Boundary Waters Trip Planning Resources

By Dan S. / Great Miami Outfitters

If you are planning a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota here are some resources that may come in handy. We love to discuss BWCAW and would like to share our knowledge. If you have additional questions please feel free to contact us.
Download Gear Checklist

There are four basic things to consider when planning your wilderness canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Once you answer these questions, you can pick a local outfitter, plan your route and obtain the necessary permits.

WHAT do you want to do?

Think about your trip and have a good idea on what you want to do. For instance, do you want to paddle every day to a different campsite, or would you rather go to one campsite and venture out on day trips each day? Do you want to seek complete solitude, do a lot of fishing, find and visit historic sites, take photos, or is wildlife viewing a priority?

WHEN do you want to go and for how long?

Depending on what your priorities are in Step 1, you need to consider the time of year for your trip – spring, summer, fall – and how much time you have, including traveling to the area and actual days on the water. For instance, if your priority is to catch lots of fish you may want to go in spring or early summer. There are probable “pros & cons” to any season, just decide what is best for you!

WHERE do you want to go?

There are many designated “entry points,” however there are two main locations that outfitters operate from – Ely and Grand Marais Minnesota. We feel you can’t go wrong from either starting location. We have links to two of our favorite outfitters below – one from each area. We have also provided links of directories listing other outfitters.

WHO do you want to go with?

There are several considerations here. Do you want to go solo or in a group? The limit for a group party is nine (9) people and four (4) canoes – PERIOD. Larger groups need to break into smaller groups and travel separately. Each group should have similar trip expectations and know in advance what those are – avoid conflicts. For instance, if some want to fish all day and others want to paddle/travel each day there will need to be compromise! Other considerations include individual’s age, physical strength, stamina and paddling experience.

Before you head out, you’ll want to leave a basic “float” plan with someone back at home, and with your outfitter, just in case of an emergency someone will know approximately where you are. Keep in mind that you can only enter the wilderness area on the specific date on your permit, and you must return on (or before) your exit date. Your route is your “plan,” but remember, it’s just a plan and is subject to change.

1. Have a good set of maps. Try to take the most current maps you can. The landscape of this pristine wilderness rarely changes, but locations of designated campsites may change. Be sure you have a compass and knowledge to read maps.

2. Be flexible! You can change your timeline or route. It’s not written in stone, so don’t stress out if circumstances change. Some things may be out of your control – like weather, wind or wildfires. It’s a good idea to plan in a day or two to “layover.”

3. Think about distance. Your group’s abilities may determine how far you travel each day. The average tandem canoe travels about 2 miles per hour. The average portage takes about 1 hour for each half mile. A portage trail is measured in “rods.” 320 rods equal 1 mile. If you seek wilderness solitude, keep in mind that the longer and harder a portage, the less people will travel it, therefore the most likely solitude!

YOU MUST HAVE A PERMIT to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Be sure to read the rules and regulations on this website prior to your application. Get a permit online or you can call the toll-free reservation line: 1-877-444-6777 (10:00 AM – Midnight EST) Get A Permit Online

Fisher Maps
Quetico Provincial Park  and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness  are well known among outdoor enthusiasts, not only because they’re exceptionally detailed, up-to-date and easy-to-read, but because waterproof maps are an absolute necessity in the wilderness.

McKenzie Maps
High quality, rugged, waterproof guides and maps to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), Quetico Provincial Park, Isle Royale, Voyageurs National Park, Lake Superior, Apostle Islands, and the surrounding lakes region.

Voyageur Maps
At Voyageur Maps we hope our maps enhance every aspect of your Boundary Waters experience, from planning before your next trip, to enjoying a fun and safe journey, to remembering and sharing your trip when you return home.

US Forest Service: Boundary Waters Trip Planning Guide
Download a PDF file
This is a 16-page publication that you can download. It is full of useful information, tips and answers to some of your basic questions as you plan your trip.
Exploring the Boundary Waters by Daniel Pauly Buy the book
Exploring the Boundary Waters is the most comprehensive trip planner to the BWCAW, giving travelers an overview of each entry point into the wilderness area. It provides detailed descriptions of more than one hundred specific routes—including a ranking of their difficulty level and maps that feature the major waterways, portages, and the designated campsites.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area – Eastern Region by Robert Beymer, Louis Dzierzak Buy the book
Boundary Waters Canoe Area – Western Region by Robert Beymer, Louis Dzierzak Buy the book
Together, these books deliver everything a visitor needs for the experience of a lifetime. Trip descriptions include day-by-day paddling distances, portage tips, and difficulty ratings, and identify the appropriate water-resistant, topographic maps W.A. Fisher maps for each trip.

Williams & Hall Outfitters, Ely MN:
All services available. The best in lightweight equipment, superb facilities, and great service. Strategically located on Moose Lake. Phone: 800-322-5837
Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters, Grand Marais, MN:
Complete BWCA outfitting and canoe rentals for 85 years by the Kerfoot family.
Outfitter Directory for Ely, MN:
This is a great resource with links to most of the outfitters located in the Ely area.
Outfitters List – BWCA & Quetico:

Boundary Waters Canoe Area:
Boundary Waters Guide:
Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources:
Ely, Minnesota:
Grand Marais, Minnesota / Cook County:
Superior National Forest:


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