A canoe camping trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness should be on every adventure lovers bucket list. It is a truly life changing type of trip. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is big, and mostly accessible only by canoe or kayak. It extends 150 miles along the Canada/USA border, covers 19,000 acres of land, boasts over 1,100 lakes, and offers over 1,500 miles of canoe routes for visitors to explore. One great thing about the Boundary Waters is you can make your trip work for you and what you are comfortable with. Whether you make the trip big or small you will learn a lot. I have been twice now and both years I have learned SO MUCH! Which is why in this blog I am going to share my tips for first timers planning to take on the Boundary Waters. After a few more trips perhaps I’ll have more tips, but today I am focusing on the basics. What to know before you go, and how to make it a great adventure for you, no mater your level of experience.
A little about me. I have been tent camping my whole life, but had only been on two backpacking trips prior to the Boundary Waters. These prior backpacking trips were backpacking with my family, while I was a teen, into primitive log cabins in the Minnesota Northwoods. I had never canoe camped, or had to carry my own tent/gear etc. I had also never done this as an adult, and where I was in charge of the planning. The Boundary Waters were always on my bucket list but I always worried I wasn’t bad ass enough. Well, I learned I am. I also learned you can all be to! Anyone can do this! My dad who is a 67 year-old self proclaimed city boy came with me my first year. He is not in great shape for adventuring and he was able to do it! We just had to carry most of his gear. Plan according to your group and be smart about just how “bad ass” you make your first trip. 😉
I know I still have a lot to learn, but I hope these tips from a relatively unexperienced newbie give you the confidence and tools you need to get out there too!
Practice canoeing if you don’t know how:
If you have never been canoeing before, you should probably practice. At least a little. For the most part canoeing is relatively easy and you will figure it out pretty fast. There is however benefit to practicing beforehand so you know how to steer and are ready if you end up on a big lake in open wind. At least one person in each canoe should have some experience.
When you start planning your trip you may really want to go all out! There is seriously so much to see and explore, its easy to feel this way. I recommend starting small. If you have more experience maybe small is 5 days. For me I started with a two night trip, and the following year did a three night trip. On both occasions we stayed the night before nearby our entry point. I felt like these were really great trips, even though they were short. We learned a lot but never felt overwhelmed. Everyone is different, so go with how you feel, just try not to bite off more than you can chew 😉
Pick a good entry point:
I feel like this is one of the most important things to ensure a great trip. There are so many great ones to choose from, but you want to find the right one for you and best ones do sell out. You will want to plan ahead and make sure you reserve early. So, first of all, let’s go over some basics. Your entry point is where you and your canoes/watercraft will enter the Boundary Waters. This is a date and you can enter on that day at any time, but only on that day. Each entry point is a place. You park is the given area nearby. Sometimes you might start with a portage (hike) to your entry point and others you may put the boats and your gear right in the water and begin with paddling. Both entry points I have used were much like a typical lake public access. From here you paddle to find an available campsite or you do a combination of paddling and portaging to find a campsite. So, you have a few choices to make before you choose your entry point.
- What area of the Boundary Waters do you want to camp in?
The Boundary Waters is spilt up into different districts depending on the area in the state of Minnesota, and then there is Quetico Park, which is in Canada. I won’t be touching on the Quetico because I have yet to adventure there. I hear its similar but there are no latrines (toliets). You’ll want to choose the district you want to look for an entry point in. This will likely depend on how far you want to drive, or what area of the state you want to see. This can be Tofte, Gunflint, Ely, LaCroix or Kiwishiwi.
- How much portaging do you want to do before setting up camp?
Portages (hikes) are measured by the length of a canoe, and referred to as a rod, so on your map you will see little numbers next to the portages. This represents how long they will be. You’ll want to know how many times you want to portage, and how long those portages can be. Remember you are carrying all your gear during this time. Sometimes, and totally acceptable, you may even end up doubling back to carry things and that will add on to the distance of each portage. If this sounds like too much, have no fear, it is possible to canoe right to a campsite without portaging. Then you can set up camp and do day trips from your site, where instead of carrying all your gear you will just have a canoe and a day pack.
