Books, Videos, and Movies

New National Geographic Maps Cover the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

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.

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  • A fantastic review. I want some maps too! What you describe seems almost too good to be true :)

  • They are a dream come true! I think the other map companies are going to take a big hit over this one. Hopefully, one can respond quickly with their own and better version.

  • I like your comparison of accuracy of rods on maps. It is so true that it can be a surprise. I know you have waited a long time for this. I am glad they have made these maps and hope you can use them soon!

  • A very useful review. I hope to get up there some day soon as well.

  • […] than I originally wanted–a navigation mistake made while adjusting to the scale of the new National Geographic Boundary Waters maps. We made our way across the portage. I carried the canoe and one paddle. Ilena carried our only […]

  • The maps are nice and with just one per West or East BWCAW area, it is handy. I’d use them for an overall map but I still need the details of the Fisher & McKenzie maps. I outfit people & know that they really do need the extra details and size of them.

  • Hi, Lynn,

    I used them all summer and didn’t find any issues as far as details. Some paddlers may want different details than the Trails Illustrated BWCA maps show, like lake contour lines, but as far as navigation the detail is fine enough.

  • I should have made myself more clear, I mean larger details for the lakes etcetera.

  • […] 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 […]

  • Do either Voyageur Maps or Trails Illustrated cover Quetico??

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