25 tips for a Better Boundary Waters Trip

Recreation By Pete Marshall

Every canoe trip to the Boundary Waters is different. Two people might have very different ideas on what makes for a great trip.

I say this because I don’t want to pretend that I’m going to lay out the 25 ways for you to have an ideal BWCA canoe trip. In fact, some of the the things I say you might downright disagree with, but I hope that you’ll find something useful here.

These are not beginner tips, and they aren’t intended for the well-seasoned paddler set in their ways. These tips are tailored for someone in between, for someone looking for a way to move faster, be more comfortable or just have a richer experience in the BWCA.

Depending on your preference, you can download an episode of our podcast to listen to me talk about some of the highlights to the list, or watch a video we made where I go through every item on the list.

And finally, you can just scroll, read and soak up what I hope will be some practical, useful advice.


1. Take some time to learn how to paddle correctly! Paddling properly is deceptively difficult. While it’s entirely possible to enjoy a week in the Boundary Waters without really knowing how to paddle, knowing a few basic principles will make you a far more efficient paddler.

  1. Never paddle on the same side of the canoe as your paddling partner.
  2. The overwhelming majority of the power in your paddle comes from the point where you plant your paddle, to your hip. Beyond that is where corrective maneuvers come in.
  3. Here’s the big one: You want to push down on your paddle blade, not pull it through the water. That’s why bent shaft paddles are bent, to assist in pushing down on the water and generating more poser. Keep this principle in mind, focus on pushing down at the beginning of your stroke and you’ll get more power and efficiency each time.

2. Try to pack in a way that allows for a single portage. This means more time on the water, less time on the trail, which is, in gereral, a good thing. To do this, try carrying a pack while carrying the canoe. Fill the pack with light, bulky items.

3. Use a thwart bag to carry things you will need during the day. These handy, waterproof bags make it easy to access frequently used items like sunscreen, toilet paper, even lunch, without having to dig through your pack.

4. Rotate chores and who does what. This is good for crew dynamics and prevents anyone from feeling like they are stuck with the “unfun” chores (ie: dishwashing).

5. When planning your trip, be sure to be clear on what kind of trip you want to do. What is the intention, the goal of the trip. This will help make sure everyone gets the trip they expected and is important for crew dynamics. For example: Is the trip to cover miles, to catch fish, to introduce newcomers to the wilderness?

6. Save up your dryer lint for a fire starter.

7. Pack in the niceties! Hard candy, Tiger balm, Gold Bond. When you’re on trail, these little things do a lot. I eat a comical amount of hard candy when on trail.

8. Don’t believe the hype. You don’t need the best gear to have an amazing adventure in the BWCA!

9. Clean camp, clean conscience. Keep things tidy around camp. Pack things up, store them in the vestibule, under the canoe or in a pack. This will greatly reduce the chances of losing anything and leaving behind a mess for the next group to clean up.

10. Two essential knots. You can have a lot of fun learning and using knots, but really, there are the two essential knots for traveling in the Boundary Waters. You can get by using these 95% of the time. They are:

The Bowline:

The taut-line hitch: 

11. Peanut butter is a wonder food. Use it on Oreos for dessert, on snack bars during lunch, mix it in with your oatmeal for a rich, creamy flavor, even in mac and cheese … it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously, if you or anyone in your group has peanut allergies, ignore this.

12. Perishable food does have a place in the BWCA! Don’t limit yourself to dehydrated/ freeze dried options! Root vegetables like onions, potatoes, carrots — can last a while without refrigeration. Same with vacuum-sealed cheese (though once you open it, eat in a couple of days). Bring a bag of salad and steak for the first night on trail!

13. Bandana. There’s no reason not to pack one of these highly versatile pieces of equipment. Great for tying around your neck on a hot day, putting over your eyes when the sun rises at 5am and you just want to sleep a little longer … the list goes on.

14. Use your paddle is a cutting board.

15. Use Outfitters.Outfitters are a great resource for both beginners and seasoned explorers.

16. EmberLit Stoves are the lightest stoves on the market and collapse to about the size of a wallet. No gas or canisters needed, just sticks and twigs.

17. Explore the Boundary Waters in the shoulder season! From April to mid-May, then from Labor Day through October is a great time to experience the BWCA. You might not get the same amount of daylight and the water is colder, but there are few people and often no bugs. Plus, you don’t need to reserve permits in advance!

18. Water flavor. Nuun or other flavored electrolyte tablets offer an easy, low-calorie way to spruce up your water and replenish after a long portage. 

19. Save weight on breakfast. If you’re looking for a way to save weight, look to breakfast. Hot cereals like 10-grain stick to you and are very compact.

20. Pee bottle. This is a game changer! Stop waking up your tentmates in the middle of the night and going out into the buggy air to pee. Do it in the tent. Women use it in combination with an FUD – female urination device. Keep in the vestibule or just outside to avoid and unpleasant messes. You can use a disposable Gatorade bottle or really, anything – just remember to label it as such.

21. Get a bug tarp. You can either use mesh tarps and hang them from a tree, or invest in something more substantial from Cooke’s Custom Sewing. A screened tent can be a true sanctuary from the bugs in camp. 

22. Sew a sleeping bag liner out of an old sheet. This will make your sleeping bag easy to clean and increase its longevity!

23. Try out some of these challenges to spice up your BWCA trip:

  • A Voyageur morning. Break camp, build a fire, cook a hot breakfast, with a hot drink, do the dishes and hit the water in under an hour. This involves a lot of coordination and planning the night before, for instance, stashing wood under the canoe and making sure things are ready to go.
  • Night paddling. Clear, calm nights on a big lake are optimal. In the summer, when campsites are scarce, it’s best to paddle out from a basecamp. Pay extra attention to your course before you head out and keep yourself on map. Night time is an easy time to get lost!  
  • Build a fire in the rain. You can do this!

24. Wool is a miracle fiber. If in doubt, chose clothing that is made from wool. The best part is you can buy most all the wool clothing you need at thrift stores!

25. There’s no such thing as perfect footwear! Use what works best for you and don’t be afraid to get your feet wet!

26. Wake up early. The simple reason for this is that morning in the BWCA are divine. Plus, if you start early, you can have your pick of campsites.

Question? Email me at pete@friends-bwca.org

Or visit www.friends-bwca.org for more resources on how to get the most out of your Boundary Waters trip and how you can help preserve this jewel of a wilderness.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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