Floating at sea level means that you’ll see things you might otherwise miss—the playful seal swimming beside you, the pod of orcas on the horizon, or the mammoth scale of Mount Baker off in the distance. And though you’ll be paddling in the Pacific Ocean, the San Juan Islands are relatively protected from the serious swells and storms of the West Coast, making it a safe option for paddlers who are properly prepared.
There are a number of outfitters specializing in expeditions through the San Juan Islands, and they’ll do everything from rent you gear to lead you on a guided tour, a great option for those with less experience or who don’t know the area.
If you’re an experienced paddler who wants to set off on a self-guided trip, we’ve assembled some items that you’ll want to take with you. Note that your exact gear list will vary depending on how long you’re heading out on the water—an afternoon trip, for instance, will require much less than a multi-day trek (which will require, in addition to the items below, sleeping gear, cooking gear, food, etc.). Here’s a budget for the basics you’ll need.
Kayak and accessories
Most outfitters will rent you the basic equipment needed for a trip through the San Juan Islands—good thing, too, since buying it all new would cost a small fortune. You’ll start with a sturdy sea kayak (ensure all hatch covers are provided and fit tightly), paddles (always bring an extra, just in case), personal floatation devices, spray skirts (it is the ocean, after all), a bilge pump, a tow belt, a bailer and sponges, and additional safety gear (whistles, flares, first aid kit, etc.). Do a careful check with the outfitter to ensure everything is provided as listed, and don’t be afraid to double-check if you aren’t sure how something works.
The hot summer months of July and August offer your best chance for spotting orcas in the San Juan Islands, but fresh water on the islands can also be unreliable this time of year, and you definitely cannot rely on salt water to keep you hydrated. It’s a good idea to take the water you need with you on your trip, whether you’re heading out for an afternoon or a multi-day expedition. Sturdy water containers are good for storing extra water; just be aware that your kayak hatches will likely be pretty small, so it may be easier to pack several medium-sized containers versus extra large ones.
When you’re paddling in the Pacific Northwest, you want to be ready for anything, including rain. Although the San Juan Islands definitely aren’t as rainy as Seattle or Vancouver, you’ll want to be prepared for the inevitable drizzle, especially if you’re paddling in the spring or the fall. Pack along a good rain jacket; don’t let a little rain keep you from hopping into your kayak, as seeing the islands covered in mist is an experience you definitely won’t want to miss out on.
Pick up a few maps and charts from local outfitters—don’t forget to buy a waterproof map sleeve so that you can consult your map on the go. You’ll find that there are multiple sizes and scales available; the right one for you will depend on the type of kayak trip you’re doing. For instance, you’ll need maps covering a larger area if you plan on heading out on a multi-day expedition versus a simple day trip.
Bring a compass to help you navigate, and of course, you’ll need to learn how to use it if you don’t already have that skill. A GPS tracker, a marine radio, and/or a satellite phone are all gear that can typically be rented from outfitters. These are great tools for navigation and for extra security.
Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
Sunny days are perfect for checking out the surrounding mountain ranges and spotting bald eagles soaring above, but when you’re surrounded by highly reflective water, sunny days are also a recipe for sunburns. Protect yourself from the sun’s harsh rays by covering yourself in sunscreen, slapping on a hat, and donning a pair of sunglasses. Don’t forget to stay hydrated while you’re on the go.
The San Juan Islands are among the most beautiful places in the world, and you’ll definitely want to capture images of the lush green islands, the vibrant blue ocean (and the critters that live in it), and the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Keep your digital camera in a waterproof container and ensure it’s easy to grab when you’re on the go; you never know when a porpoise will pop up beside you.
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