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Self Guided Kayaking Trips in Johnstone Strait

Johnstone Strait Kayaking

Johnstone Strait is a world class sea kayaking destination, a place where nature is raw and unspoiled. Visitors from around the world come here to sea kayak with orcas, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, minke whales and steller sea lions. Bald eagles and giant ravens roam the lush cedar forests and grizzly and black bears can be seen in many of the remote inlets and fjords. 

Located between Northern Vancouver Island and the BC mainland, the islands of the Broughton Archipelago  are largely undeveloped and ripe for adventure. Local First Nations have been living and thriving here for thousands of years. There are numerous protected harbours and islands where paddlers can experience camping in an unspoiled wilderness.

Deciding whether you’ll explore this region on your own or with a guide is an important first step in your trip planning.

Guided vs Self-Guided Kayaking Trips

Guided trips offer the highest possible level of safety. Experienced guides have the  local knowledge that only comes from years of paddling in Johnstone Strait. They’re able to safely navigate the challenges of the area such as cold water, high currents, exposed crossings, boat traffic, marine fog and occasional Pacific storms.

One of the most difficult tasks for remote, multi-day kayaking trips is meal planning and preparation. Most guides are excellent wilderness cooks (in fact, this is part of their training). They are familiar with the cooking systems, wilderness kitchens and the best backcountry recipes, and take away all the worry of menu planning as they prepare hearty, delicious meals.

On guided trips, all planning and logistics are handled for you. Simply show up ready to paddle, camp and enjoy the adventure. Guides have a deep understanding of when and where to see wildlife, provide interpretation of the natural history and show you the best highlights the area has to offer. Generally speaking, guided trips are much easier and more comfortable than self-guided trips.

On the downside, the safety and overall enjoyment of the group takes priority over individual paddlers. Guides will do their best to accommodate a guest’s wishes but do not expect it to be the most important factor for a group trip. And guided trips tend to be more expensive and less flexible than private ones.

planning map

Planning Your Own Kayaking Trip

Self guided trips give you the most flexibility. You are the decision maker, not a guide. Launch and land when you want, make your own meals, paddle your own routes, camp in your own spots. You are fully responsible for yourself in a wilderness environment, which gives a heightened sense of responsibility and achievement. This is truly your own adventure.

That same greater sense of adventure means greater risks. You have elected to opt out of an expert’s supervision. Lack of knowledge about an area, its hazards, wilderness camping, wildlife patterns and weather systems all must be balanced with your experience.

Essential Skills for Self Guided Kayaking Trips

There are many training courses available that will teach you the basics safe sea kayak touring. Then get out on some small trips, in less remote locations, and build up some experience before even thinking about doing a kayaking trip to Telegraph Cove and the Broughton Archipelago.

At the minimum, kayakers considering self-guided trips to the Johnstone Strait area should be able to perform solo and assisted rescues, know how to tow another kayak, and be familiar with emergency evacuation procedures.

On the water, cell coverage is not reliable or always available. The safest communications device is a marine radio, which requires a training course and certificate to use. It’s also highly advisable to have first aid training, such as wilderness first aid. A well-stocked first aid kit is a must.

In many of the narrow channels, currents can run over six knots, which is strong enough to capsize a kayak. So, it’s imperative that paddlers know how to read tide and current tables and plan their routes accordingly. These Inside Passage waterways are also active shipping lanes, so kayakers must know right-of-way rules and how to safely paddle around large vessels.

The Northern Vancouver Island region often sees marine fog, so navigation skills are very important. And while GPS use is common these days, knowing how to use a nautical chart and compass is still a valuable skill. You also must adhere to wildlife approach distances and to keep out of no-go areas such as Robson Bight.

If at all in doubt, consider taking a refresher course to brush up on your skills before heading out on a multi-day trip here.

Watch the Weather

Use your VHF marine radio to stay abreast of the latest forecasts, which are updated four times per day by Weather Canada at 0400, 1030, 1600 and 2130hrs. In the summer months, high pressure systems produce fair weather and sunny skies, but also strong afternoon winds.

