Jacket style BCDs have been around for decades, and they’re just as popular today with scuba divers as they were when first introduced. That’s no surprise. Jacket style BCs provide substantial buoyant lift in air bladders that are positioned under the arms and around the waist, creating a very secure-feeling wrap-around fit. Jacket style BCs also offer excellent stability and allow you to maintain a good swimming attitude at depth and a relaxed heads-up floating position on the surface.
You can purchase jacket style BCs with a ton of cool features. You can also get economy models with few features but budget-pleasing price tags. The five new jacket style BCs featured here fall into this few-frills, good-deal category.
Recommended Jacket style Scuba BCDs
With these BCs padding is minimal, D-rings are small, buckles, straps and cummerbunds are of the most basic design. They do, however, offer molded carry handles for easy rigging, efficient valve systems to maintain pinpoint buoyancy control, integrated weight systems, large cargo pockets and sleeves behind those cargo pockets to stow consoles and octo regs. They also provide enough buoyant lift for use in temperate waters, and because of their bare-bones styling, they tend to be to two to three pounds lighter than a full-featured rig, and none of them suffer from excessive inherent buoyancy.
Simple, functional and easy on the wallet, these models offer smart choices for entry-level divers looking for their first BC, as well as for die-hard veterans who still subscribe to the “keep it simple” philosophy.
The Rick’s Dive Center test team put the following jacket style BCDs to the test to see how they would behave strapped to real scuba divers in a real-world scuba diving environment. But before heading out to our dive site we took a detour to our test pool to measure inherent buoyancy and buoyant lift, and to see how each BC’s valve system stood up to some rigorous flow rate tests. From there it was down to the dive boat and out to Anacapa Island, where RDC test divers took BCs down to depth while rating them in 23 performance categories, from ease of assembly to stability at depth to valve performance to the efficiency of the weight ditch system. BCs were rated on a 1 to 10 scale, and scores were supported with diver comments.
So after all this water work, which BC took top honors? Read on and find out. Oh, and be sure to check out the test scores and other detailed test data found on the charts at the very end of the article.
Aqua Lung Wave – No Plain Jane
The Wave was introduced back in 2000 as a no-frills BC targeted to the entry-level and rental markets. While still positioned as Aqua Lung’s starter BC, this year’s Wave has undergone quite a facelift. The bladder orbs have been toned down, so the BC is more streamlined, and three-color graphics and accents and a mix of exterior finishes have spiced up the overall look. The effort has paid off; this is definitely the sharpest looking BC in this group. In fact, at first glance you might not think you’re looking at an entry-level BC.
Offering the Wave in six sizes virtually guarantees a good fit; however, when it comes down to fine-tuning that fit, RDC’s test divers found the BC’s shoulder straps a little sticky as they feed through their buckles. Also, the double-pull waist overstrap isn’t fitted with pull rings so testers had nothing to hook their fingers into when making those adjustments. But the cummerbund cinched down easily and the single-pull sternum strap was well-positioned with an elastic band on one side to increase overall comfort. (According to Aqua Lung, this “stickiness” in the shoulder straps is by design. The Wave is primarily an instructional jacket, so it was mandated that the strap system hit a certain release angle when the diver lifts up on the buckle’s thumb ledges. Aqua Lung says this prevents the strap from loosening when an instructor swims up to a student in the water and grabs the strap.—Ed)
The Wave is available with or without an integrated weight system, but in our view the SureLock II is a must-have add-on. This first-rate weight system is easy to use and totally dependable. Plastic tracks guide the weight pouch into position in the BC’s pouch sleeve. You don’t need to see what you’re doing; just slide them in, the tracks center the weight pouches and they lock in with a confidence-inspiring click. It’s an easy maneuver, even when wearing the BC. Since the SureLock II is optional, rather than being sewn permanently into the BC, it installs with a relatively simple system of squeeze buckles and Velcro strips.
Hitting the water, test divers found the Wave comfortable and stable. Since the bladder is connected to the waist overstrap with slides, it’s able to expand away from the body when inflated, eliminating body squeeze. The Wave’s valve system is efficient and user-friendly too. It was the only BC in this group to achieve a three-for-three score in RDC’s flow rate tests (see Flow Rate chart), plus testers loved the high-viz orange pull knobs on the remote exhaust valves—a small thing, to be sure, but at RDC small things get noticed.
Big cargo pockets with Velcro closures hold a ton of gear and open and reseal easily, primarily because the overflap is just stiff enough to be easy to pull open and then lay back in the closed position without fumbling. However, test divers felt the two stainless steel flat D-rings over the pocket flaps, while well-positioned and good-looking, were not as functional as standard shaped D-rings.
Nobody had gripes with the Surelock II system when it came time to ditch weights. Pouches deployed easily, and the flexible rubberized handles were very easy to hold onto when handing pouches up to the boat tender prior to exiting of the water.
