Are you wondering what you actually need to have on your Boundary Waters packing list?
A successful trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (which is part of the US Forest Service) requires deliberate and careful preparation and packing. The lakes are incredibly remote, so it’s essential to have the correct gear.
However, you also have very limited space in your packs and in the canoes. AND you also have to be able to carry everything on your backs as you portage between lakes, so it’s really really important to bring only the gear that you absolutely need on your Boundary Waters camping list.
In this article, with the help of my dad who has had six successful Boundary Waters trips, I’m breaking down exactly what to put on your Boundary Waters packing list, and what to definitely leave behind.
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Boundary Waters Packing List: Personal Gear
When considering what personal gear to pack for the Boundary Waters, the name of the game is light and limited – the lighter the better.
Each person’s personal gear needs to fit in one school-sized backpack – there is not space in the canoe for multiple frame backpacks. This includes all clothing, toiletries, washcloths/towels, and pillows.
Additionally, any and all toiletries need to be fragrance-free so as not to attract any animals.
We lined the inside of the backpacks with a plastic garbage bag to keep the contents from getting wet when sitting on the bottom of the canoe. It’s also a good idea to have an extra bag to put around the outside in case it starts raining when you are canoeing.
In your backpack, pack the following items:
- Shirts and shorts/pants – I would strongly advise to wear outfits more than one day. Any more than that will not fit in your pack. For our 5 day/4 night trip, I brought 2 shirts and 2 shorts.
- Jacket or long-sleeved shirt and pants for mornings and evenings. Expect lows in the 50’s F in the summer – it gets chilly and I was happy to have my jacket and pants.
- Socks, etc
- Hat and/or sunglasses
- Shoes. The shoe situation can be tricky, so I’ll go into detail into this in the following sections, but a good pair of water shoes will be invaluable.
BWCA Gear List: Personal Hygiene
All of the items in this section will also get packed in your personal backpack (but many items can be shared between people).
The fragrance free chapsticks I brought were so helpful – after being out in the sun, wind, and waves all day, all our lips were pretty chapped. I was the only one who had brought chapstick and everyone was clambering to use it.
Filtered Water Bottle
This purifying water bottle is absolutely essential for your Boundary Waters gear list. They have their own purifier built in, so as we were canoeing, you can just dip the water bottle in the lake, fill it up, and drink from it right away.
Most days, we refilled them several times while in the canoe – you really have to have these or you will be going thirsty!
Since you are outside the whole trip and on the water for many hours of the day, sunscreen is essential.
I LOVE this Coppertone sunscreen. It’s a thin formula that rubs in very easily and doesn’t leave a white cast, and the bottle lasts forever. Bonus – it’s not an aerosol.
- Toothbrush and unscented toothpaste
- These will go in the bear barrel at night. We actually couldn’t find completely unscented toothpaste, so we chose a white gel version instead of the mintier green versions and then brushed our teeth a few hours before going to sleep.
- Personal medications, as needed
- Toilet paper – one roll per 2 people for 5 days
- On the American side of the Boundary Waters, each campsite has a latrine. If you go into Canada, they don’t have latrines. You need a special permit to go into Canada, so most Americans stay in the US. You can leave the used toilet paper in the latrine.
- Small flashlights or headlamps are the best option, but make sure to bring extra batteries
- Definitely not necessary but shaving my legs once or twice during our trip really helped me feel less gross, I’m just sayin’!
Again, all these items ideally go in your own personal backpack. If the sleeping pad is too big to fit in your backpack, just roll it up and strap it to the bottom of your bag.
Microfiber Camping Towel
Don’t even think about putting a regular beach towel, or even a bath towel on your Boundary Waters packing list. Those are way too bulky and cumbersome.
We bought this microfiber camping towel because it packs down very, very small, dries very fast, and somehow still manages to be as absorbent as a fluffy spa towel.
If you want to use your phone for pictures or navigation, you’ll need a way to charge it. We love this this sleek power bank because it carries enough juice for 4 complete charges.