Being in a rainforest, low pressure systems are also common. Southeasterlies produce high winds and precipitation and often make it unsafe to kayak. Wind effect on the ocean is the number one reason why kayakers get beached for the day. Knowing when not to paddle is an important skill.

If you are caught in a storm, stick to shore, do not venture out into exposed crossings and plan to get off the water as soon and safely possible. This requires knowing what beaches are suitable for storm landings and where they are. Keep track of what beaches you have passed.

In rough weather, stay close as a group, but not too close. Waves and wind can sometimes give the kayaks extra momentum which can cause collisions. This can lead to injuries or capsizes, or both. There are many formations that a kayak group can travel in. The conditions and ability of the group will determine which formation is best.

And always make sure you have extra clothes and paddling jackets ready to wear and enough food, water and survival gear, in case you are beached away from your campsite. A good rule of thumb is to pack food for one extra day, at least.


kayaking food

No Trace Kayak Camping

If you’ve ever been multi-day backpacking in the backcountry, you’ve probably done no trace camping. These same skills are highly transferable, and will help you with kayak camping. In fact, an expedition kayak can be thought of as a big backpack that lets you easily carry much more gear and supplies than you could ever manage on your shoulders. This makes camping much more comfortable and almost a luxury experience compared to a normal backpacking trip of dried food and tiny tents. Large comfortable shelters, and great food are possible on sea kayaking trips.

But unlike a backpack, the extra weight does not slow you down, and actually acts like ballast to provide a more stable glide. The key is knowing how to pack and distribute gear in your boat so it all stays dry and your boat is balanced and doesn’t take forever to load. Many of the beaches here are rocky and will damage a fiberglass kayak’s hull, so always practice proper beaching and launching techniques.

Kayak campsites in Johnstone Strait are shared and used on a first come first served basis. Practice proper etiquette by keeping your group in one area to ensure other groups have space if they show up. The land is for all to share. You are in bear country, so keep all food in bear caches, or your kayak, and clean up your kitchen area. Check local regulations before starting any fires, to make sure they are allowed.

And when you depart your camp, try to always leave it looking better than when you arrived. Pack out everything you packed in. That’s just good kayaking Karma.

Expedition Gear For Kayaking in Johnstone Strait

The right kayaking equipment can make all the difference. Due to the remote location of Johnstone Strait, most people decide to rent kayaks locally, saving the hassle of transporting kayaks on ferries from the BC mainland, paying extra fees and the long drive to Northern Vancouver Island.

Telegraph Cove kayak rentals make the most sense in terms of ease and access. You can even rent tents and camping equipment here too. It’s important to rent an expedition kayak. These boats have enough storage space for all the gear you’ll need and superior glide and performance while you’re on the water so you’ll paddle easier and be less tired at the end of the day. Be aware of low quality, plastic boat rentals, which are a poor choice for Johnstone Strait.

Gender specific PFDs and lightweight, carbon fiber paddles can also make a big difference to your comfort level after several hours on the water. Generally speaking, the best gear will give you the best trip.

Make Your Plan

These are some, but not all, of the considerations to doing a self guided trip. If you don’t yet have the skills and experience, a guided trip is a great option.

Either guided or unguided, the stunning landscapes, remote wilderness, and wildlife experiences will test your skills and leave you with a deep sense of accomplishment. For experienced paddlers, a self-guided sea kayaking tour of Johnstone Strait can be an adventure of a lifetime.


Lady Island campsite
Lady Island campsite

Darryl Leniuk

Darryl Leniuk is a photographer and journalist specializing in storytelling and imagery for the adventure sports, travel and outdoor tourism markets. His powerful stories engage the viewer and his photography has been widely used in advertising campaigns around the world. As a recognized adventure tourism expert, he has written a travel column for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. Darryl is a professional member of the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC).

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