Clothing for San Juan Islands

I’m doing a guided multi-day kayaking trip to the San Juan Islands in July. I have never kayaked outside Texas so the weather and water conditions in NW Washington will be new to me. I’m used to hot days and water temperatures of 75 degrees or more. I do paddle in the spring/fall here but it is never really that cold. My question; what should I look to wear for my five day trip? I have a semi-dry paddling jacket and a pair of NRS .5mm neoprene shorts. What should I wear for the trip? Thanks

Water is still very cold
in the San Juans during the summer (around 50 degrees). I’ve always worn a dry suit during my trips there.

My understanding is that there are tour operators that plop folks into super-wide tandems and hope for the best, but I wouldn’t go out on that water without at least a wetsuit.

Is your trip through a commercial tour operator or a kayak school/outfitter? If the later, they might have dry gear that you could borrow/rent. That’s what I did before I owned a dry suit.

Try to rent the clothing
You don’t have what you’ll need if things get wet and nasty, and it is unclear that it is worth it for you to invest in the stuff if this is a rare trip for you to make. The most common answer you will hear is dry suit.

So see if the outfitter can connect you with the clothing needed just for this trip.

Are you going to be in a tandem? That could help just because the boats tend to be bigger and maybe a slightly drier ride than singles.

Cold water clothing
We will be in tandem kayaks. I will contact the company I will be going with and see if they provide or have access to rental clothing. I really don’t want to invest in a drysuit that I will only use for five days.

prepare for cold and wet
Prepare for cold and wet. So avoid cotton and wear things that will still retain warmth if they are wet (wool polypro, fleece, etc.). If you have rash guards, they could be useful also as they do provide some in water thermal protection.

I differ a little on the prior comments. If the tour is managed well, so has appropriate number of trained staff, everyone stays close together, etc., going without dry or wet suit could be fine. Basically, the protection you have is not the thermal protection, but the guides who know how and are able to quickly get a swimmer back into a dry boat, and then to some place to warm up. This, along with their local knowledge to reduce chances of being in conditions which cause unplanned swims, is one of the things which you are paying for a guided tour.

That said, it isn’t uncommon for tours to provide some form of wet suits (or more rarely, dry suits) even with the trained guides.

Agree with Peter-CA if well-guided

– Last Updated: Mar-25-15 8:40 PM EST –

If the trip is well guided, I would be surprised if they didn't have wetsuits to put you into. A wetsuit is likely to be about a mill thicker than anything you use in Texas. The wetsuit might be a shortie, but once your legs are back under a skirt that is fine. And they should also have windproof shells to in their boats in case of a swim. I carry at least one and often two even if I am only the sweep on an evening paddle with the local club.

See what response you get if you call them and ask. If you get an "of course" kind of response about their having a decent base layer, likely you can consider it covered. Just bring a windproof shell so you have your own for on shore. If you get told it is a silly concern... it may be worth coming back to this board and asking if anyone has experience with the outfitter.

very funny
I’m off to the Rio in a few (hectic) days.

I arrived at Shaw Island with 2 dry suits, wet suit, and a full wardrobe of hi tech clothing for the Great North West to Diomedes.

I was acclimating, during the next summer.

I have a photo essay on San Juan County Park on San Juan Island in Padnet’s launches

Reservations are NOW

San Juan tandems
are amazingly sea worthy. I did caboose for a group during an encompassing WIND DEVIL…after coming thru from False Bay.

Swells were 4-5 feet along the cliffs back to Smallpox.

The guide and a naybor were small talking on sea otters. Several paddlers seemed ‘nonplussed.’ Several had lost their tans.

I hollered in humor from the rear HERE COMES A BIG ONE

2-3 times - ease the tension right ?

Male stern paddler ahead threw hull sideways as the swell passed under, hull straightened as the crest went past bow.

Impressive stability

George Gronseth
has rentals and a new site worth a visit.

Possibly more, one in Redmond or …?

SJ Islands
Dress for immersion and 50-55 degree water. That means a farmer john wet suit or a dry suit even in summer. Bring a paddle float, pump and rescue equipment. The Islands are protected except for crossing the Straits, but there is a lot of boat traffic, barges pulled by tugs on cables and some ship and ferry traffic. You have to be ready to deal with the currents and rips from the tide changes. When wind and tides are opposing it can get rough. Tidal rips can appear out of now where out in the channel and grow to several feet in front of your eyes. Respect cold salt water and all of the boats and you will be fine.

Pacific North West weather.
I went for 6 days through the broken chain islands of the west coast of vancouver island last summer. We have crazy swings in weather here. You could get 5 days of 75+ degree sunshine all the way to pounding rain,with 50 degree weather or some of both on your trip.

So we packed for those possibilities. Cotton is rotten…wool or hi tech clothing is important. A wet suit or dry suit sure helps but when you are packing lite some people skip them. Thing is if you wind up in the water dry suits buy you a lot more time.

I live here and the ocean is on of my favorite playgrounds. If you dress for it and your tour company is worth their salt you will have a blast and be quite comfortable.

Just my 2c worth.

you have a dry suit, some fleece to wear under it{can double for in camp}…and a set of Hydroskin pants and Mysteriousa or Hydroskin shirt an rashguard a couple of boot/sock {Neo}options. then you can paddle anywhere in the world and adjust for conditions…don’t need tons …just need the right stuff

A Drysuit is a good investment and would be a good idea and figured as part of the trip cost.

Best Wishes


a good paddling jacket :}

Kayaking Puget Sound & the San Juan Islands by Washburne.

There is a new guide out.

Weather can be Bahamas like, incredible and beautiful. More likely you will experience fog then wind with small craft warnings …around the next point.

Variable conditions are widely variable but only over time not during your stay. On ten days, good or not so good weather with a day or 2 of the other.

Talk to your guide.
They can advise you. San Juan waters are chilly and depending on your route can be rough with chop and tidal rips etc. Someone suggested George Gronseth’s site and I’d echo that. I know he and Barb have a lot of my old gear (much of it I got for free) available for sale at great deals. In addition a lot of good stuff for sale.

Full on drysuits etc may be overkill depending on the tour. I think it all depends on the nature of the trip as to what’s realistic. Yes the water is chilly but if your guides are good you wouldn’t be in it for long if at all.


I’ve done it with a westuit
and was find. But if immersion for any significant length of time were to occur, I would have been sorely wanting a dry suit.

I’ve always taken novices in wetsuits and PFD and had them bob in the water of Monterey Bay for 10-15 minutes before ever entering a boat. I tell them that “This is the worst thing that will happen to you all day.”

Do that in a wetsuit up in the San Juans and you’ll probably see that a drysuit is a much better option, if that is viable.


0.5mm neoprene is inadequate
Even if your capsize recovery skills are excellent, being dumped into 50-degree water with such thin shorts on would be brutal. Since you do not mention any neoprene on the upper body, I assume your armpits would get instantly flooded, which is a lot worse than cold water on the legs.

A full wetsuit or combination making full coverage is OK, if you can get upright and going again quickly. Otherwise, a drysuit is best, esp. for someone used to much hotter air temps and full sunshine. There is a big diff between warming up in that and coming up to clouds, wind, and cool air.

what with the San Juan
talk, we should point out that many local GNW Seattle paddlers are not going around Kettleman or to Roche or past Kanaka Bay from Smallpox…they are not up to that level of serious kayak adventure…trying to use neutral language about their understanding of their local paddling conditions. they are not doing that.

In fact, few are paddling around the San Juans as an easily accessible kayak sport area.

Of those who paddle around, maybe 75% go with a guide and an experienced group.


There is a first volume.