The Wave is a solid all-around jacket style BC, and arguably the best-looking BC in this go-round. Offering weight-integration as an option keeps the price down for budget buyers, but unless you just like diving with a weightbelt or harness, we’d definitely recommend kicking in the extra $80 for the SureLock II system. Also, plan on coughing up an additional $25 for a LP hose; because it’s so popular among rental fleets, Aqua Lung sells the Wave without a LP hose.
Cressi Start Pro – Comfy and Stable
The Start Pro is Cressi’s entry-level Start BC with an integrated weight system added to it. For an entry-level BC the Start Pro looks rugged and is pretty comfy, due in part to its cushy backpad. Shoulder straps adjust smooth and easy. The sternum strap is well positioned and offers double-pull adjustments. The cummerbund is contoured, so it’s wide up front where width is most needed, and narrow on the sides where it’s not. A two-inch overstrap with double finger-rings pulls the whole package together.
The Start Pro uses a unique fold-down weight system. To load, unclip the squeeze buckle and the weight pouch unfolds. Slip your weights in, fold it back up and rebuckle. An adjustment strap lets you tighten down a partial load so weights won’t shift on you. Loading weights into this system is relatively easy when you’re not wearing the BC, but it can be a bear to load when wearing the BC, something to keep in mind if you prefer loading weights after donning your rig.
Test divers found the Start Pro to be one of the more stable BCs in the water. Body squeeze was a non-issue because the BC’s bladder slides on the overstrap, so when you add air it expands away from the body. The valve system also behaved well. While testers found the power inflator somewhat squarish in the hand, it nonetheless offered responsive inflate/deflate action. The remote exhaust valves also proved to be efficient air dumpers.
Like most jacket style BCDs the Start Pro offers easy-access large-volume cargo pockets. Their more forward position on the BC makes them easier to access, but expect the loaded weight system to eat into the usable volume. Test divers also noticed that once the Velcro pocket flap has been opened, the fully-loaded weight pouches have a tendency to pull down on the lower part of the BC, distorting the shape of the cargo pocket. This makes it hard to reattach the Velcro overflap to the body of the pocket. The Start Pro comes with four technopolymer D-rings that are relatively easy to access but they’re pretty small.
When it comes to weight ditching, test divers found the Start-Pro’s squeeze buckles positioned at a rather awkward angle for grabbing (although with practice this would probably get easier). However, once unbuckled gravity takes over, the fold-down pouches flap open and weights dump. The system doesn’t make it easy to catch the weights as they drop, so this probably isn’t the weight ditch system to have if you’re one who likes to hand your ballast weights up to the boat tender before climbing out of the water.
Overall, the Start Pro was a test diver favorite. It proved both comfortable and stable at depth, and offered the best surface floating position of any of the BCs in this group. It also offers close to 30 pounds of buoyant lift in it’s smallest size and half as much more in its largest size, making it a good choice for temperate water use. The integrated weight system is not the most user-friendly around, but that aside, this is one winning BC.
Oceanic Oceanpro 1000D – Keeping it Simple
For a basic BC the Oceanpro 1000D has a lot going for it. To start, it is cut high under the arms and fits like a favorite coat. The cummerbund and 1.5-inch double-pull overstrap hug the waist. Shoulder straps adjust with ease, and the thumb-curved shoulder adjustment buckles are a nice touch. The majority of test divers felt the sternum strap was positioned too high (this is more apparent on the boat than it is in the water) but everybody thought the high-viz orange sternum strap buckle that doubles as an emergency whistle qualified as one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas.
You can choose from either a bare-bones Oceanpro or for an additional $40 get one equipped with weight integration. We definitely recommend going weight integrated. Called the Quick Lock & Release (QLR) 3, this system is really efficient. Similar to the SureLock II, weight pouches with rigid backs and plastic tracks guide pouches effortlessly into position in the BC and lock into place. The locking action creates a soft thwack rather than a sharp click, which sometimes made test divers unsure whether or not the pouches had actually locked in.
Hitting the water, testers found the body-hugging fit they enjoyed on deck even more apparent at depth, contributing to a secure, stable ride. Body squeeze was negligible because the bladder is designed to expand away from the body. Power inflator inflate/deflate buttons moved air efficiently, though some test divers felt the pull dump was a little stiff, and everybody noticed the absence of a right shoulder exhaust valve.
The Oceanpro’s enormous cargo pockets are a little harder to access than others because of the high-cut design of the BC, but they are very deep, offer a tremendous amount of stowage capacity and they secure with zipper closures. One medium-sized plastic D-ring is located on the right shoulder, with two small D-rings positioned above the pockets. The small rings come with clip-on hose keepers, a nice extra.
