DIY Guide to Doing the Boundary Waters on the Cheap


Looking for ways to save money or take a budget vacation to the Boundary Waters?

It’s easy to get intimidated by the price tag on some camping gear and canoes. And let’s be honest, long johns are absurdly expensive these days.

Cost shouldn’t prevent anyone from canoeing the Boundary Waters. A canoe trip should be a relatively cheap vacation. As nice as it is to paddle an ultralight canoe, wear a $400 raincoat and check in with the outside world using sophisticated electronics, the truth is, what you really need is a good attitude and a sense of adventure.

For those wondering how to save a few bucks, or scrambling to put together a last minute canoe trip, here are a few tips on how to put together a budget canoe outfit.

Ode to Beat Up, Used Canoes

One of my favorite canoes was a 20-foot, Old Town Tripper XL I bought off Craigslist for $600. It weighed 110 pounds and was ridiculously large. It had spent 20 years at a Boys Scout camp and had the dents and scratches to show it.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

This canoe, which my brother and I called The Beast (for obvious reasons), took us on a 2700-mile expedition from Minnesota to the Arctic Ocean in 2005. This is probably why I have such a soft spot for old, used canoes. It’s why I tell people looking for boats to call outfitters who sell used boats, go to auctions or check online when they’re hunting for a new canoe. If you’re lucky, you might find someone looking to part with an old aluminum canoe. You don’t see as many marks from aluminum canoes on rocks near portages and campsites as you used to, but there is no shortage of people out there with fond memories of these silver ships, and still love to paddle them!

Location, Location, Location

A Scrappy Home Away from Home

People get opinionated about their tents. I mean really opinionated. Ultimately, you want your tent to do two things: keep you dry and keep out the bugs. For this, you really need only two items: a heavy-duty tarp and a bug bar. Three if you count rope. Many military surplus stores sell mosquito bars. They are also easy to find online. A heavy-duty tarp (10’ x 12’ works best) can be found at most any hardware store. Now, should you go into the BWCAW with this simple setup, be sure you know your knots! And be sure to set it up in a park or in your yard before you go. This will help you find what configuration works best. Beyond how inexpensive this set up it, using your skills to set up a tight, waterproof, bug-proof shelter and sleeping under it, is immensely satisfying.

Penny-Pincher Clothing

People used to gob wax onto their heavy canvas coats and call that rain gear. Before that they just got wet. With this in mind, that $30 rain suit for sale at the gas station is a luxury!

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Otherwise, the best advice is to fall in love with thrift stores. You may not leave with name-brand clothing, but you can easily find the essentials. That being said, there are somethings you don’t want to skimp on. You want to make sure you have clothing that will keep you warm, even if you get wet. After all, this is canoe country. It can snow in June and it with all those lakes and moving clouds … it’s easy to get a bit wet.

Make sure you have plenty of woolens and polypro to keep you warm!

Pots and Pans and Bottles

I have a bunch of friends who used to work for wilderness therapy programs out west. Each night when they were in the field they, and the teenagers they were guiding, cooked a meal over an open fire in a good old fashioned coffee can. That’s right. No titanium here. The same style container your grandpa used to scoop his Maxwell House out of. Now, to do this, you need to take certain precautions, such as having a good pair of leather fire gloves and having a healthy respect for fire. The point is, don’t be afraid to get creative! And water bottles? Buy liter of Gatorade on your way in, duct tape some parachute cord to it and you’re all set. I did this on a 30+ day canoe trip and was drinking out of the same bottle on the last day.

Even without a canoe, sense of adventure and imagination and will get you pretty far.

This is What You Really Need

Ultimately, whatever kind of gear you use is secondary.

The Boundary Waters is an astonishing area. Whether you enjoy it in a brand new kevlar canoe or on a used paddle board, the most important thing is to get out there. Get dirt under your nails, let your hair get greasy, enjoy a sunset and learn something new about yourself.

Do Your Part to Protect the Boundary Waters

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