I go into nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.John Burroughs
A trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) had been on my bucket list since college. So you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to go with my best friend and her family this year. They had all been to the BWCA a few times, so I knew I was in good hands as a first-timer to this remote wilderness up north.
For my readers not from Minnesota or the Midwest, the BWCA helps make up what our state is known for – The land of 10,000 lakes. The wilderness area has over 1M acres within the Superior National Forest and contains 1,175 lakes varying in size from 10 to 10,000 acres. To get around, you use canoe routes and portage between lakes via hiking trails to get to your destination, which is typically a designated campsite on your favorite lake.
Essentially, it’s pretty hardcore camping. And I loved it!
When To Go to the Boundary Waters
Tip: Get your permits early to ensure you get a spot in the timeframe you are hoping for. Permits fill up fast each year.
The busiest time in the BWCA is between mid-July and early August. We were hoping for a fall trip, but when we finally confirmed our crew and dates that might work, the only permits available were for mid-July. We booked our camping permit in March, so I’d recommend looking at options in mid-January when they become available each year. You can get Boundary Water permits between May 1st and September 30th.
With our mid-July permits, I was nervous about a couple of things. The first being that we were going to get miserable heat. And the second was being miserable due to mosquitos (because of the heat). But in both cases, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. It’s much colder than you’d expect in the Boundary Waters in the summer, with nights getting down to the low 50s, so bring layers and a cold-weather sleeping bag (more on this in the next section).
The mosquitos were not as bad as I was expecting either. But we did a good job planning for them in that we found a campsite with an open tunnel for wind, wore long-sleeved clothing and pants, and used bug deterrents. During the day, it was usually fine, but starting at dusk, you’d get them in waves when the wind wasn’t blowing. The mosquitos are an expected annoyance, but if you plan well, it’s minimal.
Packing For Your BWCA Trip
I was super lucky for my first trip since I was going with a crew that had all been to the BWCA before. We even had my friend’s dad, who had been many times, as our guide, so I had a great packing list of things I needed to bring. He had a lot of camping supplies already, so for me, it was more about packing the right personal items for the trip. And I ended up with some great finds that I’ll link to below.
Here’s a great starter list of some supplies you’ll want to have. Check out this website for a complete list of gear you’ll need.
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- Canoes – Enough for your entire crew and all the supplies/packs you’ll need to bring in/out
- Life jackets
- Water-resistant packs to carry food/supplies
- Tarps (2-3)
- Garbage bags
- Sleeping bags (Amazon)
- Sleeping bag pad
- Camp pillow
- Camp towel (Amazon)
- Flashlights or lanterns
- Camp stove – We had a Coleman propane camp stove
- Lighters and matches
- Food and snacks – Sandwiches, burritos, camp food packs, potatoes, trail mix, dried fruit, jerky, etc.
- Cooler bag with ice – To keep any food that needs to be refrigerated
- Water bottles
- Water purifier
- Fishing supplies (optional) – You can pick up a fishing permit at gas stations or a rangers’ station.
If you don’t have all of these supplies, don’t worry! There are quite a few outfitters you can rent supplies from for your boundary waters trip. Here is a good list of outfitters near Tofte, Grand Marais, Ely, and the Gunflint Trail.
We were camping for three nights, and here are all the personal items that I brought.
- Day packs (L.L. Bean)
- Bug spray (Amazon)
- Bug bracelets (Amazon)
- Hat with netting or net hood (Amazon)
- Water-resistant pants (x1) (Amazon options 1 and 2)
- T-shirts (x2)
- Long-sleeved shirts (x1)
- Rain jacket (L.L. Bean)
- Crocs or Teva sandals
- Socks (x3)
- Underwear (x3)
- Water-resistant phone pack (Amazon)
- Water bottle (Amazon)
Where To Set Up Camp In BWCA
From there, decide how far your group wants to canoe and portage and map your route and camping options on a few different lakes. You want to mark a few options on your map because campsites are first come, first serve.
We loaded in a Brule Lake, the biggest lake in the BWCA. And after paddling for about 40 minutes (no wind), we got lucky and found a great campsite at the tip of one of the islands (Camp 967), so we decided to call that home. Our campsite had lake views on three sides, nice open spots for sunshine, a convenient shoreline to load canoes, a nice cross-breeze (great for keeping the bugs away), and it fit three tents nicely.
Since we didn’t have to do any portaging, we wanted to use one of our days to explore a few of the smaller, connecting lakes. Specifically, we wanted to check out Juno Lake or Vernon Lake. But on the day we had planned to do that, it rained off and on. We had small windows of nice weather and sunshine, but not enough where we felt comfortable traveling longer distances.
And even though it was a bummer that we couldn’t explore more, it was a nice down day that felt like a genuine camp experience with all of us huddled under a few tarps. We spent the day playing cards, cooking, and chatting about life while listening to the pitter-patter of rain.
Oh, we had a pretty epic rainbow show up for us too. Nature is pretty cool.
Since I didn’t get the whole Boundary Waters experience, I guess that means I have to back. But now with a little more experience than I had before. I hope my fellow newbies find this blog post helpful when figuring out when to go, what to expect, and what to pack for your first BWCA trip. Trust me. You are going to love it!
Let’s go places,
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What questions do you have? I’m not a Boundary Waters expert, but I can share more about what I learned and experienced on my trip.
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