Know the Issue

Planning a Boundary Waters Trip

Jan 18, 2024
Save the Boundary Waters
Two people paddling a canoe in the Boundary Waters canoe Area Wilderness

With over one million acres of wild lakes, forests, and waterways, the Boundary Waters Wilderness offers a unique experience for outdoor enthusiasts interested in canoeing and hiking. If you plan to take a trip to the Boundary Waters, here is everything you need to know to prepare and secure your permit.

Are you starting to plan summer trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)? 

Book your permits here!

Quota Permits 101

As always, a permit is required to enter the BWCA Wilderness: 

  • Visitors taking an overnight paddle or hiking trip into the BWCAW from May 1 – September 30 must obtain a quota permit through 
  • Self-issued permits are required for day-use visitors year-round and all overnight visitors entering the BWCAW from October 1 to April 30. Self-issued permits are available from kiosks at BWCAW entry points and Forest Service offices (no reservation required and no recreation fees).
  • A BWCAW permit allows a group of up to 9 people and 4 watercraft to enter the wilderness.   

Before embarking on your Boundary Waters journey, you must obtain a permit. The BWCAW operates on a quota system, limiting the number of people allowed in each area to preserve the wilderness experience. Permits can be obtained through the online reservation system (or at permit-issuing stations for off-season or day trips). Didn’t get the permit you wanted? You can always keep an eye on permits throughout the season, and more usually become available as you get closer to the date when folks cancel. Paddle Planner has a great tool that notifies you when they do!

Book your permits here!

Things to consider before reserving your permit:

We highly recommend having the date of your trip and potential entry points ready to go once permits open. Other details can be planned closer to your trip. You can also add more people to your permit at a later date. Here are a few things to think about before you obtain your permit:

  1. Decide on the Duration of Your Trip
    The first step in planning your Boundary Waters adventure is to determine how long you want to be in the wilderness. Trips range from a few days to several weeks, so consider your skill level, the distance you want to travel, and the amount of time you can take off from your other commitments.
  2. Pick your Dates
    Each month provides a unique experience in the Boundary Waters. Some months have more bugs but better swimming opportunities, other months have better fishing or fall foliage! Each year, conditions can be variable so expect the unexpected.
  3. Determine Your Entry Point
    The next crucial decision is choosing the entry point for your trip. There are many entry points spread across the BWCAW, each providing access to different lakes and routes. Research the different entry points, consider the distance you're willing to portage and decide which lakes or waterways you'd like to explore. We recommend having a few in mind, because popular entry points can be snatched up quickly. 

Planning your trip:

You’ve gotten your permit, now you can plan the other details! 

  1. Plan Your Route
    Once you've obtained your permit, it's time to plan your route. Take a detailed map of the area and chart out your desired route, considering factors such as distance, difficulty level, and any specific points of interest. We highly recommend talking to an outfitter or using Paddle Planner!
  2. Gather Essential Gear
    Proper gear can make or break your Boundary Waters trip. You can bring your own gear or reserve your rental canoe, paddles, life jackets, portage pads, tents and more with an outfitter. You can see our packing list here. 
  3. Practice Leave No Trace Principles
    Preserving the untouched beauty of the Boundary Waters is essential for future generations. Familiarize yourself with the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. The Boundary Waters also has some of its own unique rules like no cans or glass. See all the rules here. 
  4. Be Aware of Weather Conditions
    The weather in the Boundary Waters can change rapidly, so stay informed about current and forecasted conditions. Be prepared for rain, wind, fire danger, and varying temperatures by packing appropriate clothing and gear. Check with rangers or local outfitters for potential weather hazards, and adjust your plans to ensure your safety.
  5. Canoeing and Navigation Skills
    Paddling through the waterways of the Boundary Waters requires basic canoeing skills. If you're a novice, consider talking to your outfitter for tips or taking a canoeing course to familiarize yourself with paddling techniques and safety measures. Navigation is crucial in the wilderness, so bring a compass, map, and possibly a GPS device. Learn how to read the water and navigate portages efficiently.
  6. Wildlife Awareness
    The Boundary Waters is home to diverse wildlife, including moose, bears, wolves, and more. Educate yourself on safely coexisting with wildlife, storing food properly, and taking precautions to avoid unwanted encounters. Admire wildlife from a distance and refrain from feeding them.
  7. Emergency Preparedness
    Despite careful planning, emergencies can still arise. Carry a well-stocked first aid kit, know basic wilderness first aid, and have a communication plan. Check the weather forecast before your trip and be prepared for sudden changes in conditions. You can always take a Wilderness First Aid course ahead of your trip. 

More resources for planning your trip: 

Paddle Planner - Interactive Planning Tool 

Boundary Waters Packing List

10 Tips for a Successful BWCA Trip with Kids 

Beginner's Guide to Paddling the Boundary Waters

Planning your first Boundary Waters trip? Consider these 5 tips

Planning a trip to the Boundary Waters with Ely Outfitting Company!

Planning a Boundary Waters Route with Paddle Planner

How to make the most of a Boundary Waters fishing trip


Northern MN Boundary Waters Business Coalition members that can help you plan & outfit your canoe trips: 

Check out more Boundary Waters Business supporters here. 

Get a taste of Paddle Planner with the map below! Visit for more tools and resources on planning your trip!