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.
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.
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.
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.
In northern Minnesota, we know how well these two concepts pair. No one ever sang, “Wintertime and the living is easy.” All winter long, we worry about influenza B, icy roads, heating costs, and so much more. But if you’re new to winter recreation in the Boundary Waters, lake slush might be pretty low on your list of winter worries. Conversely, if you’re a winter camping or ice fishing enthusiast, you might be all too familiar with “slush anxiety.”
So, what is this slush stuff? Slush occurs when the weight of snow on top of the ice presses the ice down. Lake ice continuously expands and contracts as temperatures fluctuate, creating cracks and fissures across a lake’s ice cover. As the snow presses the ice into the lake, lake water starts seeping through the ice’s cracks. (Think about what would happen if you decided press your hand into the top of a fruit pie. The pastry wouldn’t totally disintegrate, but pie filling would start to ooze through any breaks in the pastry onto your palm.) This water then mixes with the snow on top of the ice creating soupy, snowy slop that hides beneath what looks like pristine snow cover. When this hidden layer of slush is covered by several inches of snow, the slush can persist in even the coldest weather because the layer of snow on top of it insulates the slush from the elements. While slush is more prevalent on small lakes or in bays, you can run into slush on any size lake.
Over the last two winters, we’ve put together a weekly winter weather update video for our winter report page and in the process, we’ve realized there are quite a few misconceptions about slush.
Myth #1: Slush means the ice is weak
Slush is often mistaken for thin ice. It’s certainly disconcerting to be walking on a perfectly frozen surface and then plunge your boot into a foot of watery goop with your next step. But if you know the lake ice is measuring a safe thickness (the MN DNR recommends an ice thickness of at least 4″ before walking on frozen bodies of water), you’re not going to fall through a slush pocket into the lake below. That said, slush pockets can be deep and hard to walk in, so your gut instinct to “get the heck out of here” should be followed.
Myth #2: Slush is most prevalent during warm weather, aka the end of winter
Slush is often unfairly linked with warm weather, but the real slush culprit is snow. The snowier the early winter is, the more likely you are to run into slush in the Boundary Waters. Although slush can form on sunny days when the snow melts on top of the ice, this “top down” slush is much less troublesome than the more common “bottom up” slush. “Top down” slush is often very short lived because it tends to form when we’re in a freeze/thaw cycle (aka”maple sugar days“) in late winter. In fact, March tends to be the best month for winter travel in the Boundary Waters because on sunny days the increased intensity from the sun melts any snow on top of lake ice down to a crust that freezes overnight to create a concrete, sidewalk-like (and slush-free) surface to walk on.
Myth #3: Slush is dangerous/not dangerous
Many people’s instinct when they run into slush is to cut to the shoreline and start bushwhacking through the woods to their destination. Although slush isn’t much fun, sometimes “the only way out is through.” Although you might not notice it until you’re in slush, the snow covering a slush pocket often has a steely gray tinge that sets it apart from the snow on “unslushy” portions of the lake. If you can see the end of the grayer snow, your best bet to get your destination fastest is to just sprint through the slush pocket to firmer footing.
Conversely, while no one is probably ever going to seek out slush, it really should be avoided, especially if you don’t have waterproof footwear on. You don’t want to open yourself up to hypothermia by getting drenched from the knee down. In very cold temperatures, slush can freeze to your footwear in a solid, heavy layer that makes it impossible to continue moving until you’ve thawed out your footwear, particularly if you’re wearing snowshoes.
Moral of the story: if you find yourself in slush, don’t freak out, but work to extricate yourself as quickly as possible.
As with most things in life, it’s better to prepare for the unpleasant reality of slush on your next winter Boundary Waters trip than just hoping you won’t run into it.
Know the current conditions and be on the look out for slush as you travel, so you don’t end up in the middle of slush pocket simply because you weren’t paying attention to where you were walking.
Wide back country skis or snowshoes will often keep you “floating” through the slush.
Have good waterproof winter boots for times when you must wade through the slush on foot.
Pack ice scrappers so you can quickly remove slush from your feets and sleds.
If you are going for day trip and know conditions are slushy, consider hauling your gear in a portage pack rather than a sled to mitigate the amount of slush removal you have to do.
No matter how hard we try to avoid it, slush is a reality of Northwoods winters. Slush conditions vary wildly from year to year and day to day, so don’t let one bad slush experience put you off winter travel in the Boundary Waters forever. And remember: don’t worry, be happy.