When it comes time to ditch weights you’ll remember why you spent that extra 40 bucks for the weight system. The QLR 3 deploys weight pouches extremely easy—almost too easy, giving some testers the impression that pouches might release unexpectedly. But not to worry; the only way to deploy these weight pouches is to pull on the handles, which causes the internal buckle assembly to depress, which in turn releases the pouch. If you don’t pull on the handles the pouches aren’t going anywhere, no matter how hard you try to yank them free. We know, we tried. The pouches’ rubberized pull handles are large and pliable enough to grab easily when deploying weights, and they’re easy to hold onto when passing them up to the boat
The Oceanpro 1000D was a test diver favorite. In particular, they loved the fit, comfort and stability of the BC, and the QLR 3 weight system was deemed to be on par with the best integrated weight systems on the market. The BC also carries less than a pound of inherent buoyancy, another plus. The lack of a right shoulder exhaust and a tank positioning strap dampened enthusiasm a tad, but that aside, for a basic BC test divers felt the Oceanpro 1000D offered plenty in the performance department.
Subgear Accent & Drift – A Choice of Weight Systems
The Accent (left) and Drift are currently Subgear’s only BC offerings. They aren’t actually marketed as entry-level BCs; however, they share many design elements that are common to this category. Both BCs come with standard shoulder straps, cummerbunds with fully-outfitted 1.5-inch overstraps, and single-pull sternum straps that are positioned about right. D-rings are small but numerous compared to the other BCs in this go-round (six for the Accent, eight for the Drift). Both also offer three grommets over the cargo pockets for mounting a knife. The Accent is a slightly plusher BC with better cosmetics and a better integrated weight system. It also sells for $100 more than the Drift.
The major difference between these two BCs is their integrated weight systems. The Accent’s system has weight pouches loading horizontally and locking mechanically (with a Velcro backup). The Drift uses a vertical weight system where loose weights are loaded into the top and ditched out the bottom by releasing Velcro-backed squeeze buckles.
When it comes to loading weights, the Accent’s system is relatively efficient. Loading weights before donning the BC is easy; when wearing the BC, inserting pouches into sleeves is also easy, but it can sometimes be a bit difficult to lock them in due to the Velcro backup. The Drift system is also easy to pre-load if you’re not wearing the BC, but a bit difficult to load when wearing the BC—how difficult depends on your level of flexibility. On balance, most test divers found it easier to load the Drift first, then climb in.
In the water both BCs performed about the same, offering a relatively comfortable and stable platform, although the Drift, due to the farther-back positioning of its ballast weights, presented a slightly more fins-down swimming attitude. Since the bladders on both BCs are sewn directly onto the overstraps, body squeeze is much more noticeable when the bladders are over-inflated. Both BCs use the same rather dated power inflator assembly which test divers felt was a bit clunky in the hand, but still moved air efficiently. Right shoulder and lower rear exhaust valves on both BCs were easy to reach and dumped air fast.
Access to the cargo pockets on the Accent was deemed fair to middling due to the rather high location of the zippered openings; the Drift pocket openings are set high too, but they were easier to access because the zippers reach farther forward. The Accent’s pockets are actually larger than the Drift’s, but weight pouches crowd out some of the volume, so when all is said and done the Accent’s pockets end up offering about the same amount of usable cargo space as the Drift’s.
When it comes to ditching weights, the Accent’s system requires a good tug to release the buckle and free the Velcro backup system. The hard plastic handles are easy to grab and hold onto once weight pouches are free. In contrast, the Drift’s weights deploy by unlatching the lower squeeze buckles which then release the Velcro reinforced bottom flaps, causing the weights to drop out the bottom. It’s an effective system, but the rearward position of the weight pockets and the up-and-down attitude of the squeeze buckles requires reaching back and twisting your hands/fingers rather awkwardly to grab and squeeze the buckles. It no doubt improves once you figure out the grab method that best suits your elbow and wrist joints. Once pockets open, weights dump quickly. None of the test divers would bet they could grab the weights as they dropped out. Consequently, this is a system where you probably don’t want to be opening the bottom unless you’re in an emergency weight ditch situation and willing to say bye-bye to your weights for good.
Both the Accent and the Drift are respectable BCs. The Accent is a little easier to work with, due primarily to the weight system. The Drift is little lighter, so might be better-suited for tropical locales. Both BCs carry less than a pound of inherent buoyancy, which is cool, and both offer some serious buoyant lift throughout their size ranges. Note: these BCs tend to be cut big, so keep that in mind when choosing a size.
Oceanic’s Oceanpro 1000D earned the most votes among test divers for favorite entry-level jacket style BC in this shootout. Cressi’s Start Pro came in a close second, and Aqua Lung’s Wave an even closer third. When it comes to general performance, all three BCs’ ran virtually neck-and-neck in the competition. So it was the details that made the difference. The Oceanpro 1000D was tops in overall comfort and its weight system was ranked among the best, but it is missing an important performance item—a right shoulder exhaust valve, and an important convenience item—a tank positioning strap. The Start Pro, on the other hand, comes in at a lower price and offers a better warranty, but its weight system wasn’t high on anybody’s wish list. And while the Wave was good-looking, comfortable and its weight system is tops, it got dinged on a couple of its most basic adjustments, as well as not coming with a LP hose. So which one to choose? Consider what features are most relevant to your diving style and make your choice. Each one of these BCs has something to offer.
