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17 Top Boundary Waters Packing List Items for 2022 + What to Wear & NOT to Bring

what to pack for the boundary waters
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If you are thinking about embarking on a water-based camping trip this summer, one of the best options in North America is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters or BWCAW consists of over a million acres of interconnected lakes, streams, and forests along the Canadian border in the northeastern part of Minnesota. This unspoiled wild area is located within the Superior National Forest and is administered by the United States Forest Service, so it’s open to use for boating, fishing, and camping by anyone in the country. It’s also popular for backpacking and is one of the best places for dog sledding in the lower 48 states during the winter season.

Below is a packing list of essential items to bring on your trip to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, plus info on what NOT to bring or wear.

What to Pack for the Boundary Waters - 17 Essentials

  • 1. Quick-Dry Travel Towel

    The Boundary Waters is a destination for people who love the water. That’s why over 80 percent of visitors use a boat to explore this wilderness area. Most visitors end up spending a lot of their free time swimming, especially if you visit in the summertime. With this travel-sized towel, you’ll be ready to dry off after a refreshing swim in one of the more than 1,000 lakes that the Boundary Waters has to offer.

  • 2. Handheld VHF Radio

    Whenever I hit the water on any boat, I make sure to bring a handheld VHF radio to communicate with other boaters. When it comes to safety on the water, there is no replacement for a good old VHF radio. This VHF has all the same features that you will find on the radios in a large ship’s pilothouse, but it’s small enough to fit in your daypack. It also works great to listen to marine weather reports, and if you bring two they can even be used in the place of a set of walkie talkies. Just make sure not to hog the emergency channel!

  • 3. Cooling Towel

    With hundreds of lakes to choose from, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get wet in the Boundary Waters wilderness. That’s why it’s a really good idea to bring plenty of towels. I like to take the HERO Cooling Towel on all of my boating trips since it’s quick-drying, packs down to a perfect size for travel, and it’s quite affordable too.

  • 4. Zoleo Satellite Messenger

    The whole point of any trip to the wilderness is to get away from it all and recharge your batteries surrounded by nature. But these days, many people aren’t able to take time away from work or family without some way to keep in touch, and you won’t find much in the way of cell service while deep in the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Instead, I like to bring a satellite messenger, which can be relied upon to send texts from anywhere on the planet that has a clear view of the sky. The Zoleo Satellite Messenger uses Bluetooth to connect to your phone, and is capable of sending a message to any cell phone or email through the Zoleo app. Handheld satellite messengers like the Zoleo have changed the game in long-range communication and made it affordable for normal campers to keep in touch in the wilderness.

  • 5. Windproof Travel Umbrella

    Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’m used to taking on wet weather without an umbrella, but my wife keeps one in her bag on almost every trip. She loves the HERO Travel Umbrella since it works great to shield her from the rain or sun in camp or even sitting in the back of a canoe or dinghy. Her travel umbrella has been to more countries than many people and is still going strong.

  • 6. Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

    I’ve spent my entire life on the water and sailed across the Pacific 13 times so far. Whenever I set foot on a boat, I bring along some kind of EPIRB or PLB, which can be used to send a distress signal to rescue coordinators in case of an emergency. Many people make the mistake of assuming that a small lake cannot be dangerous, especially in the summer, but the reality is that you are more likely to experience hypothermia or drown in a lake than in the ocean. This PLB is small enough to fit in your pocket, but it could save your life.

  • 7. Packing Cubes

    All experienced canoers and kayakers know that organization is everything if you want to fit all your gear in the boat. In order to get all my equipment in a small vessel, I use waterproof bags and packing cubes to organize all my clothes and loose items into more manageable-sized pieces. These packing cubes come in a set of five different sizes and also include two free laundry bags for your dirty clothes.

  • 8. Bear Can

    One of the most wonderful things about the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area is that there is an incredible abundance of biodiversity. But that also means that you must take precautions in order to camp safely in an area that is home to bears, wolves, moose, and many other animals. You’ll want to keep all your food in a bear can, and store it a safe distance from your tent at night to avoid an unpleasant encounter. I’ve been using the BearVault Canister for years on camping trips. I love its lightweight, durable construction and clear plastic sides (so you can see what’s inside before you open it). It also doubles as a camp chair or small table.

