Packing for a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA, BWCAW) canoe trip can be daunting. You have to balance packing the essentials with the fact that you also have portage it all.
That is why we’ve decided to share our top-secret boundary waters packing list with YOU!
We have been on well over 30 trips over the past 30 years and have put together a proper BWCA packing list that is perfect for your next outdoor endeavor.
In this article, we will break down everything we bring on our canoe trips. We also include a Google Sheets document that has the entire list broken down into categories. It is the same list we print off and use when preparing for a trip.
Please note, we outfit our trips 100% with our own gear. If you go with any of the amazing Boundary Waters Outfitters, they will cover much of this list in their complete outfitting package. Regardless, it is a good idea for you to know exactly what goes into a trip to ensure that nothing is left behind.
What goes into a Boundary Waters Packing List?
A lot! We like to break our list into sections so we can pull the gear off our shelves and start piling it up as we go. Keep in mind that we single portage every portage, so this gear list is designed to enhance your groups ability to cover greater distances.
This post is broken down into six sections:
- Canoe and canoe-related gear
- Packs and sleeping gear
- Cooking gear
- Personal items
- Fishing gear
- Miscellaneous gear
Printable BWCA Packing List
We recommend printing the spreadsheet before each trip and checking off gear as it’s pulled out of storage AND as it is packed in a portage pack. We forgot our tent once… so added the second column for quality control.
Canoe and Canoe-related Gear
Clearly you need your canoe! We paddle a Northstar Northwind 18 three seater. It is large enough for all of our gear, two adults, and two kids. Give your canoe a once over to make sure all bolts are tight, and it is not in need of repair.
We use the original wooden yoke on our canoe, so it is hard to forget it. We have forgotten our yoke pads though! If you are portaging a lot, a good yoke is your best option as it will help ensure a great experience and save your shoulders!
We pack a paddle per person and prefer solid wood paddles (Badger Paddles are my favorite). For the kids, we bring smaller plastic, expandable paddles. These double as our spares. If you are not traveling with kids, make sure you bring at least one spare paddle per canoe.
Everyone has a life jacket, and we always have them on. You should too. For that reason, invest in something that is comfortable. Kristen and I both love NRS Chinook Fishing PFDs. They are comfortable and have extra pockets for basic survival gear and fishing tackle. Our kids wear whatever fits them at the time!
Yes, we’re getting old. We do love a backrest and because we do not bring camp chairs, our canoe seats provide utility around camp as well. We like the Crazy Creek Canoe Chair III. Only adults though. The kids do not get chairs.
We bring bike locks for our canoe in the event we stop to eat or stay in a hotel the night before our trip. Our canoe was expensive, and we want to make sure it is still ours when we wake up!
Packs and Sleeping Gear
Canoes are uniquely shaped and do not lend themselves to old-school framed backpacking packs. This is where portage packs come into play. They are uniquely designed to maximize space in the canoe AND be reasonably comfortable on the trail.
We prefer Cooke Custom Sewing packs and bring two Pioneer size Hybrid packs on our trips. One is red and one is purple. That way, we know what gear is in what pack. Each pack is lined with a heavy duty garbage back to help keep things dry.
Bear Barrel and Food Pack
There is a lot of debate about the best way to keep food safe. We prefer food barrels. While they are not foolproof, they work well. Hanging food is great, but many campsites do not have great options for setting up a line and repeatitive hanging is tough on the trees.
We bring a Cooke Custom Sewing 30 liter barrel pack and have for years. Kristen will often rest another pack on top of the barrel pack when portaging.
Kids’ Adventure Packs
Our preferred tent is an REI Half Dome 4+ Person tent. Unfortunately, they do not make that tent anymore. Our next tent will likely be an REI Trail Hut 4. We like REI brand gear because it is high quality at a reasonable price point. Most of ours comes from REI.com/outlet.
This all depends on the time of year you are visiting. If you are in the June to August season, stick with a 30-40F down sleeping bag. They are super light and all four of our bags can be stuffed into one stuff sack, which helps with packing and staying organized.
We bought two cheap Alps Mountaineering bags and two Sierra Designs on sale at REI years ago. Both work well and it is nice having different colors for kids vs. adults. Less fighting and we don’t have to sleep in their disgusting bags.
We finally upgraded from our old-school Thermarest pads to fancy new light weight inflatables. They are amazingly light and warm, but can be a little loud when moving around.
Our current sleeping pads are REI Helix sleeping pads. Again, we bought them on closeout from REI’s outlet store. We have different colors for adults vs kids.
We are not the gourmet BWCA types. We prefer functional food that is quick and easy to cook. As a result, our cook kit is lighter and smaller than others. We cook most food over a fire and use our Jetboil largely to boil water.
Cook Stove and Fuel
Our go-to cook Jetboil stove has long since been discontinued. If we bought a new one we’d provbably look at a Jetboil Flash. We always a large gas canister and pack a small one inside the Jetboil pan in case of emergencies.
