New to the Boundary Waters? Here’s What You Need to Know

boundary waters canoe trip

If you’re new to canoe tripping in the Boundary Waters, here’s an overview of some important keys you need to know as you plan your trip.

One of the reasons for writing this post is this: 2020 was unprecedented in so many ways, with Covid-19 being a major player. It brought more people into the Boundary Waters than ever before. That’s wonderful!

Unfortunately, many of those new people were uneducated about wilderness camping in general, and about the Boundary Waters in particular. The ranger stations, where that education has always taken place, were closed due to Covid. That caused a couple issues that ended up negatively affected lots of other BWCA travelers.

The Boundary Waters is a very special place. A million acres of lakes, rivers, forest and wetlands set aside for canoeing and backcountry camping. It’s home to a vast array of animal and plant life. We want to keep it protected, pristine and safe for all of us!

Know Your Limits

Here are some questions you and your group need to ask:

  • How many experienced canoeists are in the group?
  • What kind of physical condition is each member in?
  • How many in your group are experienced in backcountry camping?
  • Do we have the right gear?
  • How will we decide on a route that’s best for our experience level and timeframe?

If most or all of your group are BWCA first-timers with limited wilderness experience, start with a short route, short portages and smaller lakes, and go in a location with lots of campsites to choose from.

Click here for an overview on what to expect on a Boundary Waters canoe trip.

canoeing in the boundary waters canoe area wilderness

The Boundary Waters is a wonderful but wild place. Be prepared!

Prepare for Emergencies

The Boundary Waters is wilderness. You need to understand that. You can’t call Uber or 911. If you canoed out, you have to canoe back. Emergencies can and do happen. Be sure you’re prepared.

Have a well-stocked First Aid kit. Have the correct map and understand how to read it. (There are a couple different map publishers: Fisher Maps and McKenzie Maps) Talk about what you’ll do if a lightning storm comes. What if someone injures him or herself and can’t paddle anymore? What will you do if a bear walks into your campsite?  

Items You Can’t Bring With you

There are several items you’re not allowed to bring into the Boundary Waters with you. These include:

  • Glass and metal food and storage containers (including beverage cans). The only metal containers allowed are things like bug spray cans, bear spray cans, propane cylinders and cook kits.
  • Drones and other mechanized items
  • Fireworks

The Boundary Waters is in Bear Country

The summer of 2020 saw several BWCA campsites closed and food storage restrictions enforced with a $5,000 fine due to human/bear confrontations. Since that’s unprecedented, we can conclude there was improperly used, prepared and stored food in those areas by visitors who didn’t know better.

It’s crucial for both other BWCA visitors and for the bears that you always keep a clean campsite, and that you prepare, clean up and store all food and utensils in bear-safe ways.

When bears become used to getting food from humans, they lose their fear of humans, and eventually will either cause injury or have to be destroyed. So please follow bear guidelines to keep both people and the bears safe.

keep a clean bwca camp

Keep a clean camp so you don’t attract bears

Know the Wildfire Risk & Campfire Guidelines

50% of the wildfires in the BWCAW are caused by escaped campfires. Wildfires burn thousands of acres and cost millions of dollars to extinguish. We don’t want to be the cause of that!

All Boundary Waters visitors need to know the current wildfire risk and follow all restrictions: size and placement of campfires, how to extinguish them, if they’re even allowed during your trip. Know how to put out your campfire thoroughly.

It’s always a good idea to bring along a backpacking stove to cook with. Even if campfires are allowed, you may not be able to find enough dry wood to make one. And never cut live trees for fuel. Not only does it damage the trees, it won’t burn well anyway.

Practice Leave No Trace Ethics

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics lists these 7 principles so our wilderness areas can be enjoyed for generations to come. Click here for the 7 principles.

For the Boundary Waters specifically, the most important are: Only camp in designated campsites, keep your campfires small and under the grate, and pack out all garbage and extra food. Also, only use designated pit toilets (there’s one at every campsite), or dig a hole and bury all waste and TP well away from any water.

pristine boundary waters

It takes all of us to keep the Boundary Waters pristine

For More Details

Boundary Waters Trip Planning Guide from the USDA is a downloadable PDF you should read and send to every member of your group. It’s packed full of all you need to know when planning your trip.

When you reserve your permit, you’ll be asked to watch these BWCA Permit Videos. Please watch them! And send the link to the other members of your group and ask them to watch, too.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a magnificent wilderness destination. Let’s all partner together to keep it that way!

(photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

What paddle questions can we help you with? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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