9 Things You Need To Know About The BWCA

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Scott paddling his canoe at the BWCA
Scott with the canoe in the endless waters of the BWCA.

*DISCLAIMER: Links included in this blog post might be affiliate links. If you make a purchase with the links I provide, I may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. Thanks!

I remember when I first heard about the Boundary Waters. I was tediously painting an ENTIRE side of bleachers at my college football stadium. I was working my summer job with the athletic department and three of us rolled our rollers over and over and over each bench.

One of them, Emily told us about her upcoming trip to the Boundary Waters. All I took away was a place where you canoe everywhere and then camp. You fish a lot and you paddle a lot. That’s it. In some ways she was right. Fishing and paddling are a big part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Access Wilderness (BWCA) but there’s so much more to it.

When Scott and I first ventured to the waters, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves in to. We like to camp. We love going on adventures. A challenge always sounds like fun to us.

Fishing? Yes please. Canoeing? Sure! Let’s do this.

But of course, like any place I’ve traveled, I went in with certain expectations and left with completely different ones. The Boundary Waters left more of an impression on me than I was expecting. There’s something about it that really hits the soul. Here are 9 things to know about the BWCA.

1. You Get A Map And Then You Just…..Go.

A BWCA map used for finding campsites and portaging points.
Here’s one of the two maps we used to navigate on our trip. That’s it!

I don’t know what else to add. I mean, that’s about it.

No GPS. No guide. No signs saying “HEY! OVER HERE, YOU WANT TO GO THIS WAY!” Nope.

You buy a map (sometimes multiple) for the area and route you’re planning on taking and then you follow that. Like one of those abstract, elevation is listed, contours are shown, islands are sometimes there but not always, giant, needs to be folded, outdoorsy maps.

Portage trails that connect one lake to another are faintly labeled on the map and not marked in real life. Campsites are just red dots along the coast. Everything else is up for interpretation.

As simple as it is, using only the map to get around makes you feel like you can do just about anything. It’s not rocket science but it does take some understanding and paying attention. A simple map is your entire guide to your stay at the Boundary Waters.

Tip: You’re going to need something to keep your map dry. We bought a $0.50 baggie at the Outfitter and it worked great.

2. Campsites Are First Come First Serve

Scott setting up the tentsile at our BWCA campsite.
Scott setting up our Tentsile at one of our campsites. We found this one just as the sun was starting to set.

All of you Type A, let’s plan everything out people out there, this one might make you sweat a little.

There’s no reserving your campsite at the Boundary Waters. It’s first come, first serve and a little bit of luck.

If you come up to your “planned” spot and it’s taken, you have to move on. Or go back. Or find a new plan.

My mom always says that “Life is about the big F, flexibility.” You need A LOT of flexibility and going with the flow when you’re on a trip to the Boundary Waters.

Tip: Try to find your camping spot before the sun goes down. If the campsite you have planned doesn’t work out for some reason and you have to spend extra time on the water finding the next one, it’s going to make setup that much more complicated. There are a lot of unknowns, but that’s part of the fun!

3. Portaging…Never Heard Of It Until Now

Scott portaging with the canoe and our gear at the BWCA.
My muscle man of a husband carrying half of our belongings in our dry bag backpack as well as the ENTIRE CANOE ON HIS SHOULDERS!

I had never heard of portaging before this trip. The guy at the Outfitter was trying to explain it but I didn’t fully understand what we were getting ourselves into. It wasn’t until I saw a little painting on the wall featuring a man with a very focused face carrying a pack AND canoe on his shoulders up a steep hill followed by someone carrying EVERYTHING ELSE in the background.

I tapped Scott and said, “Wait, that’s how we do portage!?” For some reason, I must have assumed the Boundary Waters were all connected and you got everywhere in your canoe and it was easy peasy. Wrong.