Cook Kit & Utensils
Other than that, we bring some biodegradable dish soap, paper towels, and occasionally a soft-sided cooler for the first couple of days of meals. After that its fish we catch and freeze-dried for the duration of the trip.
While most BWCA water is safe to drink, nobody wants a stomach ache in the wilderness. We use a Playtypus GravityWorks gravity filtration system and a Nalgene water bottle per person for additional storage.
We bring a lot of food and snacks for the kids. Hopefully one of these days we’ll write up exactly what our meal planning looks like. Until then, you’re on your own! Keep in mind everything must be packed out and you cannot bring glass bottles into the BWCA.
This section is the one open to the most debate. We pack light. Some folks enjoy more creature comforts (or changes of underwear). Use ours as a guide and pack to your heart’s content. Just make sure the rest of your group is OK carrying your load!
We have a small dopp kit for the family with our medicines, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. Some folks bring a wash cloth.
Personal Bags and Clothing
We pack ONE compression sack with all of our clothing. For a week long trip it looks something like this, per person. We do not bring cotton clothing, outside of maybe a t-shirt. We recommend you don’t either.
Most clothing are what we are wearing and we pack one extra. Nothing more. Nothing less.
- Wool socks (2) – pair on our feet and one extra
- Underwear (2) – One extra pair
- Pants (2) – Lightweight material that dries quickly. Ideally can be rolled up into shorts.
- T-shirts (2) – Ideally merino wool or synthetic. Old ratty t-shirts work fine but don’t dry if it rains
- Long Sleeve Shirt (1) – One lightweight longsleeve button-up shirt. Quick drying to keep the bugs away
- Sweater/Jacket (1) – We bring one quarter-zip style insulative layer for each person
- Hat (1) – Wide brimmed to keep the sun off. Worn on Day 1
- Swimsuits (1) – Optional. We don’t bring them
- Rain Gear (1) – Buy high-quality rain jackets and rain pants. No Ponchos
If it is colder outside, you will want to bring long underwear, a thick wool sweater or some tyope of extra layer, and proper boots with rubber soles. The list above is geared towards the mains BWCA season running from June to September.
We bring one 10L dry bag for each adult to be clipped into the canoe. Stores phones, cameras, sunscreen, etc.
This is a tough one. We prefer Keen-style sandals for warm weather trips. They are tough, dry easily, and protect your feet. We wear Crocs around camp. They unfortunately don’t pack down well, but can serve as a backup pair of shoes if your Keens break. So one pair of Keens and one pair of Crocs per person.
The key here is to find ways to maintain dry feet, which means having dry shoes on hand. And whichever shoes you choose, please make sure they are closed toe. A broken toe is no joke in the BWCA.
We like to read. Each of us brings one or two books, which often are carried in our food barrel for protection.
This all depends if you like to fish. If not, you can ignore.
We bring one fishing pole per person. We prefer the type that can be split into two sections. We’ll strap them to the canoe thwarts and leave them there while we portage.
We bring one plastic tackle box tray with tackle. Our go-tos include basic jigs for walleye, mepps spinners for smallmouth, and some larger Rapalas and spoons for Northern Pike. We also bring a small landing net and an anchor bag, which is a mesh bag that you can add rock to in order to create an anchor.
And don’t forget your fishing license and filet knife!
Michael Furtman has a great book on BWCA fishing that includes a fishing tackle list. It’s a must-have and is one of the books I bring along on each trip.
This is all the random stuff thank makes or breaks a canoe trip. We keep ours organized with small labeled bags.
- Headlamps – One per person with fresh batteries and spares
- Rope – Extra roll of paracord just in case
- Tarp – Large tarp for creating a rain shelter with rope and extra tent stakes
- Knife Sharpener – Small stone to maintain an edge
- Knife – Fixed blade knife for each person, worn on them at all times
- Hatchet or Saw – We prefer a saw. Less chance for injury
- Maps – Bring your maps and keep them dry and safe. Having a spare is a good idea
- First Aid Kit – Double check that it is in good condition
- Playing Cards – Just because
- Leatherman – Kept in life jacket pocket
- Fire Starters – Ferro rod, lighter, and waterproof matches. Multiple backups
- Duct Tape – Fixed everything
- Sun Screen – Self explanatory
- Insect Repellent – No aerosols are allowed. We prefer Deet when the bugs are really bad
- Weather Radio – Old crank style ot keep an eye on storms
- Personal Locator Beacon – Your personal Oh Sh*t button. Some bring a Garmin InReach.
- Cell phones/Camera – There is no cell service, so they are only cameras
- Powerbank – To charge your phone/camera
- Tent Light – Flashlight to hang in the tent at night
- Toilet Paper – Bring plenty
- Towels – Quick dry types. They can also serve as a wash cloth
- Ziplock bag – We bring a couple of extra large ziplock bags for storage and garbage