See the BWCA on a Stand Up Paddleboard
An “Untraditional” Way to Explore the BWCA
The joys of being in the Boundary Waters is hard to match. I’ve paddleboarded all over the United States, but I keep finding myself wanting to go back to the Boundary Waters, and after eight stand up paddleboard trips over the past few years, I consider the BWCA my home away from home. These trips keep getting bigger and include everything from big lakes, short and long portages, mixed in with breathtaking views, side hike, bluffs to climb, and waterfalls to chase. Oh and all the amazing animals flying, hopping, and swimming all over.
It’s a magical place to experience and seeing it all on a stand up paddleboard (SUP) is definitely my favorite way to go too. Hopefully I can convince you to try it too!
Here’s what you need to know!
Beyond the canoe
Some say, the only — and the traditional — way to explore the BWCA is in a canoe.
They might be right. “Canoe” is in the name and canoes have been around a long time.
But let’s take a quick blast to the past. Thousands of years ago, fishermen were tying logs together to make a platform to fish off. In order to move around, they would use a long stick. Pushing off the ground, paddling forward, and using it as a rudder.
If you ask me, this sounds a lot like what we call stand up paddleboarding today. Of course, there are variations to it and many ways one can interpret it all, but I’m not here to split hairs. Heck, you can find a paddleboard type craft being used in Venice, they just call them Gondolas.
Let’s fast Forward to the early 2000s, when SUPing exploded in popularity. Surfers were used canoe-style paddles to their longboards and the trend caught on. This surf style of SUPing is popular on the ocean coasts and Hawaii. In mountain towns along the Rockies or Appalachians, people rock smaller SUPs on rivers and whitewater. Here in the midwest, people first looked at paddleboards with suspicion. A surfboard on Lake of the Isles?
Though they have caught on, people still think SUPs are kind of bizarre, especially on trips to the Boundary Waters. That’s a big reason why I love them. Taking one into the Boundary Waters showcases just how diverse and fun this “untraditional” way of exploring the BWCA really is.
Now, you probably have a dozen questions about how to even get started on a SUP trip into the BWCA. Don’t overcomplicate it. You prepare and pick out gear almost the same way as if you were taking a canoe, only with a few SUP-specific modifications.
Like any adventure, make sure to stay within your skill level and tailor your trip to your skill set. Don’t be overambitious your first time – you can always go back.
Practice your skills
SUPing in the BWCA should not be your first time on a paddleboard. You should be comfortable and confident on your board before you head out. Here are key areas to work on:
- In case you fall off, know how to get back on the board in deep and moving water. Get out and paddle on windy and wavy days to practice this.
- Build your paddling skills standing, kneeling, and sitting. Do some yoga on the board to really work on your balance points.
- Practice moving around the board and getting into a bag to get snacks, grabbing your water bottle, grabbing your fishing pole, and stuff like that.
It’s all about gaining and developing your experience on the board to minimize your risks on a trip.
Because they are easy to portage and paddle well on all water types, you can go anywhere in an SUP that you can go in a canoe. The big limitation in the Boundary Waters, however, is the limit to the number of people that can join.
Group size is limited to four vessels, whether they’re canoes, kayaks or SUPs. Typically you only have one person per paddleboard. That means, if four of you are SUPing, you can only have four people in your group total, rather than nine.
Yes, you can sneak an extra person in by having them sit on your board, but I don’t recommend doing this for a multi-day trip!
Portage a Paddle Board
When you come to a portage, and you will, simply run a strap down one side of the SUP to make a sling, and toss it on your shoulder. Now you are hands free while carrying your board, which is pretty slick. My inflatable board only weighs 28 pounds, way less than any canoe I’ve ever had on my shoulders.
There are also portage/ sitting systems available that allow you to carry the board like a canoe and doubles as a chair when you’re on the water.
I pack my gear into a dry bag backpack, which allows me to carry my gear and board while still having open hands to carry other gear on portages. This makes portaging really fast, that is, as long as you don’t overpack.
Selecting a board
Let’s dive into some SUPing specifics gear. Obviously, SUPs are not the same as a canoe. But, SUPing is easier than people think, just need to get some experience and time out paddling.