Slight rapids? Lakes not connected? Beaver dam? You have to use those stronger than you think legs and carry EVERY SINGLE THING YOU BROUGHT WITH YOU to the next spot!

2 days or 2 weeks. Whatever you bring in you carry. Often, more than once. You’ll feel like a CrossFit champ after a few of those portages.

Tip: Remember, less is always more and portaging just might be the deal-breaker for what you take and what you leave behind.

4. When You Visit The BWCA, You Become A BWCA-er For Life

Scott and Steph Castelein visiting the BWCA.jpg
Steph and Scott: Official members of the exclusive BWCA Club.

Anyone who has been to the Boundary Waters knows this: it’s rarely a one and done trip. People seem to make an annual thing out of it.

We met a 70-year-old who hasn’t missed a year since he was 17.

A group of 3 canoes with 7 older ladies went paddling by our campsite one day and we were definitely not close to an entry point. You just know this wasn’t their first trip to the Waters.

Anytime we mention our trip to someone that has been to the Boundary Waters before, they brighten right up and start talking about routes, and fishing stories, and everything else they love about the Boundary Waters.

Scott and I are excited to be new members of this “more rugged than most” club.

5. Anyone Can Visit The Boundary Waters But It’s Hard Work

Scott with the wood he collected for a night camping at the BWCA.
All the wood we collected for one night at our campfire. We had a Swiss Army knife, my friends.

For the entire BWCA trip, it was a constant this isn’t so bad, followed by an hour spent just trying to hang the dang bear rope.

The Boundary Waters are for anyone but not for everyone. It’s definitely next level backpacking but not the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You won’t have a hard time surviving but you will have to take steps to make sure you survive. It’s a constant anyone can do it, just know what you’re getting into.

Remember this though: You are ALWAYS capable of more than you think!

6. Canada Is Right There!

Scott reading on a rock next to the lake at the Boundary Waters.
Here’s Scott on a rock in the US and behind him, that’s CANADA!

On our route, we constantly tiptoed along the US and Canada border. I mean they arrreeee named the Boundary Waters after all.

I don’t know why this shocked me so much but it did. Maybe because I’ve always thought of the US/Canada border as a hard line, but this was more abstract. Just two pieces of land, surrounding the same body of water.

PS: They say Quetico Provincial Park (the Canadian version of the Boundary Waters) is even more rugged. Oofta. I can’t even imagine MORE rugged but I’d like to visit sometime!

7. The Boundary Waters Are A Different Kind Of Getaway

Scott fishing in his canoe at the BWCA.
This magical, beautiful place.

There is nothing in the Boundary Waters. I mean NOTHING. It is 1.1 million acres of wilderness and lakes and moose and eagles and loons and bears and bees and fish and otters and phew, it’s so great.

The Boundary Waters have over 1,175 lakes and 1,500 canoe routes. What makes it different for me is the canoeing factor. If someone gets hurt, or something should happen, you can’t just run down a path to civilization and have someone come to rescue you. You have to paddle your way to the next person or place or portage or lake before connecting with anyone who can help you. It’s wild out there. It’s fun.

8. The Permit System

Canoe Paddle dripping with water at the BWCA.

The permit system at the BWCA is so interesting. There’s tracking of who goes in, but not necessarily who goes out. It’s kind of complicated, so try to stay with me.

Each entry point has an allotted number of daily permits. Permits can have up to 9 people in a group. You designate a leader and each person has to pay to enter but you pay once and then you can stay as long as you like. So it’s the same price for a one night trip as it is for a two-week trip. You HAVE to put in and start your journey on your designated day, but you can be flexible when you leave, adding a few days or ending early if you want.

And then, you just go.

You can reserve permits online by visiting this website.

9. The Boundary Waters Are Magical

Canoe sitting on the water at the Boundary Waters.

This place, man oh man. It’s hard to explain just how magical it really is.

It’s perfect. It’s wild. You’ll make memories. And I recommend you go see it for yourself.


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