Family Camping with Kids in the Boundary Waters (A Guide)
By Maura Marko
Small children and water seem like two things that shouldn’t be combined. However, we have found that our best family adventures with two young children along have taken place in our canoe, on the water, in the Boundary Waters.
Of course, when we say that, we raise a few eyebrows. These are the three most common responses:
“You must have grown up in a family who always took you on the water.” somebody recently remarked when they saw us paddling a river with our 2.5 and 4.5 year old children.
“My kid is way too crazy, they would totally jump out of the boat.” a parent proclaimed during a recent workshop we gave at an outdoor expo.
“Who would take babies to the Boundary Waters?!?” a shocked parent blurted out while we tabled an event.
First off, no, neither myself nor my husband grew up in a water-loving family. We had both canoed minimally and didn’t truly immerse ourselves into the world of canoeing until after our first child was born.
The point is: You are never too old to learn a new skill or explore the world in a different way than you are used to. We learned alongside our two children, Jack (4.5) and Rowan (2.5).
Secondly, we have some seriously crazy kids with loads of energy who climb onto, over, and out-of pretty much everything. However, they have never attempted to jump or climb out of our canoe. Water seems to hold an almost hypnotic interest in children and adults alike so that they remain seated and interested for much longer than we initially anticipated.
Lastly, why would somebody take a baby into the Boundary Waters you ask? Because simply put, it is a magical place to be. The time we have spent there as a family is irreplaceable. Many parents think a child doesn’t belong in the Boundary Waters, to them I say, you don’t know what you’re missing!
How Old Should a Kid Be to Go into the BWCA?
There is no “perfect” age to start making trips into the Boundary Waters with a child. They don’t have to be double digits before a successful trip is guaranteed. They don’t need to reach an age where they “won’t complain.”
Let’s be honest: None of us have reached that age.
Complaints, bad trips, unfortunate circumstances, and unhappy campers are what make an adventure an adventure. Age won’t change that.
What You Need to Know: Bringing Infants into Canoe Country
Bringing an infant into the Boundary Waters may seem like an odd choice, only for those crazy adventure-savvy people. But, infancy lasts less than a year. That time is exhausting, busy, terrifying, and beautiful. Slowing that time down, if only for a weekend and immersing yourselves in the north woods is magic.
Plus, taking an infant in the Boundary Waters is great for parents who may be worried about their non-sleeping child waking up neighbors in a crowded campground. In the Boundary Waters there are little to no neighbors around to worry about when your baby is screaming to be fed at 3:00 a.m.
The gentle sway of the boat will easily lull them to sleep in a wash basket lined with blankets and covered with an umbrella for sun protection. Multiple companies make infant-sized life jackets and once they have gotten used to that and the screaming has subsided you get to watch a child experience the water and the outdoors in a whimsical way. Let them feel that grass in their chubby hands. Watch their eyes blink in confusion as the wind blows around your canoe. Be amazed at how content they are in the boat or how much more they sleep in the tent than you had expected.
When paddling with an infant, plan to make a basecamp on a small lake, with portage-free access. Because you are choosing a lake with no portages, go ahead and bring larger, bulkier items to ensure comfort. We often hauled a pack-and-play and our large car-camping tent to provide us with luxury in our camp.
From the basecamp, plot out day trip options ahead of time, study the area maps and know your options. Base your daily plans on how much sleep everybody got, baby’s mood and weather conditions. Don’t hold yourself to a strict itinerary or plan. We always have day trips in mind that we would like to do but, we rarely do all of them.
We went on our first-ever canoe trip on Kawishiwi Lake with a 2.5 year old and I was 6 months pregnant with our second baby.
This trip remains one of my all-time-favorites.
Kawishiwi has ample sites with little effort in paddling. We even found a sandy beach campsite and spent a glorious Fourth of July weekend swimming and paddling around. We spent a few days paddling to nearby lakes, finding available campsites and stopping for lunch.
During day trips we portaged with little effort due to the fact we only had a small day pack, water bottles, and the canoe to deal with. Remember, one adult along will strictly be responsible for the baby when portaging. Bringing along a soft structured carrier is a good way to free up extra hands on a portage, especially if it’s longer. Both adult and baby will be more comfortable with a carrier along.
