Category: Boundary Waters Trip Tips and “How To”

Tips and tricks to make your next Boundary Waters trip even better

The Most Dangerous Thing You’re Doing in the Woods

The recent news story about three Isle Royale hikers being airlifted off the island after they became severely dehydrated reminded us that while campers are often hyperaware of the risks associated with getting lost, getting injured, or running into a bear, they often forget about the risks associated with not drinking enough water.  But perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do while camping in the wilderness is letting yourself get dehydrated. 

As our society becomes increasingly urbanized, we’ve become more fearful of a lot of things in the woods and waterborne illnesses rank pretty high on many people’s lists of Boundary Waters anxieties. However, waterborne illnesses are extremely rare in northern Minnesota and while no one wants to get giardia, it takes many days before giardia becomes symptomatic, so you probably won’t even know you have it until you get home. Obviously, you should avoid contracting giardia at all costs, but the point is that it’s not going to cause an emergency while you’re in the middle of the woods. 

On the other hand, dehydration has a lot of unfortunate side effects that can put a powerful and immediate damper on your trip. The irritability and splitting headache that come with dehydration are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes dehydration’s unpleasantness. Let’s say you get dehydrated and you start losing some cognitive function. As a result, you might find yourself lost or having trouble making basic decisions. Or your motor skills start to suffer in your dehydrated state and you slip on a portage and end up with a twisted ankle . . . or worse. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to dizziness, cramps, fever, and loss of consciousness. 

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It might seem like an oxymoron to become dehydrated in a wilderness area that literally has “water” in its name, but we see it all the time. People come back from their canoe trips and they just seem a little . . . off. They’re confused and have trouble focusing and articulating. Sometimes they can barely make it up the outfitting building steps to collect their car keys. Get a bottle or two of cold water in them and they snap right back to life. 

It’s kind of crazy that people spend their time in the Boundary Waters with “water, water everywhere and every drop you can drink” not drinking water. The chances of accidentally drinking water that will make you sick in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are very low. The basic rule of thumb is if it looks water you wouldn’t want to drink, don’t drink it. If you can see tadpoles swimming around in scuzzy green-tinged water, that is not what you should be drinking. But water taken from the middle of the lake where it’s getting sterilized by the sun’s ultraviolet rays all day, every day, is pure, delicious, and perfectly safe. Just dip your water bottle in and have a drink whenever you’re thirsty. 

Still, we hear a lot of reasons why people don’t drink enough water on their canoe trips.

Reason #1: The filter took too long.

If the pump-style water filters are driving you crazy (it can take about 2+ minutes to fill a single Nalgene bottle) consider switching to a gravity filter, which is a great hands-free way to filter a large amount of water.  

Or use the “poor man’s” water method. At the end of each day, fill your largest cooking pot with water. Bring the water to a rolling boil and sustain the boil for 1 minute. Cover the pot and let it cool overnight. The next morning you’ll wake up to cool, sterile water to fill your water bottles with. 

Perhaps the most convenient option if you’re uncomfortable with drinking the water straight from the lake is to use a water bottle with a built-in water filter such as a LifeStraw, Katadyn, or Sawyer. 

BWCA Boil Water

Reason #2: I don’t like the way it tastes. 

It’s true, lake water just doesn’t taste like tap water. There’s a fair amount of tannins in Boundary Waters lakes that give the water a taste some people find off-putting. If you find lake water unpalatable, your best bet is to mask it with some sort of powdered beverage mix like Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, Gatorade, Tang, or lemonade. Just remember that any caffeinated beverages you consume don’t count as hydration, so don’t count your morning coffee or tea towards your daily water intake.  

Reason #3: I can’t drink it because it’s not cold. 

Room-temperature beverages are kind of what a Boundary Waters trip is all about and there’s not much any of us can do about it, short of hauling in ice packs or dry ice. If the lake temperatures are still pretty cold, you can use the lake as a fridge – just float your filled water bottles in the lake until cool. However, in high summer, when the surface water is around 70 degrees, this method is not super effective. If you really can’t stomach warm-ish drinking water, you may need to limit your Boundary Waters travels to spring and autumn. 

BWCA Water cooling

Your best bet is to make drinking water something so automatic that you don’t even think about it on your canoe trip. Figure out some sort of hydration accountability system, such as making sure everyone drinks water at the end of every portage and don’t be afraid to be a “hydration bully” to your canoe trip buddies. One good rule of thumb is to have everyone pay attention to their lips. If your lips are dry, you’re on your way to dehydration and it’s time to have a sip of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty yet. In fact, the best bet is to drink enough water that you never feel truly thirsty.

