There’s a new player in town for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness maps, and it’s National Geographic’s excellent Trails Illustrated Maps. The current players in the BWCA map field include McKenzie Maps, Fisher Maps, and Voyageur Maps. Each of the current vendors follows the philosophy that more detail is better. To cover the entire BWCA, they require 25, 32, or 10 maps, respectively. Trails Illustrated does it with 2!
Trails Illustrated Boundary Waters maps are printed on double-sided waterproof and tear resistant 27″ x 39″ paper. When folded, the maps reduce down in size to approximately 4 1/4″ x 9 1/4″. They weigh 3.3 ounces each. The scale of 1:70,000 (1” = 1.10 miles) provides more than enough detail to navigate and plan trips. Contour intervals equal 50 feet, so elevation is easy to discern. The colors are high contrast and easy to read. Campsites, portages, and portage lengths are shown. Like Voyageur Maps they include information that includes contact info for local regulator agencies, permit info, and BWCA regulations. They also include info on Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, Tread Lightly! info, watercraft horsepower restrictions for the few remaining lakes that motors are allowed on, and a nice conversion chart for rods. Missing are contour lines for lakes.
During a quick comparison between the Trails Illustrated maps, McKenzie and Voyageur Maps, I’ve noticed differences in portage lengths–almost no portage is listed as the same length, but the variation seems minor with most in the under 10 rods difference. Some are alarmingly different. For example, Voyageur Map 6 and McKenzie Maps #6 show the portage from Sea Gull Lake into J.A. Paulson Lake (JAP Lake) as 515 rods. On Trails Illustrated, it’s shown as 410 rods. A 105 rod difference equals just under 6 football fields. That’d be a huge surprise for unaware canoeists. An other example is the portage from Missing Link Lake to Tuscarora. Voyageur Maps shows it as 428 rods, McKenzie shows it as 366 rods, and Trails Illustrated shows it as 363 rods. For both portages, I have GPS data. The Sea Gull Lake to JAP comes in at 422 rods on the GPS, and for the Missing Link Lake to Tuscarora, my data comes in at 362 rods. You can find the data I have here: BWCA GPS Portages and Campsites. Your call on accuracy of the various maps. All the maps show campsites in similar locations–close enough to find them without issues.
What I like about the Trail Illustrated maps is the compact form and lightweight. On my longer trips into the BWCA, I’ve ended up carrying a ton of maps. Each night I like to look at the next day’s travels when using McKenzie Maps, I’ll often have to lay out multiple maps to see where I’m going the next day. Voyageur Maps ease the concern somewhat, and Trails Illustrated practically eliminates it. As an example, on one extended trip into the BWCA, I carried 16 different McKenzie Maps. For that trip, I would have carried 6 Voyageur Maps, and only 2 Trails Illustrated Maps. Looking at weights, a McKenzie weighs 2.6 ounces each. Voyageur Maps weigh 3.6 ounces each. Trails Illustrated weigh 3.3 ounces each. For that trip, in maps I carried 2.6 pounds of maps. With Voyageur Maps, I would have carried 1.35 pounds of maps. With Trails Illustrated Maps, I would have only carried 0.4 pounds of maps. The difference in weight alone is a significant Thermarest upgrade.
Then there’s the cost. A complete set of McKenzie Maps costs $165. A complete set of Voyageur Maps costs $99.50. In contrast, you’ll only pay $23.90 for Trails Illustrated Maps. The coverage is the same.
Over the years, I’ve asked via email the various Boundary Waters map makers to come up with a two map set that covers the BWCA entirely. It’s something that I’ve dreamt about for over 10 years. It’s nice to see that a company is willing to try it. I only wish it would have been one of the Minnesota companies that had tackled the project. From now on, when you see me in the Boundary Waters, you’ll see me using National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated BWCA maps.
Get yours here:
- Trails Illustrated (National Geographic) Map Of The BWCA – Eastern Half
- Trails Illustrated (National Geographic) Map Of The BWCA – Western Half