How to Plan An Amazing Boundary Waters Trip
Boundary Waters First-Timer Need To Know
If you’re a first-time visitor to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, planning that first canoe trip can feel daunting. Internationally acclaimed for its natural beauty, the Boundary Waters attracts anglers, canoeists, and those seeking a peaceful wilderness camping retreat. This million-acre tract of lakes and forest is a Minnesota must-see, but it’s not without unique challenges for even experienced outdoor adventure travelers.
As the owner of a Boundary Waters outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, I can tell you for a fact that the best Boundary Waters trips are carefully planned, yet flexible. I’ve helped thousands of people plan successful visits to the BWCA. If you’re planning a Boundary Waters canoe trip but don’t know how to begin, look no farther. I got you!
Even before it became the most pandemic friendly travel destination in the United States, the Boundary Waters was in the midst a revival as younger visitors looked for adventure travel destinations in the Midwest. This isn’t just the place your grandpa goes for his annual fishing trip with his college buddies anymore. If you didn’t grow up visiting the Boundary Waters, don’t worry. Many people discover the Boundary Waters in their early twenties. It’s really never too late for a first-time Boundary Waters trip!
Five steps of Boundary Waters trip planning
- Decide if a Boundary Waters trip is right for you. (It might not be. That’s okay!)
- Going for it? Thoughtfully research and plan your BWCA route
- Remember . . . take care of legal requirements well in advance
- Know what you need: gear inventory and meal planning
- Set your mind right: mentally prepare for your Boundary Waters adventure
Gotta run? Pin for future reference for Boundary Waters trip planning!
STEP ONE: Deciding if a Boundary Waters trip is right for you and your group
What is the Boundary Waters?
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a million-acre tract of public landing stretching along northeastern Minnesota’s Canadian border. Nearly 1200 lakes populate the Boundary Waters. Portage trails connect these lakes into navigable canoe camping routes.
To move around the Boundary Waters, you load all your gear into a canoe, paddle across a lake or down a creek to a portage. At the portage, you pick up all your gear and canoe and carry it to the next lake. Rinse and repeat until you find a campsite (all equipped with a fire grate and latrine) that suits your group for the night.
You’ll often see people referring to the Boundary Waters as the BWCA, although the correct abbreviation is BWCAW. That “W,” signifying “wilderness,” is an important piece of the Boundary Waters’ identity. If you want a deep-dive into Boundary Waters history, check out this documentary I made back in 2013 that explains the W’s significance.
The Boundary Waters are NOT a national park
While the Forest Service maintains portages and campsites to keep them useable, they also let nature run its course. If a beaver dam floods a portage, you might get wet feet (and shins). Expect narrow, rock strewn portage trails sometimes impeded by down trees or thick brush. And yes, if a wildfire ignites somewhere in the BWCAW, you might have to adjust your route.
Beyond the iconic “Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness” signs at the border to the wilderness area, there are no signs in the BWCAW. Boundary Waters visitors depend on their own navigation skills. They also need plenty of common sense. With no cell service or a speedy way for first responders to reach distressed campers, BWCAW visitors should expect to get themselves out of any emergencies.
Why go on a Boundary Waters trip?
Many people come to experience great fishing for walleye, bass, pike, trout. Other Boundary Waters visitors want to see wildlife in their natural habitat. For many people, disconnecting from technology and stripping life down to the bare essentials is the real draw. Boundary Waters trips often lead to meaningful connections with family and friends.
In late July and early August, the Boundary Waters offer unparalleled wild berry picking and swimming. No matter why you choose to visit the Boundary Waters, you’ll be treated to unreal stargazing as well as beautiful sunrises and sunsets. In fact, in 2020, the International Dark Sky Association designated the Boundary Waters as the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary.
Should I go on a Boundary Waters trip?
Before committing to a BWCA canoe trip, carefully consider your answers to these five questions:
- Do you like being outdoors?
- Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?
- Do you like the idea of going off the grid?
- Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?
- Are you okay with things not going to plan?
If you answered in the affirmative, a Boundary Waters trip might be right up your alley. Let’s get planning!
STEP TWO: Thoughtfully research and plan your BWCA route
Resources for a First-Time Boundary Waters Visitor
Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Western Region by Robert Beymer
Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Eastern Region by Robert Beymer
Message boards on bwca.com (especially trip reports)
Boundary Waters reddit
Tumblehome: A Boundary Waters Podcast
WTIP’s Boundary Waters Podcast
Take time to consider your route options
Set aside a couple evenings to research the Boundary Waters before selecting your route. With dozens of BWCA entry points to choose from it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I highly recommend Robert Beymer’s Boundary Water Canoe Area guidebooks for a user-friendly introduction to the Boundary Waters. He discusses each entry point in detail and provides route suggestions for each entry point. It’s a great one-stop shopping resource to guide you to a route that’s the right length and difficulty for your group. You can also find this information poking through bwca.com’s trip report archives or on the Boundary Waters reddit, but if you want to keep your scrolling and googling to a minimum, Beymer will put you in good stead for selecting your first Boundary Waters route.
