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We spent 5 days and 4 nights in the Boundary Waters. It was the end of August and the perfect time to go because it was still warm but not too extreme. The crowds were a lot less as they were entering shoulder season and things were still running, but it wasn’t rushed.
If you’ve been to the Boundary Waters you know that packing light is an understatement. If you haven’t been to the Boundary Waters think “everything you bring in you have to haul with you”. If you’re planning on going from one lake to another with a barrier in between, you have to portage. Portage means carrying your canoe and cargo from one place to another.
This was our first time experiencing and even hearing about portaging! We didn’t want to look like the rookies we were and tried to pack as light as we could.
We reworked our supplies, food, and clothing 3 times, eliminating more and more stuff each time. We finally got it to where we could carry everything in one portaging trip. We were pretty darn excited!
For the 4 nights and 5 days, we covered over 55 miles, slept in 3 different camp spots, and portaged 10 times, the longest being 200 rod (1 rod = 16.5 feet, the length of canoe). I wrote a blog post about that trip here!
I wanted to create a packing list for you to reference for your next trip to the Boundary Waters.
Below you’ll see our complete packing list for 5 days in the BWCA, what we’d bring on our next trip, and what we’d leave behind.
Complete Packing List For 5 Days In The BWCA
Steph’s Clothing List
- HIKING BOOTS: I have a pair of Keen’s that I love. You’ll want a pair of hiking boots if you plan on exploring or portaging a lot. I didn’t actually wear mine because the sandals were fine but if you don’t have the right sandals, I’d wear these.
- Heel Strap Sandals: I have this pair from Columbia that works great for me. You’ll want something that can get wet, grip rocks, and handle mud. I’d recommend having a heel strap for sure!
- PANTS: These lightweight, fast-drying travel pants are from Duluth Trading Company and holy moly they are my absolute favorite outdoorsy pants ever! They dry super fast, are a great material for moving and protection, can be rolled up, have open pockets, and pockets with zippers. I wore these for 5 days straight and honestly, they didn’t smell at all. Just saying, that’s how great I think they are. I just got my second pair and couldn’t be more excited!
- SLEEP PANTS: It definitely cools down at night. You’ll want a pair of pants that are both comfortable and warm for sleeping at night.
- 1 PAIR OF LEGGINGS
- 2 NIKE SHORTS
- 2 ATHLETIC TANK TOPS
- 2 T-SHIRTS
- 1 ZIP-UP HOODIE
- 1 FLANNEL
- 1 LONG SLEEVE DRI FIT
- SOCKS, UNDERWEAR & BRAS
- 1 SWIMSUIT
- 1 BANDANA
- 1 HAT
- 1 SCARF: I always, always travel with a scarf.
Scott’s Clothing List
- HIKING BOOTS: Scott has a pair from Vasque
- SANDALS: Scott loves his Sanuk sandals but they were no good for portaging or the wet, slippery rock. You’ll want something with a heel strap for sure.
- HIKING PANTS: He loves his Kuhl’s!
- SLEEP PANTS
- 1 PAIR OF MEN’S NIKE SHORTS
- 3 T-SHIRTS
- 1 LONG SLEEVE DRI FIT
- 1 FLANNEL
- SOCKS AND BOXERS
- 1 PAIR OF SWIM SHORTS
- 1 BANDANA
- 1 HAT
- STEPH TOOTHBRUSH
- SCOTT TOOTHBRUSH
- HAIR PICK
- MEDICATION: Ibuprofen, Benadryl anti-itch cream, general first aid kit
- EXTRA CONTACTS
- CONTACT SOLUTION
- HIKING BACKPACK: We put the smaller dry bag you see below in this hiking backpack when we portaged.
- DRY BAG: You can never have enough dry bags, especially for a BWCA trip. This one was a 20L and we put it in our hiking backpack when we portaged.
