The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is one of National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “50 Places of a Lifetime” to visit. It truly is the paddler and angler’s Disneyland. The BWCA is in Superior National Forest and stretches for about 100 miles along the US-Canada border.
With over 1,500 miles of canoe routes through more than 1,000 lakes, rivers, and streams, you will never run out of places to paddle, fish, camp, and explore. There are no roads or buildings, and most lakes don’t allow motorized boats. You leave civilization behind and enter thousands of acres of untouched, uninterrupted wilderness.
My husband and I spent our last two vacations kayaking, fishing, and camping in the BWCA. We had a great time and will probably return because we’ve just scratched the surface of all this beautiful area has to offer. Here are some things we’ve learned about planning a successful paddle camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The Best Time To Paddle The BWCA
The answer to the question, “When is the best time to paddle the BWCA?” depends on what you want to experience. The season goes from May to September and each month brings its own advantages and opportunities.
In May you can expect cooler weather (highs in the 60s with cold night temperatures in the 30s and 40s), excellent fishing, and few bugs. The animals and birds begin to return to the area for the summer, but the water is still frigid. I enjoy open water swimming, but the water was far too chilly for that in late May.
June brings warmer temperatures (highs in the 70s during the day and lows in the 50s at night), but the bugs are notoriously bad during the first part of June. School is out around the country, so more families visit the BWCA for their early summer holidays. Topwater fishing can be excellent during June, and the water is beginning to warm up for swimming.
July and August are the most popular months to visit the BWCA. The conditions are ideal, but that means there are more crowds. Wild raspberries and blueberries grow along the trails and are ripe for picking. The weather tends to be perfect for camping, with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s.
The bugs have mostly left by mid-July, though you should be prepared for the usual dawn and dusk mosquitos and flies. If you would like to go swimming, these are the months to visit the boundary waters because the sun has warmed the water to perfect temperatures. However, warmer weather drives the fish deeper.
In September the temperatures begin to fall, with highs in the 60s and lows in the 30s and 40s again. Cooler weather draws the fish back toward the shallows, and the trees begin to show off the beautiful fall colors. The cooler temperatures also drive the bugs and crowds away.
Choosing Your BWCA Adventure
Most experienced paddlers recommend planning a 5 to 7 day trip in the BWCA and a day or two on either end in the entry town. We prefer spending two days in the entry town at the start of our trip.
This allows plenty of time to prep our gear, enjoy the local flavor, and get in the vacation mindset. Then, we spent 4 days paddling the BWCA.
Select Your Itinerary
Once you decide how long you would like to stay in the Boundary Waters, you can begin to create your route. Whether you want to create your own trip or select a pre-planned itinerary, there are many excellent resources available.
Kevin and I found 20 Great BWCA Trips: Exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to have excellent trip suggestions and very accurate descriptions. There are also professional canoe outfitters who can help you plan an ideal trip and supply all the gear.
I prefer setting up a base camp and taking day trips when I visit the BWCA. We have 12-foot kayaks that can be difficult to portage, especially with all our gear. It’s nice to return from a paddling or hiking adventure to an established camp where you can just kick back and relax.
Many people plan “loop” trips that allow them to move from lake to lake and camp in a different area each night. Because so many of the lakes are connected by navigable streams and rivers, you can paddle for miles! Either option will give you an excellent BWCA experience.
Reserve Your Entry Permit
Once you decide where you want to go, don’t forget to apply for your entry permit as soon as possible! Any overnight visitors to the BWCA between May 1 and September 30 must obtain an entry permit.
There are a limited number of permits available for each entry point. Though walk-up permits are available, it’s better to apply for a permit early to guarantee that you’ll be able to enter the BWCA for the day and entry point you would like.
Entry permits cost $16 for adults and $8 for children. There is also a $6 non-refundable reservation fee. And don’t be surprised when you are required to watch an introduction video and take a brief quiz about the rules of the BWCA before you can pick up your permit.
