Virgin BWCA paddler needing advice

I am planning my “trip of a lifetime” to the BWCA, and would like some of your expertise. I would say my skill level is intermediate, in both canoeing and camping. I have watched every video, and read almost every book on the BWCA, but alas, have no first hand experience. Should the first trip be with an outfitter, or could a successful time be had with limited experience? I have all necessary gear for wilderness camping, and my canoe is a Mad River Explorer TT(about 75 lbs.) I will be on a limited budget, but if it’s better to rent equipment(lighter canoe, etc.) I could save up. After reading some of the posts about overcrowding, and camp site availability battles, I’m a little concerned about that, too. O.K., I’ll shut up now and listen.

outfitter or a bwcaw veteran
i think you’d get the most out of the trip going with a veteran or through an outfitter. so many routes to choose; what’s your priority? soltitude, fishing, wildlife, scenery, big lakes, small lakes, waterfalls? lightweight equipment will make your trip a more positive experience the first time, especially the canoe. i used to sometimes take my 78 lb mad river revelation, but you’ll enjoy the portages rather than dread them with a lighter canoe. when are you planning to go? ww

Find a partner and go for it!
I wouldn’t recommend a solo trip as the first experience. Things can go wrong, falls on portages can happen (I broke an arm on a fall in the Quetico 10 years ago), and it’s just safer to be with another canoe. Like ww said, you’d get the most out of a trip going with a veteran. I don’t necessarily think you need an outfitter. You’ve got the gear you need already. I think the Beymer guide books will allow you to plan your route without an outfitter, if you want to keep cost down. You’ve got a canoe that’s same weight as a 17’ Grumman that a lot of us started off with and traveled a lot of miles with for years. If you’re younger, strong, and in good health there’s no reason not to use your Explorer. But like ww said a light kevlar canoe is a lot more pleasant on portages. What would be my biggest concern is how good are your navigation skills. If you are skilled with following along on a map and using a compass, great! If you aren’t, you may want to work on those skills or keep your route to smaller lakes which are easier to navigate through. Large lakes with lots of islands can be tricky to navigate. From right now (after Labor Day) through early October is a great time to trip. The crowds that you see within a day’s travel of entry points in summer will be much thinned down now.

good points, darryl
i consider myself pretty decent with a map, and didn’t trust the compass and so the first 3 times i paddled on alpine i spent 1/2 day lost. seems i recall similar experiences a couple of times in red rock bay of sag. ww

Thanks for the good advice…
my brother and I are planning to go sometime in early spring, around late April - early May. I am looking forward to the fishing and just soak in the beauty and solitude of the BWCA. I’m 47 yrs old and in decent health, but frankly, haven’t done much heavy exursion in the past few years. I think I would be better to start off with a shorter trip, and/or with an outfitter’s assistance. I must admit, my skills with a compass, haven’t really been tested before(I have been on a couple of backpacking trips many years ago, so I will have to brush up)and I plan to get in better shape during the winter(new YMCA membership!). I think my plan will be to take all my camping gear, rent a Kevlar canoe, and use that outfitter to help with entry points, permits, etc. What do you guys think? Thanks again, ww and DuluthMoose, for your responses.

Nothing wrong with an ice out trip, just don’t plan on fishing at the end of April or early May. Usually the Minnesota fishing season doesn’t open until Mother’s Day weekend. So if fishing is a primary activity, plan your trip accordingly. The fish bite is usually more agressive at the end of May through June, but black flies and mosquitos can bite just as agressively then. I know you will appreciate the rental kevlar canoe out on the trail. You won’t regret it, but watch out - kevlar canoes are addictive. It’s your choice using the outfitter for permitting and trip planning or doing those chores yourself. Use this first trip as a stepping stone for bigger trips to come. Pick a route with options to shorten it or lengthen it if necessary. Do a couple back to back 9AM to 3PM travel days, moving all your gear to test yourself and get a feel for how many miles you can cover in a day. I find it takes 2 to 3 days on the trail to get in the groove. Find the paddling pace you can keep up all day. Get early starts in the morning and plan on camping by mid afternoon to lessen campsite availability problems. Early season travel can be rainy and windy so make sure a tarp is part of your gear.