How Not To Get Lost in the Woods

Each year, a handful of people get really lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In this 1.1 million acre wilderness area lacking both navigational signs and cell phone service, the odds of getting horribly lost are extremely low. Of the 250,000 annual BWCAW visitors, only a dozen or so require Search and Rescue assistance each year. Still, you can make your odds of “staying found” even lower by following these tips.

In the Boundary Waters (and in life) practicing good situational awareness is the best way to avoid emergencies such as bodily harm or getting lost. Simply keeping your map in front of you at all time and actively identifying landmarks on the map as you pass by them is usually all that is needed to successfully navigate in the Boundary Waters. We often tell our guests to imagine themselves in a little canoe icon that’s moving across the map, just like you can follow that blue location dot on your phone’s map app. Another things that really seems to help people navigate in the Boundary Waters is to turn the map so it’s always pointed the way you’re going.

Beginning of a Boundary Waters trip
It seems like a high percentage of BWCAW visitors are “map people,” who really enjoy studying maps and are pretty geographically savvy. But whether or not you feel you have an innately good sense of direction, we believe everyone has the ability to be a good wilderness navigator. In this day and age where we have GPS units built into our phones and vehicles, we can become pretty passive navigators, so it’s not a bad idea to “practice being found” when you’re traveling on unknown route or navigating through a new city by being a more active navigator. Look at the full route so you picture it in your mind as you drive before you hit the “get directions” button. When you feel turned around in a city, find a landmark that will help you figure which direction you’re pointed. When you hone these skills in your everyday life, you’ll make it that much easier to navigate with a paper map in the Boundary Waters.

Even if you’re not the primary navigator on your trip, always have a general idea of where you are on the map. On the off chance that your primary navigator becomes incapacitated, you need to be a position where you can pick up the navigation “slack” for your group.

McKenzie Boundary Waters navigation map

You might consider yourself pretty good with directions, but if you’ve been on a particular canoe route countless times, you still shouldn’t solely rely on your memory. Trees fall down, beavers build dams, hillsides erode. Take a gander at the map every 10 minutes or so to avoid any nasty surprises.

Although there are a lot of great GPS devices that can make navigating in the Boundary Waters infinitely easier, we still strongly recommend that every group has at least one complete set of paper maps that covers your entire route. You can still plan to exclusively use your GPS device during your trip, but a good back-up map is a must in case you run out of battery or drop your device in the lake or on a rock. You can’t go wrong investing in a set of Fisher, McKenzie, or Voyageur maps and they make a great trip souvenir.

No one sets out on their trip planning to get lost in the woods, but it’s good to remember that it’s a fate that could befall any Boundary Waters visitor, regardless of age or experience. When you getting that niggling feeling that something’s not right and you’re not exactly sure where you are, stop at that very moment, study your maps, and figure it out. If you can’t, backtrack to a point where you’re sure you know where you are. If possible, flag down another group and ask for directions. Most people are more than happy to help.
Tuscarora - Trip Planning

Remember, getting lost on a lake is not a big deal. Sure, it’s not a pleasant experience and you might lose some time, but when you’re lost on a lake, you’re in a self contained area and the likelihood of bumping into other people who can point you in the right direction is pretty high. Eventually, you will figure out where you are and can get on with your trip. However, getting lost in the woods is a big deal, so practice extra careful situational awareness if you ever find yourself off the beaten path in the Boundary Waters forest. Stick to establish portages and trails to make it easy to back track.

Have you ever gotten lost in the woods? How to you get “found”? What advice do you have for navigating in the Boundary Waters?

What’s Biting Me?! A Guide to Boundary Waters Bugs

If you’ve spent any time in Minnesota in the summer, you know that there’s almost always some sort of insect wandering around, hoping to feast upon your blood. We all wish it wasn’t so, but it seems the price we pay for beautiful, pristine wilderness lakes and forest is dealing with a herd of tiny vampire bugs.

We know fending off biting insects is probably not your favorite Boundary Waters activities, but with our extremely short growing season, these bugs play an important role in the Northwoods ecosystem. While you might see the tick you just pulled off your sock as the bane of your existence, that pretty little songbird chirping away in the tree above you might see that very same tick as a tasty protein-packed snack. 

