Canoeing in the Boundary Waters is an amazing experience. But…. to get the most out of it you need to know a few things so that you can fully enjoy it. Here are some things to know so that your trip goes as smoothly as possible and doesn’t get derailed.
CANEOING IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS: PREPARATION and PLANNING
Speaking of derailed, let’s make sure you get out of the station. Everyone who goes canoeing in the Boundary Waters needs a permit, and only a certain number of permits per launch point are available each day. To get a permit, go to the website. www.recreation.gov/permits and click into the Boundary Waters section. There you can see how many are available on different days.
Your permit is good for 14 days from the date of entry, so you can stay as short or as long as you want, up to the 14 days. Permits do run out for the more popular weeks in June and July. If you want to go in June or July, definitely try to get your permits and reserve your canoes (if not supplying your own) before April. August dates have less demand, but I would still book early.
How to Use an Outfitter
You can bring your own canoes and life jackets up to the Boundary Waters, but if you don’t have them, or if you don’t want the hassle, you can also rent from one of the many outfitters set up along the Boundary Waters.
We have always used Williams and Hall Outfitters. They are located on Moose Lake, east of Ely, Minnesota. This is entry point 25. At this location, you can lodge in the bunkhouse (very clean) for $10 per person the night before you start so that you can get on the water first thing in the morning. No matter where you start from, you definitely want to drive up the night before and stay overnight so you can get an early start your first morning.
Why start so early?
Well, travel conditions tend to be best in the morning. As a consequence of this, you’ll find that when canoeing in the Boundary Waters everyone gets up and canoes in the morning. This matters because campsites are first come, first serve and by mid-afternoon camping sites are taken. To get a good site and not have them all filled, you want to start first thing (we usually were paddling by 8 a.m. at the latest).
The other benefit of going through an outfitter is that they help handle the permits for your canoe trip. If you are launching by yourself, you will need to check in at a ranger station for your canoe permit. Alternatively, you can bring your own canoes and pay the outfitter to give you a water tow in their motorboat to the starting point.
You could just start canoeing from the Outfitters, but since it’s not technically the Boundary Waters yet, there are motorboats going by dropping people off and that, plus it being a large lake, makes it not as nice of an experience as just being able to start from the official drop off point.
How Much Does it Cost to Go Canoeing in the Boundary Waters?
There are several costs for a Boundary Waters canoe trip:
- Permits – Each permit costs $16 per adult, $8 per youth under 18, plus a $6 reservation fee
- Rentals – At Williams and Hall, canoes range from $37-55 per canoe per day
- Bunk Price (staying overnight the night before launch) – $12-17 per person per night
- Water tow – ~$35 round trip
- Food – Of course, depends on what you decide to bring. Read our Menu and Meal Planning Guide here.
- Gear – Depends on what you already own, decide to rent, or buy. These are some prices for gear to rent from Williams and Hall: Sleeping bags = $7, Portage pack = $6 per day, food pack = $6 per day, tents = $20 per day. Read our complete list of what to pack for the Boundary Waters here.
When you are planning your routes, take into account people’s fitness and canoe skill level. These are general recommendations we were told for how far you could plan to go each day depending on your level:
Beginner: 4-6 miles a day
Intermediate: 6-10 miles/day
Experienced: 10+ miles
For our trip, canoeing experience varied from beginner to experienced, and everyone had very average fitness levels. On two separate days we were able to do over 10 miles in the canoe. We also were lucky in that we had low winds almost all the time. Stronger head winds would have made it much harder. As it was, each day we were tired when we got to our campsite, but not completely exhausted, so consider your group’s abilities when considering mileage (e.g. a strong canoer can help make up the difference of a beginner canoer).
Tip: Before heading up to the Boundary Waters, leave your route plan with someone so they know where you are planning on being each day, in case something happens. It’s also a good idea to get some maps ahead of time and laminate them if you can. Those were extremely helpful for us.
Another thing to consider is how much you can carry while portaging. Portages are measured in “rods”, where one rod is 17 feet, the length of the canoe. Most portages are between 20-100 rods, but there are some longer ones (we did two that were almost 200 rods).
Everyone needs to be able to carry 30-80 pounds of gear on their shoulders and backs, and you definitely need to have several people who can carry the heavy stuff. For us, we had 3 people who consistently carried the heaviest gear and then the other 3 people carried the less heavy gear.
Not everyone in your group needs to be able to carry all the heaviest stuff, as long as you know that all the heavy stuff can be carried by someone. We found that the hardest things to carry were the bear barrel, the canoes, and the portage pack (this held the tents and sleeping bags).
Campsites in the Boundary Waters are first come, first serve! If someone is at a campsite you wanted, you will need to continue to the next one, so keep that in mind when planning your route and how far you’ll go per day. Keep an eye out for open sites you pass in case backtracking is the best option.
What Kind of Canoe to Rent
There are generally two types of canoes to rent: aluminum or kevlar. Aluminum canoes are heavier, but less tippy and less prone to damage, whereas kevlar canoes are tippier and more subject to being blown off course by wind, but much less heavy. We decided to get the aluminum canoes because someone (ok, fine, it was me) was worried about tipping over.
I don’t know that it was the best choice though. We certainly did not tip (in fact, one day after unloading all our gear some of the boys went out and tried to swamp the canoes for fun and had a really hard time of it) but the canoes were very heavy. We did see a lot of people with kevlar canoes.
One thing that was a really good decision was to get two canoes and put three people in each, instead of getting three canoes with two people in each. Having three people in each canoe made it so much easier to paddle, and having to only portage two canoes instead of three was so, so helpful as well. If you are able, I would highly recommend putting three people in a canoe.