Charts & More Charts
2020 Jacket Style BCD Specifications
|Aqua Lung Wave||Cressi Start Pro||Oceanic OceanPro 1000D||Subgear Accent||Subgear Drift|
|Mfg. Suggested Retail Price||$325; $405 with Surelock II wt. system||$329.95||$339.95; $379.95 with QLR3 wt. system||$475||$375|
|Product Warranty||Ltd. Lifetime||Ltd. Lifetime||2-yr. Ltd.||2-yr. Ltd.||2-yr. Ltd.|
|Dry Weight, in lbs, size M||6 (xxs-xl)||5 (xs-xl)||5 (xs-xl)||5 (xs-xl)||5 (xs-xl)|
|Range of Buoyant Lift (in lbs.)||18-44||29.2-45||20-48||22-50||22-50|
|Cargo Pockets/Type of Closures||2/Velcro||2/Velcro||2/Zipper||2/Zipper||2/Zipper|
|Type of Backpack||Hard||Hard||Hard||Hard||Hard|
|Number of Tank Bands||1||1||1||1||1|
|Integrated Weight System||Mechanical||Mechanical backed by Velcro||Mechanical||Mechanical backed by Velcro||Mechanical backed by Velcro|
|Max Ballast Capacity, in lbs. (Ditchable)||20||20||20||20||20|
|Max Ballast Capacity, in lbs. (Non-Ditchable)||n/a||n/a||Optional 10||n/a||n/a|
|Includes Lift/Carry Handle||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Includes Tank Positioning Strap||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|No. of Additional Exhaust Valves||2||2||1||2||2|
Testing for Inherent Buoyancy
In scuba diving it’s all about maintaining neutral buoyancy. The less buoyancy you have built into your rig, the less ballast weight you to need to carry to counter-balance it. Next to a wetsuit, the biggest buoyancy-carrying culprit in your dive system is your BC. That’s why when we review a new BC the first thing we do is test it for inherent buoyancy.
In a test pool, the BC is submerged and all air is expelled using the exhaust valves. Still submerged, the BC is then allowed to settle so any trapped air can escape from nooks and crannies. The BC is then slowly rotated and shoulder and lumbar pads are manipulated to release any additional trapped air.
Exhaust valves are bled a couple more times until testers are assured as much air as possible has been bled from the BC. Then the BC is released into the water column. If it starts heading for the surface, we carefully add pound and half-pound weights until we find that sweet spot where neutral buoyancy is achieved.
The following chart shows the amount of weight each BC required to achieve neutral buoyancy. As you can see, in a gear category where three or more pounds of buoyancy is not unusual, all five of these BCs carry from minimal to negligible Inherent buoyancy, and that’s a good thing.
RDC Inherent Buoyancy Test Results
|None||Less than 1 lb.||1 – 2 lbs.||2 – 3 lbs.||More than 3 lbs.|
|Oceanic OceanPro 1000D||Aqua Lung Wave|
|Subgear Accent||Cressi Start Pro|
Testing Flow Rates
Cruising along at 80 feet deep, you grab hold of your power inflator to feed a little air into your BC and suddenly your inflator button sticks open. Which-if any-of the exhaust valves on your BC is going to be able to stay ahead of this stuck inflator to prevent your BC from filling with air and rocketing you to the surface? That’s the question RDC’s flow rate tests are designed to answer.
We start our tests by putting the BC in a heads-up position, simulating a standard ascent. The BC is fully deflated and then loaded with ballast equaling 20 percent of its mfg-stated buoyant lift. Then we activate the inflation valve for 20 seconds while also activating each of the applicable exhaust valves, one at a time. After each 20-second cycle, the BC is checked to see if it continues to be negatively buoyant. If it is, that means the deflate valve was able to keep up with or even overtake the inflate valve; if it isn’t, that means the deflate valve couldn’t keep up.
Industry standards require that at least one of a BC’s heads-up-position deflation valves be able to keep up with its inflation system. All of the BCs tested here were able to meet that industry standard. Note: RDC tests consistently show that the exhaust valve most effective in staying ahead of a stuck inflator is the right shoulder exhaust.
RDC Flow Rate Test Results
|PI Deflator When Held overhead||Corrugated Exhaust Hose Pull Dump||Alternate (Right) Shoulder Exhaust|
|Aqua Lung Wave||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Cressi Start Pro||No||Yes||Yes|
|Oceanic Oceanpro 1000D||No||Yes||n/a|
Knowing a BC’s buoyancy characteristics and the efficiency of its valve system is useful info, but the only way to really know how a BC performs is to strap it on and take it down to depth in a real-world diving environment. RDC’s team of test divers took these BCs out for a day of diving off Southern California’s Anacapa Island. BCs were rated on the following 23 performance categories using a 1 to 10 scoring system.