There’s one thing we think should be in everyone’s pack.
If you don’t have it, you might have to end your trip early.
You might even put yourself in a life-threatening situation.
At best, if you need it and you don’t have it, you’ll be mighty uncomfortable.
Like it or not, you’ll be happiest if you invest a bit of money in it.
Hopefully, you won’t need it at all; but trust us, it’s worth the extra weight.
Yeah, it’s rain gear.
While I often quip that a good attitude is the best thing you can bring on a canoe trip, rain gear is the actual physical item that it’s truly foolish to leave the canoe landing without. Boundary Waters weather is notably capricious and no matter how often you study the forecast before departure, there’s no guarantee that even the best weather pattern will hold for the entirety of your trip, even if you’re just doing a day trip.
When we say you need rain gear, we’re talking about two specific pieces of apparel: a rain jacket with a hood and rain pants. Unless you like paddling around with a lap full of water, ponchos are for ballparks, not the Boundary Waters.
Remember, a rain jacket is just half of your rain gear formula. We see a lot of people heading into the woods with only a rain jacket. While the no-rain pants rain gear solution might work well for running errands on rainy days, just wearing a rain jacket is in many ways worse than not wearing any rain gear at all. A rain jacket funnels water onto your thighs, eventually drenching your bottom half until you’re far wetter than if you’d foregone rain gear all together. Whatever you do, don’t pair just a rain jacket with cotton pants; if you do, you’ll be wringing pints of rainwater out of your pants at the end of the day.
Your rain gear needs depend on which season you visit the Boundary Waters in. In spring and fall, when the average temperature is the 50s and 60s, you’ll want a heavy duty set of rain gear. While we tend to associate hypothermia with winter’s extreme lows, in actuality, hypothermia could set in after just a couple hours of being wet and underdressed in 60 degree weather. In the shoulder seasons, a pair of rain gear bib overalls will prevent “gapping” between your rain pants and rain jacket when you’re sitting in the canoe or in camp. In the summer, you can get away with a lighter weight pair set of rain gear. Frogg Toggs are a great budget-friendly, albeit not super durable, rain gear solution. However, if you plan to make canoe tripping a habit, you’ll be the happiest if you spend a little more money on a set of rain gear from a reputable outdoors company that fits you well and that allows you a full range of motion.
Remember, cold can kill, regardless of if the calendar says January or July. Older adults and young children are the most susceptible to hypothermia, so make sure everyone in your group has a set of waterproof gear that fits them well. In the case of older and/or hand-me-down rain gear, be sure to test out its waterproof qualities before you start your trip. There’s nothing worse than assuming your rain gear is waterproof only to discover that your shoulders are absolutely drenched after two minutes of torrential rain on day one of your trip. The next time you’re washing your car in the driveway, have your kids put on their rain gear and give them a good spray with the hose. Not only will you be in the running for “most fun parent of the year,” you’ll also know whether you need to scout out new rain gear before your next outdoor adventure.
When everyone in your group has great rain gear, you might find that you don’t mind rainy days one bit. Rainy days are great travel days, because covering ground and seeing new sights is a more rewarding way to spend a dreary, drizzly day then huddled under the tarp, playing endless game of cribbage, hoping for the rain to stop. Rain transforms the Boundary Waters into a dewy fairyland that’s a joy to explore . . . when you’re warm and dry.
Whether or not to pack rain gear should never be a question. Always place your rain gear at the top of your pack, just under the top flap and on top of the pack liner so you can easily grab it when the far horizon starts to darken with rain clouds. In one of life’s little paradoxes, if you don’t pack rain gear; it will rain. If you do pack rain gear, you just might be in for beautiful, cloudless days your entire trip.
No season poses more challenges in the Boundary Waters than winter. How to dress for winter play in the Boundary Waters is particularly puzzling, especially since it’s not unheard of for winter temperatures to fluctuate as much as 70 degrees in the span of 24 hours. (Just think how differently you would dress for 30ºF temps vs. 90ºF, yet we hardly bat an eyelash when temps go from -35ºF below to 35ºF above in the winter months.) While hypothermia should be a consideration nearly all year in the BWCAW, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, a clothing misjudgment in the winter can lead to the loss of toes or even, life. (We’ve all read To Build a Fire, amirite?) If you get only thing right during your winter camping or ice fishing adventure, you want it to be your clothing.
