“Can I Use a Kayak?” and Other FAQs about the Boundary Waters

two canoeists in BWCA

(photo courtesy of @paddle365)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a special place in northern Minnesota—the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. It’s a bucket list destination for thousands of canoeists and wilderness campers each year.

With the Covid pandemic of 2020, the BWCAW saw much more use than it ever had—like most outdoor destinations. And with it came many questions. @boundarywaters_minnesota posted a bunch of these over the past few months and asked its followers to comment.

We’ve collected a few of the most common questions along with some of the recommendations given by the others. We also added a few comments ourselves, as well as links you’ll find helpful:

Are kayaks legal to use in the BWCA?

Yes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are legal. As long as a boat is non-motorized, it’s OK (only a handful of lakes allow small motors). The real question, though, is: Is it practical?

As @c_b0417 said, both kayaks and SUPs are “ungainly and heavy to portage.” Canoes are made for carrying loads of gear and for one-person portaging. So canoes are the standard boat-of-choice in the BWCAW.

However, @stoneharborwild pointed out that Grey Duck has come out with the Quetico SUP and portaging kit which is designed for wilderness tripping.

There are a couple other options if you want to try your kayak or SUP:
Plan a trip with no portages or just a couple of short portages.
Use them for day trips instead of overnights.

Keep in mind there’s a boat limit per party. If each person in your group uses his or her own boat, you’re limited to four people. If you use canoes you can have up to nine people in your group.

bwca campsite

(photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

What’s a good beginner route?

In a wilderness area of over a million acres and 2,000 lakes, it’s hard to narrow it down to a best beginner route or two.

We recommend you rent your canoes and gear through a BWCAW outfitter. They’ll have route suggestions for you for any number of days and experience levels from their launch. You can also check out bwca.com, a private website that has a ton of helpful information about routes and more.

Some things to look for when considering a beginning route are:

  • A limited number of short portages
  • Smaller lakes, especially if it’ll be windy while you’re out
  • A route with plenty of campsites so you have several options
  • Don’t get too far into the wilderness in case of emergency
  • Consider picking a campsite as a basecamp and doing day trips from there

Will I have trouble getting a permit?

That depends on a few things:

  • The season you want to go (summer and fall weekends are the busiest)
  • Whether you’re flexible with your dates and entry point
  • How far ahead of time you’re able to get your permit

Get your BWCAW permit through recreation.gov.

canoeing the boundary waters

(photo courtesy of Nate Ptacek)

Do you need to be an expert to camp and canoe in the Boundary Waters?

Not necessarily—but you need to either go with experienced folks or learn all you can before you go. This is real wilderness. If things go wrong, they can go very wrong…from weather to animals to accidents.

Don’t even think about heading into the Boundary Waters without the appropriate map. Portages aren’t marked and there aren’t any “You are Here” signs.

You’ll probably have more fun if you have some tent camping and canoeing experience before you go, honestly. Or, again, go with people who have that experience and learn from them while you’re out.

How many people can we have in our party?

There can be up to nine people and/or four boats in your party (that includes at campsites and portages).

How do we dispose of our fish remains properly?

@c_b0417 said: NEVER at your campsite. Bears aren’t the only issue…other smaller predators can wreck your trip. Dispose of remains away from the water and away from your campsite, preferably under some “detritus” (organic material…leaves, pine needles, etc.).

By the way, all trash you have must be packed out with you. It’s illegal to burn trash at your campsite in the Boundary Waters, or put it in the latrines.

What’s the best way to rent canoes for a BWCA trip?

There are dozens of great outfitters for Boundary Waters canoe trips. We’ll send you to bwca.com for their list here. Many of them offer guide services, too, which is a wise idea if this is your first trip.

You can either rent from the closest outfitter to your entry point, or plan your entry point according to which outfitter you rent from.

Best gear item you may not have thought about?

There were some great answers from @boundarywaters_minnesota’s followers:

  • Book or deck of cards for rainy days
  • Credit card size food scraper to make cleaning your dishes easier
  • Comfortable pillow for a great night’s sleep
  • Tarp so you’re not stuck in your tent in the rain
  • Don't pack water…bring a high-quality water filter (you’re surrounded by water!)
  • Always, always have rain gear
  • Waterproof everything (pack in dry bags or trash bag; keep things dry, especially in colder weather)
  • Bring “dry” shoes/sandals for camp
  • Packable camp or stadium chair for a little extra luxury
  • Be sure to bring toilet paper—you won’t find any out there

fall boundary waters canoe trip

(photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

What’s the best time of year for a canoe trip?

There’s a wide variety of opinion here. It depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. Some love early June, some late August, others fall, some mid-summer.

The weather is very “active” in the Boundary Waters. Snow can fall any month of the year, and isn’t uncommon in May or October. You could go in July and have 50º days or in October and have 70º days.

Bugs are generally the worst from late June through July, although they’ll be around all summer. Nights generally start to cool off by mid-August. For swimming, summer is usually best. If you want to see fewer people, go early in the season or after mid-September. It’s busy all summer long, but once school starts it’s usually less so, especially mid-week.

Are there cabins to rent by the BWCAW?

Absolutely. Many of the local outfitters and lodges have cabins. Some are luxury cabins and others are rustic. Many of them will have canoes you can rent for day trips to get a taste of the BWCAW without fully committing to a canoe trip.

How about families with young children?

As with bringing young children into any wilderness area, it’s certainly possible—but you’ll need to keep many things in mind to make it a good and safe experience for all of you.

Our friends at We Found Adventure wrote a thorough article for us on BWCA Canoe Trip Success with a Toddler. They have another article on their own website about what NOT to do on a canoe trip with kids. You can read that here.

family canoe trip

(photo courtesy of We Found Adventure)

Let us know if you have other Boundary Waters questions!

Do you need help finding a canoe paddle to take you into the Boundary Waters? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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