If you, like me, don’t actually want to sleep on the hard ground, a sleeping pad is your best bet for getting a little more comfortable in the Boundary Waters. Air mattresses are much too bulky to bring, but a mattress pad can be rolled up and strapped to the bottom of your backpack.
It’s not going to turn your sleeping bag into a cushy bed, but it feels much better than sleeping directly on the ground. We’ve tried a bunch and this sleeping pad is the best – its self-inflating, and rolls up tighter and expands more when opened than any other we’ve tried.
Large carabiners (optional): It’s rare, but if your canoe capsizes you don’t want your gear sinking to the bottom of the lake. You can use the carabiners to clip your backpack or bear barrel (more on that below) to the canoe.
It’s also super helpful during portages if you have anything extra to clip onto the backpack – like your filtered water bottle, for example.
- Head cover mosquito netting
- They are optional but nice if the bugs are buzzing all around your head. This was the only trip of the six my dad has taken when they were needed – but boy were they helpful for the hour right after sunset when the mosquitos were out and SWARMING. You can find them for a buck or two in-store at Walmart in their camping section.
- 1 quart or 1 gallon zip lock bag
- We like to pack all small items in a zip lock bag so they are easy to find and don’t get lost.
- Phone/Camera (optional) plus a dry bag to put it into, even a plastic bag will do.
- There is no cell service in the Boundary Waters so only bring your phone for pictures or for maps (pre-download any maps you need before you go)
Let’s Discuss Shoes
Okay, let’s talk more in-depth about shoes. The shoe situation is a tricky item on your Boundary Waters gear list because you want sturdy enough shoes that will protect your feet when you’re setting up camp or portaging on dry land. However, when you’re canoeing, it’s extremely hard to enter or exit the canoe without stepping in water, so you want some kind of water shoe.
I didn’t have a great shoe system and ended up just wearing a pair of regular, old sneakers. Aaaaaaaand then that pair of sneakers was basically sopping wet the entire time because I just had to wade in the water to get in and out of the canoe.
Matthew would sometimes change shoes when we got on land and were ready to portage, but that’s not a great option – it just takes time.
My brother undoubtedly had the best shoe situation, which was a pair of water shoes with a sturdy sole. The water drained and dried easily but he still got support and protection when portaging through the woods with 50-100 lbs on his back.
This pair of water shoes is very similar to what he used. I would FOR SURE recommend having some water shoes like these, as they make the whole experience much more pleasant and simple. While you can wear a hiking sandal, remember, you’ll be wading in water with rocks and leeches – closed toe will be safer.
Whatever you choose to wear, remember that foot injuries from improper footwear is the number 1 cause of injury in the Boundary Waters, and if you sprain an ankle and can’t walk well, that is going to really mess up the rest of your trip. So supportive footwear is imperative!
Tip: Expect that when you portage, your personal backpack will be worn on your front and a large item will be carried on your back.
Group Gear on Your Boundary Waters Packing List
Group gear is shared by the group and is packed into the bear barrel, the portage pack, or the large frame pack (more info on the bags in an upcoming section). Here is the group gear you should add to your Boundary Waters packing list:
Meal Gear to Pack for the Boundary Waters
Every campsite in the Boundary Waters has a fire pit, a fire ring, and a metal grate that sits over the top where you can cook your meals.
A good bear barrel is an absolute must for a Boundary Waters camping list – keeping food secure and smells contained at night is really, really important.
We’ve had this bear barrel for quite a while and it has been very durable and held up well, latches tightly at the top, and has plenty of space inside. It also has the shoulder and waist straps so you can carry it on your back when portaging – a crucial feature.
Two Cast Iron Skillets
The cast iron skillets are heavy, but they really are the best for cooking over an open flame. Non-stick is definitely your best option.
We like bringing two skillets, because at some meals we were cooking two different things. One of the skillets can also be flipped over on top of the other one to create a dutch oven.
The iron skillets were strapped to the outside top of the bear barrel at the beginning of the trip, until we had eaten enough that they could be nestled inside.