  • 9. Hanging Toiletry Bag

    I consider a toiletry bag an essential item to bring on any trip, especially when I’m camping in the wilderness. Many people forget that items like toothpaste and deodorant can attract animals just like food, so it’s important to keep all your toiletry items together in a small bag that can be easily stowed in the bear cans when not in use. The Mossio Hanging Toiletry Bag is just the right size to fit all your personal toiletry items for a couple of weeks in the wild, but it easily packs away when you are on the water or hiking. The convenient hook is a great feature that allows it to easily be hung from a tree branch or bush.

  • 10. Bear Spray

    If you keep a clean camp and cook and stow your food a safe distance from your camp, it’s unlikely that you’ll have any issues with wild animals posing a risk to your safety. But just in case, I always bring a can of bear spray with me when I’m camping in areas with bears, wolves, cougars, or other large, dangerous animals. In the unlikely event that you are attacked by an animal, spraying it in the face with bear spray is your best bet for survival, and some studies even suggest that bear spray is more effective than firearms at protecting yourself from animals, without the added risk.

  • 11. Universal Waterproof Phone Case

    This is a must on any trip to a lake or river. Even though you’ll be unlikely to get cell service while in the wilderness, a smartphone is still a useful tool in the woods for use as a camera, flashlight, map, GPS, or even a tracking device. The JOTO Universal Waterproof Phone Case protects your phone from getting wet on any boating trip, and it’s even certified to keep your phone safe up to 100 feet below the surface.

  • 12. Tent

    Your tent will be your home away from home on any long camping trip, and you’ll want to avoid bringing a $20 Walmart tent if you want to stay dry. You’ll need a tent that has enough space to keep everyone comfortable and stow your gear out of the rain, that’s durable enough to stand up to the rough environment, and that packs away to easily fit in your pack or canoe while on the move. The ClostNature Lightweight Backpacking Tent does all that and more for a very affordable price. I would highly recommend it for any trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

  • 13. Lifestraw Water Bottle

    One thing that’s easy to forget about when you are planning for a big trip to the wilderness is how you are going to get safe drinking water. Many people opt to use water tablets or a pump-style water filter, but I prefer to bring along a water filtering bottle. With the Lifestraw Water Bottle, you don’t need to worry about pumping, boiling, or adding chemicals to make your water safe to drink. Just fill the bottle from any lake or stream and drink. It’ll save you a little space and weight too since it doubles as a container to store water.

  • 14. Floating Wrist Strap

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost more items than I care to admit on boating adventures simply because my companion or I dropped them overboard. With this floating wrist strap, you can protect your valuables from Davy Jones Locker at the bottom of the lake. Just simply attach the floating wrist strap to any small items you don’t want to lose, and you’ll be able to recover your keys, wallet, phone, or camera – even if you accidentally drop them in the drink.

  • 15. Travel Insurance

    One of the biggest mistakes that many people make when taking a trip to a wilderness area is not booking travel insurance. Some travelers assume that it’s only for international trips, but that simply isn’t the case. Travelers’ insurance is a real necessity for wilderness trips and can help you out in case of a canceled flight, medical emergency, evacuation from the wilderness, and much more. Travelinsurance.com is one of the best options out there, with affordable plans from top companies, whether you are taking a trip to Minnesota or Istanbul.

  • 16. Daypack

    Most visitors to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area end up spending most of their time in a canoe, so they have no need for a large backpacking-style pack. But even the most serious paddler would be doing themselves a disservice if they left the Boundary Waters area without hitting a few of the spectacular hiking trails. I like to leave most of my gear at camp and take a daypack with some food, water, a jacket, and a few other essentials for day hikes through the woods. This daypack is perfect for this kind of thing and even comes with a free water bladder for hands-free drinking on the move.

