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Boundary Waters (BWCA) Primer

Canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota protects 1.09 million acres of Boreal forest and lakes under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the 1978 BWCA Act. The U.S. set aside the area to provide a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It is one of two protected canoe areas in the U.S. The other one, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System, is in Alaska. A typical BWCA experience takes a visitor across lakes and the portage trails connecting them into an unspoiled forest. Because most the area’s 1,000 lakes and over 2,200 backcountry campsites are only accessible by water, the best way to reach them is by canoe camping. Consider this primer as a beginner’s guide to the BWCA.


“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” – The Wilderness Act of 1964


How to Go to the BWCA

Canoe and sunset in canoe country.Before you go to the BWCA, there are four essential things to know:

  1. The area is vast. It stretches almost 150 miles from Voyageurs National Park in the west almost to Lake Superior in the east. It has over 1,200 miles of canoe trails. You’re not going to see it all on one trip, so you need to pick an area. Most people divide it into the eastern side served by Grand Marais, Tofte and the Gunflint Trail and the western side served by Ely.
  2. You must enter at a designated Entry Point. Because the area is so vast, the U.S. Forest Service, the agency in charge, divides it up into Entry Points. Each entry point has a number designation. For example, the Sawbill Lake Entry point is number 38. From May 1 to September 30, a quota system regulates how many overnight parties per day may enter from a single entry point. At Sawbill Lake the quota is 14. Maximum party size is nine people and four canoes.
  3. You need a permit. For day use only, you can fill out a free permit at the entry point — there is no quota for day use, but maximum party size applies. For overnight use from May 1 and September 30, you must get a paid permit at an issuing station, such as a Boundary Waters outfitter or an U.S. Forest Service station. For overnight use from October 1 to April 30, you can fill out a free permit at the entry point. As of 2011, permits ran $16 for adults and $8 for youth 17 and under. When you pick up your permit, you must watch a “how to” film about the BWCA. Note: You must register your canoe in your home state or Minnesota.
  4. Reserve permits ahead of time if desired. If you know you want to enter the BWCA at a specific entry point on a specific day, it’s best to reserve that permit. A $12 non-refundable registration fee to ReserveAmerica — a private company doing the work that government should be doing and making a significant profit from it — lets you reserve your permit before you go. If you’re flexible, then you don’ t need a reservation at all. I never make a reservation. Instead, I show up at a U.S. Forest Service office and grab something that’s available close to where I want to paddle. If you make a reservation, you must choose where you will pick it up, and you must pick it up from that place.

Entry Point Towns

Northern Lights over the Boundary Waters.The two main Boundary Water towns are Ely and Grand Marais. Ely is the more popular of the two for entering the wilderness, but Grand Marais, because it’s on Lake Superior’s shore, is more beautiful. Both are big summer tourist destinations. Ely serves the western side, and Grand Marais serves the eastern side. Beside serving different sides, they serve different geographies. The eastern side of the BWCA is more mountainous than the western side. I’ve paddled all over both sides and traversed the entire border, and to me, the eastern side is more beautiful than the western.

Boundary Water Routes

With over 1,200 miles of water trails and 160 miles of portages within the wilderness, you might think it be easy to find a good route, but because of the way the lakes and portages are arranged, it’s hard to find exactly what you’re looking for. Luckily, several books show a number of good routes based on difficult and length. My two favorite are Robert Beymer’s guides:

In each volume, he covers multiple routes leaving each entry point. For each route, he covers day-by-day paddling distances, portage tips and difficulty ratings. He gives an overview and adds in some historical information as well. There isn’t a better resource available for route planing, so if you plan on making a trip, pick up one of these books. It will keep you busy through the cold winter months and provide hours of day dreaming. Experienced wilderness trippers should consider all the routes one step of difficultly less than shown.

If you like planning trips with the maps pulled out in front of you, then you’ll probably find it easy to plan a trip.


