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 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. This includes all clothing, toiletries, washcloths/towels, and pillows. There is not space in the canoe for a large frame backpack for multiple people. 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 for mornings and evenings (These can double as a pillow if you want. Expect 50 degrees F at night in the summer.)
- Socks and underwear
- Rain gear (poncho)
- An extra pair of shoes. It’s nice to have tennis shoes for portaging and a wet-shoe for canoeing. Whichever you are not currently wearing will be in your pack or tied to the outside.
- 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
- Bug repellent
- Unscented chapstick
- The fragrance free chapstick 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. I like this particular kind because I didn’t have to worry about when I put it on – even right before bed, I knew I was okay to apply and didn’t worry about attracting animals.
- 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.
- Small flashlights or headlamps are the best option, bring extra batteries
- Purifying water bottle
- For this trip, we filtered water with an inline filter for campsite use (cooking, washing up), but each person also had their own purifying water bottle. These are absolutely essential to add to your Boundary Waters gear list because you just cannot rely on the campsite filtered water to last you through the long canoeing and portaging days. Honestly, even at the campsite its better to save the inline filtered water for cleaning and cooking and always use your purifying water bottle for drinking.
- These water bottles have their own purifier built in, so as we were canoeing, we could 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!
- Sun glasses and/or hat with brim
- Sun screen
- Since you are outside the whole trip and on the water for many hours of the day, sunscreen is essential. I brought a couple different types of sunscreen. The first one is this kind for my face. I am very prone to breakouts, and certain sunscreen can trigger breakouts for me, so I use this everyday on my face – it has good coverage, isn’t greasy, doesn’t leave a white cast, and offers good SPF.
- If you aren’t prone to breakouts and your face can handle any kind of sunscreen, I always use this sunscreen stick. I love a sunscreen stick and use them all the time on my kids because they are so easy to apply and there is never any spillage. For sunscreen on the rest of my body, I usually just pick up any old thing at Walmart.
- 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 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. We got them for the Boundary Waters but have used them for other camping trips, and brought them to Iceland and Costa Rica – they’re just all-around handy for many situations.
- Definitely not necessary but shaving my legs once or twice during our trip really helped me feel less gross.
- 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
- Pack all small items in a zip lock bag so they are easy to find and don’t get lost.
- Phone/Camera (optional) plus waterproof box or dry bag that can click to something.
- There is no cell service in the Boundary Waters so only bring your phone for pictures or for maps (pre-downloaded)
- Phone battery charge bank
- Only necessary if you bring your phone (for pictures or navigation apps). We love this sleek one because it carries enough juice for 4 complete charges.
- Sleeping pad
- 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 one is the best – its self-inflating, and rolls up tighter and expands more when opened than any other we’ve tried.
- Large carabiners or a quick tie system to attach packs to the canoe. It’s rare, but if your canoe capsizes you don’t want your gear sinking to the bottom of the lake.
One more note about shoes because the shoe situation can be tricky. It is quite hard (I would say almost impossible most of the time) to successfully get in and out of canoes at portage points without getting your feet wet. So you need to wear something on your feet that can get wet. However, 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 proper footwear is imperative.
If you have good shoes – like chacos – that can give good foot support and also are designed for water, definitely bring those. Just note that any exposed skin in the water could pick up a leech, so do a quick check of your feet after being in the water. What I ended up doing most days was wearing tennis shoes and just accepting that they were going to get soaked. At the longer portages on the last day, Matthew quickly switched between wet and dry shoes.
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.
Boundary Waters Packing List: Group Gear
Meal Gear to Pack for the Boundary Waters
- Bear barrel
- 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. (Read more about our BW Menu Guide here)
- Cooking pots/pans, spatula, large spoon, ladle
- We brought 2 metal spatulas , 2 iron skillets that can be used for frying as well as a dutch oven if baking anything (depends on what you want to cook). We also had a large pot that food was nested into in the bear barrel. The iron skillets were strapped to the outside top of the bear barrel.
- One bowl and utensils for each person
- Matches and fire starters
- Backpack saws/hatchet
- These saws fold up and are used for chopping 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.