  • 17. Portable Charger

    Every time I forget to bring this portable charger on a trip I end up regretting it. The fact is, even with decent battery life, somebody ends up taking too many pictures and pretty soon one of our phones is dead. Now I keep at least one of these chargers topped up in my travel bag and backpack at all times. It allows me to be on the move all day without worrying about charging my phone, and on longer trips, it pairs perfectly with a small portable solar panel to charge all of my small electronic devices.

What to Wear in the Boundary Waters

I start with a warm base layer and work outward from there. Make sure that all of your clothes, especially the first layers on your skin, are not cotton based and will remain warm even after getting wet. Think athletic shirts and pants, moisture-wicking clothing, and quick-drying outfits. Once your core base layer is taken care of, add layers until you are dressed for the current conditions. If you find yourself too hot or too cold, you can always add or remove a layer of clothing. Finally, remember to dress for the seasons. In Minnesota, the weather changes drastically from summer to winter, so you’ll bring entirely different clothes for an August canoe trip than for a dog sledding trek in December.

What should WOMEN wear in Boundary Waters? – (Click to expand)

Below is a sample of what women should wear in the Boundary Waters with links to Amazon for your convenience.

Women in the Boundary Waters Wilderness should dress for the outdoors, with more of a focus on comfortable, functional clothing than style. Since you’ll be on or near the water much of the time, you’ll want to bring lots of waterproof clothing, including a raincoat and shoes for in the boat (unless you like to go barefoot). You’ll also want to bring plenty of sun protection like sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen to protect yourself from the strong Minnesota summer sun.

Even in the summer, you’ll want to be prepared for sudden changes in the weather with plenty of warm clothes and sweaters. You’ll need them at night, especially if a breeze picks up. Finally, women who plan to visit during the off-season will need to bring clothing for extreme cold, like a serious winter coat, snow boots, and insulation. If you bring clothing for the worst possible conditions, you’ll be comfortable on your trip – no matter if you encounter 100-degree heat or sub-zero cold.

What should MEN wear in Boundary Waters? – (Click to expand)

Below is a sample women’s clothing list. (All items link to Amazon.com for your convenience).

Men packing for a trip to the Boundary Waters should be ready for lots of physical activity, from paddling a canoe and fishing to hiking and setting up the tent. That means bringing lots of durable clothing that’s also comfortable to wear all day in a variety of conditions.

Depending on the time of year for your trip, you’ll need to be prepared to encounter anything from extreme heat and humidity to frigid cold with lots of snowfall. Most visitors come in the summer, when high temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and people spend a lot of time swimming. If you plan a summer visit, bring plenty of sun protection and don’t forget to pack a swimming suit or two. Even so, you’ll still need to be ready for the cold because it can be quite chilly at night, especially if there is wind and rain.

On boating trips, I always start with a warm base layer and add more clothing as necessary to suit the weather and conditions. If it’s a warm day don’t forget to keep a sweater in your pack, since temperatures can change quickly.

Dressing for the Seasons

SPRING – March, April, May:

Spring is a time of change in northern Minnesota, and you can expect to encounter anything from freezing temperatures up to the low 70s as summer approaches. In March, you can still expect a significant amount of snow on the ground, but by May the weather should be quite pleasant. In early spring, low temperatures can still drop into the teens but quickly rise in April.

Spring visitors to the Boundary Waters should bring plenty of warm layers and winter clothing but still be prepared for the occasional warm day with sunshine. Don’t forget your rain gear and waterproof clothes, since May averages nine days of rain. Finish your outfit with a warm hat and a solid pair of hiking boots.


SUMMER – June, July, August:

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is located just south of the Canadian border, so many visitors will be surprised to discover that it can get quite hot at times during the summer months. Between June and August, daily highs can average in the high 70s, and on occasion, the temperature can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the summer, plan to spend much of the time cooling off on or near the water. Remember to bring plenty of sun hats, sunglasses, a good quality sunblock, and long sleeve shirts to avoid suffering from sunburn. Don’t forget your swimsuit and towel to be ready for an impromptu swim.