- What is the overall plan for your adventure?
Decide a general route and how long you plan to stay in each spot. You might stay in one site the whole time, or you might want to change sites daily and do a “loop trip”. Its up to you, but think about it before you choose that entry point. All sites are first come first serve so you want to know there are plenty of options within your plan.
My personal thoughts for a first trip:
- Pick an entry point that does not begin with a portage, at least not a long one.
I love the comfort of being able to pack the canoe directly from our car and not having to portage right off the bat. It probably wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, but personally I like to avoid it.
- Choose an entry point with a lot of campsite options.
It definitely eases the anxiety knowing there are a ton of options for camping. Since everything is first come first serve, the more options the better. I also love when I know there are a few really cool options, such as islands or peninsula’s. The first year we went we got a private island and it was great!
- Choose a campsite that you can stay at for your full stay or a few nights, and do day trips to other lakes.
I think staying at a site for at least two or three nights is a must. Moving every day can get to be hard, make sure you take time to enjoy the experience.
Rent Canoes Early:
If you are renting equipment, do it as early as possible. As soon as you have your entry point you should reserve them. They do sell out. If you plan to portage you might want to consider a lightweight kevlar canoe. It’s your best option for ease of travel. Listen to the tips from your outfitter for how to care for the canoe during your trip. They do scratch very easily.
Have a plan (and great maps):
As I mentioned earlier you should go in with a general plan for where you are going to try to camp along your trip. You definitely want to have good maps with you throughout your journey. Your outfitter will likely provide you with a basic map, but I would recommend purchasing some better ones during your planning process. Some of the portages are hard to find and having a map is crucial. One of the best things about the Boundary Waters is that they are so untouched and natural, but that also means there are no signs. So you are literally looking for a little trail on the side of a lake when you are portaging. It can be difficult and even frustrating at times. Best to have each canoe in your group have their own map. Also, pro tip, keep your map in a waterproof bag 😉
Picking a Campsite:
Once you find an open campsite there are some things you will want to check out. First off, where is the latrine, and what is the walk like to get there. The latrine is the bathroom. It is basically just a vault toilet in the woods with no walls. Pictured below 😉 It’s a beautiful rustic bathroom. Quick tip- put your tp in a waterproof bag next to the latrine, that way you don’t have to remember it each time. Some campsites have a more difficult walk then others to get to the latrine, so it is worth checking out. You will usually find a path going back into the woods from the campsite that will lead to the “bathroom”. However, there may be multiple paths, so sometimes this can be like a game. You will also want to check for nice level spots for your tent or tents. It’s also nice if you have a rocky spot lakeside to sit. I feel like the bugs are not as bad on rocky shores. Its fun to look for crayfish in the rocks, they are HUGE in the Boundary Waters. Another big plus to me is always a sunset facing campsite. Its so great watching the sun go down from camp!
Communicate with others:
Once you have a rough plan, share it with family and friends. Let them know what outfitter you are working with and what general area you plan to be in. This way if they need to find you, they know where to start. Also, don’t be afraid to say hi to other canoers once you are in the wilderness. If someone looks lost, ask them if they need to be pointed in the right direction. We have multiple times helped people find tricky portages.
Have an emergency plan:
So, we touched earlier on just how big the Boundary Waters is, it’s important to realize you could get lost in here. Take your planning seriously. Stick together and if you do get lost, stay put on the side of a lake or river until you can ask someone for directions. You will not have cell service, so plan accordingly. You can rent an emergency device from your outfitter that will allow you to contact them if needed. I would also recommend bringing a compass, knowing how to use it, and keeping your maps with you at all times while exploring.
