Canoe the Boundary Waters: Explore Minnesota’s Wilderness Wonderland

Portaging canoe, Basswood River, flows out of Basswood Lake into Crooked Lake // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Portaging canoe, Basswood River, flows out of Basswood Lake into Crooked Lake // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

What to Bring

You may have now figured out that there are two ways to get around the Boundary Waters: by canoe and by foot. Thanks to the Wilderness Act, no motorized vehicles are allowed in the BWCA, with few exceptions. It’s impossible to make a trip through the area without canoeing and without using the proper materials.

Once you have your trip charted out, you’ll need to get your gear. But first write down your plan, including dates and times of where you’ll be, and where and when you’ll start and finish. Leave these with three people who don’t know each other, and give them all each other’s contact information.

The most important thing you need to go through the BWCA is a permit. No entry is allowed into the area without a permit, and they book up pretty quickly. You need to plan ahead, especially for holiday weekends. If you’re going through an outfitter, they’ll generally take care of this for you. If you’re going by yourself, you can get them through an outfitter or by visiting If you don’t get a permit, you’re going to get into trouble. This can make or break your trip.

Next, you’ll also need a canoe and paddles. I wouldn’t recommend going alone your first time either, so you’ll need a buddy. If you’ve never been to the BWCA or on an extended canoe trip, I would recommend you get an aluminum canoe. They’re essentially indestructible, and easy to control. A drawback is that they’re heavier than their Kevlar counterparts. If you get a Kevlar canoe, know that they’re very susceptible to wind and harder to steer. They’re incredibly lightweight and thus easy to navigate quickly, but they need a trained paddler at the stern to keep on track.

Another crucial piece of gear that every seasoned paddler swears by is his or her Duluth Pack. Traditional frame packs don’t give you the proper balance and versatility needed for balancing a canoe on your shoulders, and they also typically lack the volume. Trust me. A well-packed Duluth Pack will keep your gear safe and dry at the bottom of a lake. Can you say the same for your backpack?

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Many people bring dehydrated food, which will certainly fill you up but leave you wanting something more fulfilling. You can choose to pack sides, like dried fruit and vegetables, and supplement with edible plants, fish and crayfish you catch. Hunting is allowed in the BWCA with proper hunting permits**, but you can fish all you like and eat the legal limit of what you catch. No matter which trip you take, you might want to bring steak tips and tortillas for some enchanting first-night tacos. There’s nothing like a belly full of protein to gear you up for the days ahead. For the rest of the nights, bacon and eggs are a good standby.

Keep in mind that you must pack out what you pack in— there are no garbage cans in the BWCA. Burning your inorganic trash like wrappers, containers, and plastic bags is one of the worst, most offensive things you can do. If you pack it in, you pack it out. Wrappers, broken pieces, and all.

Additionally, you’ll need:

•          Paper maps (NOT GPS)

•          Compass

•          Knowledge of how to use a map and a compass

•          Pocket knife for eating and for cutting

•          Camp axe

•          Waterproof matches or a flint

•          Food

•          Stove or grill for campfire use

•          Pots

•          Water bottles

•          Water filter

•          Tent

•          Rope

•          Bear bag or bear barrel

•          Sleeping bag

•          Jacket (even if you go in summer—the Northwoods get chilly at night)

•          Sleeping bag

•          Clothes for layering (No cotton!)

Layering is crucial, especially for a winter trip. Cotton is your enemy. Wear synthetic or wool!

Any trip to the BWCA is guaranteed to be an adventure. The Boundary Waters is one of the most unique places on Earth. With a small amount of preparation and simple planning, you’ll have the adventure of a lifetime. Then, when you meet another Minnesotan, you too will be able to swap war stories about the magical wilderness to the north.


* It was originally published that Dorothy Molter was the only person to live in the BWCA. Benny Ambrose also lived in the BWCA.

** It was originally published that hunting is not allowed in the BWCA. While there are few hunting seasons during the spring and summer seasons when this issue came out, hunting is allowed in the BWCA with proper permits.

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