Campsites in the BWCA
All campers must use one of the nearly 2,200 designated individual campsites throughout the Boundary Waters. Everything is on a first-come-first-serve basis, so we always identify two or three campsites before starting our trip. That way, if one is taken, we can move on to our next choice.
The sites are spread far enough apart that you probably won’t see or hear your neighbors. Each campsite is equipped with a steel fire grate and an outdoor latrine. Even though there is a fire grate at each site, be prepared to use a camp stove if there is a campfire restriction.
Don’t forget to bring the biodegradable toilet paper or use plain, white, non-perfume toilet paper. The ideal way to dispose of used toilet paper is to place it in a plastic bag and pack it out instead of throwing it in the latrine.
Toilet paper can take a long time to decompose, causing the latrines to fill quickly, especially during peak seasons. You should also place tampons and other sanitary products in a plastic bag and pack them out since they don’t decompose well.
Fishing in the BWCA
Kevin and I always plan to eat as much fresh-caught fish as possible when paddling the Boundary Waters. Northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass, and lake trout are just a few of the species of fish that fill the lakes and rivers.
Walleye is probably the most popular species people fish for. It has a light, delicious, flaky texture, but they are elusive fish that can be hard to catch and land. The walleye usually spawn in mid-May, and the guy working at the bait shop in Eley recommended using live bait, like nightcrawlers or leeches.
When we paddle camp and intend to eat the fish we catch, I pack some folded tinfoil, a small vial of cooking oil, and spices in a baggie. We either pan fry the fish with our camp stove, or we rub the filets with oil and spices, wrap them in tin foil, and cook them in the fire. (I usually pack an extra can of tuna, just in case the fish aren’t biting.)
Our favorite side dishes are couscous or instant mashed potatoes and freeze-dried veggies from Backpacker’s Pantry. We also love Backpacker’s Pantry hot apple cobbler and berry cobbler for dessert.
Things To Pack
In addition to all the usual gear you’ll need for a paddle camping trip, here are a few things you should consider bringing into the BWCA:
- Extra paddle: Whether you are kayaking or canoeing, bring one spare paddle. The Boundary Waters are very remote, and it’s wise to have a backup, especially on a multi-day paddling trip.
- Excellent maps: If you aren’t careful, it’s easy to get lost in the BWCA, especially on the big lakes that have many islands or complicated shorelines. Google maps will not work. Make sure your maps show the exact locations of the campsites, portages, and entry points. Three companies make good maps of the BWCA: W.A. Fisher Company, McKenzie Maps, and Voyageur Maps. Make sure the map you purchase includes the area of the Boundary Waters that you will be visiting. Each map covers only a small part of the BWCA.
- Insect repellant: depending on when you visit the BWCA, biting critters might be plentiful. Mosquitoes, wood ticks, and black flies abound, especially during parts of June and July. Avoid grassy areas where ticks like to hang out and use bug spray with DEET for maximum protection and wear appropriate protective clothing.
- Sunscreen: Sunlight reflects off the water, and it’s easy to get sunburned when the temperatures are mild, and you’re out paddling. It’s important to use sunscreen on all exposed skin and wear protective clothing.
- Prepare for rain: You should always plan for bad weather, even if the forecast looks excellent. Bring a rain jacket and rain pants and prepare for cooler temperatures. If a storm comes, the temperatures can fall quickly.
- Prepare to be self-sufficient: The BWCA is a true wilderness. You may go days without seeing another human. This isolation is part of what makes the Boundary Waters a great place to visit, but you also need to be prepared to be self-sufficient. Pack some extra food in case the weather traps you for a day (or the fish aren’t biting). Bring plenty of first aid supplies. If you plan to use handheld GPS units, always bring backup batteries, maps, and a compass. It may take days for rescuers to get to you in an emergency. That’s no reason to panic, but it is a reason to be proactive and plan accordingly.
Have you paddle camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area? If so, share your top tricks and tips in the comments!