The amount of winter clothing you need directly correlates to your level of physical exertion, so you really need two clothing plans for any given day: one for when you’re in motion and the other for when you’re in camp or hanging out by an ice fishing hole.
After 30+ winters in northeastern Minnesota, we’ve honed our winter clothing pretty well, so we’ve put together a “winter wear primer” to help others avoid common stumbling blocks when dressing for winter weather.
On any typical winter day, we’re wearing some sort of mix and match outfit from what’s laid out below.
How all that clothing shakes out each day depends on the day’s activity, temperature, and wind.
1) All about that base
Rule #1 for winter wear in Minnesota is to dress like an onion – an onion made of wool, that is. Keep the layer next to your skin comfortably snug and opt for wool material to avoid a cold, clammy base layer. The wool wicks moisture away from your body so you stay dry when you’re in motion and warm when you’re taking a breather. (If you’re allergic to wool, consider silk.)
I’ve had good luck with stuff from Minus33, a company specializing in merino wool garments of varying weights. I wear their mid-weight long sleeve shirt when temps are above 0º and opt for ” expedition weight” when it’s colder. For bottoms, I throw on the nearest pair of leggings (yep, those much hyped Lularoe leggings work pretty well as long underwear) if it’s a warmer winter day, but it’s below 0º, I opt for mid-weight wool long underwear.
Wool pants are the #1 item we recommend if you’re serious about winter recreation in the Boundary Waters. In our opinion, wool pants are the perfect winter pants solution for northeastern Minnesota’s climate, since they seem to maintain a comfortable temperature regardless of if it’s 30º above or -20º. They might not win fashion points, but they wick moisture, dry quickly, and as long as you have a base layer on, aren’t itchy. Beside, you can wear them right next to a fire and never worry about them melting. If you’re planning to hike several miles in a day, you’ll appreciate their breathability.
Note: Unfortunately, wool pants are very difficult to find in a women’s cut. (L.L. Bean used to be a safe bet, but they don’t have any listed on their website currently.) It’s worth hunting around for a pair, because trying to squeeze into a pair of men’s cut is not a comfortable solution.
Wool pants are your best option for if you’re planning to spend most of your day in motion, but the wind will whistle straight through them. For more sedentary winter activities (i.e. snowmobiling, ice fishing), don’t knock bib snow pants. While bibs can be a pain, it is nice to duck under a snow-laden branch and not have a mini avalanche down your backside. They’re clumsier to move in than wool pants, but if you’re hanging out in windy conditions, insulated water and windproof pants are what you want. Alternatively, you could just pull a windproof nylon shell over your wool pants.
3) Middle layer
This is the part of dressing for winter where the wheel starts to come off the wagon for people. Functional winter clothing is definitely an investment and many people try to fudge it with lots (and lots) of layers of cotton sweatshirts, sweatpants, pajama pants, and rain gear. But more clothes does not equal more warmth. In fact, by the time you’ve pulled on four sweatshirts and shoehorned yourself into your rain jacket, your clothing will be so tight, you’ll be compromising your blood’s circulation. Your body’s internal furnace can’t keep you warm if it can’t fully circulate blood.
Also, no one wants to end up like Randy in The Christmas Story:
But good news! This is a classic case of “less is more.” All you really need for your mid layer is a loose fitting wool sweater or Polarfleece pullover or zip-up. The idea here is to create pockets of warm air around your body, just like how a quilt functions. If it’s below 0º, I throw a down or Primaloft vest over my sweater. Always have a vest in your backpack to use as an outer layer on a long rigorous hike or as an extra layer if the wind picks up.
Oooo, is there anything worse than cold toes? This is another area of winter wear where people compulsively keep throwing on layer after layer . . . to their own detriment. The last thing you want is your feet sheathed in an impenetrable layer of socks; you want the warm air inside your boots to actually reach your little piggies.
You should just need one or two layers of socks, regardless of the temperature. When it’s above 0º, I wear a merino wool hiking sock. If it’s colder, I’ll pair a thicker wool sock with a lightweight liner sock.
Not all wool socks are created alike and if you’ve been wearing wool socks for a while, you’ve probably had the unpleasant experience of having a pair of popular and expensive wool socks blow out in the heels and balls of your feet after just a few wears. We’ve gone through a lot of different wool socks and find Point 6 and Darn Tough brands to have the best bang for your buck(s).
There are a lot of schools of thought when it comes to winter footwear. Many Minnesotans swear by Steger Mukluks. Mukluks are your warmest and lightest winter boot option if you’re walking through dry powdery snow. However, they’re not waterproof, so don’t wear them if there’s a chance of slush.