This is an obvious tip, but do your best to pack light. If you are not planning to portage with gear you don’t have to be as strict with this. If you are portaging try your best to make it so you can carry everything in one trip. Doubling back is totally acceptable, but if you don’t have to do it, its better. Keep in mind that someone will be carrying the canoe, so their backpack cannot come over their shoulders. You also have the paddles and life jackets to carry. I recommend wearing the life jackets. Also, it is possible to bungee the paddles/fishing poles to the canoe while portaging. So, bring some small bungee cords. I’m not going to go into detail about packing light, because I am definitely not a pro at this yet 😉
Plan your water supply:
In the Boundary Waters to must bring in your own water, or have a way to purify your water. Water is heavy, so you’ll have to figure out what works for you. I typically try to carry in most of my drinking water, but water used for cooking (boiling noodles and such) I use the lake water. You can boil the water to purify it, but while its super clean, its not going to be perfect. You will likely want a filtering system to make it cleaner.
Food Packing Tips:
Packing food can definitely be one of the most stressful parts of packing for a Boundary Waters trip. I recommend buying a bear barrel or two for food packing and storage. I always pack everything in the bear barrels except the first day/nights food. I keep that food in my day pack to save space. Another tip, get rid of as much trash beforehand. Unpack everything, throw away the wrappers. This will save you space in your food storage and it will save you from carrying out extra trash. After this years trip I hope to put together a detailed blog about what foods to bring, but so far I’m just sticking to these basic tips.
Be bear aware:
As I said with food packing, using bear barrels is great. If you do not use a bear barrel you will want to hang your food. You need to hang it high, and hanging quite far away from tree, because bears can climb trees. It sounds difficult to me. This is why we invested in bear barrels. We keep them away from camp at night and we have never had any problems. You want to secure basically anything with a scent away from bears, so think sunscreen, bug spray, soap, etc. Do not keep any of this in or near your tent. Anytime you leave your site you should have your food and anything with a scent secured safely to keep bears (or any animals) from entering your camp. If you catch and clean fish make sure you do the cleaning far from the campsite, and dispose of the fish waste far from camp, burried is best.
Have a first aid kit:
Don’t forget to pack a first aid kit. Accidents happen and its best to be prepared. We have used our first aid kit on both of our Boundary Waters adventures. Last year my husband hooked himself in the finger. Luckily, I had our first aid kit with us on the day trip, so we were able to take care of it ourselves, and keep in clean the remainder of our trip.
Prepare for rain (and sun):
You will likely see a variety of weather during your time in the Boundary Waters. Be prepared for rain, have rain gear for you, and also be prepared to wrap your gear in tarps. It is best to always have a tarp ready, because storms can blow in quickly, and its hard to secure everything when you are in the middle of the lake. I recommend each time you put your gear in the canoe that you first lay down a tarp, and then put the gear on top of it and wrap it from the bottom; have another tarp to lay over top. If you do not lay it on a tarp and wrap up, the water that gathers in the bottom of your canoe will get your gear wet. Another great thing to have with you in a large sponge, you can use this to soak up water in the bottom of your boat and squeeze it into the lake. Now, don’t worry, you will also have glorious sunshine! Be ready for that too! Bring sunscreen and reapply often.
The dreaded mosquitos:
My family has always traveled in the summer, so we do have bugs to deal with. You can travel in the spring or fall to avoid some of this, but then you will also have colder night temperatures. I truthfully expected the bugs to be worse. They get pretty bad on the portages when you are not moving, if you keep moving you are ok. At night we found that they would get really bad right around sundown. Then we would retreat into our largest tent and play a few games of Yahtzee and when we would come back out an hour or so later they would be fine! It worked really well for us! Bring good bug spray, maybe some cream to help itching, but mostly you will be just fine.
Leave no trace:
Everything you bring in, you bring out. No exceptions. Keep it clean and take care of the beautiful Boundary Waters!
I feel like there is just so much to share about the Boundary Waters. I hope I touched on most of the basics and helped put your mind a bit at ease if you are a first timer! No matter what you will find an epic adventure in the Boundary Waters. If you have already been and have tips to add, please feel free to leave them as a comments for my viewers to read. I am definitely still a beginner myself, so I know I still have a lot to learn too. Also, feel free to ask any questions! Wishing you an awesome adventure!
Much Love & Happy Travels,
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