- DRY BAG BACKPACK: We bought this 115L Sealline backpack from an Outfitter in Ely, MN. The backpack is specifically for portaging so it’s short and stout. Scott carried this while also carrying the canoe on his shoulders. It also doubled as our bear bag. We were very happy with its performance and everything stayed dry. It held the majority of our stuff!
- COLLAPSABLE BACKPACK
- PACKING CUBES: If you know me, then you know I never take a trip without packing cubes. They keep your clothes grouped together nicely so when you reach into your bag or suitcase you’re not having to dig through everything and can easily find what you need!
- EXTRA LARGE ZIPLOCK BAGGIE: We bought this at the Outfitter and used it to keep our map dry. We needed it so often that we also kept essentials like toilet paper, a lighter, and our phones in there too.
- EXTRA ZIPLOCK, PLASTIC GROCERY, AND GARBAGE BAGS: Ideally we would have had more dry bags but this variety did the trick. It always seems like there are odds and ends that need to be grouped together, preferably in something that will keep everything dry.
- 2 PONCHOS: we took these instead of rain jackets
- 30 DEGREE SLEEPING BAG
- LIGHT SLEEPING BAG
- TENTSILE: We took our tensile instead of a regular tent. We had to make sure we found the right spot, but it was a ton of fun getting to use it!
- WOOL BLANKET
- 2.5 ROLLS OF TOILET PAPER
- FULL ROLL OF PAPER TOWELS
- 2 HAND SANITIZERS
- 2 CAMPING DRY TOWELS
- 3 ROLLS OF PARACORD
- FOLDABLE PICNIC BLANKET
- NALGENE WATER BOTTLE
- 5 CARABINERS
- 1 LUCI SOLAR AND INFLATABLE LIGHT
- 1 FLASHLIGHT
- HELLE KNIFE: Scott looovveess this knife. He picked it out for his wedding present.
- SWISS ARMY KNIFE: Almost more than his Helle Knife, he loves his Swiss Army Knife. I swear Scott used all 33 features. We used the Swiss Army Knife for everything, even the little saw on it to cut our wood!
- FILET KNIFE: For cutting any fish we caught
- BEAR SPRAY: You MUST have this. It’s probably the most important thing you can pack.
- ROPE FOR THE BEAR BAG: We bought some extra thick rope at the Outfitter before we left.
- BWCA MAPS: You can buy these at a variety of places near the Boundary Waters. You’ll need a map that is specific to the area and route you’re planning on traveling.
- BUG SPRAY: You’ll definitely want to bring bug spray!
- SUNSCREEN: You’ll be under the sun for the majority of the trip. Sunscreen is a must!
- BWCA PERMIT: Get your permit by clicking the link.
- 2 FISHING POLES
- BOX OF WORMS: We bought this from the Outfitter before we left.
- BOX OF LEECHES: We bought this from the Outfitter before we left.
- FISHING LICENSE
Miscellaneous And Fun
Camera Gear And Electronics
- GORILLA POD
- CANON 5D MARK IV
- 24-70 MM LENS
- FISHEYE LENS
- 4 CANON BATTERIES
- 3-64 GB MEMORY CARDS
- SONY CYBER-SHOT RX 100 V: We used this camera and our phones for the majority of our photos! They were the simplest and easiest to use.
- 3 SONY BATTERIES
- SONY CHARGER
- GOPRO HERO 4 SILVER
- GOPRO CHARGER
- 2 PHONES: We have the Google Pixel 2 and LOVE them. The photo quality is unreal for a phone and they’re fairly new, but the charge lasts FOR-EV-ER!
- PHONE CHARGER
- SOLAR PANEL: This Anker solar panel is how we kept everything charged. It worked great to lay out on a rock or with us in the canoe.
All The Food We Brought
We bought all of our food the night before. A lot of people will come better prepared with food they’ve made themselves (like granola or jerky) or have a whole list planned out for the days.
We were the newbies looking up ideas late at night in the grocery store. Whoops!
We banked on catching fish but also had to bring enough food for if we didn’t. We didn’t end up keeping any fish and finished almost all of our food. This was the perfect amount!