fish bite=bug bites
i like those mid may-june trips but take plenty of bug dope and a good attitude! i highly reccomend the gunflint trail area, and hungry jack outfitters. dave and nancy are nice, knowledgable people, and they live there year round. just one outfitted trip with them can provide you with imfo it would take a few years to learn on your own. they also do food and canoe packages for those that have their own gear. you may also “hook up” with someone here to go with over the winter. ww

First BWCA Trip…
First time I went was with a church group made up of two guys from Arkansas, and six guys from Minnesota. I learn valuable experience from them, but I have also learned alot from talking to other people who love the Q and BWCA. There are several boards you can do research on. I now do all my own outfitting… and outfit for those who go with me. If you are interested in the other boards… drop me an e-mail and I will tell you where they are. There are also some outfitters who are on the boards who can help you too. As posted above the important thing is know when to go for what you want to do… Late April, or early May right after ice out you have to be concerned about the weather, and not much fishing because of the seasons not being open. But, going at that time you should have solitude. I generally go in late June because I like to fish. Good luck in planning your trip, there is no other place like it to enjoy, and I promise you that you will fall in love with it too.


I really appreciate everyone’s advice,
this is the kind of “many trips of experience” details that you usually don’t get from videos and books. Hopefully, as I get closer to my target date(now looking towards early June - thanks DuluthMoose)I can try a few overnighters at my local lake to practice the logistics of loading, unloading, and carrying gear/canoe. My goal is be able to do many more trips into the BWCA and feel comfortable and confident doing so.

take two maps
The person in the front of the canoe and the person in the back should each have a map of the area you are traveling in. I would buy the NEW colorized McKenzie maps or one McKenzie and one Fischer map of the same area. Remember, the map may show the ins and outs of the lake shore but you can’t see that from the water level. It’s all just one big wall of green including islands, etc. Both people should know where on the map you are planning to travel and follow the route on the map as you go. If either person is not 100% certain of where you are or which way to go, stop, and figure out what is wrong with one of your assumptions, then check the map very carefully as you go until it either makes sense to both of you or you realize the mistake. Rent the Kevlar. Think of it as a backpacking trip, think LIGHTWEIGHT. I always drink the water straight from the lakes and I have never been sick. Paddle out to the middle of the lake and fill your water jugs from a foot down, not at the surface and not down deep. Don’t drink water from anywhere near a beaver dam or really small shallow lakes. Take a small daypack along that you alway keep matches in. Once you have set up camp, if you are going for a hike or a paddle, ALWAYS bring your daypack with the matches and throw in something to eat and whatever makes sense if you might get lost (ie: rain gear or jacket, etc.). Don’t rely on a compass, there is so much iron in Northern Minnesota the compass will sometimes point every which way.

Thanks, RickC. I think the best advice,
I’ve gotten is plan, research, and plan some more! I don’t want to put too much pressure on this trip, because I plan to do many more, but I would like my first to be as smooth as possible.

solo tripping-nice and quiet
Good post. I have been thinking of a solo trip next year as I need the break and am not too sure if my paddling buddy will be able to swing this kind of trip.

get in some conditioning
Start portaging your canoe around your yard, paddle a little. Even if you rent a light wt canoe, that heavier canoe of yours will have you in shape.

Northern Minnesota is a lot cooler than most of the U.S. As was already said, late April is just after ice out. Even later May can be very cool. The ground will still be cold to very cold for sleeping on. Think back packing in the Rockies, if you have ever done that. You need an insulated mattress, not an air mattress. You will want clothing layers, preferably synthetic. Check out weather averages for when you are planning on coming and also check the weather before leaving so you know what you can expect and pack accordingly. What state are you coming from? You can hit hot stretches in the summer, so it can go both ways. Just be prepared.

