The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a one million-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest and is under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. The area was established by Congress in 1978 through the BWCA Wilderness Act, which restricts mining, logging and most motorized access. There is nothing like resting a paddle across the gunwales your canoe as the sun is setting and the loons are laughing. Maybe you will drop a jig for a walleye or swim under the rising moon. Maybe you will read a book by campfire or tell a gripping story to your fellow campers. Maybe you will see a Moose or maybe a bear. Whatever you do in the BWCAW, it will be a peaceful experience: with over 1,500 miles of canoe country, the preserved, natural beauty of Northeastern Minnesota attracts over 200,000 visitors every year, all searching for a true Minnesota getaway. Enjoy your portage to paradise, but before you do, follow our checklist to ensure you’re prepared. You can also follow the US Forest Service Trip Guide before heading out.
Obtain a permit
Permits can be purchased online. They are required year round for both day trip and overnight visitors. There are three different types of permits, which the US Forest Service describe as follows:
• Quota Permits Any group taking an overnight paddle, motor, or hiking trip, or a motorized day-use trip into the BWCAW from May 1 through September 30 is required to obtain a quota permit. The quota system regulates how many groups can begin a trip at each entry point each day. In addition to the daily quotas, motorized boats are also limited by a weekly motor quota. Groups may only enter the BWCAW on the entry date and through the entry point specified on the permit. Permits may only be picked up the day before, or the day of, entry. Permits are not transferable. Reservations are recommended since there are a limited number of quota permits available for each entry point. Quota permits can only be issued by Forest Service issuing stations or by designated Cooperator issuing stations.
• Non-Quota Self-issuing Permits Self-issued permits are required year-round for all non-motorized day use visitors, for any motorized day use into Little Vermilion Lake,and for all overnight visitors entering theBWCAW between October 1 and April 30. Theself-issuing permit forms are available by mail, atany Superior National Forest office, and at themain BWCAW entry points. No reservation isrequired, but you will need to carefully follow theself-issuing instructions to fill out the permit.This includes reviewing the rules and regulationson the back of the permit with your entire group. Carry a copy of the permit with you at all times and place a copy in the box at the entry point.
• Special Use Permits Outfitters and guides leading groups into the BWCAW are required to obtain a special use permit. A listing of BWCAW Outfitters and Guides can be found here.Licensing Be sure your watercraft is licensed and that you obtain a fishing license if you plan on fishing.
• Before entering the BWCAW, be sure to obtain a fishing license if you plan to fish, and that any watercraft you use is also licensed.
• Be sure your gear is functional (test it beforehand). Plan for cold, warm, wet and dry weather. Check out the gear checklist at BWCA.com to ensure you are prepared for your trip.
• Choose an entry point that fits your camping desires. Entry points include: overnight paddle only, overnight paddle or motor, and day-use motor. For a close look at each entry point, refer to the BWCAW Entry Point Guide provided by the US Forest Service.
• After choosing an entry point, locate the outfitter nearest that entry. Outfitters will be your best friend in understanding the area you are about to enter. They will also help ensure you have the gear necessary to make the trip. There are a number of outfitters, check out the list at BWCA.com.
• Once you have identified an entry point, obtain a map of the area you will be exploring. It’s very easy to get lost and a map will help guide you on a safe journey. The U.S. Forest Service has information on how to purchase maps. Never enter without a map.
Crossing the Border
If you plan on crossing the border into Canada during your trip, keep the following information provided by the US Forest Service in mind:
• Contact the Canada Border Services Agency at least 3–4 weeks in advance of your trip to obtain a Remote Area Border Crossing (RABC) permit. For information visit the Canada Border Services Agency websiteor call (807) 624-2162 to get an application for the RABC permit. Permits are required for overnight and day use entry. Please check with www.ontarioparks.com for your permit needs.
• If you plan on fishing in Canada, including the Canadian side of the border lakes, you must have a Canadian fishing license. Non-resident fishing licences are available through the mail by calling the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources at 1-800-667-1940. For more information visit the Fish Ontario website.
• If you enter the United States from Canada on your BWCAW trip, you must report to a Customs Border Protection (CBP) officer for inspection at the Grand Portage port of entry or designated inspection locations in Grand Marais, Crane Lake and Ely every time you enter the U.S. from Canada by boat. For more information visit the Customs and Border Protection website. Click to the BWCAW home navigation page.
