Expanding Your Boundaries

craving a canoe trip? here’s what you need to know about dipping a paddle into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

Matt Friell, photos by Matt Friell

If you’ve never been camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, it may seem a little daunting – even more so if you’re not much of a camper or outdoorsperson. I’m certainly not Bear Grylls, but I’ve been going to the BWCA on an annual trip with friends for 10-plus years, and I’ve learned a few useful things.

These are a few pointers to help get you started, not an all-inclusive list. Hopefully, this will help demystify camping in the BWCA if you’ve never been.

• You’ll need a permit, which you can book online and pick up in-person at various locations. There is a limit on the number of reservations available for entry points, so make sure you know what’s available. Know where you’re picking up your permit and what their hours are.

• Make sure you know what equipment you need, who’s bringing it, and that it was actually packed. Don’t forget the essential survival supplies: toilet paper, bug spray, hand sanitizer, matches/lighter, flashlight, and knife.

• If it’s your first time and you’re not going with others who have been there before, maybe start with a small, easy trip. You can always try a more difficult or longer trip next time.

• Portages can be difficult to spot from a lake (there are no big red dots like on the map).

• Consider sticking to smaller lakes. On larger lakes, a decent breeze can whip up some nice waves. If you’re in a canoe loaded with gear, it can get a little dicey.

• Have a way of getting clean water. You shouldn’t drink straight out of the lakes without some sort of filter/purification first. Find a good option for yourself.

• Select your footwear wisely. If you have portages, it basically means you’re carrying everything. The portages can sometimes be steep in places, rocky, muddy, or under a few inches of water (depending on the weather). You’ll want some decent footwear.

• There’s also a good chance of your feet getting wet when getting in and out of your canoe, so keep that in mind. Personally, I like to wear a good, sturdy pair of sandals on traveling days, and have a dry pair of shoes for the rest of the time.

• Bring a hammock! This is prime hammock real estate. You may need some additional rope for it. Also, a hammock that comes with its own bug net is awesome.

• Bring a map of where you’re going and a compass or handheld GPS. When you’re tired from hiking and paddling, the last thing you also want to be is lost.

• Leave early. Campsites are first come, first served, and there’s no great way to know how many of them will be occupied (or not) along your route. It’s not fun looking for a campsite late in the day.

• Pack rain gear and some warm clothing. Nothing is more miserable than being wet, cold, or a combination of the two. If you’re from down South (aka lower Wisconsin/Minnesota) it’s likely to be a little cooler in the BWCA than where you’re traveling from.

• A hat and a head net to keep mosquitoes at bay is recommended.

• Don’t have your own canoe? Check out an outdoors outfitter for rentals.

• You can find a good planning checklist online. Go to BWCA.com, then selected “Planning” and “Trip Planning Information & Checklists.”

• Lastly, be respectful of where you are, follow the rules, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of zero Internet/Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest/YouTube/etc.