The Boundary Waters is one of the crown jewels of the American landscape. A watery wilderness that offers thousands of families, individuals and groups, an experience akin to visiting the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite. Where else in the U.S. offers such an abundance of pristine water? This maze of lakes, rivers and portage trails beg to be explored.

However, many people do not realize that it took several generations of passionate advocates to preserve these 1.1 million acres. While it is rich in natural beauty, it is also rich in natural resources. Mining interests, timber companies, industrialists seeking to build dams on its rivers, all wanted to exploit the region for economic gain.

Decades of work resulted in the Boundary Waters being included in the 1964 Wilderness Act, and in 1978, the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. This gave the maximum level of protection to the BWCA and prevented infrastructure, motorized vehicles, and industrial activities within its borders.

The Boundary Waters is by far the nation’s most visited Wilderness Area, which creates an interesting tension. The future of the wilderness depends on people exploring it and falling in love with the BWCA. However, it is in danger of being loved to death. Even the most careful visitors will have an impact on the land. In order to minimize human impact and keep the area wild, there are a few simple rules that all visitors need to follow.

BWCA Permits

Every person and individual must have a permit to go into the Boundary Waters. Depending on the time of year you go, you either need a quota permit or a self-issued permit.

Quota permits are in place to regulate the number of visitors and prevent overcrowding during the peak season, from May 1 to September 30. The quota system means that a certain number of permits are issued each day for each entry point. This limits the number of parties going into a particular area.

For each permit issued during this time, there is a $16 fee per adult and $8 per child, age 0-17.

You can either pick up your permit at designated issuing stations — such as a Ranger’s station or an outfitter — or reserve one online.

It’s important to note that permits are issued on a first come first serve basis, and they go fast! Pay the nominal reservation fee ($6 at the time of writing) and reserve your permit online to make sure you get the date and entry point you want.

Reserve early! In 2020, the permits were available beginning January 29, 2020. Most experienced paddlers already got theirs, but there are still plenty left over!

There is no quota system for those who want to enter the BWCA for the day, or want to go camping between October 1 and April 30. However, you still need a self-issued permit, which you can fill out at most entry points, Forest Service stations or outfitters.

What’s the deal with entry points?

There are about 70 designated entry points spread out along the perimeter of the Boundary Waters. You must begin your trip at the designated Entry Point on your permit.
Each Entry Point has a parking lot, a kiosk, and some allow you to immediately put in and start paddling, while others portage.

Group Size

In order to reduce impact, group size is limited to nine people and four watercraft.

Designated campsites Latrines and fire pits

While exploring the Boundary Waters, you must camp at designated campsites. The locations of all campsites are clearly marked on maps for the Boundary Waters, such as McKenzie Maps and Fisher Maps.

Every campsite has flat (sometimes it’s “flattish”) areas for tents, as well as a wilderness latrine and a fire grate. While this kind of infrastructure is not found in other Wilderness Areas, and in some ways may seem to violate the “no infrastructure” rules, the popularity of the BWCA is such that it is necessary to limit camping to designated campsites.

A few reminders about using campsites:

  • It is illegal to cut down living trees. Please only use small pieces of firewood from dead or fallen trees.
  • Keep fires small and manageable. Drown them with water before leaving camp or going to sleep.
  • The latrines are not garbage cans! Only poop, pee and toilet paper should go down them. Everything else — wipes, cotton swabs, tampons, diapers, etc. — needs to be packed out with you!
No Drones rule

A relatively new issue that has come up is that of drones. While aerial shots of the lakes and people paddling can indeed be spectacular, those buzzing choppers severely impact the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters, not to mention disturb other visitors.

In 1949, President Truman signed an executive order banning air travel in and above the BWCA. The effect of this is that marvelous silence, the sound of a loon cry over a crystal-clear lake, and so much more. Drones are included in this ban.

Containers

Glass containers and single-use metal cans are not allowed in the Boundary Waters. This may seem extreme, but before this rule was put in place, campsites were often littered with broken glass and empty tins. There are plenty of alternatives!

Leave no trace

Finally, we encourage everyone to apply Leave No Trace principles when visiting the BWCA.
The Leave No Trace Center for Environmental Ethics, which encourages people to minimize their impacts and prevent avoidable impacts while enjoying the outdoors, offers the following seven principles of Leave No Trace camping when visiting the wilderness:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
    Take the time to plan and prepare your trip in to Boundary Waters. This will make it more likely that you reach your goals, stay safe, minimize impact and perhaps most importantly, have a good time.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
    Stay on portage trails and only camp in designated spots. This will make it less likely that anyone will notice you were there.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
    Don’t burn your garbage – pack it out! Pack out everything you bring into the wilderness. In addition, it’s vital that you know how to properly wash yourself, your dishes and do what you can to keep the water pristine. Clean water is at the heart of any experience of the Boundary Waters. Let’s keep it that way.
  4. Leave What You Find
    Bear skulls, moose antlers and thousands of other knickknacks make the Boundary Waters a magical wilderness. Avoid the temptation of bringing these things home with you. Let others enjoy the charm they bring.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
    Campfires are an essential part of the wilderness experience. Keep fires small and in control.
  6. Respect Wildlife
    Remember, we’re visitors to the wilderness. Respect the animal inhabitants. This means properly storing food so that curious bears and hungry chipmunks don’t get into food that isn’t good for them.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
    At any given time, there can be multiple parties camped on a lake. Sound travels surprisingly well over water. Each visitor has plays a big part in keeping the wilderness a peaceful refuge of solace and adventure.

Explore Our Blog

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

Uttech Art
| Art & Science

Inspired by the North

For painter Tom Uttech, trips to Quetico and the northland provided a lifetime of inspiration and shaped his art.

Do Your Part to Protect the Boundary Waters