Boundary Waters Gear Guide

What you need to bring to enjoy canoe country

If you talk to old timers who have been paddling the BWCA for 40 or 50 years, they’ll tell you the biggest thing that has changed is the emphasis on gear. Deciding what gear to take (so many brands, so many features!) can be overwhelming. Cutting edge, ultra-lightweight, indestructible, weatherproof gear is great and super convenient, but don’t let it distract you. Countless life-changing trips have been done in an 80-pound aluminum canoe and a high-school letter jacket.

In addition to our packing list (download your copy here), these are some guidelines to help you decide on clothing:

  • “Cotton kills” is a common saying in the outdoor world. When cotton is wet, it dries slowly and sucks the heat out of you. Look for either wool, synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene, nylon, or a cotton/ synthetic blend.
  • Wool is a miracle fabric. Even when wet, wool keeps you warm. Even on colds, wet wool socks can keep your toes warm.
  • On a budget? Used clothing stores like Savers, Goodwill and military surplus stores can be treasure troves.
  • Rain gear can be expensive. You don’t need to drop $300 to stay dry. Frogg Toggs makes affordable rainsuits that might not last a lifetime, but will keep you dry for four or five trips.
  • Sometimes you need top-of-the-line equipment. Nothing can spoil an otherwise great trip like a leaky tent. If you can’t justify purchasing a new one, most outfitters have high-quality tents to rent. This goes with almost every type of equipment.
  • Plan for a variety of weather, regardless of the forecast.
  • Dress in layers, with a thin pair of long underwear as your base. This method allows you to add or shed clothing as needed.
  • Dark clothing attracts bugs. The lighter the better.
Gear Guide


The typical, two-person BWCA canoe is between 16 and 18 feet long — which should be able to carry enough gear for a couple of weeks, even an extra person!

Canoes are made from a variety of materials, but in the Boundary Waters two types predominate: aluminium and Kevlar.

Aluminum canoes, such as Grumman and Alumacraft, are the workhorses of the Boundary Waters. Some of the boats you see out there have been slicing through the water for decades. They last forever and will probably outlast you! 

They’re tough, sturdy, track well and hold a lot of gear. With a built-in keel, these boats track well and perform well on the lakes. The only down size is the fact that these canoes weigh about 70 pounds, something you really start to notice about 40 rods into a portage! 

Side shot of a canoe

Kevlar canoes on the other hand, weigh between 40 and 50 pounds, making them more ideal for lake-hopping through the Boundary Waters. Kevlar is tough, but not as tough as aluminium. You need to take extra caution to avoid rocks, resist the urge to paddle it up on shore and grind the bow stem over rocks… The main setback, however, is the cost. A new Kevlar canoe can run around $3,000. For this reason, many opt to rent one from an outfitter when they go up on their trip.

Need to rent a canoe?

What Kind of Tent
Should I Bring?

The ideal Boundary Waters tent has three key features:

  • Good ventilation – summer nights can be hot!
  • A full rain fly that covers the entire body of the tent
  • A roomy vestibule for storing gear

Most 3-season tents made today will do the trick. Because you don’t need to be overly concerned about weight, go with slightly larger tents, i.e.: a three-person tent for two people. Two people in a two-person tent is downright crowded!

Man pictured with camping tent and various gear related items


Should I Cook on a
Stove or a Fire?

While cooking over a fire is traditional and has that authentic feel, it’s not necessarily convenient. Firewood can be hard to come by in camp and if you’re traveling during a particularly dry time, there may be a fire ban in place to prevent forest fires.

Stoves are more convenient, easier to use and have less impact than fires. Modern stoves can boil a quart of water in minutes and often have a press-button ignition system so you don’t even need to strike a match.

If you still want to cook over a fire, check out the EmberLit folding stove. This small stove collapses to the size of a greeting card and works by burning kindling and small pieces of wood, reducing the need to have a stack of firewood to cook your oatmeal. Super compact, lightweight and durable, it eliminates the need to carry fuel.

Image of a pot over a campfire in the Boundary Waters

Sleeping System

A couple of days worth of paddling, along with an abundance of crisp, fresh air, are two of the most important ingredients for a perfect night’s sleep. A few more items and the recipe is complete:

  • Sleeping pad. Modern sleeping pads can be downright luxurious. Air pads made by Therm-a-Rest, Sea to Summit or Nemo are compact, durable and remarkably comfortable. However, they are not cheap, either. A more affordable option would be to use two closed-cell foam pads. These will be significantly more bulky and slightly less comfortable, but you’ll still sleep like a baby.
  • Sleeping bag. Modern sleeping bags are designed to be incredibly efficient when it comes to keeping you warm. On hot summer nights this can be a bit uncomfortable, but hey, that’s why Whitcomb Judson invented the zipper. Typically, you’ll want a bag that’s rated between 20 and 40 degrees.
  • Bag liner. These will both increase the longevity of your sleeping bag and are ideal for those hot nights when you don’t need much more than a sheet for cover. You can buy one at most outdoor shops, or simply fold an old sheet in half, sew it about two-thirds of the way shut, and presto, you got a liner.
  • Pillow. The easiest way to rest your head is to stuff some clothes into a bag and call it a pillow. However, if you’re a fussy sleeper, you might want to invest in an inflatable camp pillow. These compact numbers are a godsend to fussy sleepers!
Gear Guide


  • The perfect footwear for canoeing has yet to be invented. There are about as many opinions about what kind of footwear you should wear as there are types of shoes. Let’s look at some popular options:
  • Leather boots. L.L. Bean’s classic canoe boots have been worn by paddlers for over a century. These tall leather boots with a rubber bottom look great but are neither cheap, nor entirely waterproof.
  • Modern high-top boots. Manufacturers such as NRS, Chota and Kokatat makes great waterproof boots for canoe country. Both the NRS Boundary Boot and Kokatat Nomad Paddling Boot provide support and are tall enough to keep your feet dry when you wade into the water at the beginning or end of a portage.
  • Overboots. A great economic option is to wear a set of Tingly boots over a pair of sneakers. Tingley boots come in a variety of sizes, are durable, provide good grip, and will keep your feet dry.
  • Water shoes. Though it’s preferable to wear closed-toe shoes to prevent rocks and stick from cutting your feet on portages, many prefer sandal/ shoe hybrids made by Keen, especially in the middle of summer. Those willing to risk their toes swear by sandals like Chacos.
  • Camp shoes. Once in camp, you want to change into something more comfortable: a pair of sandals or moccasins of some sort.
  • Socks. You always want to have at least one pair of dry socks to change into at the end of the day. Pack 3-4 pairs of wool socks and you should never have to suffer wet socks in the morning.

Explore Our Blog

Breaking news, in-depth stories, tips for wilderness travel, and insights into America’s most popular Wilderness Area.

| People

Opening the Wild

A man who became paralyzed after an accident strives to create a wilderness resort for people with disabilities near the…

Hennessy racing in a snowy tree-filled scene in the boundary waters in a sled behind a team of dogs during the brief hours of winter sunlight.
| People | Recreation

From the Boundary Waters to the Iditarod

Follow a young woman’s journey from dog sledding in the Boundary Waters to racing in the Iditarod, the most famous…

Do Your Part to Protect the Boundary Waters