Four companies produce maps specific to the Boundary Waters: Fisher Maps, McKenzie Maps, Voyager Maps and National Geographic Trails Illustrated. I’ve used maps from every company except Fisher. The Voyager Maps and the Trails Illustrated are the most compact and typically what I gravitate to. Since National Geographic released its maps for the area, they’re the only ones I use. I like them because they’re compact, waterproof, tearproof and you only need two maps to cover the entire BWCA. The scale is smaller, so you get less detail, but it’s plenty for navigating. If you need lake depth contours, then Voyageur and McKenzie Maps are the way to go, but you’ll need more of them. Voyageur Maps covers the area in 10, and McKenzie does it in 25. Fisher covers the area in 32 maps. Even if you decide you need more detail, the Trails Illustrated maps are great for planning a route. You can usually pick them up on sale on Amazon for $9 or $10 each.

Boundary Waters Outfitters

Start of a Boundary Waters portage.There are many outfitters serving the BWCA, so if you don’t want to bring your own gear or if you don’t own gear, then they’re a great option. Among the largest and best are Piragis in Ely, Sawbill Outfitters in Tofte and Voyager Outfitters or Gunflint Northwood Outfitters on the Gunflint out of Grand Marais. (Are you an outfitter? Contact us to get added to this list.) These certainly aren’t the only ones; a quick Internet search turns up many more. Before you book with an outfitter, find out if they issue permits. If they do, list them on your permit. Also, find out what type of gear they use in their outfitting. You want something mid- to high-end, especially in tents, because you don’t want to wake up to dripping in a rainstorm. Look over the food list to make sure you like what they offer. If not, look for a different outfitter or plan your own meals.

When renting a canoe, pay the extra for a light-weight Kevlar model, especially if the route has long or frequent portages. Because hoisting a heavy canoe onto your shoulders and carrying it across a long portage trail takes the umph out of a day. If you have a favorite canoe model, see if you can rent it. If you don’t, look for something 17 feet long, asymmetrical, stable and fast. Popular models and great ones to rent include Wenonah’s Minnesota 2, Bell’s Northwind and Souris River’s Quetico 17. Unless you’ve paddled before and know what you’re getting into, avoid anything labeled as a Prospector. Unless loaded heavily, they’re tippy and the high ends catch the wind.

What to Expect

Typical BWCA campsite.Everyone’s experience in the Boundary Waters is different, but a few things stay the same, such as what you’ll find at campsites and portages. The U.S. Forest Service maintains all the campsites in the BWCA, and each campsite has a grill and a privy. Other than the grill and privy, the campsites vary from large to small. Some offer great tent sites and others not so great. The most popular sites always have a wide rock landing out front, an elevated grill area with log benches all around, lots of flat areas for tents and towering pine trees surrounding it. Island campsites fill up quickly. During the summer, campsites fill up quickly, so it’s best to claim one before 3 p.m, which means if you want to crank out miles, you need to wake up early.

The portages are hiking trails that connect the lakes — some date back 100s of years. The U.S. Forest Service maintains all the portage trails, mainly by cutting away blow downs. None of the trails are marked with a sign, so make sure you’re good at navigation. To find a portage, aim off and look for an open area in the woods that’s been trampled down. Usually, you’ll find it. Occasionally, it takes time, especially if its your first trip. All the maps show portages in rods, which is 16.5 feet.

Keep in mind trail etiquette when traveling across the portages. Follow these rules and you’ll do fine:

  1. Don’t block the trail with gear, bodies and canoes. Set your gear to the side of the portage and away from the water. This also means that you shouldn’t take a break or eat lunch on the portage. Find an empty campsite for that.
  2. The person going uphill on a portage has the right-of-way. If you’re going down, step out of the way.
  3. The person carrying a canoe has the right-of-way. Step to the side and let him pass.
  4. Be friendly and courteous.

Many first time visitors don’t know how many miles that they can paddle in a day. While this varies, 10 to 12 miles works for most groups. While most paddlers travel at 3 mph, the portages, especially if you take a lot of gear, take lots of time. When I go, I carry light gear, so I can carry everything across in one go. If you carry lots of stuff, you might need to take multiple trips — a 100-rod portage suddenly becomes almost a full mile.