Once you do that, you will find out SUPs are the “Swiss Army Knife” for adventure. Even more so with an inflatable paddleboard. The Hala Gear boards I ride are built with a whitewater background. Meaning, they are built to bounce off rocks, logs, and whatever else might be in the water. I have one going on five years now, which has taken a beating all over the USA.
I also recommend removable fins, which can make for better tracking and added stability.
Lastly, why I prefer an inflatable board is that one can roll it up, pack it into a duffle bag, and drive/ fly anywhere you please. Not only does it open the doors to many new places to paddle, but makes it easier for those living in tight spaces!
Other Camping Gear
So you have your SUP ready for an adventure, but what about the other gear? Bringing the right gear can make or break a trip. Having too much stuff makes portaging harder, slows you down paddling, and is just a pain to deal with.
Keep it light, fast, and dry!
Since you are more exposed to the elements on an SUP, you need to be more mindful of how you dress. Layers are key. You can have a sunny warm day followed by a cold, rainy, and possibly snowy day. For more information – check out my SUP packing list here, which covers what I typically wear for each season, sleep system, kitchen equipment, group gear, first aid, backup gear, and much more.
The key to this is in how you pack your gear.
All my gear fits into a 65L Sea to Summit Hydraulic Dry Pack. Think of it as a drybag backpack, which has a hip bent and sternum strap to help with the load. These bags are amazing!! Typically, it weighs around 40-60 pounds when loaded up, including food.
The 65L is the perfect size for 3-5 night trips. I also use a 35L Hydraulic Dry Pack, which acts as my day pack and carries my cameras, rain jacket, first aid, snacks, and hammock.
All of these bags get laid on top of the board when I travel. If conditions are rough, I will strap them down with NRS straps or a carabiner to a D-Loop on the board. Most of the time, just laying them down is perfectly fine. Remember to keep things balanced: Spread the weight across the board from side to side and front to back, erroring with more weight to the middle of the board.
Fishing from a SUP
Yup, you can totally fish off a paddle board.
I like to call it: SUPfishing. And boy oh boy is SUPfishing in the BWCA incredible! Especially when a big fish hits.
There are a few tricks to make SUPfishing easier.
In addition to bringing along all your normal gear, the best piece of equipment to have is a drift sock. This will help slow you down when trying to troll, and on calm water bring you to a halt. It almost acts like an anchor on calm water.
Let’s face it, there is always a little wind in the BWCA, and a drift sock makes it ten times easier to stay in the desired spot. As an added bonus, if you attach the drift sock to the rear D-Ring it rolls/folds up when portaging.
In addition to a net, which makes it so you don’t have to get on your knees to bring in that trophy laker, rod holders are also an awesome piece of fishing gear. They are super handy for trolling, moving around the lake with a line in the water, or kicking back and relaxing while bobber fishing.Some boards have designated spots and others you can typically find a place to place an adhesive mount.
Speaking of kicking back, consider bringing a Crazy Creek chair with you. Nothing beats being able to sit down and lean back while fishing.
Planning your route
I’ve done a number moving trips with multiple portaging but I prefer to push for a day then find and establish a base camp. From here I do day-trips and explore. This way, I’m portaging with less gear (usually just my camera bag and fishing gear). I love chatting with others to learn about their route. There are so many lovers of the BWCA out there who are more than happy to share information — truly an awesome community and a wealth of inspiration.
Leave No Trace
Lastly, no matter how you are experiencing the Boundary Waters please practice Leave No Trace ethics. It is our duty to preserve, keep clean, and protect this wonderful area. As humans, we only have this one planet and we share it with a plethora of other life. Speak up and stand up for this unique wilderness, and do your part to keep it pristine for future generations.
I hope this blog helped shed some light on SUPing in the BWCA. If you have any questions about SUPing please shoot me a message at my contact info below. I love to get people out on a board!
Cheers and paddle on!
Might climate change usher in a new era of conservation in the Boundary Waters that will likely require us to…
Are we seeing a profound ecosystem shift that will fundamentally transform the Boundary Waters in our lifetimes?…
Welcome to another year of our annual Holiday Gift Guide! If you’re here, there’s probably a paddler or Boundary Waters…