It’s surprising how many people rely solely on GPS to navigate through the Boundary Waters but don’t take a back up map with them. GPS is great, and incredibly useful (all the routes have a GPS file you can download, by the way) but finding your way with a map and a compass is much more satisfying.

Plus, no need to worry about your battery going out

If you choose to navigate by GPS, it’s highly recommended that you carry a set of maps and a compass with you, and that you know how to use them!

Image of a family navigating the Boundary Waters using a map.

Maps for Boundary Waters navigation

Several companies make waterproof maps that cover the entirety of the Boundary Waters, and include all the portage trails, campsites and entry points.

  • Fisher maps are the iconic yellow and blue variety that have been a mainstay in the Boundary Waters for decades. They are easy to read and pleasure to travel with.

• McKenzie maps are larger scale (1:31,680 or two inches to one mile) which is great for precision navigation, but if you’re going any distance, you’ll be carrying a lot of maps!

• True North is relatively new to the map game and quite unique. They print their maps on cloth bandannas, so they can be worn, tied to a pack or stuffed in a pocket. And they’re just as detailed as any navigation map.

Map Cases

Though Fisher and McKenzie maps may be waterproof, you should still keep them in a waterproof case, such as the ones made by NRS, SealLine and Sea to Summit. A map case will increase the longevity of your maps and because you can tie or clip the case to a pack or the canoe, it will prevent your maps from blowing away.

Map and Compass

You don’t need that fancy of a compass to navigate through the Boundary Waters. A basic baseplate orienteering compass (liquid-filled, of course) will do. While compasses with a mirror sight can help you precisely pinpoint a distant portage trail or destination, they don’t work well in map cases and the accuracy and precision they offer aren’t necessary for exploring the BWCA.

Using a map and compass to navigate from a canoe is a bit different than when hiking or orienteering.

First and foremost, you need to get familiar with the surrounding shoreline and how it appears on the map. That is, get a sense of how bays, islands and divots along the shore appear on the map. This takes a little getting used to, especially if you use different scale maps. But after an hour or so of closely following along on the map, you’ll develop as sense of how landmarks appear, how far you travel and so forth.

This gets you so far. Islands are confusing, downright deceptive when you’re approaching them (sometimes they look like peninsulas, etc.). Large bays on the map look flat when you’re a mile or so away. That’s why you need a compass.

Navigating the Boundary Waters with a map and compass

How you navigate, and how you use your compass while in a boat, comes down to comfort and style. Here are a few options

1) Keep the compass in map case
This is one of the easiest ways to stay oriented and know your direction of travel. All you do is fold your map into the map case in a way that you can clearly identify which way is north. Place the compass on top of the map, in the map case. Hold the map case flat and turn it so the magnetic needle in the compass points to the north of the map.

This will give you a quick sense of what direction you are traveling, and where features such as peninsulas and islands are relative to your direction of travel. It’s not precise, and some might squirm at this, but this simple method is certainly enough to keep you on the map.

2) Take a bearing
The above method works well to generally keep you on the map, but there are times you need to plot a more precise direction, in terms of degrees – or bearing. This is especially true when navigating around islands or aiming for a distant channel.

To take a bearing you begin by selecting two points on the map, where you are and where you are going: Point A and point B. Be sure this is not too far away. Take frequent, short compass reading to plot your course. It will be a bit more work, but worth it. Here’s the basic way of doing this

  1. Place the edge of the compass on point A and the forward edge of the same side of the compass on point B to make a line between where you are and your destination. Make sure the direction of travel, or top of the compass, is pointed in the direction you are traveling.
  2. Hold the compass in place on the map and rotate the bezel so that “North” is lined up with north on the map. Use the edge of the map to help you line this up.
  3. The number at the index line will give you the bearing to follow. Do not move your bezel or compass housing!
  4. Keep the compass level, and rotate until the magnetized needle (red) rests in the orienteering arrow (the shed). This called “putting red in the shed.” Once red is in the shed, you will be facing your direction of travel.
  5. Pick a landmark that lies in your line of travel, such as a large pine or a depression in the shore line and aim for that.

Once you reach this landmark, take out your map and repeat. The process of plotting your course and finding a bearing can be very rewarding, and is a great activity to do with kids or newbies to the BWCA. It inspires confidence and how cool is it to make your way through a wilderness with no need of electronics!

A Note on Declination

For the most part, you don’t need to worry about declination — the angular difference between true north and magnetic north — in the Boundary Waters. The 1 to 2 degrees west declination is negligible for navigating through lakes. However, the magnetic north pole has been moving at an increased rate, so this will change in the coming years.

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