What You Need to Know: Bringing Toddlers into the BWCA
When heading into the Boundary Waters with older, walking toddlers and preschool-aged children, the trips get more interesting.
Basecamps are still fun, but we recommend selecting a route with shorter portages and moving camp one or two times during your trip. This age group of kiddos love to “help” so, setting up camp and taking down camp multiple times offers them ample opportunities to assist and learn the fine art of making a comfortable camp.
While it may take more time, allow them and encourage them to help. Let them choose their sleep spot in the tent. Let them select which camping pillow will be theirs. Let them gather firewood. Teach them and be in those moments with them with no distractions. Your bonds will deepen and strengthen with every backcountry trip taken.
Canoeing with Elementary Age Kids
Once children have reached elementary age your trip options are endless! Nobody knows your child and what they can handle better than they do.
Yes, you heard me right.
Don’t box your child into a category. Don’t tell them what they are or are not capable of. Believe in your child and always be open, because, more often than not our children will surprise us. They are far more capable than we generally expect.
This is the age to begin including your child in the planning process.
Get out maps, and ask them to help plan. Have an area in mind you, as the adult, are comfortable going to and ask the kids what type of trip they are interested in.
Allowing them to plan, and getting them involved in the preparation of the trip as well, will give them a much larger sense of responsibility and they will be more invested in the trip than if you simply tell them when and where to go.
Even if you know the trip they have selected may not be successful, let them try. You might be pleasantly surprised by what your child is capable of, or your trip might not go exactly as planned.
There is a lesson to be learned in this.
I know we have over planned on more than one occasion as adults, so sharing those instances with your child, who may have been overly excited in the planning process, won’t make them feel like they’ve failed. Maybe next season you can try that trip again and complete the planned route.
Family Boundary Water Trip Ideas
Sawbill Lake is a great option for a more mobile trip. Not only is there a campground available at the entry point there is also an outfitter who can rent you anything you need for your trip.
Having a campground at the entry point means you can drive up the day before your actual put-in date and car camp that night, allowing yourself an earlier start the following day. We have found that the earlier we are on the water the better, as campsites can fill up quickly and they are first-come first-serve so there is no way to guarantee a particular site which can be stressful for parents. Having extra time to paddle and find a site makes it less of an ordeal.
Sawbill has the short 6.5 mile Kelso Loop that can be made by heading to Alton Lake and camping there on night one, take the short portage on the north side of Alton to Kelso Lake next and follow it around back onto Sawbill Lake. The route offers plenty of campsites and room to explore.
Toddlers and preschool aged children are one of my favorite age groups. They give you an opportunity to actually watch as a child learns or solves a problem. Those moments in the woods as they see a fire being lit utilizing the firewood they collected or the look of surprise and pure delight as they hear the call of a loon on a foggy morning on the water are moments that I cherish dearly.
Having a Successful Trip
We have two important criteria for the measurement of a truly successful trip:
Were we all safe?
Were we all happy?
If those two questions are both YES! then our trip was a success. Our definition of success never includes number of miles paddled, number of portages completed, days spent in, or setting off to do exactly what we hoped. Set your expectations low so that the trip is simply enjoyable for every single member of the group.
Perhaps your child has reached an age where a journey along a portion of the Voyageur's Highway is doable. This is a trip any Boundary Waters lover should do at least once in their lifetime. Moving almost daily, having the extreme solitude that is part of being so far in the backcountry, and knowing the path you are on has been used for hundreds of years, is a truly remarkable experience.
The most important thing to remember is that even if a first or second or third trip into the Boundary Waters isn’t what you had hoped for, doesn’t mean they will all be a bust.
Children are amazing adventure partners since they are evolving and changing at a much faster rate than any adult companion is. They are more flexible and willing to learn. Every single trip is going to be different.
That is a true gift.
Remain open and allow failure and success to happen. The most important thing to do is try, failure is not turning back or having bad weather; failure is never trying.
About the Author
Since Maura Marko and her husband Bobby met in 2007, outdoor recreation has been at the center of their lives. They love hiking, camping, backpacking, traveling, and rock climbing. Together, they share their adventures at https://wefoundadventure.com, where they give detailed trail and trip reports of their adventures as well as travel reports from the international travel.