Base Camp or Break Camp
When are you canoeing in the Boundary Waters, you have two possible types of trips you can do:
- Paddle in, find your camp, and stay there the whole time, with just paddling around during the day, but always coming back to the base camp OR
- Breaking camp every morning and going to a new location every day
In a “regular” trip, I really hate checking in and out of hotels every single day, but when I’m canoeing in the Boundary Waters I think it is a lot more fun to continue on to new places every day. To each their own, but I do think it’s more exciting to keep going farther in every day.
Best Times to Go & What You Can Expect for Weather
Personally, I would not go to the Boundary Waters in June, just because the bugs tend to be big and heavy then, and the weather is cooler (the cooler weather does make for better fishing, though)
Later July to mid-August is a good time for better weather, the bugs aren’t as bad, and water is warmer. However, the fishing is harder in July-August because of the warmer water.
When we were there the last week of July we had highs in the mid-70’s. The water temp was in the mid to upper-60’s. It was very nice weather for Boundary Waters.
Earlier in the season the water temps can be in the 50’s, so very chilly. Later in August the water temperature very rapidly cools off because the overnight lows start to approach 40’s. The water temp roughly follows the average daily temperature (the midpoint between the daily high and low).
Be prepared for severe weather and rain. Chances are very high you will canoe in the rain at some point. If there’s lightning, it’s not safe to canoe, but if it’s just raining, you definitely still can (and we saw many people doing it!)
As you are planning your route and your daily plans, be sure to make allowances or potential backup plans if you get slowed down by wind or a storm passing through. Heavy winds can also come up which can also slow you down.
On our trip we had great weather, with just a little rain one time and light winds the whole time.
However, my dad had much worse weather several years ago when the wind was crazy high one day – they had winds gusting to almost 30 mph. This created high waves, with waves breaking over the sides of the canoes, and someone getting blown out to the middle of the lake. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but it is good to be prepared if it does (and have time built in to wait it out if it becomes that bad). Do note that thunderstorms can roll in pretty quickly, so pay attention to weather cues.
It’s also a good idea to look at a map ahead of time and know the geography and cities around you, so that when you hear cities being called on the weather radio you know what’s happening relative to you. Have somebody proficient in interpreting the sky and understanding weather by what you can see.
CANOEING IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS SAFETY INFORMATION
After all your preparation, there is still a chance things won’t go according to plan. Here are some common things to watch out for.
The most common injury in the Boundary Water are foot injuries. The second most common injury are fish hooks being lodged in body parts.
When you consider how often you will be carrying heavy, bulky items across rough terrain, it’s easy to see how this can lead to a lot of injuries! It is super important to have good, supportive footwear, especially for the portaging sections. When considering what footwear to bring, I would choose to get sneakers wet rather than wearing flimsy sandals or something.
Also be prepared for leeches at portage points. Any point that your foot goes in the water there is the possibility for a leech to come back out with it. Bonus tip: If you do get one, save it. They are excellent fish bait!
Watch out when you are at entry/exit portage points and at the shoreline of campsites because fish hooks are sometimes left in the water and could get lodged in your foot or other body part. Don’t be the jerk who leaves a fish hook lying around! And if you do see one, do a good deed and pack it out!
Also, it’s a good idea to not keep fish hooks on your line as you are canoeing and portaging. One year one of my brothers got a fish hook stuck in his arm after he portaged the poles – not a good idea! Finally, make sure you pay attention when casting that you don’t hook yourself or someone behind you!
Anything that has a scent MUST go in the bear barrel at night. That includes things such as chapstick, toothpaste, lotions, etc. All personal hygiene things should be in a ziplock bag so they can easily be put in a bear barrel at night.
Additionally, if you need to use any smellables, do it well before dark. So, for example, we tried to brush our teeth at least an hour before bed so that the scent could dissipate while people were still up and making noise.
Bear attacks are very uncommon, but they do happen. If a bear is nearby, the best way to get them to leave is by making yourself as big or loud as possible.
Bringing bear spray is an option, but opinions are divided on whether it is actually helpful or not. Some people think it makes the bear mad or hostile.
If you don’t know how to use bear spray and you just sting them instead of disable them, they are going to get MAD and you’re going to be worse off. Generally bears can be scared away with noise.
If you have a psycho bear that’s chasing you and you need to use bear spray, it would probably not be effective anyway. However, definitely study this out on your own and decide if this is something you feel you should bring. Click here and here for more information.
Wilderness Survival Information
At least one person on the trip needs to have good knowledge of wilderness survival and wilderness first aid. You should also have a good wilderness first aid kit with you.
We have four smaller bags in our first aid kit:
- Bag 1: Medicines, all sorts (pills, ointments)
- Bag 2: All forms of bandages small and large
- Bag 3: Tools for removing fish hooks and doing small body repairs; a suture kit; a medical tool kit with various things to grab and cut
- Bag 4: Anything to treat and prevent burns and bugs bites
Last Thoughts on Canoeing in the Boundary Waters
This is not like going to a campsite where you lug things a few feet from your car and can go back to town if you need something; it’s the wilderness. If no one in your group has prior experience, you can hire a guide from the Outfitters. Otherwise, make sure you plan an appropriate route to your level of experience and spend much more time in preparation.
That being said, canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota was an absolutely amazing experience, and it can be a ton of fun and a great adventure, as long as you are properly prepared, have a plan, and know what you’re doing. So go make your plan and enjoy the journey!