How to Plan a Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (for Beginners)

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Minnesota’s Best Kept Secret

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota is an oasis of more than one million acres of untouched, beautifully preserved lakes and trees. It’s home to more than fifty species including black bears, otters, bald eagles, wolves, walleye, pike, loons, bobcats, and more. No motorized boats are allowed, making it a quiet place where adventure seekers travel by canoeing, and portaging. It’s certainly unlike any place I’ve ever been, and I already can’t wait to go back. Read on for how to plan an amazing trip, find an outfitter, determine the best entry point and get a permit, what to pack (and what to leave behind), and more for your trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

1. Working with Tuscarora Outfitters

An outfitter can make your experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area stress-free, whether you’re a beginner or have been many times. For our trip, I partnered with Tuscarora Canoe Outfitters. Co-owners, and husband and wife, Andy and Ada, helped us with our trip in several essential ways.

Tuscarora Outfitters obtained our permit and recommended the best locations for an entry point, campsites with sunset views, and best routes for fishing, and provided general advice on where to go (or not go) based on current conditions. They also provided us with equipment. There are several options for rental packages with Tuscarora Outfitters. The information on their website lists out exactly what is included in the equipment package and the food package. You can also rent individual items each day, like a tent, saw, or stove.

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

2. What to Pack (and What to Leave Behind)

We had a group of four people with a variety of skills and experience. We partnered with Tuscarora Outfitters for their Equipment and Canoe Package for two people, which includes a canoe, lake-safe dish soap, plates, cups, utensils, a water filter, life jackets, a tent, sleeping bags, chairs, a percolator, water bottles, and more.  We also brought a few of our own items like a second canoe, sharp knives, fishing rods, and bait, and other miscellaneous items like headlamps, and hammocks.

It’s important to not overpack. You’ll be canoeing and portaging with a lot of bags, which can quickly weigh you down. Make sure you really consider what you need, don’t overpack equipment, food, or clothing, and be sure you know what other people in your group are bringing to eliminate duplicates.

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

3. Meal Planning

Figuring out what food to bring, especially during summer’s heat, can be tricky. Glass and cans are not allowed, and there is no easy way to keep things cold after the first day, beyond keeping items in the shade. A few tips include bringing pre-cooked rice and beans in plastic packets, hard cheese and summer sausage that won’t spoil easily (if left in the shade), bagels or English muffins, precooked bacon, and sausage that only needs to be reheated, and peanut butter and jelly in plastic jars.

For our first dinner, we had a chicken curry dish with rice, pita bread, and green beans. The raw chicken breast was sliced into small bite-sized pieces prior to our trip, so it cooked quickly and easily and didn’t require much clean-up. We also made bean and rice tacos (we hoped to make fish tacos but unfortunately didn’t catch any fish that day). You’ll also want to bring a lot of snacks, like nuts, granola bars, and peanut butter, all items that are easy to munch on, won’t melt, and can be a good backup plan while you’re out canoeing and portaging all day.

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

4. What to do in the BWCA

There is so much to do in BWCA, no matter the season. You can spend a whole day canoeing and portaging from one lake to another. You can also fish from your campsite or from your canoe (or ice fish in the winter). Jump in the lake and swim, swing around on a hammock, or read a book by the campfire. There isn’t a lot of hiking in the BWCA since it’s mostly tiny islands, but we did check out the Palisades, which is a five-minute steep walk up to the top of an overlook with an incredible view. You definitely won’t be bored!

What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

5. Other Tips and Advice

Planning a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area can be intimidating. It requires extensive research and planning. I highly recommend you go with someone who’s been before if it’s your first time. Read on for a few other helpful tips.

  • Get your permit early: There is a limited number of permits allowed in the BWCA each day, and the size of your group is also limited. Plan your trip in advance and secure your permit early.
  • Be bear aware: Understand that you may encounter wildlife during your trip. Be smart and prepared. Bring bear spray and bear-proof food packs. Make sure you know what to do if you encounter a bear or other predator during your trip.
  • Bring waterproof maps and a compass: You won’t have reliable cell service so download maps ahead of time for offline use on Google Maps or Navionics. And in case your battery dies, bring paper maps in waterproof cases, and definitely bring a compass!
  • Leave no trace: Be respectful of the land, water, and animals around you. Don’t dump dirty dishwater into the lake, take all of your garbage with you and if you see any trash while there, take it out of the BWCA with you.
  • Get ready for bugs: If you go during summer, there will be mosquitos and lots of other bugs! Bring bug spray, and a mosquito net, and check for ticks.
  • Prepare for the elements: You never know what the weather may be and how it may change throughout the day while you are far from camp. Pack layers, waterproof gear, dry bags for cameras, and other expensive equipment. Pack sunglasses, sunscreen, and a few extra socks in case they get wet.
  • Have an emergency plan: In case of an emergency, whether it’s a storm or an injury, have a plan on what you’ll do to get help. Know where the nearest hospital is, bring a first aid kit, and let a few family members or friends know where you’re headed.

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What to know about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

An Incredible Trip

This experience was incredible. Being in nature is always wonderful, but being in such a remote, pristine and seemingly untouched landscape is simply awe-inspiring. While on our trip, I kept thinking about the John Muir quote, “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” There is no doubt that I want to return to the BWCA, and I hope it’s soon!

For more Northern Minnesota inspiration, check out my blog posts on Duluth, Grand Marais, Cook County, 9 Epic State Parks Along the North Shore, and the 20 Must-See Spots Along the North Shore!

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