Things to know before you buy a Backplate Wing System BCD (BPW)

Like most divers I started diving with a jacket style BCD, and as that’s what I’d learnt to dive in, after a while I decided to purchase my own. After a couple of years of diving, and no end of people telling me I’d love a backplate and wing system (BPW), I decided to take the plunge and buy myself my own set up. Here are the mistakes I made, things I wish I knew and what I love and ,don't so much, about the backplate systems. By Girls that Scuba member and UK diver Emma Hughes.

What is a backplate wing system (BPW)

A backplate and wing set up broken down is:

  • A backplate - normally metal and stainless steel or aluminium, but you can get less frequently used titanium or carbon fibre backplates.
  • A harness - various options in terms of flexibility, colour and whether it’s a continuous one piece or multiple pieces with pinch clip easy adjustment.
  • A bladder (the wing) - the buoyancy part. There are different sizes and shapes, and you can get a single tank or twins bladder.

Where and how to buy a backplate BCD

As a first time buyer, it is a total minefield trying to figure out what to buy! There are so many options and it can be very overwhelming. The main advice I can give for this is go your local dive shop and talk to them in depth. If there’s an instructor or Divemaster you’ve dived with previously that knows you and your diving style, quiz them. Have a look at what the dive shop have in stock and if you can try one on and have a go at adjusting. Even better, if the shop has rental wings, go for a dive and try one out.

 

Theoretically you can choose what you want from whatever manufacturer, buy them separately, and literally build yourself your own custom made set up. There are issues with certain manufacturers only working/mixing with their own equipment, but generally you can mix and match. Personally as it was my first BPW purchase, I found it was less daunting to buy a complete kit from one manufacturer. 

Which backplate wing BCD I bought

I went for an X-Deep NX Zen Deluxe set up. When researching, the one manufacturer that comes up when discussing BPW set ups the most is X-Deep. This and Sidemount set setups are what they specialise in so it seemed to make sense. It was a close call between X-Deep and Apeks (I am very much an Apeks girl) but the thing that pushed X-Deep over the line is their Tune Up custom gear creator. This is a system they have which allows you to choose your system, then to customise it to your size and preference. You can choose backplate size, harness length, colour, whether you want padding and many other options, including the length of your inflator corrugated hose! You can even customise the wings with your own name or logo so it’s a very cool system. Bear in mind though this all comes at a price - it’s not cheap! Once you’ve designed your set up you get a summary sheet with your options which has a unique number, and you take this to your dive shop (only an X-Deep

distributor) to get it ordered. If you’re lucky, your dive shop might give you a bit of a discount on the price!

Adjusting the harness

I’m not sure what I imagined when I got my set up out of the box and tried it on the first time, but I certainly didn’t think I’d need to adjust it as much as I did! The first major thing to note when you change to a BPW set up - do not think you can just get it out of the box and go diving! It takes A LOT of adjustment to get the harness fitted to you. If your experience is anything like mine, it will involve a lot of swearing and red raw painful fingers! It’s not just the harness - you’ll want to move all the D-rings to where you need them, or maybe add additional D-rings. Maybe you want to add a chest strap, maybe you want to add some trim weight pockets....whatever you do, make sure you take some time getting to know the gear and getting things how you like it. It involves a lot of trying on, taking it off again, making minimal adjustments that make a big difference to the fit and your comfort.

Diving with my new backplate wing

My first dive with my new setup was in one of my dive club pool sessions. I’m very lucky to be part of a great dive club (Aquanauts, Plymouth) that offer regular pool sessions which are a great opportunity to test out new gear. I really recommend doing this for all new gear if you can. Luckily I made the last pool session on the same evening the nationwide lockdown was announced, just before all the pools had to shut the following day. I spent a while sat by myself putting my gear together, checking it all thoroughly, then got in for my first try. I had no idea how much lead I would need to get down, but it turned out that with my stainless steel backplate (weighing around 3kg) I didn’t need any lead to descend. I spent the next 40 minutes pottering around by myself just getting used to being underwater with it. Although it was clear I had some further adjustments to make, it felt really easy and stable to dive with.