Metal Stirring Spoon + Spatula + Pot
Bowls and Utensils
We brought one camping bowl and a set of silverware for each person.
We used these camping bowls (we didn’t bother with plates – everything we ate went in a bowl for simplicity sake), and the silverware just came from home.
Inline Water Purification System for the Campsite
We used an inline gravity water filtration system to purify larger amounts of water at the campsite for cooking or cleaning.
We’ve looked extensively into the filtration levels different brands provide, and feel that the Sawyer brand is absolutely top of the line.
Fragrance-Free, Biodegradable Dish Soap
Not only does your soap need to be fragrance-free like all of your other toiletries, it also needs to be biodegradable.
We used this soap for dishes, as it fits the bill for both requirements and works really well.
Backup Water Filtration
These fold up saws were absolutely perfect for cutting up firewood. We actually bought a couple so multiple people could be working on firewood.
These are super handy because – you guessed it – they fold down really small but cut well.
Matches and Fire Starters
Definitely don’t forget waterproof matches and/or fire starters. Matches, of course, will work, but the fire starters will help start a fire easily in any weather.
Small Portable Butane Stove
A butane stove is only as a Plan B, in case there is a fire restriction in the Boundary Waters. Check before you go; if there aren’t restrictions, I’d skip this and just use your campfire for cooking.
- Paper towels
- Used for wiping the iron skillet with oil after use, and for any other cleanup needed. Take the inside cardboard tube out to save space.
- Garbage bags (all waste must be packed out)
- Large, unscented kitchen sized garbage bags can be used for lining the insides of backpacks and for makeshift ponchos. I don’t recommend using a big garbage bag for trash though – check out this post for what to do instead.
- Hand sanitizer – unscented
I have an entire post dedicated to meal planning, the best way to organize your food and meal gear, what to do about garbage, and tons of practical tips about food and meals in the Boundary Waters.
Sleeping Gear for the Group
You want to have several small tents instead of one big tent. Campsites usually have several smaller areas for tent set-up and a large tent (e.g. an 8-person or 10-person) would not fit. We had a 6-person group and brought 3 small tents to use.
We just used standard sleeping bags but a compact sleeping bag is sooooo much smaller and I wish we would’ve had them. Most of the sleeping bags got packed into the portage pack and they didn’t even all fit.
Pillow or Pillow Alternative
This is a bit of a luxury item on this Boundary Waters packing list – my dad and brother just used a sweatshirt for their pillow! However, I knew that I would sleep SO much better with a pillow, so I brought a really small 12×12 pillow that we had at home.
If you don’t have something really small like that already, I would grab this small, compressible camping pillow.
Other Group Gear For Your BWCA Packing List
Fragrance-Free and Biodegradable Shampoo
I also bought this fragrance-free and biodegradable shampoo with the hope that I could wash my hair halfway through, but it didn’t arrive in time. Next time I’ll order it earlier, because I would have really loved to wash my hair during the trip!
We brought two 2-person hammocks for relaxing at camp after a long day of canoeing. We vastly prefer 2-person hammocks because the single person hammocks are too narrow, even for just one person.
Small shovel (garden spade) to dig latrines
For if you need to use the bathroom while away from camp or at a portage point – you’ll need to dig a hole to bury your waste.
Paracord and Alligator Straps
The paracord can be used as a laundry line to dry swimsuits, or to lash canoes together (in case someone needs help, in case something breaks, or to tie/lash things together.)
We used alligator straps to cinch extra sleeping bags to the bottom of our backpacks for portaging. We also used the alligator straps to add extra length to the hammocks (if the trees are more spread out). We brought 4 alligator straps, one for each end of the 2 hammocks)
Aluminum Foil Tape
Aluminum foil tape is for emergency repairs to the canoe.
Bear Spray (Optional)
From my dad: “I’ve never brought it. It’s a 50-50 opinion on whether it’s useful or not, but it is an optional item to consider. Some people think it makes the bear mad or hostile. If you don’t know how to use it 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 on your own if this is something you feel you should add to your Boundary Waters packing list.”