- Water purification (filter and iodine)
- We used an inline water filter with two 2-gallon containers. One 2-gallon container was filled with lake water and it filtered through the inline filter to the other 2-gallon container. This was used for water needs at the campsite. You for sure want to include some backup systems on your Boundary Waters camping list — we also had iodine tablets and neutralizer as a backup system. We each had individual filtered water bottles for personal use and canoe use.
- 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
- At each meal, gallon-sized ziploc bags are used to contain that meal’s food. At the end of the meal, any Ziploc bags used to contain food are now the garbage bags and any waste from the meal goes in the bags. These garbage bags are kept in the top of the bear barrel and packed out.
- Small portable stove with butane (optional)
- For backup and in case there is a fire restriction (there was a fire restriction two weeks prior to when we went up). Check before you go; if there aren’t restrictions, I’d skip this.
- Read our Boundary Waters Menu and Meal Planning Guide here
- Sleeping bag w/ small pillow rolled in for each person
- Consider towel, sweatshirt or other pillow substitute to save space. If you do bring a pillow, it definitely should be a small, throw-sized pillow. We had some 12×12 throw pillows that we stuffed in our backpacks – this was honestly a bit of a luxury item on my Boundary Waters packing list, but I knew it would make a big difference in my sleep quality. You could also consider a camping pillow.
- We just used standard sleeping bags but a compact sleeping bag is so much smaller and I wish we would’ve had them. All of the sleeping bags got packed into the portage pack and it all barely fit.
- 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.
Other Group Gear For Your BWCA Packing List
- Small shovel (garden spade) to dig latrines
- For if you need to use the bathroom while away from camp or at a portage point
- Hand sanitizer – unscented
- 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 wilderness canoe trip packing list.”
- These are two articles that weigh pros/cons of bear spray – do what you feel most comfortable with: article one, article two
- Dish soap and shampoo
- 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. 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 halfway through (and why I’m always wearing a hat, ha!)
- Wilderness First Aid Kit
- 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. 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.
- Our first aid kit was comprised of four bags:
- Maps, Compass and GPS
- Maps and Navigation- Buy a paper map from the outfitter and laminate so they don’t get soggy (everything seems to get a little wet by the end)
- GPS Water Navigation app
- We used the Navionics app for navigating on water. Download the app and the maps that you want ahead of time so you can access them without data. It’s not free, but it’s one of the best apps because it gives you all kinds of information about underwater structures and depth of water.
- 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! If you get lost, there’s no one around to rescue you.
- 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
- 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. 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 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
- Medical cards and authorization to take care of you in case there is an emergency. Make sure everyone knows where it is in the group gear.
- Rope, bungee cords, paracord
- In case something breaks, or to tie/lash things together
- Survival kit (whistle, signal mirror, etc)
- Duct tape, aluminum foil tape
- Aluminum foil tape is for emergency repairs to the canoe. Or, you know, FlexSeal!!!!
- Fishing gear and fishing license (if you plan to fish)
- We kept the tackle box and poles loose in the canoe
And of course:
- Canoes with shoulder pads for portaging
- Shoulder pads are VERY important so your shoulders don’t die (more than necessary) on portages. We rented the canoes from the outfitters.
- Life jackets – rented with the canoes
Important Note: As you are planning what to put on 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. While you could do a double portage, you 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.
- Tents and sleeping bags are the main cargo here.
- Dry Bags
- 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.
- One large frame backpack
- Most group gear goes in the frame backpack. Whoever is the trip guide and will be carrying the frame backpack also uses it as their personal pack (instead of a school sized backpack). Otherwise, there are not enough backs to carry all the gear.
- One bear barrel –
- 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 to Rent
You can rent all the bigger items on this canoe trip gear list from an outfitter, including a bear barrel, a portage pack, dry bags, canoes, 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.
You should definitely also pay for a water tow to the starting point. From where we started, it’s an 8 mile, all-day paddle and you are fighting against the waves of the water tows from other people.
And while it’s still beautiful, the serenity that is such a hallmark of the area 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.
I hope this gives you a good idea of how to plan your Boundary Waters packing list! 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!