.

Some manufacturers only offer one-size-fits-all backplates and these can be uncomfortable if you are the “wrong” size or shape. The solution, of course, is to choose a manufacturer that provides backplates in different sizes or a soft-pack option. Also, wearing a crotch strap can take some getting used to.

The wing aircells are often too large for single cylinders.

Comparatively few manufacturers offer wings specifically designed for use with single cylinders. Choose a brand that does.

They have no built-in pockets.

You have to decide how you want to store your accessories and buy harness pouches, bolt snaps, bungee cord and neoprene loops accordingly. Again, your dive shop or instructor can give you advice and show you the options.


So, in brief, a wraparound jacket offers simplicity and comfort, while a wing and harness demands a little more work but gives you a better fit and is more versatile. Happy shopping!