Wildlife and Bears in the Boundary Waters

Because the Boundary Waters is wilderness, there’s a good chance for a wildlife encounter. The most common encounters include bald eagles, water fowl, loons, otters, mink and beavers. If you see a moose, a bear or wolves count yourself lucky. Overall, the BWCA is home to over 350 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians; 50 species of fish; and thousands of species of invertebrates, plants, lichens, fungi and other organisms.

Perhaps the mammal that causes the biggest concern is the bear, because they like human food and are curious animals. Hopefully, the one you see isn’t the one invading your camp. To help prevent bad bear encounters, the U.S. Forest Service requires you to protect your food, either with a bear barrel stored outside of camp or by bear bagging. Regardless of the method used, keep your campsite clean and pack everything into odor-proof plastic. The U.S. Forest Service describes bear bagging as follows:

Using a rope, suspend the food pack from a tree branch making sure it is at least 8 to 10 feet from the ground and at least 6 feet out from the trunk. The tree should be well away from your tent.

If a bear comes into your campsite, scare it away. Don’t panic. Be loud. Bang pots and pans. Shout. Don’t do anything that puts you at risk.

[warning box title=”Blue Olive Barrels”]

The blue barrels, such as the one used in Granite Gear’s Vapor Flatbed Barrel Harness and sold by many outfitters, are NOT bear barrels, and bears can get into them. For a bear canister consider something like the Bear Vault BV500 Bear Resistant Food Canister.

[/warning box]

Fishing in the Boundary Waters

To legally fish in the BWCA, you must possess a Minnesota fishing license, which you can buy at most gas stations and many outfitters. After you catch something, bury or scatter the remains far away from campsites, trails, portages and
shorelines. It’s against the law to dump them in the lakes. As far as gear, bring the tackle that you’d use for bass, trout, walleye and pike. I’d suggest bringing a collapsible four-piece fishing rod or just a handline. My suggested strategy for fishing involves only fishing after you get to a campsite and keeping the pole packed away during the day. I do this, because carrying loose fishing gear across portages is a big hassle.

Packing Your Gear for the Boundary Waters

Many beginners pack their gear in a backpack and then wrap the pack in a garbage bag and throw it into the canoe. After the first portage, they realize that it’s hard to carry the pack and the garbage bag rips quickly. That’s not the way to keep your gear dry. What you want is a Duluth Pack, because it’s designed to fit nicely within the canoe and it’s easy to make waterproof. Check out this video on how to pack a Duluth Pack.

Boundary Waters Inspiration

If you need a reason or inspiration to come watch these videos:

The Boundary Waters from Alex Horner on Vimeo.

Boundary Waters Part 2 from Alex Horner on Vimeo.

Additional Boundary Waters Resources

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  • Great primer, Bryan. I’ve been going up to the Gunflint Trail for about 15 years, but have only portaged a handful of times since my in-laws have a cabin right off the Trail. It can be a lot of work depending on the terrain, but well worth it. I plan to do a lot more portaging in the coming years.

  • You should. The further away from the entry points, the better it gets.

  • […] Because the hiking trail enters the Boundary Waters, you need a permit. Get a free day permit at permit station in the parking lot. For overnight […]

  • […] If you’ve never been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, check out my Boundary Waters Primer. […]

  • There is another protected canoe wilderness area in the U.S. The St. Regis Canoe Wilderness Area, located within the Adirondacks in New York. Even planes are re-routed to avoid flying overhead. Looking forward to taking a trip in the BWCA with my kayak.

    • Thanks for pointing that one out, Matt. The difference between the BWCA, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System and the St. Regis Canoe Area is that the former two are protected under the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964. The St. Regis Canoe Area is protected under New York state law and managed as wilderness.

  • […] The U.S. has two federally recognized Wilderness Canoe Areas. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System in Alaska. Vow to visit one in the next year if you haven’t gone before. Here’s a BWCA Primer. […]

  • Thanks Bryan, Good Stuff!

  • […] durable and lightweight canoes and kayaks, made accessing what was left of the wilderness easy. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) became the most used designated wilderness area in the U.S. Amy hands a portage pack to […]

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