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How to Plan for a Boundary Waters Canoe Camping Trip - Part 1 Dates and Permits

Posted by Alex Messenger

How to Plan for a Boundary Waters Canoe Camping Trip - Part 1 Dates and Permits

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”

– Sigurd Olson from The Singing Wilderness

The canoe country wilderness truly is a magical place. The ecosystem of connected lakes and rivers beginning in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, extending into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and continuing over the Canadian border to Quetico Provincial Park was carved by glaciers over a millennia. Humans have been traveling the waters for nearly as long, packing their gear over the portages for generations. Many of the same canoe routes, portages, and campsites marked on modern maps and still in use today would be familiar to Native Americans a thousand years ago.

Olde Time Canoe Trippers traveled much the same way as we do today because it's still the easiest and most efficient way to travel in the Boundary Waters.

Minnesota’s BWCA is the most visited wilderness area in the nation, and with good reason. The simplicity of a Boundary Waters camping trip provides a rare respite from the bustle of a busy life. It’s a glimpse back to a bygone time, to when much of North America was untamed wilderness and all sojourners had was their gear, their companions, and the quiet rustle of waves, wind and forest.

A modern paddling trip is not that difficult to plan, and once you’re out, the ancient rhythms of a simpler life can help heal the ailments of a soul worn by modern urban life, ailments that may go unnoticed until held in contrast to the lonely call of a loon, the sunrise through the fog over a silent lake, the crackle of a lively campfire, the drone of a million mosquitoes heard from inside a stout tent. The Boundary Waters provides an opportunity to tap into primitive energies nearly forgotten in modern day life.

Make it a point to visit and you’ll thank yourself. The first step is deciding (or taking up an offer) to go.

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Canoeing the pristine waves of a Boundary Waters lake with a set of traditional Frost River Canoe Packs. Photo by David Hoole.

In order to make the most of your trip, you’ll want to start planning as early as you can. So, here’s how to plan for a Boundary Waters canoe camping trip. Or, at least, how to get the ball rolling. We’ll cover the next steps and finer details as you get closer to loading up the stationwagon.

First, decide to go. This is that big, ‘first step’ thing that has to happen before anything else can. Pick the dates, pick your mates and clear the calendar. Make sure you’ve got enough leeway on either end of the trip, too. You’ll generally want to get up to canoe country very early the first day of your trip, or the night before for an early start at your entry point. On the other end, when you’re leaving to head home, plan about a day to get back to the car, get your gear packed, celebrate in Ely, Grand Marais, along the North Shore, or in Duluth and then head home (depending on where home is, of course, it might take longer). If you had wet weather or a sloshy boat, you’ll have to dry your gear when you get home, too. Start date, end date plus travel to and from. There. You’re set. That’s all there is to it. Not exactly, but in some ways, starting is the hardest part of planning a trip up to the storied border lakes of the BWCA. Once you get these rough bookends, all of the other details start to fall into place.

Once you’ve got your rough trip framework, it’s time to start filling in the details. The first is to choose where you’re going: an entry point. If you haven’t been there before, you’ll need to learn a bit about permits. Visitors to the Boundary Waters are required to get permits in order to access the wilderness. Each group (up to 9 people) needs one permit. There are set locations where people may access the wilderness (entry points) and there are a specific number of permits available for each of those entry points. Visit Recreation.gov to see the map of available entry points and the number of permits remaining for your start date. Some entry points have a large number of permits per day, while others are more limited. Some have as few as one permit for any given day. This is why it’s important to plan ahead so you can secure a permit at the entry point of your choice.

A Boundary Waters Campsite is a serene, quiet place, where the water can show the sky and we can center ourselves in the wilderness.

Everyone that’s been to the BWCA has their favorite lake, and, while there’s a lot of overlap, everyone’s opinion of the best lake, best site, best _____ will be different. The truth is, you can’t go wrong anywhere you go within the BWCA. It’s all beautiful, rugged, and will make for a wonderful trip. So, if your entry point of choice is taken, there will still be lots of other good options where you can go.

Once you’ve decided on a place to start your journey, you can reserve the permit through Recreation.gov and select a permit issuing station. If you’re coming through Duluth, be sure to select Frost River as your permit issuing station. The Frost River Trading Co. is conveniently located off of Interstate 35 (Exit 255a!) in Duluth, and is a great starting point whether you’re going through the Gunflint or Echo Trails to begin your trip. We’ve got maps, map cases, cookware, wood-burning camp stoves, camp food, snacks, packs, gear, canoe accessories, paddles and more, plus, if the Bent Paddle Brewing Co. taproom is open, you can fill your stainless steel “Wilderness Worthy” growler (no glass is allowed in the BWCA) and bring some craft beer with you into the woods.

With your dates set, itinerary begun and permit reserved, you can start thinking about the rest of your trip. The length of your trip will dictate your route, how much gear and food you bring, what maps you buy and will be important as you strategize traveling through canoe country. You’ll naturally want to pick out some rugged Reliable Softgoods to haul your gear. We’ll cover the specifics of pack selection and packing in another blog.

Until then, Happy Paddling!

The last few steps before starting a Boundary Waters camping trip: check the map, get the permit at Frost River Trading Co. BWCA Permit Issuing Station.