BC's are probably the most difficult piece of gear to choose. First off, there are no clear choices. The best BC for me may very well be the worst piece of gear on the planet for someone else. Your BC has to fit your body, diving needs, and preferences. You will enjoy diving more if you have a BC which really meets your needs.
There are literally dozens of different designs for you to look at. I'm purposely leaving out gear like backplates and harnesses. I haven't tried them yet. See below for Kevin Douglass' opinion about backplate type BC's.
Ask yourself what kind of diving you're doing now, and what you'll be doing in the future. Review your dive log for ideas. How much weight will you need? Were you hunting, sightseeing, or taking pictures? What gear do you take with you? What do you want to do in the near future? Make a list here. You'll need to know this when you evaluate BC's.
Fit is the first order of business in evaluating a BC. You need to make sure it's comfortable with the wetsuit you wear for most of your diving. It should be snug, but not tight. You should be able to take a nice deep breath with the BC fully inflated and properly adjusted. Make sure there is a tank, and weights in the BC when you try it on.
Try opening the pockets by feel while wearing your gloves. They need to be accessible. When you get in the water, you won't be able to look down there.
Jacket or back inflation will be your next choice. Jacket BC's will float you face-up on the surface. This lets you easily swim out to the dive site, or back to the boat. Back inflation BC's can tend to hold you face forward.
Most new back inflation BC's use trim weights to mitigate this tendency. Alternatively, you can attach a few pounds of weight to your tank with steel or nylon bands. Under the water, back inflation BC's keep you facing down which is generally the direction you want to be looking.
Decisions, decisions, decisions; you have one more. Should you choose a weight integrated BC? Weight integrated BC's attach your weights to the BC instead of hanging them on a separate weight belt.
Incorporating the weight pockets into the BC puts the stress on the BC instead of your body. Integrated BC's are great -- until you try to pick one up on dry land. Depending on how much weight you use, you can find yourself on the way to the gym, or the chiropractor. Also, some pockets are easier to load than others.
Some of these BC's use Velcro to retain the weights. I've heard reports that some of the Velcro closures are prone to dropping the weights. Load you usual amount of weight into the pockets. Give the BC a very sharp jolt so the weights will fall out. If the weight falls to the floor, pick another BC.
Once you have some candidate BC's take a close look at their amenities: pockets, rings, and attachment points. Drag out that list you made earlier. Find a place for the gear you have, in the combination you would be diving it. Keep in mind that you don't usually need a camera and a spear gun on the same dive.
While you're looking over the attachments, check the shoulder straps and buckles. Disqualify any BC without quick detach buckles on the shoulder straps. God forbid that it should ever happen, but if you are in a serious diving accident, the buckles will save precious seconds when your BC gets jettisoned.
Once you've figured out which BC's will be good for you, watch for a sale if you can. Models change, and last year's model will often be nearly as good as this year's.
For my own preferences: I bought a Zeagle Ranger. I've been diving it long enough now to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.
The Ranger is comfortable, adjustable,
really rugged. The dual bands stabilize the tank well, and I've
never had one come loose. There are plenty of D-rings and attachment
points for my needs.
It's a weight integrated BC that straddles the area between strictly recreational BC's and tech rigs. The strap layout transfers most of the weight to your hips. This has been a huge advantage for me as I have some back problems. On the other hand, the BC, tank, weights and other gear is very heavy, so a good design is an absolute requirement. My 100 LB dive buddies are not terribly enamored of its loaded weight.
Pockets are the weak point in an otherwise excellent design. The side pockets are very difficult to get at underwater. I hardly use them now except for emergency gear. They have one tall and narrow pocket on the front of the BC. A UK SL-4 fits that pocket like the proverbial glove. I bought their combination pocket, slate, and knife sheath. This meets most of my storage needs, but it really needs to be secured to the cummerbun and not to the waist strap.
Your weights are not easily removed or installed while you're wearing the BC. You have to plan on donning the BC fully loaded and getting out of the water that way too.
On the other hand, there is no worry about having the weights fall out inadvertently. Ditching is not a problem. Zeagle uses a rip cord arrangement borrowed from their parachute packs.
Would I buy it again? I think so. The problems above are minor irritants when weighed against the comfort when wearing it. It's also one of the few weight integrated BC's which has enough weight pocket capacity for my needs.
Oh yes, one other problem with the Zeagle. If you get one, the other divers in your family will want one for themselves. I may be broke at graduation.
Backplate and Wings
Kevin Douglass cites these advantages of a backplate and "wings" over a jacket BC.
I haven't tried one of these yet. When I do, I will certainly add my impressions here. From what I've seen, they are certainly worth considering.
Copyright 2000, David Ambrose
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