RDC Ocean Test Results
|Aqua Lung Wave||Cressi Start Pro||Oceanic Oceanpro 1000D||Subgear Accent||Subgear Drift|
|Rigging & Assembly||7||7||6||7||7|
|Sternum Strap Position & Adjustment||7||8||5||7||7|
|Loading Wts: Not Wearing BC||8||6||8||7||6|
|Loading Wts: Wearing BC||8||2||8||6||2|
|Stability at Depth||7||8||7||7||6|
|PI Assembly: Inflate Button Operation||8||7||8||6||6|
|PI Assembly: Deflate Button Operation||8||6||7||6||6|
|PI Assembly: Oral Inflate Operation||7||7||7||6||6|
|PI Assembly: Pull Dump Operation||8||7||7||6||6|
|Right Shoulder Exhaust Operation||8||7||n/a||7||7|
|Lower Rear Exhaust Operation||7||7||7||7||7|
|Lack of Body Squeeze||8||7||7||6||6|
|Surface Floating Position||7||8||7||7||7|
|Ease of Ditching Wts.||9||4||9||6||5|
|Ease of Controlling Wts or Pouches after Removal||8||2||8||7||2|
Travel BCDs – Built for a life on the road
All the gear scuba divers lug around, by far the bulkiest is the buoyancy compensator. But when it comes to dive travel, “bulky”—like “cancelled” or “extra-charge”-is not a term you want to be using. Which is good, because bulky is no way to describe a well-designed travel BC. The five new BCs spotlighted in this month’s head-to-head review are designed specifically for traveling divers. Sporting trimmed-down harnesses and low-profile air cells, these modern travel BCDs weigh from a third to half as much as a typical general-purpose BC, and many can be rolled or folded into compact packages, so they take up much less space in a dive bag. But good travel BCDs shouldn’t just offer an easy time of it while en route to your dive destination; they also have to treat you well in the water. And the only way to find out if they can do that is to actually get them wet. So that’s what we did.
After collecting BCs at the RDC shop, reviewing owners manuals and marking LP hoses so they wouldn’t get mixed up, staffers got to work checking out buckles and valves and weight systems to make sure everything worked. Then we loaded them into the truck for a short trip to our test pool to measure each BC’s inherent buoyancy and buoyant lift, and test each valve’s flow rate performance (see Objective Test Results).bc i5
Once this phase of the tests was completed, it was time to gauge these BCs’ ergonomic performance. But here’s the conundrum; being “travel” BCs, these guys are designed for warm water, but RDC is based on the coast of Southern California where summertime water temperatures hover in the mid-60s. The test team selflessly suggested that we load ourselves and the BCs onto a plane and head to Bonaire, but RDC’s bank account would have none of that. So our backup plan was to test the Scuba BCDs locally, but in a location that better represented a tropical diving environment.
We found these faux-tropic conditions at the big salt-water competition pool where we normally speed-test scuba diving fins. The sun was shining, the water was tropical warm, the conditions were calm. Not the Caribbean, but pretty darn close.
Suiting up in 2mm to 3mm neoprene, test divers strapped on these new travel BCs and hit the water. Each BC was rated by each test diver in 23 performance categories, from ease of assembly to stability at depth to valve performance to the efficiency of the weight ditch system. Scoring was done on a 1 to 10 scale-1 being pure crap, 10 being the best thing test divers had ever seen—and all scores were supported by diver comments (click here for Ergo Test Results).
So after all this water work, which BC took top honors? Read on and find out. But first, here are some. . .
Negligible inherent buoyancy. RDC staffers have been wet-testing travel BCDs for years, so we’ve been witness to the consistent improvements made by BC manufacturers in the area of inherent buoyancy (IB). Not so many years ago it was common to find travel BCs with two to three pounds of IB and sometimes even more. This meant you had to carry two to three pounds of extra ballast weight—in the tropics, where most of us go to shed ballast so we can enjoy an increased sense of body freedom under water.
Of the five new models reviewed here, four have less than a pound of IB, and the only one that exceeds the one-pound mark does so by just a hair. Ironically, many of these BCs are able to register such low IB while offering enhanced padding for wearing over thin wetsuits or bare skin.
Say goodbye to cummerbunds. In an effort to keep things lightweight and streamlined, travel BC manufacturers have steered away from cummerbunds in lieu of double-pull waist straps. And these have worked out pretty well, especially on BCs whose waist straps are depth-compensating (in this group, that would be the Aeris EXLite and Oceanic Biolite). However, for divers who like to dive with cummerbunds, a couple models (again, the Aeris EXLite and the Oceanic Biolite) offer provisions that enable you to easily add one.
A dearth of right shoulder exhaust valves. Of the five travel BCs reviewed here, only one (the Cressi Air Travel) comes with a right shoulder exhaust valve. Of course, you could say that this is due to the fact that four out of five of these BCs are rear inflation, and rear inflation BCs rarely come with right shoulder exhaust valves. Which is all the more reason for giving a tip of the cap to Cressi for their efforts.
Where did all the cargo pockets go? When it comes to features on a lightweight travel BC, especially rear inflation models, cargo pockets are usually the first things to go. Which is unfortunate, in our estimation, because having a little pocket to stash something unexpected while at depth can be a huge convenience. The Cressi Air Travel and Tusa Voyager are the only two BCs in this group that offer cargo pockets.
