Planning your trip to the Boundary Waters (A Step-by-Step Guide)


I want to go to the Boundary Waters, but where do I begin?

That’s a question we hear a lot. If you’ve never planned your own trip, knowing which levers to pull to get the gears in motion can be daunting. It doesn’t have to be! Planning a trip into the BWCA should be fun, not overwhelming.

Milky Way over a tent in the BWCA

We went ahead and broke down the components of the trip-planning process and put it into an easy-to-follow timeline.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all timeline; think of it as an overview, a handy guide that can be adapted to various situation, whether you get started planning months in advance, or if you get a permit a couple weeks before your trip is to start.

That being said, we built this timeline with the assumption that you and your party will be traveling during “the season,” from May 1 to September 30, when you are required to have an overnight camping permit.

Let’s begin here, with securing a permit and making sure you get to go to the place you want to explore.

January: Decide on an entry point and reserve your permit

Yes, this is early, and for procrastinators and those who like to fly by the seat of their pants, pack the car one night, and be out on the water the next, planning this far in advance may be well near impossible.

But, if there is a specific route you want to paddle, a specific area you want to explore, or you just want the peace of mind of taking care of the permit side of things, you better start early.

Reservations for BWCA permits open on January 29, 2020. To ensure you’ll be able to get in at your preferred entry point, on your preferred days, you should be ready to reserve your permit on the first day they are available.

Before you do this, you’ll need to get together with your friends and paddling partners (bring your maps) and decide on an entry point and a start date. You don’t have to have your entire crew formed (maybe your cousin Larry is still waffling. That’s okay. For now). As long as you have a core group of one or two other people, you’ll be set. The details of your route, such as where you will go from the entry point and for how long, can be worked out later.

Man portaging a canoe in the BWCA Wilderness

The important thing is to be ready to reserve your permit early (have you marked January 29 on your calendar yet?). While it’s more than possible to get an overnight paddling permit even a week before a trip, that’s a big maybe. As time goes on and others snatch up permits, the pickings will be slim.

There’s another, equally good reason for securing your permit early: All too often, we hear about people “wanting” to do a Boundary Waters canoe trip, and for no reason besides the fact that it’s easy to let the time slip away, they end up not going. The sooner you and your crew can hammer down a date, clear your calendars, and get the time off from work, the better.

Three months before you leave

From the time you reserve your permit to the time you get the crew together for a meeting (which can be over the phone, by Skype, etc.), you may have gained a few crew members or had others drop out.  

Tweens studying a map of the Boundary Waters

This first meeting, which should happen about three months before your trip, will cover some important ground. Here are a check list of things to go over:

  • What is the purpose of the trip? There are many ways to enjoy the Boundary Waters. To make sure everyone gets the most out of the trip, it’s important to set expectations before you leave. Is the goal to cover a lot of ground? Is it to fish? Explore the geology of the area? To sleep in late and relax? Knowing this will help you decide on a route and do wonders for team dynamics.
  • Hash out the route. How long will you be out? How many miles per day do you hope to travel? How many rest days should you schedule? Once you decide on your end date, everyone in the group must make sure they have that time available. One or two days after the meeting they should put in a request for time off, get an okay from their significant other, etc.
  • Do you want to spend time in Ely or Grand Marais before or after the trip? Many people like to book accommodations in town and gorge on burgers and fries after a few days in the wilderness.
  • Transportation. Who can drive? How much can their vehicle carry?
  • Group gear. Take a look at the this gear checklist and figure out what group gear you will need, such as a tent, canoe, tarp, stove, packs, etc. Who in the group can provide this gear? If you need something, there are a number of outfitters surrounding the Boundary Waters who can rent the gear your crew needs.
  • Make a plan to purchase needed gear and/ or contact outfitters about renting gear or canoes.
  • Make sure that when it comes to renting group gear or purchasing group food that people save their receipts and that your party has an understanding about how expenses will be shared.
  • Other things to discuss are: Experience levels of those who are going, if anyone has medical training, physical limitations, food allergies and other relevant concerns.

Two months before you leave

60 days before your trip, you should:

  • Decide on a menu and split up food-buying duties. Make one person responsible for buying all the breakfast food, another for lunch, and a third for dinner.

  • Make reservations for any gear you might need with the outfitter of your choice.

  • Book rooms in town (if needed) for both before and after your trip.

Woman practicing portaging a canoe at an outfitter.

One month before you leave for the Boundary Waters

  • Have all the non-perishable food packed and ready (perishable foods can wait)
  • Have your route and itinerary written down and share it with family, friends.
  • Load up contacts in your satellite communications device (SPOT or InReach, if you are bringing one) with the appropriate contacts
  • Make an inventory of all your personal gear, and a list of everything you might need
  • Have all your group accounted for. You either have it or have plans to get it.

Two weeks to go:

Make that last-minute shopping trip to pick up the bug net you can’t find, a spare pair of socks, or anything else you might need. 

During the week before you leave…

  • Get all the group gear and everyone’s personal gear together and do a final check. Do you have toilet paper? Matches?
  • Purchase perishable foods (if you bring any) and have it ready to go the day you leave for the northland.
  • Have your trail clothes that you will change into before hitting the water ready. It’s nice to drive up in some “civvies” and have them there to change into when you get off trail.
  • Have the vehicle(s) gassed up and packed up the night before so you’re ready to go in the morning. 
Big Lake Road - gravel road

Like we said, this isn’t an absolute plan. People drop out at the last minute, friends pop up wanting to go, and some people like the crunch of planning and packing for a trip in three days.

However you do it, remember, there is a post-trip component as well.

This generally includes:

  • A burger and a few beers
  • The dreaded moment you check your emails
  • Cleaning up all the gear
  • Settling accounts (gas, etc.)
  • Discussing where to paddle next year…or next month

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