Large Group Information
If you are traveling in a large group, follow these guidelines set by the US Forest Service:
• If your group is more than nine people, no matter what the age, you may not enter the BWCAW. You should consider other options, such as camping at a developed campground and boating on lakes outside the wilderness.
• If your group of more than the maximum size wishes to break into smaller groups to enter the BWCAW, each smaller group must have its own permit.
• Each group should have an adult who will be responsible for the leadership and safety of the group.
• Each group must travel and camp separately. This means each should have its own food, first aid kit, and essential gear. To make it easier for the groups to travel separately, consider reserving different entry points or planning separate routes.
• Portages and waterways can become very congested. Wait for another group to cross the portage before you begin, portage your gear efficiently, and find another place for your break. Keep your distance from other groups on the waterways.
• Begin looking for campsites early in the day, since many wilderness sites only have one or two good tent pads.
• Encourage your group members to use campsite areas that have already been hardened rather than trampling vegetation and causing erosion.
• Sound carries a long distance over calm water. Keep noise down, especially after sunset; your group and others will experience a sense of solitude, as well as have better opportunities to see wildlife.
Things To Remember
Leave No Trace
• The leave no trace principle is set to preserve the natural beauty of the BWCAW. What goes in, must come out: don’t litter. What is there, must remain: don’t take rocks, sticks or cultural artifacts out with you. What is there should not be changed: don’t introduce or transport non-native plants, live bait or animals.
Rules and Regulations
• The US Forest Service has outlined a number of rules and regulations to ensure the collective mark on the BWCAW is limited and that all visitors have a safe equal opportunity during their trip. Rules about camping, pets, containers, fish remains, campfires, watercraft storage and more are outlined on the US Forest Service’s Rules and Regulations Page.
• Life jackets: Minnesota law requires any child under the age of 10 to wear a life jacket while aboard a watercraft that is underway. Life jackets are crucial when traveling to remote areas like the BWCAW due to the lack of available assistance and relief.
• Rapids: Most rapids in the BWCAW are not safe to run. Travel around rapids on available portages.
• Water quality: Drinking water should be treated by one of the following measures: bring to a full boil for 3 to 5 minutes, purify with a filter, treat with a chemical (such as iodine tablets) designed to kill parasites. Giardia Lambia is one of the most common parasites in BWCAW water. Giardia causes internal illness that will make for a miserable trip and that needs medical attention. When gathering drinking water, avoid the shoreline where parasites thrive; head to deeper/clearer water.
• Hypothermia: Hypothermia results when the body’s temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions. Signs of hypothermia include: uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, bluish lips, lack of coordination and poor concentration. To treat hypothermia, escape the wind, replace wet clothing and share body heat. Warm fluids will also help to warm the body.
• Dehydration: Dehydration sets in when your body is loosing more fluids than it is replacing. Drink plenty of water.
• Bears: Keep a clean campsite, hang your food in a tree away from your campsite and don’t bait bears. If you follow those simple steps, chances are you will avoid bear encounters at your campsite. It does happen, however, and if it does, making loud noises and throw rocks or sticks at the bear. Carrying pepper spray is also smart in case of a close bear encounter.
• Travel and Direction: It is extremely easy to lose your way in the woods. To prevent getting lost, plan your trip ahead of time, map your route and stick to designated portages. It also helps to make note of natural features that stick out (a big tree, rock, etc.) so that you can find your way back by following those landmarks. Bring a map and compass or even a GPS enabled device. If you get lost, don’t panic, take a deep breath and sit down for a few minutes.
• First Aid and Emergencies: Before entering the BWCAW for the first time, my father made me read “Lost in the Wild,” a book about the amazing survival of two BWCAW trekkers. Reading that book gave me a finer respect for the following advice provided by the US Forest Service:
Each permitted group should carry a well stocked first aid kit and have group members that know how to provide first aid.
Please note that the campsite number is painted on the latrine of most campsites. Also note the location of the lake, campsite, trail or portage on a map to help emergency people locate any seriously injured party.
Document the extent of the injury and a basic physical description of the injured person.
Send all of this information with visitors able to exit the BWCAW for help.
Do not rely on a cell phone. Having a cell phone cannot substitute for knowing how to handle an emergency in wilderness. Many areas of the BWCAW lack cell phone coverage.
In the event of serious injury or illness, the standard SOS call is a series of three signals of any kind, either audible or visible.
For summoning help from an aircraft in an emergency, signal them by paddling in small circles or waving a brightly colored cloth tied to the canoe paddle.