If you don’t like research (um, I’m not sure we can be friends . . .) your best bet for finding a route is to pick up the horn and call a Boundary Waters outfitters. These businesses on the edge of the BWCAW cater to the needs of Boundary Waters visitors with canoe and gear rental, shower facilities, bunkhouse accommodations, and yes, trip advice. Most outfitters’ websites list several canoe route suggestions and they’re happy to talk you through those routes. Often 15 minutes on the phone with an outfitter can save you two weeks of increasingly confusing internet research.
How do you select a BWCA canoe route?
You need to answer one major question when selecting a Boundary Waters canoe route: what do you want to do on your trip?
Specifically . . .
- Do you want to base camp a couple lakes in from your entry point?
- Is fishing important?
- Do you want to avoid portaging at all costs?
- How do you feel about big water (aka, large lakes)?
- Do you want to move every day?
The answers to these questions naturally narrow down route possibilities for your group. It’s important to prioritize because it’s rare, if not basically impossible, for a Boundary Waters route to perfectly align with all of your trip desires.
If you don’t want to portage, you’ll spend your Boundary Waters trip on a large, busy lake. If you don’t want to see many people, you’ll need to put a few difficult portages between you and the entry point. Beautiful scenery might come at the expense of great fishing. It’s all a give and take, so take the time to determine your Boundary Waters route dealbreakers before committing to an entry point.
Pro tip: Research fishing options before you pull your Boundary Waters permit
If you want to fish for a specific species of fish, please for the love of all things holy, make sure those fish actually live in the lakes on your route. Contrary to popular belief, walleyes aren’t native to northeastern Minnesota and many Boundary Waters lakes don’t have a single walleye in them. Save yourself a little heartache and plug lake names in the DNR’s Lake Finder before you book.
Is there a “best time” to go on a Boundary Waters trip?
Depending on your BWCA trip priorities, maybe! If you want to fish lake trout, go immediately after ice out or as late in September as possible. To avoid crowds, don’t time your visit with Boundary Waters high season in late July through late August. Of course, wild berry season and the best swimming weather correlates with BWCAW high season.
Other considerations: bugs like mosquitoes and black flies peak in June. Many people like the quietness of September trips, but days are short and temperatures can be chilly. Like all things Boundary Waters related, you can have a fantastic trip no matter when you visit, but a little research ahead of time will let you know what to expect.
STEP THREE: Booking your Boundary Waters permit and other legal considerations before your BWCA visit
The Boundary Waters Permit System
To regulate usage, the U.S. Forest Service requires a permit for anyone camping overnight in the Boundary Waters between May 1 – September 30. During this time, the Forest Service sets a number of how many overnight groups can enter the wilderness through each specific entry point each day. This helps eliminate overcrowding in especially popular Boundary Waters locations and should ensure that your group finds an open campsite within a normal day’s travel.
This quota system is critical to maintaining a wilderness feeling in Boundary Waters, but it’s also a little confusing. You only need one permit for your entire group (limited to nine people and four watercraft) for your entire trip. Your permit allows you to enter the BWCAW at a specific entry point on a specific day. As long as you enter the Boundary Waters on that day at that point, you can stay in the Boundary Waters as long as you want. (Yes, some people have stayed for an entire year!) It’s worth reiterating that while a permit should mean there’s an open campsite group fairly close to the entry point, it in no way guarantees a campsite on first lake you get to.
BWCAW permit quotas are serious
There’s nothing negotiable about the BWCAW overnight camping permit system. If you have a specific Boundary Waters route you want to do, you might need to be flexible with your starting date to accommodate permit availability. If you must start your trip on a specific date, you might not get your first choice of entry point. Should your schedule change and you need to start your trip on a different day, you must cancel your first permit and book a new permit for your new start date.
Remember, you aren’t booking a period of time in the Boundary Waters, you’re booking the right to enter the Boundary Waters at a certain point on a certain day. There is no such thing as entering the Boundary Waters a day earlier or later than what’s printed on your permit. If you don’t enter the Boundary Waters at the date and point on your permit, your permit is null and void.
How to reserve your Boundary Waters permit
Permits for the upcoming season become reservable on the last Wednesday of January. That’s the first day you can reserve permits, but as long as there’s permit availability, you could buy a permit the very day you want to start your trip. Most people book their permits about six weeks in advance of their trip start date, but if your trip start date is set stone, you might as well book the permit as soon as you can.
To book a permit, pop over to Recreation.gov. If you don’t have one already, you’ll need to set up an account. If you’re using a Boundary Waters outfitters for your trip, they can reserve the permit for you, but they will still need to set up a recreation.gov account specifically for you using your email address.