Excellent Packability. While only the Cressi Air Travel comes with a specific packing strategy (fold/strap/stowage bag), all of these BCs will pack in a dive bag much easier than a typical general-purpose BC, thereby freeing up space for other can’t-live-without travel items. Even the Aeris EXLite, with its full-length hard backpack, is so low-profile that it can lay virtually pancake flat in the bottom of a dive bag.
Travel BCDs Reviews
The following travel BC reviews are presented in alphabetical order by manufacturer. RDC Favorites from this round of testing can be found at the end of these write-ups. Also, don’t forget to check out RDC’s Top Gear archive where you’ll find four additional top-rated travel-specific BCs that were previously reviewed by RDC and are still available in dive stores.
Aeris EXLite – Short on Frills, Long on Function
The EXLite is the lightweight member of Aeris’ “EX” line of BCs. Designed for traveling, the EXLite sidesteps frills and instead focuses on function. It comes with a full-length hard backpack and molded-in lift handle, making it an extremely easy BC to cart around and rig on a tank. Padding is minimal; all you’ll find is a thin backpad and that’s easily removable. The integrated weight system, simple and compact, offers a pair of ditchable weight pouches up front and a pair of non-ditchable trim pouches that mount on the tank strap. The 1.5-inch waist strap is depth-compensating, the double-pull sternum strap is well-positioned, and extended thumb tabs on the shoulder buckles make easy work of loosening straps. The BC has no cargo pockets, but there’s a molded plastic D-ring on the right shoulder and a couple mid-sized plastic Ds on the waist strap for clipping on extra gear.
The EXLite’s weight ditch system, called the EZ-Equip, uses a pair of removable ballast pouches that load into the system’s external pockets through zippered openings on top, and ditch out the bottom by releasing squeeze buckles. These external pockets have adjustment straps, so partial loads can be snugged down to avoid ballast shifting. Test divers found this system to be easy to load—if done before donning the BC. bc aeris u5After you’re strapped in, loading weights requires a bit of dexterity due to the set-back position of the pockets.
In the water, the full-sized rigid backpack and excellent range of adjustment in the strap system combine to create a comfortable, super-stable ride, allowing for a good swimming attitude with no tank wobble. The depth-compensating waist strap earned high marks among test divers, as did the valve system, and the EZ-Equip weight system kept ballast weights snug and secure. However, when it came time to ditching weights, the set-back position of the weight pockets, and the angle of the pockets’ squeeze buckles, required reaching back and bending wrists to grab onto the pouch buckles; this took some getting used to for a few of the test divers. For non-emergency weight removal, the internal pouches have hand loops so handling and controlling them prior to exiting the water is easy business. Test divers gave the EXLite’s right shoulder D-ring a cool response, but liked the waist-strap Ds, although they would have preferred being able to lock them into position to prevent clip-on accessories from sliding around on the belt
The EXLite is a nice no-frills travel BC with virtually no inherent buoyancy (less than a pound with backpad attached; close to zero without it). Test divers found its in-water performance to be top-notch. The full-length rigid backpack provides a lot of stability and contributes to the BC’s overall comfort. While it can’t be folded or rolled for packing, the low profile shape of the BC allows it to lay flat in the bottom of a dive bag without taking up much space. So the way we see it, you lose very little in terms of convenience for having the rigid backpack, but gain quite a lot in performance. Good trade.
Cressi Air Travel – The Total Travel Package
A couple years ago Cressi came out with the Travelight, a very cool jacket style travel BC that earned a spot on RDC’s Top Gear list. Now Cressi has introduced the Air Travel, a rear-inflation travel BC. Beyond being lightweight and compact for traveling, the Air Travel is the only BC in this go-round that offers a specific packing strategy. Unclip its shoulder straps, roll it up, secure it with a Velcro strap, then stow it in its accompanying travel pouch. It’s easy, neat, and takes up very little space in a dive bag.
Once you get to where you’re going, the Air Travel unfolds into a fully functional BC. It offers lots of padding on the undersides of the shoulders and in the back/lumbar area, along with an easy-adjust waist strap, easy-release shoulder buckles, and a three-position sternum strap. The power inflator is low-profile, and the Lock Aid integrated weight system has a real well-built look to it.
All strapped in, test divers found nothing bulky about this BC. There’s no up-front chest clutter, and in back the air cell is held in check with bungee. The integrated weight system is surprisingly unobtrusive, and its ditch handles are right up front where they’re easy to grab. Test divers rated it the most user-friendly weight ditch system of the group. Weight pouches were deemed the easiest to load while wearing the BC, and also the easiest to ditch.
The Air Travel also turned out to be one of the more stable BCs at depth. The single tank band, along with its upper back-up strap, stabilized the tank nicely on the soft backpack, creating a secure, virtually wobble-free ride. Combine that with the ample padding, contoured shoulders, and straps that seemed to hit test divers in just the right spots, and it was no surprise that the Air Travel earned kudos for being one of the more comfortable and controllable BCs of the group.
