Planning Your Boundary Waters Canoe Trip: A Journey into the Wilderness

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is a sprawling labyrinth of over 1,000 lakes and islands nestled on the Minnesota/Canada border. As an experienced adventurer who has visited the BWCA since childhood, I can assure you that it always delivers a serene and thrilling experience for those seeking solitude and natural beauty.

Best Time to Embark on a Boundary Waters Canoe Trip

To make the most of your journey, it’s important to time your visit right. The best months for canoeing the Boundary Waters are typically from May to October. During the summer, especially in the latter half of August, you can expect warm weather and the perfect opportunity for swimming. However, pesky mosquitoes and biting flies may dampen your experience. Although the summer months bring their share of bugs, they are no worse than what you would encounter elsewhere in the Midwest.

Spring, which begins in May, offers a fishing paradise, quiet solitude, and the sight of migrating animals and birds. Be prepared for colder temperatures, with lows in the 40s. Fall, on the other hand, is a magical time to visit the BWCA. The absence of bugs, dwindling crowds, and the vibrant fall colors make for an unforgettable experience. Plan your trip from mid-September to mid-October to witness the breathtaking display of red, orange, and yellow foliage. Regardless of when you visit, pack extra layers to combat chilly weather and always avoid cotton.

Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more
Photo courtesy of Isak Kvam

Planning Your BWCA Route

When embarking on a Boundary Waters expedition, choosing the right entry point is crucial. Ely and the Gunflint Trail serve as the main gateways to this wilderness treasure. Ely boasts dense woodlands and old-growth tree stands, offering a rustic camping experience. On the other hand, the Gunflint area exhibits a more remote and rugged terrain, with evidence of past fires and blowdowns. Personally, I prefer starting my journey from the Gunflint area to immerse myself immediately in the untamed wilderness.

Navigating the Boundary Waters involves traversing portage paths that connect the myriad lakes. If you’ve never encountered a portage before, it’s simply the process of moving your canoe overland from one lake to another. The BWCA features over 1,000 interconnected lakes, with portages varying in length. Fear not, as portaging a canoe is not as difficult as it appears. It’s more about technique than strength. A simple method of lifting and carrying the canoe, rather than using brute force, makes the task manageable for people of all ages.

Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more

My favorite BWCA route begins at the Gunflint Trail, starting from Saganaga Lake. From there, I paddle to Red Rock Lake, Alpine Lake, and finally Sea Gull Lake, completing a rewarding loop. However, the BWCA offers a multitude of route options tailored to your preferences, timeframe, and skill level. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Trip Planner proves invaluable in customizing your ideal route.

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While some adventurers prefer to bring their own canoes, numerous Boundary Waters canoe rental outfitters in Ely and the Gunflint Trail offer affordable options. Not only do they provide canoes, but they also offer valuable advice and insights to help you plan your trip effectively. My personal recommendation is Voyageur Canoe Outfitters for their exceptional service and expert guidance. With such a vast wilderness to explore, you could spend a lifetime discovering new routes. Whether you choose Ely or Gunflint as your entry point, an unforgettable adventure awaits.

Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more
Photo courtesy of Isak Kvam

BWCA Permits: Unlocking the Wilderness

Before setting off, securing a BWCA permit is essential. Permits are required for overnight trips from May 1 to September 30. While walk-up permits are available, there is no guarantee of availability. Fortunately, you do not need to know the exact number of days or people in your group to reserve a permit.

A single Boundary Waters permit permits a group of up to nine people and four watercraft to enter the wilderness. Bear in mind that the group limit must not be exceeded on water or land. The permit fees are $16 per adult per trip ($8 per child per trip) with an additional non-refundable $6 reservation fee.

If fishing is on your agenda, ensure you obtain a fishing license before your trip. You can easily purchase one online or at various gas stations and bait shops throughout the state. Minnesota residents can acquire an annual fishing license for $25 or a 72-hour license for $14. Non-residents have the option of an annual license for $51, a 7-day license for $43, or a 72-hour license for $36.

The reservation system for Boundary Waters permits opens every year at 9 a.m. CT on the last Wednesday of January on the BWCA website. If you plan to canoe outside the May-September season, a permit is not required. BWCA canoe rental businesses can also provide permits.

Upon arriving at your chosen entry point, you must collect your permits in person from either a Superior National Forest district office or a BWCA outfitter. Completion of the mandatory Leave No Trace & Tread Lightly education session is also required during this process. This short video and Q&A session ensure that visitors understand how to minimize their impact in the backcountry and stay safe within the remote wilderness.

While dogs are permitted in the BWCA, you should bring a current rabies certificate and rabies tag for your furry companion. Dogs must exhibit good voice control, refrain from barking or chasing wildlife, have experience in a canoe, and never be left unattended. Always be responsible for cleaning up after your pet.

Boundary Waters Campsites: Embracing Nature’s Tranquility

Boundary Waters campsites are scattered throughout the wilderness, mostly situated on picturesque wooded shorelines. Identifying an available campsite is relatively straightforward ─ simply look for canoes lining the campground shoreline. Remember, camping is only permitted at existing campsites within the BWCA, and it operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

To secure your desired campsite, it’s advisable to break camp early and arrive at your preferred location by early afternoon. I once made the mistake of sleeping in and found all the campsites already occupied, resulting in an extended day of paddling to find an empty campground. Consider your priorities when selecting a site. Do you crave a peninsula surrounded by water, a secluded spot within a dense forest, or a vantage point offering captivating sunset views?

