How To Boundary Waters: Minnesota’s favorite outdoor playground is open to all—with a bit of planning

Canoeing across a fog covered lake // Photo by Hansi Johnson

There are few outdoor pleasures more classically Minnesotan than mounting an expedition to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and spending a few days on the lakes and under the stars. For all of its charms—outdoor beauty, campfire camaraderie, and the sweet, sweet “general lack of other people” key among them—it can be tough to get a trip going, particularly if you haven’t done it before.

Visiting the BWCA is not exactly like climbing Nanga Parbat (and thank God for that), but it’s a hell of a lot harder than car camping. You’ll generally be in the wilderness for at least three or four days, and help will not be a quick phone call or car ride away should something go wrong, so this isn’t a trip you can improvise.

It is, however, a trip you can plan for, and once you lock down the key variables, it tends to come together pretty quickly.

The first tip is an obvious one: If you’ve never been before and you have the money, consider hiring a guide. 

“If you go on a four-day trip and take a guide, you’re going to learn everything you need to know for the rest of your life,” says Steve Piragis. Piragis runs the Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, and has been getting out on the waters of Northern Minnesota since 1975. “I always recommend that to people if they can afford it. Some people say: ‘Eh, we’ll be okay,’ and you will be okay! But you might learn the hard way a few times, like we did when we were kids.”

If you can’t hire a guide, that’s okay—think through your variables and create a plan. That starts with getting a permit.

BWCA // Photo by Abraham Opoti

Permit (“When”)

Access to the Boundary Waters starts with your permit, which is available online for $16 per person plus a $6 reservation fee. From May 1 through the end of September, a pre-reserved quota permit is a must, so don’t skip this step. Your permit determines how many people will be in your group, the dates you’ll be able to enjoy the BWCA, and the entry point you’ll use to access the Boundary Waters. (From October 1 through the end of April, self-issued permits are sufficient to enter.)

Most people hit the BWCA in the middle of the summer—it’s easy to get out of work and/or school, it’s warm and swimmable, and it’s easy to do hammock sleeping and late-night campfire sessions without getting too cold. The downsides include the possibility of black flies (a scourge of biblical proportions that will seriously cramp your style), mosquitos, and full-to-capacity campsites that may have you racing to find a place to stay.

“June is always the worst [for bugs],” says Piragis. “But if you do go in June there are advantages to it. The flowers are in bloom, the birds are singing—it’s one of my favorite seasons for sure. You just pick a campsite that’s on a point in the wind, so the bugs blow away. Or you bring a bug tarp—as long as you’re not going to portage too far; it’s an extra six pounds. You can sit inside and be as comfortable as anywhere.”

The shoulder seasons (late spring and early fall) tend to be less crowded, less buggy (depending on black fly activity, of course), and colder, which can make for better sleep and more earnestly appreciated campfires. 

Winter BWCA trips are their own deal, which we won’t even get into here; the gear and approach is specialized and different, and they are certainly another click or two more difficult than spring, fall, and summer expeditions. But those who have gone speak in glowing terms about the appeal of the wilderness when the snow is thick on the ground and the lakes are frozen.

Falls near Seagull Lake in the BWCA // Photo by Abraham Opoti

Route (“Where”)

Your route into the Boundary Waters starts with your permit’s entry point and ranges from there. “All of the entry points are a little different,” says Piragis. “If you try to get a permit in mid-season, for July 28 or something, you might not have many choices. One of those choices might be Angleworm, which is a 2.25-mile portage into the lake. So you don’t want to do that. […] You might not want to go to Hog Creek in the middle of August, because it might be dried up!”

While your entry point is based on your permit, your route doesn’t have to be set in stone and circumstances (weather, exhaustion, a giddy excess of ambition) might well cause you to take fewer portages or migrate camp more than you’d originally planned. But one of the basic choices you’ll make is between a “base camp” trip, where you occupy one site for all or the majority of your trip and range out from there, to a fast-moving, intense portaging trip to cover as much ground as possible. 

“I really appreciate base-camp trips,” says Piragis. “We’ll go two or three portages, find a great campsite, set up the gear and tents, and just stay there and do day trips. Then you don’t have to carry the stuff on the portages. You just go for a five-hour day trip—go for a swim, go fishing, do all those things that are fun without having to portage, portage, portage every day. Other people wouldn’t consider that a canoe trip, but I do. Especially the older I get!”

Regardless of route, maps and a compass are a must. Piragis suggests one navigator per two-person canoe, and never splitting up while searching for a campsite: “On a big lake with a lot of islands, it’s like, what happened to them?”

Enjoying a sunset among friends after a day of canoeing and portages // Photo by Abraham Opoti

Packing & Provisioning (“What”)

As with any trip, packing is key. Overpack, and you’re hauling extra weight. Forget something vital, and there aren’t many wilderness shopping options to cover your needs. A checked and double-checked packing list is key.