If you decide to bring bear spray, this is a good option
- Wilderness First Aid Kit
- A first aid kit is very important part of your packing list for the Boundary Waters. Our first aid kit was comprised of four bags:
- 1. Medicines of all sorts (pills, ointments)
- 2. Bandages, large and small
- 3. Suture kit and medical tool kit for removing fish hooks and doing small body repairs, including various tools to grab and cut. (lidocaine for serious injuries).
- 4. Burns and bugs: Any topical treatments for bug bites and sunburns.
- You can also buy a wilderness first aid kit online, but I’m not linking to any because most of the pre-assembled kits I found were subpar (just a bunch of bandaids). However you assemble a kit, group like items in sub-bags in the first aid bag.
- This is a good article about what specific first aid items to pack.
- A first aid kit is very important part of your packing list for the Boundary Waters. Our first aid kit was comprised of four bags:
- Maps and GPS
- We used two things for navigation in the Boundary Waters. The first was a laminated paper map – which you can buy here. I’d call and talk to an outfitter to discuss a good route for you so you know which maps to buy. You can also pick up a paper map at the outfitters, but it won’t be laminated or waterproof. These maps show the lakes, the portage sites, and campsites.
- The second thing we used was the Navionics app. This app is speficially designed for water navigation, and shows the lakes, islands, water depth, underwater structures, and more. The app isn’t free, but it’s worth it! Download the app and the maps that you want ahead of time so you can access them without data.
- Good navigational tools is probably the most important thing to remember to add to your BWCA packing list. You can really get lost up there without good maps and paying attention to where you are! The paper map and navigation app are what we used and worked well for us, but make sure that you feel confident in what you choose to use.
- Don’t forget battery backups for phones!
- Weather radio
- Know the general location where you are in relation to the cities nearby so you know what weather to listen for. We generally listened for weather near Ely, MN.
- Good satellite phone for emergencies
- This isn’t absolutely essential for a Boundary Waters packing list, but in our situation, I was glad we had it. There is zero cell service in the Boundary Waters, so we got a Verizon Satellite phone ($80 for a week) so that we could communicate occasionally with my mom, who was watching our kids (including my 5 year old with type 1 diabetes), or in case we ourselves had an emergency.
- Float plan
- This is a written record of the route you plan to take so someone else knows where you will be (give a copy to someone before you leave)
- All medical forms
- Don’t forget medical cards and authorization to take care of you in case there is an emergency on your BWCA gear list. Make sure everyone knows where it is in the group gear.
- Fishing gear and fishing license (if you plan to fish)
- We kept the tackle box and poles loose in the canoe
Important Note: As you are planning your Boundary Waters packing list, make sure you account for who is responsible for carrying each piece of gear, and if you are able to carry everything you have packed (remembering you will also have the canoes to portage as well!)
While you could do a double portage (take a load over, then walk back and take another load over), you really don’t want to; it’s so much better to be able to take everything in a single trip.
Types of Bags We Brought
Each person’s personal backpack for their personal items.
All personal items go in your personal backpack. If you can’t fit all your gear into your backpack, you are bringing too much stuff.
One Portage Pack
The portage pack is a very large bag to contain a lot of the camping equipment and is definitely a Boundary Waters essential.
Tents, hammocks, the tackle box, and as many sleeping bags as could fit were the main cargo here. (Any sleeping bags that wouldn’t fit were strapped to the bottom of our backpacks.)
Before packing the sleeping bags in the portage pack, we stuff them into dry bags. Between all the loading and unloading at multiple portage points, there are a lot of opportunities for sleeping bags to get wet, or at the very least splashed, and a wet sleeping bag is kind of the worst.
They dry bags also function as compression, making the sleeping bags smaller and easier to fit in the portage pack.
One Large Frame Backpack
Most group gear will go in the frame backpack. Whoever is the trip guide and will be carrying the frame backpack also packs their personal gear inside this pack. Otherwise, there are not enough backs to carry all the gear.