The Air Travel once again displayed its unique status by offering a right shoulder exhaust valve. Its low-profile power inflator offered soft-touch button action, and its corrugated hose pull dump was found to be efficient, albeit a bit stiff. The Air Travel was one of only two BCs in this group to offer a cargo pocket, a drop-down design located beneath the right weight pouch. Test divers liked that it could remain rolled up and out of the way when not needed, but easily accessible when the time came to stow something. The BC also comes with four small but well-placed plastic D-rings, one of which includes a swivel clip with hose keeper.
As a traveling BC the Air Travel is compact and stows neatly in its own bag. As a working BC it’s comfortable and stable, with an efficient valve system, a great weight ditch system and a very usable cargo pocket. The BC comes in a bunch of sizes, including three specifically for female divers. It also offers lots of cushy padding and plenty of buoyant lift, yet carries less than a pound of inherent buoyancy. In our book, that’s a total travel package.
Dive Rite Voyager-PAC – A Travel Rig for Backplate Divers
Divers who 1) like diving with backplates and 2) do a lot of traveling are 3) going to love the Voyager-Pac. This harness/wing combo offers full-blown backplate-style diving, but without the weight. Tipping the scales at less than six pounds, the Voyager-Pac’s harness is made of the same quality material you’ll find on full-tech rigs, and its donut-style wing delivers 40 pounds of buoyant lift, so this rig can be used in temperate water dive destinations as well as the tropics.
While the Voyager-Pac itself is lightweight, its hardware is anything but. Four big stainless D-rings are divided between the shoulders and waist belt, and a stainless scooter ring hangs below a big stainless waist buckle. There’s also a rugged stainless tank band cam buckle in back. To provide more comfort against thin neoprene or bare skin, the Voyager-Pac comes with a cushy back pad, padding runs beneath the shoulder webbing, and waist pads cushion the love handles. An easy-to-remove crotch strap is also included. However, the rig doesn’t come with cargo pockets, and ditchable ballast pouches are optional).
Basic harness/wing set-ups like this, while strictly utilitarian, can be deceptively comfortable, and the Voyager-Pac is no exception. Shoulder straps are routed well beneath the arms, providing a snug fit and an uncluttered chest area that almost makes you feel like you’re not wearing any gear at all. When worn against thin neoprene or bare skin the rig’s back pad is really comfortable, as are the padded shoulders and waist pads, yet they have virtually no impact on the rig’s buoyancy (with all padding attached the Voyager-Pac registers less than a pound of inherent buoyancy). However, if you must, the back pad can be easily pulled off, and the shoulders and waist pads can be removed with a bit of reweaving.
The Voyager-Pac is a surprisingly stable rig at depth. Surprising because, while it comes with a soft backpack (so it can be folded or rolled for packing), it employs only one tank band. Most successful soft backpack systems we’ve used require two tank bands to control tank wobble, or at the very least, one primary tank band supported by a back-up strap. But this is not the case with the Voyager-Pac. Soft backpack, single tank band, outstanding tank control. How do they pull that off?
Test divers found the Voyager-Pac’s old-style power inflator a little clunky in the hand, but it moved air efficiently, and when used in conjunction with the rig’s exhaust valves, allowed for pinpoint buoyancy control. The Voyager-Pac doesn’t come with a carry handle but test divers overlooked that, so impressed they were with all the metal hardware. D-rings were found to be perfectly sized for easy clip-ons, and the heavy-duty waist and tank buckles, well, we’re talking first-class stuff. Divers didn’t get a chance to check out the Voyager-Pac’s optional weight systems, but two are offered: one that can hold 16 pounds of ballast, and one that can hold 32 pounds of ballast.
Members of RDC’s test team who are partial to backplate diving had to have the Voyager-Pac test units pried from their greedy fingers. Those who are not that into backplate diving still admired this rig’s comfort and stability. While not for everybody, the Voyager-Pac definitely works.
Oceanic Biolite – Lot of Sizes, Lots of Adjustment
The Oceanic Biolite is similar in design to its cousin, the Aeris EXLite, but it’s a whole lot plusher. The Biolite is made of a higher denier ballistic nylon, it comes with more substantial padding in the shoulders and back/lumbar area, and its low-profile bladder is made of Bioflex, a high-stretch material exclusive to Oceanic. Like the EXLite, the Biolite comes with a depth-compensating waist strap fitted with a couple of sliding D-rings, easy-lift shoulder adjustment buckles and a compact integrated weight system. However, it also offers daisy chain loops on the right shoulder that includes a locking carabiner for clipping on extra gear; an adjustable sternum strap that slides up and down on a reinforced nylon track so you can position it exactly where it fits best; an emergency whistle built into the sternum strap buckle; a couple extra mid-sized plastic D-rings located beneath the weight pouches; and a pint-sized rigid tank pack that allows the BC to be folded in half for traveling.