It’s useful to have everyone in your group share a Google Doc (or other such document) where you can virtually list and pool your gear. This will help you eliminate redundancies (big folding camp stoves, for example, are heavy to bring and you don’t want to lug more than one, if that) and find weak spots (for example, if no one has a water purifier or there are only tent spaces for six people and you’ve got a group of eight).

Shelter: Tents are obviously the mainstay for a trip into the BWCA, but they don’t have to be the only choice—you can also sleep in options like bivy sacks or camping hammocks. 

When it comes to tents, it’s worth noting that their official sleeping capacity tends to be optimistic, unless everyone is really good friends. I treat my “four-person” tent like a two- to three-person shelter, and it’s either spacious or cozy, respectively. Filled with four people, it would be a sardine tin. When in doubt, camp in your backyard for an evening and get a sense of the space and your comfort level—better to know the limitations in advance than in the middle of a five-day trip.

Clothing: Dave Freeman and his wife Amy spent a full year in the Boundary Waters to protest sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the BWCA in 2015-16, so we figured he’d have a good sense of what to wear. We reached him by email, as he and Amy are currently on a long sailing trip around the Caribbean. 

Dave writes: “In the summer I typically bring a swimsuit, a pair of quick-dry light-weight pants, a quick-dry long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, two pairs of medium-weight wool socks, a wide-brim hat, a couple pairs of underwear, a rain jacket and rain pants, light-weight long underwear top and bottom (wool or synthetic), sun screen, bug repellent, and a small amount of personal hygiene items.” 

He adds:

“I often also bring a light-weight fleece jacket, down sweater, or some other warm item even in the middle of the summer because it can be cool in the mornings, or sitting around camp in the wind and rain it can feel cool even in August. I am almost always wearing my light-weight long pants and long-sleeve shirt. These provide sun and bug protection and on hot, sunny days you can swim with your clothes on, which helps keep them clean and will help keep you cool as your clothes slowly dry after you swim.”

Consider your footwear, too. Some travelers swear by rugged sandals (like Keens) that can go into and out of water easily, but others deride that choice as podiatric suicide and recommend much more robust (and closed-toed) hiking shoes or boots. When in doubt, ask an outfitter.

Provisions: Whether you’re packing in ingredients and executing recipes or just eating pre-packaged trail food, spices, hot sauces, and other seasonings don’t weigh much and are key to making your camp food pop. We often bring a frozen slab of bacon to power our breakfasts and punch up stews and soups, and a bunch of onions and eggs. Your priorities may vary. Regardless of what you bring, be mindful of black bears, which can be pervasive on heavily camped parts of the Boundary Waters. Some campers hang bear bags; others stash carefully sealed food out in the woods away from camp, or under a canoe topped with noisy pots and pans.

Utility items: Among other things, knives, first aid kits (and the know-how to render first aid effectively), headlamps, axes, camp lanterns, matches, and—can’t overstate this one—a roll or two of toilet paper are all crucial must-brings. If you’re fishing, a whole host of additional items come into play—and don’t forget to bring the gear and knowledge to clean and cook your catch (plus a working knowledge of Minnesota fishing regulations).

Dave Freeman adds: “Most people bring too much clothing and too many random personal items. Consider sharing things like toothpaste. Go for a swim each day to stay clean and leave soap, shampoo, etc. at home; you shouldn’t use soap in or anywhere near the lake, so it’s best not to bring it. A shower at the end will feel that much better.”

One thing not to forget: a camp chair (although canoe chairs can work in a pinch). “Helinox is one brand that makes comfortable, compact chairs that only weigh 1 or 2 pounds and I always bring one now because I love the added back support that a rock or log just doesn’t provide,” writes Freeman.

BWCA // Photo by Abraham Opoti

Outfitting (“How”)

One-, two-, and even three-person canoes are options in the BWCA, as are kayaks and even stand-up paddle boards. If you own your own watercraft, problem solved; if no, going through a convenient outfitter is your solution. Outfitters can provide the boats, the personal flotation devices, the canoe chairs, and the paddles you need to get rolling. 

You can even expand that relationship beyond watercraft to cover other needs, up to and including food. “Most outfitters will also pack your food for you as part of an outfitting package. This is often referred to as complete outfitting,” writes Freeman. “This makes it really easy because all you have to do is show up for a short orientation and they will have all of the food and equipment packed and ready for you. The best part is when you are finished with your trip you hand all of the packs, tents, sleeping bags, canoes, etc. back to the outfitter, take a hot shower, and head home. Since the outfitter is responsible for cleaning, drying, and organizing all their equipment, it makes life a lot easier.” 

Finally: Many visitors to the BWCA bring weather radios to stay informed of potentially dangerous conditions. And if you’re truly nervous about a trip into the BWCA or have older travelers and/or kids coming along for the voyage, consider bringing a SPOT satellite communicator. “They’re fairly expensive, but you can send and receive text messages, and there’s an emergency sequence of buttons you can push and a helicopter will come and rescue you,” says Piragis. “But don’t do it arbitrarily, just because you’re lost.”