Just like buying any piece of scuba diving equipment, choosing a BCD can be a challenge. BCDs have evolved a lot over the relatively short time we’ve been exploring underwater; there’s an abundance of choice out there, and with an ever-growing number of scuba divers opting for a backplate and wing setup it can be more confusing than ever!
But fear not - Girls that Scuba is here to help navigate you through the wing vs jacket BCD debate and to work out what will be the best choice for your personal diving needs. We’ll investigate the differences between jacket and wing buoyancy compensators, giving you an overview of each style and the pros and cons of jackets and wings, and also share our rundown of the best in each category as recommended by our vast GTS community. Read on to learn everything you need to know about jackets vs wings, and how to choose the best women’s BCD.
You’ll likely be familiar with a jacket style BCD, or buoyancy compensator device, as it’s probably what you used when you first learned to scuba dive. Modern jacket style BCDs are designed to wrap around and hug the body, and the bladder (the part which inflates) fills the entirety of the jacket so that the BCD inflates on all sides.
Pros of a jacket BCD
First up, the familiarity of a jacket BCD makes it a default choice. Whilst there are some differences between models, you will mostly know where to find your pockets, D-rings, inflator hose, and most importantly, your releases. If you learned to dive in a jacket, your buoyancy in a jacket should also be fairly intuitive; you should easily be able to add and release air to maintain a good position, and know which dump valves are easiest to use in different positions during your dive.
In addition to this familiarity, in recent years jacket BCDs have also been specifically designed to accommodate female bodies. These small adaptations - including shorter backplates, wider shoulder straps, additional padding, and more form-fitting waistbands - make modern female-specific jacket BCDs incredibly comfortable.
You will also find that in jacket BCDs there’s considerably more storage than a wing. Jacket BCDs often feature large pockets on the sides to carry items such as spare equipment, DSMBs, or torches. This makes them a great choice for tasks like scientific diving and instructing.
Cons of a jacket BCD
With all of these snazzy features and comfortable padding comes probably the biggest drawback of a jacket-style BCD - the weight. Unless you’re opting for a travel-specific model, jacket BCDs can be extremely heavy and cumbersome in comparison to their backplate and wing counterparts. Being larger means they’re more difficult to pack up, therefore not the best for travelling divers, and they can often take much longer to dry in between dives.
A jacket BCD can also be somewhat limiting depending on your future diving ambitions. If you see yourself delving into technical diving in the future, opting for a wing system rather than a jacket will serve you much longer in your diving career.
With the increasing popularity of technical diving, many scuba divers are opting for a backplate and wing setup earlier on in their dive progression. You’ll notice we use the words “system” and “setup” a lot when discussing wing-style BCDs, as they’re often less off-the-shelf and can be built up from their individual components.
A backplate and wing system consists of three elements; a wing/bladder, a backplate, and a harness/webbing. The backplate holds your cylinder(s) in a solid position on your back, the bladder inflates and provides buoyancy, and the webbing or harness keeps it all strapped comfortably to your body. The most noticeable difference is that all of the inflation is on the diver’s back, as opposed to being wrapped around the body.
Pros of a wing BCD
The most instantaneous positive effect of switching to a wing system is great trim, or positioning, in the water. We should always endeavour to dive in a horizontal position, but jackets can hinder this positioning as the air moving around different parts of the bladder can cause us to roll around in the water, particularly if the jacket isn’t well-fitted. With a wing, the heavier backplate places weight in the correct place to encourage a more head-down position.
As well as giving you great positioning, a backplate and wing is an extremely customisable system and can offer a completely personalised setup. You can ensure comfort underwater by making the harness a perfect fit for your body. It can also be a surprisingly affordable option. When setting up your own system you’re not restricted to sticking to one brand for all the elements, therefore you can get great value by mixing and matching different parts from different brands.
The stripped-back construction of a wing system means that they can be extremely lightweight and a great option for travel, although this will depend on what material you choose for your backplate. Backplates are ordinarily made from steel or aluminium, with some newer materials such as carbon fiber growing in popularity. Aluminium is a fantastic lightweight yet affordable choice if you’re building a travel system.
Finally, the greatest strength of a backplate and wing setup is probably the biggest drawback of a jacket BCD. As you grow as a diver and choose to search out new adventures, your wing system can grow alongside you. The modular setup means that you can switch out various parts; this could be to accommodate double/twin cylinders, change backplates for travel or fresh/salt water needs, or to switch to a bigger bladder with larger lift capacity for drysuit diving. If there’s any possibility of pursuing tech diving in your future, you should definitely be considering a wing.
Cons of a wing BCD
If you’ve found a trusty jacket BCD over the years, you may be hesitant to move away from the comfort that comes with the padding and the “hug”-like effect of a strap wrapping around your waist. A stripped back harness will feel different, and some find it much less comfortable. However, for other divers, the freedom that comes with having all of the inflation behind you makes for a much more comfortable feeling, so your mileage may vary.
Another major difference is the feel of a wing on the surface. Many people who are new to wings complain that they feel forced forward on the surface and cannot comfortably “sit back” in the water. If you’re someone who spends a lot of time waiting for boats on the surface, this could impact you. Despite this, you will adjust to this over time by learning what level of inflation and body positioning works best to keep you comfortable on the surface.
The lack of storage may also be a shock if you’re used to a jacket. Wings do not come equipped with pockets, so anything you need to carry will have to be cleverly clipped to D-rings instead. Alternatively, some manufacturers make cargo pockets which can be attached to your webbing. For cold water divers there’s the option of pockets built into drysuits, whilst tropical divers can add tech shorts in order to gain back some storage space if necessary.
If you’ve found yourself feeling like you need something between the two styles, the dive industry has got you covered. Many BCDs on the market now are something of a hybrid style, fusing the best features of both jackets and wings into one. These styles are usually back-inflate, offering great trim and positioning, yet still have the jacket benefits of lots of storage and increased comfort. Check out some hybrid BCD's here.