Cue, Circle of Life.

via GIPHY

Still, there’s not much we can say to make you feel better about the bugs you will undoubtedly encounter at some point when you visit the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Even the oft-spread rumor that black flies pollinate blueberry plants seems to be based around wishful rather than accurate science. The “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy is really not applicable here, so we subscribe to an “offense is your best defense” mentality. Below, we’ll spell out what biting insects could be eating you and how best to keep them at bay. 

What’s Biting Me?! Most prevalent time Bite characteristics Best defense Beware of . . .
Mosquitoes All summer, can linger into autumn evenings Itchy, but easily treated with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone ointment DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils Especially prevalent in wet summer seasons
Black flies June to mid-July “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Blackfly bites often bleed and swell. They can remain visible on your skin for weeks after the bite. DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils. Long sleeves and headnets are best defense Some people have severe allergic reactions to blackfly bites. Avoid letting blackflies feast upon you
No-See-Ums Summer nights Itchy red blotchy patches on your forearms and legs DEET, Long-sleeves and pants in evenings These teeny gnats are drawn to light and can pass through window screens. To keep from inviting no-see-ums into your cabin or bunkhouse, limit how many lights you have and keep windows partially closed.
Stable flies Mid-July – August Sharp, stabbing bite, but few lingering effects Wear a hat and socks. These pests are particularly fond of ankles and scalps. Don’t tip over the canoe or cause yourself serious injury with a paddle blade when you decide to take a swing at the trio of “ankle biters” who are buzzing around the canoe hull.
Horse Flies Late summer Painful bite. Most people exclaim “this fly is taking a chunk out of my skin!” while the bite occurs. Avoid camping near low areas where horse flies breed. Horse flies hunt by sight, so the flailing you do keep mosquitoes and black flies away will actually attract horse flies
Ticks Snow melt – early July Often found scurrying on your body before it bites and attaches to your skin for an extended feed. If it does attach, consider smothering it in Vaseline or peanut butter or just accept that you will lose a little chunk of skin if you pull it off. Permethrin treated clothing Be sure to do a daily “tick” check on dogs and small children, especially if you’d passed through dry grassy areas during tick season. Ticks are very hard to kill: consider death by latrine or fire upon removal.
Hornets and Wasps Mid – late summer Very painful bite with lingering sting for hours after bite Watch for and avoid nests Especially prevalent during dry summers; be careful on portage trails

Favorite Camp Eats

Here at Tuscarora, we try to be straight with our guests. And our camping food menu, well, it’s just plain confusing. So if you book an outfitting trip with us and find yourself scratching your head when it comes to making meal selections for your trip, we’re sorry: it really is us, not you. 

So we thought we’d take a moment to highlight some of our personal camp food favorites to give you an idea of how we approach camp food decisions. Spoiler alert: we keep it simple and we’re not afraid of redundancy.  

BWCA Camp Food Breakfast

Oatmeal 

Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but when I’m camping, there’s no risk of getting “analysis paralysis” about our breakfast options. We’re having oatmeal.  

Sure, the idea of whipping up some eggs “en plein air” for breakfast makes me feel cowboy-esque and like I should spend the day ahead “gettin’ along my little dogies.” And when enjoying pancakes alfresco, who doesn’t think of Pa Ingalls drizzling his johnnycakes with molasses next to the family covered wagon? As romantic as a big camp breakfast sounds, all that pioneer/cowboy literature fails to mention the mountain of breakfast dishes that the likes of Ma Ingalls and Hotbiscuit Sally  had to tackle before they could get on with their day. 

So, we eat oatmeal – either instant with some dried fruit and nuts or a granola – when we’re on trail. Maybe it’s boring, but I pretty much eat the same breakfast day in and day out at home and there’s really no reason to change that when we’re camping. Versatile, filling (with the right add-ins), lightweight, minimal waste, minimal dishes, just add water that was already getting boiled for tea and coffee anyway, oatmeal checks all the camp food breakfast boxes. 

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Bagels 

On family camping trips growing up, bagels were consumed basically at every meal and they’re still my camping bread of choice. While they’re certainly heavier per serving than a loaf of bread, they’re also more filling and don’t squish easily in the pack. They work well toasted for breakfast with peanut butter and jelly and you can take out that PB&J again for lunch, or top your bagel with summer sausage and cheese (block or cream) for an easy mid-day meal. We realize we’re starting to sound like very lazy camp cooks, but we’re 100% in the no-cook, no dishes lunch camp. 