Even in the middle of summer, temperatures can drop suddenly, and they tend to get down into the 50s at night, so you’ll still want to bring warm layers and insulation. Summer months can also get a lot of rain, and June is the wettest month of the year with 11 days of rain on average. Make sure to bring a decent raincoat and waterproof clothing to keep dry even when it pours.

FALL – September, October, November:

If you are looking to experience cooler days and much smaller crowds, fall could be a good time to visit the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Minnesota is known for pleasant Indian summers with several weeks of nice weather. It’s a great time to have a go at fishing or stretching your legs on one of the many trails without overheating.

In the fall, prepare for a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions. You’ll need to be ready for anything from bright sunshine to rain or even snow. Bring your warm layers, rain gear, and an assortment of hats and gloves. Of course, you’ll want to finish your outfit with a reliable pair of hiking boots or a good pair of water shoes.

Average high temps in September are 67 degrees, but by November they drop to just 36. By the end of fall, you can expect lows in the low 20s so be prepared for ice and snow.


WINTER – December, January, February:

Winter in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness is no joke. Temperatures here in the winter are often colder than parts of Antarctica are in the summer, so you’ll need to bring clothing that could survive a trip to the South Pole. This may sound like overkill, but it’s not – just ask any of the locals.

In December, average low temperatures in the Boundary Waters Wilderness are just 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and in January, the coldest month, it drops to five below zero. In extreme cases, it can get much colder.

In the winter, you’ll need to bring many pieces of clothing that you would typically leave at home if you were to visit in the summertime. You can leave your swimsuit in your drawer, and instead, pack plenty of extra wool socks and winter gloves. You’ll want to have several sets of long underwear (both top and bottom), and a selection of sweaters and fleece pants. As a final layer, you’ll want to cover up with a proper winter coat or ski jacket and snow pants, as well as boots built specifically for extreme cold. Keep your hands warm with gloves, and bring a balaclava for your head.

Dressing Appropriately for the Activity – (Click to expand)

Canoeing: On the water, you’ll want to dress in lots of water-resistant clothing, including a raincoat and waterproof pants. If you are paddling in the summertime, you’ll want to wear shorts and a light activewear shirt, but make sure to stay protected from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. For footwear, I like to wear water shoes or walking sandals that stay secure on my feet or go barefoot.

Fishing: While fishing in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, you’ll usually wear very similar clothing as you would while boating in the same conditions. Sometimes it’s nice to add a fishing vest to your outfit since the pockets are useful to hold your gear. Don’t forget your backpack to hold snacks and other essentials, and bring a bag that can function as a tackle box if you don’t have something already designated specifically for your fishing gear.

Hiking: If you go hiking during your visit to the Boundary Waters area, you’ll want to wear layers that can easily be added to your outfit or removed as necessary. Start with moisture-wicking underwear and non-cotton shirts and pants, to make sure that you’ll stay warm even if you get a little wet on the trail. Since rain can appear suddenly any time of the year, it’s a good idea to keep a rain jacket in your pack all the time, even if it’s not yet raining. Bring along a sweater to put on if it cools off, and most importantly wear a pair of hiking boots that you know will be comfortable even after hours on the move.

Dog Sledding: Dog Sledding in the Boundary Waters Wilderness is primarily a winter activity, so you’ll need lots of very warm clothing. After putting on your base layer, insulate with a sweater or two and fleece pants before covering up with a proper winter coat and snow pants. You’ll want to keep your extremities warm with gloves, a winter hat, and boots that are designed for sub-zero temperatures.

What NOT to Bring to the Boundary Waters

  • 1.Too Much Money

    In the Boundary Waters, most visitors spend all of their time deep in the wilderness and far from any store, restaurant, hotel, or casino where they can spend lots of money. It’s always a good idea to bring along a credit card and a little cash for any trip, but be careful not to bring too much money. If all goes well, you’ll enjoy your vacation in the wild without any reason to spend money, which means more fun on a budget. Too much money is just likely to get lost in your camping gear.