- 1 LOAF OF BREAD: We squished it down to make it smaller and then it seemed endless!
- 1 PACKAGE OF HAWAIIAN ROLLS
- 3 INSTANT RICE PACKAGES
- 2 INSTANT POTATOES
- 4 PACKAGES OF RAMEN NOODLES
- 6 INSTANT OATMEAL PACKETS
- 1 BAG OF DOTS PRETZELS
- 1 BAG OF BABY CARROTS
- 1 PACKAGE OF SALAMI: We had salami and cheese sandwiches as our very first meal before we even got to our first campsite. It was a good way to have something different than the rice and potatoes we were going to be eating the rest of the time and an easy way to get rid of the perishables.
- CHEESE: See above. We had salami and cheese sandwiches as our first meal before we even settled at a campsite.
- 2 PACKAGES OF SHORE LUNCH
- MIO: Water flavoring
- 6 A&W POWDER PACKETS: For mixing alcoholic drinks
- 3-200 ML VARIETIES OF ALCOHOL
- 2-2.5 LITERS OF WATER
- PEANUT BUTTER
- INSTANT COFFEE
- POWDERED CREAMER
- COOKING STOVE: This link is to the camping stove we have and also includes a mess kit. Our pots and pans and supplies are all jumbled together from a variety of trips, but if you’re just getting started I highly recommend the project in the link!
- 1 PROPANE
- 2 LIGHTERS
- BIG COOKING POT: We don’t have the specific one that is linked, but it’s similar.
- 2 COOKING PANS: One had a lid.
- 2 PLASTIC MEASURING CUPS: We used these for measuring water for our food as well as for cups to drink out of! I love using supplies in multiple ways.
- 2 PLATES
- 2 PLASTIC BOWLS
- 1 FOLDABLE BOWL AND PLATE: This nifty piece can be a plate or folded up to make a bowl.
- 2 SPOONS
- 2 FORKS
- 2 BUTTER KNIVES
- SILICONE SCRAPER
- SMALL DISH SOAP
What We’d Bring The Next Time We Take A BWCA Trip
- MORE PLASTIC BAGS OR COMPRESSION BAGS: As I mentioned above, we used them for so many odds and ends. They keep things in order and dry but as soon as it gets a hole in it, it’s pretty useless.
- EXTRA TANK TOP FOR STEPH: When it was hot it was hot. Not only did my tops get dirty because of the work we did but also because I sweat a lot during the day. You’re always doing a mix of setting up camp, collecting wood, starting the fire, canoeing to your next spot, or just basking in the sun.
- MANUAL CHAIN SAW: You have to find your own wood and cut it all at each campsite. Usually, this means you have to go pretty deep to find anything worth taking. We only had the saw on our Swiss army knife which was helpful but still a challenge. We were thinking about buying a manual chain saw before we left but didn’t, and then we both agreed how much easier it would have been if we had bought it.
- SPEAKER: We played from our phones which worked fine, but for something a bit more energetic we’d bring a portable speaker with us next time!
What We’d Leave Behind
BIG CAMERA: We’d leave the Canon 5D Mark IV behind. Well, maybe. Scott is a photographer by trade so it’s hard to leave behind. However, we didn’t use it that much. Instead, we used the GoPro, Sony, and phones. The DSLR is heavy, you always have to have it protected from the water, and it’s cumbersome to travel/paddle/whip out for a quick shot.
STEPH’S HIKING BOOTS: I would leave these behind only because my sandals worked so well! I never wore my hiking boots because I didn’t have to.
Less stuff means more space for memories when it comes to the Boundary Waters.
I suggest you put some dedicated thought into what you’re going to bring for your trip and remember, if you’re planning on portaging you’ll have to haul all of your gear and supplies. Don’t be intimidated by this, rather get creative!
I know I said I’d bring an extra tank top next time, but maybe instead I just wash it in the lake one of the days!
No matter what you pack, have a blast on your own BWCA adventure!