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All about those snacks

Since we’re not exactly going all out for breakfast and lunch on the trail, snacks are an important part of our calories throughout the day. A batch of homemade granola bars at the top of the food pack is a great treat for the end of a strenuous portage.

GORP is another snack staple. We make ours with peanuts (preferably not dry-roasted), milk chocolate M&Ms, and raisins.

We also grab handfuls of almonds and dried fruit and we’re certainly not opposed to a well-timed Snickers bar should endurance (and tempers) start to falter. 

CampCook

We do actually resign ourselves to dishes when it comes to dinner. We’re often pretty content with some instant soup and cheesy toasted bagel for supper, but we have a couple freeze-dried meal favorites. 

Red Beans and Rice 

We added this meal to our camping menu last year and it quickly became a guest favorite. We usually use Vigo or Backpacker’s Pantry brand and then add sliced bratwurst or kielbasa to make an easy, filling one-pot meal. If adding sausage, you’ll want to plan to consume this meal within the first couple nights of your trip. 

Salmon Pesto Pasta 

This is a Backpacker’s Pantry item, but we like to mix it with Cache Lake’s Country-Blend Vegetables for a tasty pasta primavera. (If you’re wondering where this option is, it’s on our vegetarian menu, but we’re happy to pack it for you on request.) It tastes a lot “fresher” than many freeze-dried meals and it’s basically a one-pot meal since you just add water to the pasta’s meal pouch and can make the vegetables in the same pot you boiled your water in. (By the way, if you’re worried about the waste created by camp food, Backpacker’s Pantry just rolled out a recycling program for their pouches. Hallelujah!) 

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What your favorite food to eat on trail? Agree or disagree: everything tastes better in the woods. 

Is a Boundary Waters Trip Right For You?

If our Pinterest account can be believed, a handful of the people who end up on our website each day are driven by this question: “Is a Boundary Waters trip right for you?” Granted, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably already know a Boundary Waters/Quetico trip works well for you, but we figured we’d take this information that’s been buried on our trip planning page so it’s easy to find and share with people you know who can’t quite decide how they feel about canoe tripping. 

Obviously, we’re biased: we think everyone should experience the Boundary Waters and Quetico. (Check out our 10 reasons why every 20-something should canoe trip.) If you’re on the fence about taking a trip to America’s most popular wilderness area, here’s some real talk about what a canoe trip is all about to help you determine if a BWCA trip is right for you.

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Do you like being outdoors?

Kind of a no-brainer, but the people who get the most out of their Boundary Waters experience are folks who gravitate towards spending time outdoors no matter what corner of the world they’re in. Previous camping experience definitely isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoying a BWCA canoe trip, but it is helpful if you feel at ease being outside for extended periods of time.

Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?

Tuscarora does not offer guided canoe trips in the BWCA and Quetico. 100% of our outfitting guests successfully navigate canoe country independently. We’ll set you up with the maps you need for your trip and go over your route carefully to mark any confusing spots before you leave our office, but you’ll need to actively navigate during your entire trip.

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Do you like the idea of going off the grid?

Your cell phone won’t work in the Boundary Waters and Quetico and even if you bring an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or texting device, it can be hours before emergency responders reach your group. Boundary Waters campers are responsible for their own safety. You can help yourself avoid medical emergencies by moving carefully on portage trails and practicing extreme caution when using axes, saws, and fires.

Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?

Almost all canoe trips require portaging, meaning you pick up all your gear, canoe, and paddles and carry them from one lake to the next. While the majority of portages are less than a ½ mile long, even the shortest portage can be strenuous. You can avoid a lot of the physical demands of a Boundary Waters trip by opting for a base camp canoe route. Part of going on a canoe trip means you will have wet feet from time to time and that you’ll be sleeping on the ground. A canoe trip is a far cry from the all-inclusive vacation, but we think you’ll find it an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.

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Are you a-okay with things not going exactly according to plan?

Although people often refer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a “park,” the BWCA is very different from what you’ve experienced in a U.S. National Park. The BWCA is maintained to be, well, wild. There aren’t signs marking portages or lakes and you’ll probably run across at least one spot where the portage trail is obscured by fallen trees or flooding. The weather in northern Minnesota is highly variable year-round so make sure you pack good raingear and plenty of warm clothing, no matter what time of year you visit.

If you answered “YES!” to those five questions, congratulations, a Boundary Waters adventure sounds like a great fit for your personality. By setting realistic expectations for your canoe trip, you can have the trip of a lifetime and you might even like it so much that you come back year after year to explore different routes and seasons.