I wear Schnee’s Extreme Pac boots for most Boundary Waters winter adventures because they’re waterproof, the removable thinsulate/wool liners keep feet warm and dry, and the textured soles are helpful slippery portage hills. They’re on the heavy side, although not nearly as clunky as the Baffins I clomped around in for years. I spent my childhood in Sorel boots which sport a very similar design to these Schnees. One point in the (more expensive) Schnee boots’ favor is that they can be sent into the factory in Montana for resoling, although you to get years and years of use out of a single pair.
Honestly, for a couple hour excursion in above 0º temps, I’d just pull on my Bogs since I won’t be standing still long enough for the completely unbreathable neoprene to turn the inside of boots into a swamp. Regardless of the fact that they’re rated to -40ºF, the neoprene in Bogs makes them a really bad option for an all day or overnight expedition.
One place not to skimp on layers is with outer accessories. To get away with less layers on your core and legs, you need to prevent body heat from escaping through your hands and head. A warm hat (you don’t have to wear a hand knit alpaca Tuscarora hat, but I would), a scarf or polar fleece neck gaiter, and mittens are essential winter accessories. When it dips below 0º, or if you’re going to be standing outside, add a thin polar fleece balaclava underneath your hat and gaiter. You’ll also want a pair of sunglasses (and some sunscreen) packed to combat the glare from the snow on sunny days.
I’ve always preferred mittens over gloves because they utilize “the buddy system” with your fingers to keep your hands warmer than when your hand is in gloves. I utilize a mitten system of a pair of buckskin chopper mittens to block with wind and moisture with a set of hand knit wool liner mittens inside for warmth and to wick away moisture. Mittens and gloves have a sneaky habit of getting damp, so make sure to always have a dry pair of mittens and/or gloves packed. If you prefer gloves, OR makes great waterproof gloves, just keep in mind that in frigid conditions gloves will never keep your hands as warm as mittens will.
Although too warm and bulky to be useful when hiking, I pull out my Wiggy’s mittens when I’m going to be sedentary in cold weather because they’re basically sleeping bags for your hands and are impervious to extreme cold. They’re your “I never ever want to have cold hands again” solution and are nice to have in your pack to hand to the person who just stuck their hand down the ice fishing hole.
7) Outer layer
To top it off your winter outfit, you need a big puffy parka or anorak. If you’re not allergic, down is your warmest option, but synthetic fibers also work well and are definitely easier to care for. A hood with a fur ruff (real or faux) is an important feature to keep the wind off your cheeks. You also want plentiful pockets to hold extra mittens, balaclavas, Kleenex, snacks, and more.
Regardless of the weather forecast, you should always have a heavy winter coat packed. Never underestimate how chilly you can grow standing in the middle of a windy frozen lake. Even on the warmest winter day, you may find you want the protection from the wind that only a thick hooded coat can offer.
What lessons have you learned about dressing for winter in the Boundary Waters? What winter clothing item would you never be without?
We spend most of our free time in the first three months of each year ice fishing for lake trout. Because our business keeps us busy all summer long, in any given year, we spend considerably more time fishing in “hard water” conditions than we do on open water.
Ice fishing can seem a little daunting. For one thing, it can be downright chilly and people are sometimes apprehensive to invest in the specific gear needed for ice fishing. But while you might have to work a little harder to succeed at ice fishing, that just makes the experience all the more rewarding. The specialized gear needed is limited to a few rods, ice scoops, and augers. Best of all, ice fishing is a great excuse to spend sometime outdoors in the winter months, even if you come home empty handed.
Throughout the year, we hear a lot of questions from those curious about trying their hand at ice fishing. What’s your favorite lure? What’s the best hand auger? Why don’t you use a sled to haul your gear? To answer all those questions and more, Andy put together this ice fishing gear video tutorial.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to make a list of all the gear Andy mentions in the video. Just use our printable ice fishing packing list as an easy reference point when you pack for your next ice fishing adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Here’s one of the lures highlighted in the video:
The DNR’s Lake Finder website is a great resource to guide you in choosing a Gunflint Trail lake to ice fish on. You can always give us a shout at 218-388-2221 for lake recommendations too.
Good luck anglers!
Tuscarora Lodge & Canoe Outfitters
193 Round Lake Road
Grand Marais, MN 55604
218-388-2221 or 1-800-544-3843 email@example.com