The Biolite comes in six sizes and offers an excellent range of adjustment, so RDC test divers had no problem dialing in the perfect fit. While the Biolite’s weight system is similar to that of the EXLite in design, the Biolite’s ditch pockets are positioned a couple of inches farther forward than those on the EXLite, which makes it easier to reach them while wearing the BC, both to top-load and to release the squeeze buckles for ditching. Test divers also appreciated the adjustment straps on the external weight pockets that enabled them to cinch down partial ballast loads to prevent shifting.
The Biolite’s hard tank pack is relatively small and positioned high on the BC, which puts the tank band up high as well. The upside to this design is that it enables the BC to be folded in half for packing; the downside is, it doesn’t provide any support for the bottom half of the tank. The result: test divers’ tanks had a tendency to move around more than they would have liked. We’re talking some side-to-side wobble, plus the boot end of the tank had a tendency to lift. The entire test team noticed this; one half of the team felt it had a major effect on their stability, the other half felt it was something they could live with (the only test diver to have no opinion about this was diving with a HP steel 65 tank-a very short cylinder).
The Biolite doesn’t have a lift handle, and doesn’t come with cargo pockets. However, test divers did like the D-ring arrangement, although they would have preferred being able to lock the sliding D-rings on the waist strap into place so clip-on gear wouldn’t shift as they altered their swimming positions.
Test divers liked the Biolite’s choice of sizes, range of adjustment, better-than-average strap configuration, and Bioflex air cell. The BC was deemed comfortable at depth, the valve system performed to expectations, and the weight ditch system was easy to use. However, the tank wobble caused by the short tank pad had a negative effect on stability for a number of test divers, which clouded their overall opinion of the BC.
Tusa Voyager – A Hybrid Traveler
The BCJ-1800 Voyager combines basic jacket style wrap-around inflation with a bit of rear inflation. This hybrid approach provides the stability of a jacket style BC while cutting down on some of the bulkiness that’s typical of jacket style designs. The Voyager is clearly intended for warm-water diving; it is loaded with padding—under the shoulders, down the back, along the lumbar area, there’s even padding wrapping around the waist. The BC’s shoulders are relatively narrow but ultra-contoured, which helps in the routing of the straps under the arms. The adjustable single-pull sternum strap offers about two inches of vertical adjustment, and its buckle doubles as an emergency whistle. A second whistle is attached to the corrugated hose, at the end of which is an ultra compact power inflator. The double-pull waist strap provides keepers for the strap ends so they don’t flop around. It’s a nice extra that keeps the front of the BC looking neat and organized.
The Voyager’s integrated weight system is so unobtrusive it’s easy to miss. Nylon ballast pouches are sandwiched behind bc tusa t6the cargo pockets and secured with Velcro. Ballast pouches can be loaded into their sleeves relatively easy while wearing the BC because everything is right up front. For carrying extra gear the BC offers three cargo pockets—two large, one small, all with zipper closures—along with some daisy chain loops on the right shoulder and 10 small plastic D-rings.
In-water tests showed the Voyager to be a comfortable BC at depth, and quite stable. A lower tank support block and secondary strap work with the primary tank band and soft backpack to keep the tank from wobbling. Test divers found buoyancy control easy to maintain using the Voyager’s efficient valve system—the lower rear exhaust valve was particularly responsive. On the other hand, the oral inflate orifice on the power inflator is quite small, which made it one of the harder BCs for test divers to orally inflate at depth.
Divers loved the Voyager’s cargo pockets. The larger mesh pockets have lots of volume, and the smaller right-side pocket is ideal for stowing a small safety tube or a day light. D-rings are many on this BC, and they’re well positioned, but they’re pretty small.
When it comes to ditching weights, the Velcro sandwich keeps a pretty firm grip on the weight pouches, so you have to really yank on the handles to free them. Also, the upward angle of the handles requires that you pull up toward your armpits to free the pouches. It works, but it can be a bit awkward.
For scuba divers who like the adventure of dive travel but prefer the secure feel of a jacket style BC, the Voyager is a nice traveling companion. It delivers stability and comfort at depth, as well as the most comfortable surface floating position in this group. It also comes with an efficient valve system, and for all its plush padding the BC carries less than a pound of inherent buoyancy. We don’t quite get the why of providing two whistles, but there you go.
Our hands-down choice for favorite new travel BC in this round-up is the Cressi Air Travel. The consumate travel BC, it packs the best and offers everything you might possibly want for a fun time in the water. While the test team was unanimous on its first-place pick, second place was a bit more divisive. It actually came down to a tie between the Aeris EXLite and the Dive Rite Voyager-Pac. Test divers partial to backplate systems went for the Dive Rite, divers partial to more traditional BC designs went for the Aeris. Good choices, both.
I’ve been a diving addict since my 14th birthday when my parents took me to the Bahamas and had my first scuba diving experience. I’ve been an active diver ever since but in the last few years my focus shifted on sharing my thoughts and experience on diving gear, writing product reviews and gave up on organizing dive tours.