  • 2.Bicycle

    The Boundary Waters is primarily a boating destination, with a little bit of hiking thrown in. It’s not an ideal place for a cycle tour, so you can leave your bike back home. Instead, bring along a portable kayak or stand-up paddleboard to make the most out of the hundreds of lakes in the area. They don’t call Minnesota the land of ten thousand lakes for nothing!

  • 3.Deep Water Boat

    The perfect boat for the Boundary Waters is a canoe or kayak, and that’s what most boaters use. It’s ok to take a rowboat or small sailing vessel, but it’s not a good place for a heavy boat with a deep keel or outboard motor. Many of the lakes in the Boundary Waters area are quite shallow, and a number of the routes involve portages, which are impossible with heavy or deep-draft vessels. That’s why it’s so popular for paddlers with light, shallow water boats.

  • 4.Too Much Heavy Gear

    There aren’t many roads in the Boundary Waters area, so once you leave your starting point you’ll have to either carry everything yourself or push it through the water with a paddle. That’s why it’s a good idea to leave any unnecessary equipment at home, especially heavy gear. Prior to a large paddle voyage, I like to go on a short one or two-night trip and take note of everything that I used. Safety gear aside, if you didn’t use it on a short trip, you probably won’t use it on a two-week-long paddle expedition either.

  • 5.Pets

    The Boundary Waters is home to a wide variety of wild animals, including bears, wolves, and moose. I love traveling with my cat and dogs, but bringing domestic animals into a wilderness area like this is likely to attract predators and could put you and your pets at risk.

  • 6.Firearms

    Some visitors to the Boundary Waters may be inclined to bring a gun along into the wilderness for protection from wild animals. A bear can take many bullets and continue to attack, and in many cases shooting at large animals with a gun is only likely to make them more aggressive. It’s a far safer and smarter choice to bring a loud horn and bear spray, and leave your firearms locked up in your house.

What NOT to Wear in the Boundary Waters – (Click to expand)

You won’t spend much time dining at fancy restaurants or socializing at high-end resorts in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, so it’s a good idea to leave your expensive clothes at home. Instead, bring your hiking clothes and outdoor activewear. Try not to bring cotton clothing, which tends to take a long time to dry and turns smelly fast in the woods. Most importantly, leave any uncomfortable shoes in the car and wear only solid hiking boots or comfortable walking sandals, since you’ll be on the move much of the time in the wilderness.

FAQs about the Boundary Waters

  • 1. What kind of animals can I expect to encounter?

    The Boundary Waters are home to a wide variety of biodiversity, including many types of animals that are rare in other parts of North America. On your trip to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, you can expect to see deer, moose, American black bear, otters, beavers, loons, skunks, bats, eagles, and many other types of animals. The area is also home to one of the largest populations of timber wolves in the contiguous United States. In total, there are more than fifty species of mammals and two hundred species of birds that live within the Boundary Waters region. It’s important for visitors to respect the wildlife by keeping a safe distance away and taking care not to disturb them or their natural habitat.

    What kind of animals can I expect to encounter?
  • 2. Do the wolves, bears, and other large animals pose a serious danger?

    The wild animals that live in the Boundary Waters are a major reason that many visitors choose to come here, but they can also pose a potential risk to visitors who aren’t used to living around large wild animals. One type of animal that frighten some visitors are the resident wolves. Wolves in rural areas have been known to regularly attack livestock or farm animals, but human attacks are rare. If you keep a healthy distance away from any wolves and make sure to keep strong odors, especially food, far from camp, the chances of being attacked by wolves is extremely low.

    Like wolves, black bears are rarely dangerous unless they have come to associate humans with food. That’s why it’s so important to do all your cooking a safe distance away from camp and store all your food in a bear can. Most instances that don’t involve food when humans were attacked by bears were either when the bear was surprised or when humans got in between a mother bear and her cub. Give the bears plenty of room and you should be fine.

    Ironically, the most dangerous large mammal in the Boundary Waters area is the moose. Moose aren’t usually aggressive towards people, but they can attack if they are provoked. Unlike deer, they aren’t afraid of humans, so they won’t run away if you approach. If a moose is blocking the trail, give them plenty of space and wait for them to leave on their own.