Avoid these Boundary Waters permit booking mistakes
If your group size is larger than one, be sure to list at least one alternate leader other than yourself. In the event that you’re unable to go on the trip, this allows the permit to be transferred to that alternate leader without having to cancel and book a new permit.
The exit date you put on your permit isn’t written in stone and has nothing to do with your permit validity. The Forest Service mostly wants this info for statistical reasons. Remember, you’re not reserving a “____” night trip in the Boundary Waters – you’re booking an entry permit.
You can adjust the amount of people on your permit up until the moment your permit is actually issued to you at a U.S. Forest Service office or a Boundary Waters cooperator station (like an outfitters).
STEP FOUR: Get your gear in order
Camping Gear Inventory
If you backpack or car camp, you’re probably well on your way with owning the gear you need for a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Consult my Ultimate Boundary Waters Packing List if you’re not sure! A couple months out from your trip, use my packing list to determine any items you need to rent or borrow.
You won’t get very far on your canoe trip without a canoe. Really a canoe, some paddles, and lifejackets are the only specialized pieces of equipment you need for a Boundary Waters trip. Happily, more often than not, there’s a Boundary Waters outfitters no farther than ten miles from your entry point that can rent you a canoe for $35-55 a day depending on the type and model you select.
Unless you’re doing a base camp where you’re not moving beyond the lake you start on, leave your kayak at home. Heavy, with limited gear capacities, kayaks don’t translate well to the portaging demands of a Boundary Waters trip. After all, there’s a reason it’s called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness!
Portage packs vs. backpacks and why you need to use them for Boundary Waters trips
Another commonly rented piece of Boundary Waters specific equipment are portage packs. Often referred to as Duluth packs, these large bags hold all your equipment, personal items, and food as you travel over portages. They also fit well in canoes.
If you already own backpacking packs, those will work although they won’t hold as much gear and depending on their size can’t always lie flat on the canoe bottom. If you want to purchase some portage packs before your trip, Cooke Custom Sewing makes our favorites. And remember, whatever style pack you use, you will need a heavy duty plastic liner (like a construction trash bag) for the pack to keep your gear dry.
Pro tip: get as much gear as humanly possible into two or three packs (per canoe) to make portaging efficient and hands-free. Nothing crushes BWCAW visitors’ spirits faster than having to carry a hodgepodge of loose items (water bottles, tackle boxes, sleeping pads, cameras, camp chairs, etc.) over portages.
When should I reserve gear for a Boundary Waters trips?
If you need a canoe, reserve one with an outfitter about six weeks before your trip’s start date. For complete outfitting (where the outfitter provides everything -canoe, gear, food – except personal items like clothing and toiletries), reserve at least two months out. Just need a tent or portage pack? A couple days heads up is usually plenty of notice.
Menu planning for Boundary Waters food
Meal planning for a Boundary Waters canoe trip is a big task and really warrants its own post at a later date. (Stay tuned!) To avoid packing way too much food, try delegating one person in your group to tackle this task. If you have anyone in your group with dietary restrictions, nominate them! For best results, start thinking about your Boundary Waters trip menu about a month out so you can order any specialized dehydrated food or have enough time to do your own dehydrating if that’s how you roll.
If you’ve gone on overnight backpacking trips, you’re probably already familiar with brands like Backpacker’s Pantry for lightweight, dehydrated entrees. One beautiful thing about Boundary Waters trips is that you don’t have to solely depend on these pre-packaged meals. Because you only need to carry your food over portages, most Boundary Waters canoe trippers pack more fresh food (fruit, steaks for the first night dinner, breads like bagels) than you normally would on a backpacking trip.
STEP FIVE: Mentally prepare for your Boundary Waters trip
Attitude is EVERYTHING for a successful Boundary Waters canoe trip. I can’t overemphasize how important it is to go into a wilderness trip setting with an open mind and can-do attitude. This might sound a little corny, but we see people struggle the most with their canoe trip when they fall into one of two camps. On one side we haven’t those who didn’t do any research about their trip and find it far more challenging than they expected. On the opposite end are those who researched their trip to the point that the trip can’t possibly live up to their expectations.
One technique for mentally preparing yourself for a great Boundary Waters trip is to have an answer to the question: “What will we do if it rains every day?” The people who have the most amazing Boundary Waters trip year after year are adaptable and go with the flow. No matter how diligently you research and prepare, things can still not go according to plan.
Acknowledge that things could go wrong and have a plan for how to deal with an emergency. Take all necessary safety precautions but avoid idolizing safety to the point that you’re almost paralyzed with fear of a misstep. Prepare yourself for mental and physical challenges. Embrace the challenging parts. Take time to notice the sun setting or the smell of wild roses on the portage trail. Enjoy waking up with the sun and watching the morning mist rise off the lake. Don’t forget to have fun – you’re going to have an amazing time.
What do you think, would you go on a Boundary Waters trip? If you have gone on a Boundary Waters trip, what tips would you add?
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