We like this frame backpack because there are a lot of separate compartments and there’s really good waist support and padding on the waist strap.
This has all the food PLUS cooking supplies in it. As I mentioned above, this bear barrel has a good latch, is very durable (its lasted us through many trips!), and very importantly, has shoulder and waist straps for portaging.
When it is full, the barrel can be between 60-80 pounds depending on what you choose for food and cooking gear. It is the heaviest thing that will be portaged at the beginning of the trip. It will get lighter as the trip goes on though!
Gear You Can Rent: Canoes, Lifejackets, and More
Unless you live close and own your own canoes, you will need to rent canoes from an outfitter. As mentioned above, we have used Williams and Hall Outfitters for years and only had great experiences with them.
The canoes we get have shoulder pads for portaging – very important so that your shoulders don’t die moer than necessary during portages. Lifejackets will also come with the canoe rental.
We had a group of six, and rented two canoes to fit 3 people each. This was nice, because it was one less canoe to portage and each canoe had an extra person to help paddle.
Shoulder pads are VERY important so your shoulders don’t die (more than necessary) on portages. We rented the canoes from the outfitters.
You can rent all the bigger items on this canoe trip gear list from an outfitter, including the canoes, a bear barrel, a portage pack, etc if you don’t own them. If you are going to do more than one canoe and camping trip like this, though, it’s probably worth investing in some of the gear yourself.
For dry bags, you can rent them, but you are going to pay almost as much to rent as to buy them. You definitely need these for sleeping bags to ensure they stay dry. We used one dry bag per sleeping bag.
One other thing you should purchase from your outfitter:
This depends on where you launch from, but when we launch from Williams and Hall Outfitters, or from other locations in the area, you’ll have 8 miles of lake to cross before you enter the official Boundary Waters entry point. At Williams and Hall, they offer an inexpensive water taxi on the lake to the entry point, and you can also arrange a pickup when you finish.
If you are entering through Williams and Hall, or another outfitter or entry point with a similar set-up, I’d highly recommend you do the water taxi.
While the lakes and landscape outside of the offical BW area are still so beautiful, there are boats going by, creating sound and waves, and the serenity that is such a hallmark of the Boundary Waters is interrupted by the boats roaring past. It’s much better just to ride in the motor boat to the drop off point.
What NOT to Add to Your Boundary Waters Packing List
Short answer: if it’s not on the above lists, don’t bring it. Long answer: especially, don’t bring these things:
- Food in individual packs – ALL FOOD MUST BE IN THE COMMUNITY BEAR BARREL. Don’t become a bear snack during the night!
- No firearms – this is a Boundary Waters rule
- No metal cans, glass containers, or aerosols for anything
- No smellables – that means no scented anything such as scented deodorant, chapstick, lotion, sunscreen, etc. Using smellables could turn you into bear bait or attract other unwanted critters to your campsite.
- Anything extra. You don’t need a new pair of clothes for every day. I know that sounds gross but that’s the reality and you don’t have space.
- Most electronics. Be careful with any electronics you do bring. Anything that is not waterproof should probably be left or put in a waterproof container.
- No sound-producing stuff. Leave No Trace applies to audio pollution.
- Leave as much food packaging and waste behind as possible. I go into more detail about this in my Boundary Waters Menu and Meal Planning Guide.
Final Thoughts on a Boundary Waters Packing List
I hope this gives you a good idea of how to plan your Boundary Waters packing list, what things are BWCA must haves, what gear might be nice to bring depending on your situation, and what things you should definitely leave at home!
A canoe trip to the Boundary Waters is such a unique experience, but you are going to be isolated for a while, so plan ahead and pack with care so that you have a safe and fantastic trip!
Check Out My Other Boundary Waters Canoe Trip Articles:
- The Boundary Waters: A True Wilderness Experience
- What to Know Before You Do a Boundary Waters Canoe Trip
- A Menu and Meal Planning Guide for the Boundary Waters