  • 3. Can I rent a boat in the Boundary Waters?

    Most visitors to the Boundary Waters prefer to explore the area by boat. But what if you don’t own a boat of your own or are unable to transport your vessel to the Boundary Waters? Fortunately, there are a variety of boat rental companies in the Boundary Waters area. Do some research online before you go, and make sure to make reservations plenty of time in advance, especially if you plan to visit during the busy months of June, July or August.

  • 4. Is it legal to paddle across to Canada?

    The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness is located right on the border with Ontario, and many of the traditional paddling routes actually cross the border into Canada. Some paddlers will be interested in completing a paddle journey across the border between Canada and the United States. It is possible to paddle on both sides of the border, but such a trip requires extra planning and a solid understanding of the rules and regulations regarding international travel in the area. You’ll need to get paddling permits for both sides of the border and report your entry into Canada to the Canadian Authorities.

    Is it legal to paddle across to Canada?
  • 5. Can I visit in the winter?

    In the winter, the Boundary Waters Wilderness completely freezes over and the land is covered in a deep blanket of snow. Visitors to this area in the winter can expect an entirely different experience, with dog sledding and snowshoeing replacing paddling and hiking as popular activities. If you visit in the winter, you’ll need to be prepared to encounter subzero temperatures and extreme weather conditions, but you’ll be rewarded with isolated winter beauty, and you’ll likely have much of the area to yourself.

  • 6. Are there hotels or lodges available for people who don’t want to camp?

    Most visitors to the Boundary Waters Wilderness come prepared to camp out in the woods, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you prefer more luxurious accommodations, there are a variety of hotels available in the Ely and Silver Rapids areas, as well as a handful of remote lodges in the wilderness. With a comfortable hotel as a home base, it’s still possible to see much of the Boundary Waters area and sleep at night in a proper bed. Staying at a lodge is highly recommended if you visit in the wintertime, when the extreme cold is too much for all but the most experienced cold weather campers.

  • 7. Is it possible to see the Northern Lights?

    The Boundary Waters is Minnesota’s first designated Dark Sky Sanctuary, and one of the few such places in the world. This means that the area has been recognized to have extremely clear views of the sky, and some of the best stargazing in the world. It’s also possible to spot the Northern Lights here, if you are lucky. It’s possible to view the Northern Lights year round in Minnesota, but if you want to get the best possible chances to observe the phenomenon, time your trip for late fall or early winter, when sightings are most common.

  • 8. How much does it cost to visit the Boundary Waters?

    It is said that the wilderness is the last place where the rich and poor both sleep under the same stars. Fortunately, it’s possible to plan a low budget adventure to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, especially if you camp out and avoid hotels and restaurants, which are few and far between once you enter the wild. Permits for the Boundary Waters cost $16 per adult, and $8 per child, so getting access to the area shouldn’t break the bank. The highest costs for most visitors are those involved with getting there and back home, so try to book cheap flights ahead of time or incorporate your visit into a larger road trip around the area.

  • 9. How many lakes are there in the Boundary Waters?

    Minnesota is called the land of ten thousand lakes, and a good share of them are located in the Boundary Waters Canoe area. Officially, the Boundary Waters are home to over 1,100 lakes of various shapes and sizes, with many connecting rivers and streams. Most visitors to the area choose a paddle route that connects a number of the lakes, with short portages in between. If you haven’t gone on a long paddling trip involving portages before, make sure to buy a good set of wheels specifically made for transporting your canoe, and practice using them at home before you go.

    How many lakes are there in the Boundary Waters?
  • 10. Can you camp anywhere in the Boundary Waters?

    With over 2,000 backcountry campsites located within the Boundary Waters Wilderness, there are plenty of options for everyone to find a nice spot to camp every night. According to the BWCAW regulations, canoeists are required to camp only at official campsites, but hikers may camp anywhere as long as it’s at least 150 feet from the water. No matter where you choose to camp, make sure to burn only downed wood if you have a campfire, and clean up each of your campsites before you leave. If everyone leaves each campsite like they found it, the Boundary Waters should stay pristine for a very long time.