 

Fast forward just under two and half months of lockdown, I finally got to do my first sea dive with the new kit. This was also my first sea dive in about 7 months so I was definitely feeling apprehensive of how it was going to go. I met with my dive buddy and we went for a shallow shore dive. I had some new regulators and a new DSMB I wanted to try out on this dive too, so there was a lot going on, and in retrospect, too much going on. I didn’t know what lead I’d need so I went for more than enough! The dive went pretty well, apart from a couple of issues with my buoyancy while focusing on my DSMB/reel. My second dive a couple of weeks later also went fine, I dropped some lead, no issues, but I did feel a bit unstable at some points where it felt like I was going to get pulled on to my back. I hadn’t experienced the issue some divers I’d read about had encountered, where on the surface the wing pushed them forward. On the surface while floating I felt fine and stable. 

When it went wrong...

My third dive was where I had my first real issue. This was another shore dive, but this time there was quite a surge and it looked a bit choppy. With my weight set up, along with the steel backplate and 15l cylinder, I had the rest of my lead in trim pockets attached to my cambands. This meant I had all my weight on my back, which in my head was a good thing as it would help with my trim in the water. Walking on the surface with all this weight on my back was extremely hard, so I wanted to get straight in the water as soon as possible to get the weight off. With my urgency to get in the water and with the sea surge, I lost my footing on some rocks in the shallows and fell to the side. As I did, I could not get myself back up. With all the weight on my back I was being pulled on to my back and ended up “turtling” and unable to get back up! I didn’t have my mask or fins on at this point, and in my attempts to right myself I dropped them (luckily my buddy grabbed them), and as I didn’t have a mask on and the waves were washing over my face, I started to panic. My buddy came over and eventually all was sorted, but my confidence was definitely dented. We did the dive (with the most horrendous vis) but I spent the whole time being annoyed with myself for losing control and making an idiot out myself. For the first time in my scuba life, I was glad the dive was over.

 

Fast forward a couple more dives and all felt like it was going well. Then....well....this happened! It was my second dive on the boat, I was all kitted up and raring to go. I jumped in off the boat and....well I didn’t quite know what happened. Something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I could see my wing over my shoulder, and I figured maybe one of my cambands had come undone? The boat came back around, picked me and my buddy back up, and it turned out my wing had detached from the backplate! I was completely perplexed wondering how it had happened. On further inspection when the wing had detached it had ripped out my dump valve. The skipper and crew spent a frantic 20 minutes making some temporary repairs with spares on the boat so we could get in for the dive. By this point though I had made up my mind I didn’t want to go back in until I’d taken it home and thoroughly checked everything 

 

As I was sat chatting to the DM and the skipper they both said “when did you last check your bolts?”. I looked at them and said “not since I’ve had it, I’ve only done a handful of dives”. The skipper snapped back “you need to check your bolts before every dive!”. Not once since I’d had the wing had anyone said that to me. I had read my manual that came with my setup and it had said about checking bolts but I’d obviously wrongly assumed that they wouldn’t have come loose after so few dives, especially loose enough to come clean off! To me, that’s a safety thing that feels like it need to be more strongly pointed out to BPW newbies like me. I’ve since found out this happened to another club member with a new wing a month or so before it happened to me, so it must happen to a fair amount of new BPW divers before they learn the lesson like I did.

What I've learnt about BPW BCD's

So was it worth the switch? I think it will be. Honestly, if PADI did a BPW speciality, I would have so signed up! I’m sure there are people who start diving with a wing and it all goes smoothly straight away, but this is my experience. There are things I really wish I knew before getting the set up and certainly before diving with it, and I hope if you’re reading this and were considering the switch that it’s helped (like seriously, check those bolts before every dive!). I do currently miss the ease and comfort of my jacket BCD....it’s so easy adjusting all those straps before each dive and just jumping in. Also, pockets! All those pockets you have in a jacket BCD you don’t get with a wing. I have a cargo pocket with my wing which is attached to my waistband, but as I don’t have any other pockets (thigh pockets etc.) I’m definitely stuffing a lot in that single pocket. Also dump valves - you get so many in a jacket BCD but only two with the wing, and you have to be positioned in certain ways in the water to dump the air from them. Then there’s crotch straps - wow, if anyone has an easy way of grabbing them between your legs when you’re kitted up please tell me. At the moment I’m getting my buddy to fumble around grabbing it for me before each dive which is causing lots of amusement!

I’m going to persevere but it’s been a learning curve. I definitely assumed it would be an easier switch than it has been but I feel it will be worth it in the long run. I like to challenge myself and evolve my skills so this change has ticked both those boxes. The main advice I can give is to not let your confidence slip when you hit a hurdle with it. Dive (literally!) straight back in with the lessons you’ve learned from what’s gone wrong and you’ll keep improving.