Outfitter not needed
I started going to the BWCA in 1993 and have been on at least one trip and sometimes 3, every year since. Never have used an outfitter. I highly recommend reading the following three books…“Boundary Waters Canoe Area” (One book for western half, one for Eastern) by Robert Beymer and “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping” by Cliff Jacobson. The Beymer books list all EP’s and also give a lot of info on popularity etc…I find myself utilizing these three books year after year in trip planning. Also have info for making reservations. Another great resource in planning is this web site:

Gives very good info on what to expect on portages. The others all made a very good point…definatly go with at least one other person on first few trips. Most important thing to remember is to HAVE FUN and leave no trace. Enjoy!

A couple things…
I definitely reccommend some conditioning beforehand.Make sure your comfortable handling your canoe and have a good padded yoke.Keep your gear to a minimun,it comes with experience.Late April/early May is a very cool time,bring at least 2 sets of warm clothes/layering system. Wool is good,cotton is bad.Skip the warm weather clothes/shorts. Leave in car.The most important thing early in the season is keeping yourself and gear dry,this cannot be expresssed enough.Waterproof everything in double lined plastic bags,multiples,(esp. your sleeping bag),then put in backpacks/duluth packs etc.Dont trust dry bags alone to keep things dry.A GOOD RAINSUIT is a must,and a backup is also handy.Even keep your rain gear dry in plastic bags,you dont want to put on soaking wet raingear. FOOTWEAR,rubber knee boots or somekind of waterproof boots are a must for portaging and getting in and out of the water.Allow footwear to be big enough for heavy socks for warmth.Save your hikers and tennis shoes for camp(plastic bags again)Dont sacrifice them while touring in getting them wet. Bring some extra tarps and garbage bags,they come in handy.Rig a tarp over and under your tent beforhand. Hopefully you have dry/warmer weather.I would go at least a couple weeks later if you can. Fishing will be better later but permits get tighter.Day passes are a option too and camp on the edges. Good luck!!

but recommended
Outfitters are not “needed”, but they can make a trip much more enjoyable. Even if it is just for partial outfitting, I recommend using an outfitter:

  1. You can rent high tech gear for a fraction of the purchase price, rather than making due with your own equipment that may or may not serve the purpose well.

  2. You will recieve up-to-date information on bear problem areas to avoid.

  3. You might receive up-to-date fishing recommendations, techniques, etc. if you ask.

  4. You will be informed of good campsites, etc.

  5. You will have one-on-one route planning advice.

  6. By using an outfitter, you will be supporting a small, family run business that cares deeply about and supports the wilderness you are about to explore.

we went on our first trip 9/2003
Six of us went, 5 BWCA virgins, for 10 days, about 60 miles. That was a good, easy distance for us to relax, sightsee, fish and not make ourselves crazy “having” to get somewhere. We had lay-over days for a couple rain events, didn’t push ourselves and enjoyed the heck out of it. On our (for most of us) first trip in, we felt we wanted the security of multiple boats.

We were in varying shapes and ages from 44 to 56.

We all had camping & canoeing experience and our own gear. We did our own outfitting, food planning (back-packers among us) etc., but did use an Ely outfitter to rent 3 kevlar canoes (worth every cent) and for the drop-off/pick-up. We bunkhoused at his place night before put-in and night after take-out.

Using the outfitter that way optimized our trip for us. IT WAS GREAT !! Like the subject line says, we went in Sept, no bugs, pretty good fishing (every evening meal).

Have Fun

I am a newbie here. But have been going on canoe trips into the BWCA for many years. One thing that I might add is the fact that some of the outfitters have tow boats, that they can run these on a few lakes such as the Basswood chain. I have used them in the past when I have a limited amount of time available. This has allowed me to go in further into the BWCA then I could have otherwise. I would also suggest that you allow plenty of time to select a campsite especially if you do not venture very far into the BWCA. I usualy like to secure a site by early afternoon. This allows me plenty of time to set up camp properly. I have in the past encountered bottle necks on popular portages. That can set you back on hitting your destination at your desired time. It is also no fun trying to find an unoccupied site in the dark.