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BWCA Camping // Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more
BWCA campsites have fire pits

Boundary Waters Canoe Trip Gear: Essentials for an Unforgettable Experience

One of the joys of canoe camping is the ability to transport your gear during portages. Consider the following gear essentials for your Boundary Waters adventure:

Shoes for the BWCA

When it comes to footwear, choose options that can endure water and rugged portages. For canoeing, water sandals, such as the Teva Universal Trail Sandal, provide comfort and convenience when getting in and out of your canoe. On the other hand, opt for hiking shoes or boots with closed-toe and closed-heel designs for portages. These will offer protection and enhance stability while traversing rocky terrain.

Dry Bags and Canoe Packs

While you can technically use a backpacking pack to carry your gear, specialized canoe packs from brands like Duluth Pack, Frost River, or Granite Gear offer distinct advantages. Their durability and design complement the unique demands of canoeing and portaging. Lightweight dry bags, such as the Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sacks, are also worth considering to keep your belongings organized and dry. Alternatively, line your pack with a garbage bag to protect your gear from water.

Navigating the Boundary Waters

For navigation purposes, you will require a compass, map, and map case. Outfitters often provide these vital tools. Trusted map brands like Fisher, McKenzie, Voyageur, or National Geographic offer detailed and reliable BWCA maps. Since cell service is limited in the BWCA, it is not advisable to rely solely on your phone for navigation. Instead, equip yourself with a satellite communication device or rent one for safety.

Navigating the Boundary Waters may initially prove challenging due to the extensive network of lakes and islands. However, by focusing on prominent features such as portages, campgrounds, and distinctive shoreline characteristics like points, islands, and bays, you can effectively orient yourself. It is normal to experience occasional confusion as the lakes and islands create a maze-like environment. Rest assured, losing your way is a rarity among visitors.

Water Gear & Equipment

Canoe selection is a crucial aspect of your gear ensemble. Aluminum canoes, although heavier to carry on portages, are incredibly sturdy, safeguarding against potential damage caused by rocks. Kevlar canoes, while more fragile, offer a lighter and more manageable paddling and portaging experience. When canoeing, ensure you are equipped with paddles, life jackets, duct tape, a sponge and bailer, and cords to secure your packs. Angling enthusiasts should not forget to pack fishing poles and tackle boxes. Lastly, don’t forget to bring a swimsuit for an invigorating dip in the crystal-clear waters.


Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more
Photo courtesy of Isak Kvam

Prepare for the elements by packing appropriate clothing. Be mindful of sunburns that may result from prolonged sun exposure while canoeing. Protect yourself with sunscreen, a sun hat, and consider donning UPF clothing. Additionally, ensure you have clothing suitable for colder weather, rain gear to combat sudden downpours, and quick-drying materials to manage submerged and wet gear.

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Bear Bags

While bear encounters are rare, it’s prudent to protect your food from these curious creatures. Rather than bringing a bear canister, most visitors opt to hang their food from a tree. To properly hang your food bag, find a tree limb approximately 15-20 feet off the ground. Attach a heavy item to the end of your rope, throw it over the branch, and position the rope around 4 feet from the trunk. Fasten your bear sack to the rope, hoist it up, and secure the rope. You’ll typically find designated tree limbs for this purpose near each campground.

Water Filtration

Obtaining water in the Boundary Waters is relatively effortless compared to other backpacking expeditions. Although some individuals still drink directly from the lakes, it is safer to boil or filter the water. Venture a short distance from your campsite, collect water from the lake, and purify or boil it before consumption. While it may be tempting to drink straight from the lake, the risk of a Giardia infection outweighs the convenience.

Water filtration systems like the Platypus GravityWorks filter or the Katadyn Hiker Microfilter are popular choices among BWCA travelers. They provide efficient and reliable filtration options. I recommend filling and treating a 1- to 3-gallon water container upon reaching your campsite. This ensures you have an adequate water supply for cooking, breakfast, dinner, and filling smaller 1-liter Nalgene bottles for the next day’s paddle.

Fire, Camp Stoves, and Cooking Gear

Boundary Waters campsites frequently feature fire pits that can be used for cooking purposes, provided there isn’t a fire ban in effect. It’s important to maintain small fires and ensure they are extinguished completely when unattended. Firewood can be sourced from the surrounding forest, but remember to select only dead and downed wood. Live wood does not burn effectively. In the event of a fire ban, bring a camp stove to prepare your meals.

Sun Protection

Prolonged sun exposure is inevitable during a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Guard yourself against sunburn by applying sunscreen, wearing a sun hat, and considering UPF clothing, which offers additional protection against harmful UV rays. The sun’s reflection off the water and your canoe intensifies the UV exposure, making proper sun protection a priority.

Start planning your Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with this complete guide including BWCA entry points, Boundary Water camping, & more

Help Protect the Boundary Waters

The BWCA is a remarkable and unique wilderness. To ensure its long-term preservation, it requires our support. Organizations like the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness are actively working to protect this national treasure from threats such as proposed copper-sulfide mines. These mining activities pose significant risks of contamination and irreversible pollution to the Boundary Waters.

To learn more about the threats facing the BWCA and how you can contribute to its preservation, I encourage you to support the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Embarking on a canoe trip through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters is an adventure unlike any other. The vastness and unspoiled nature of this wilderness make it an ideal destination for both seasoned paddlers and those new to canoe camping. I hope this guide has provided you with valuable insights and inspiration for your own Boundary Waters expedition. If you have any questions or require further assistance, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.