For decades, the U.S. Forest Service and paddling enthusiasts have been bemoaning the moribund state of canoe country visitors. A 2011 USFS survey of Boundary Waters visitors placed the average age of BWCAW campers at 45 years old – a stark contrast to a 1969 survey that pitted the average at 26 years old.
But in our business, we see loads of younger adults using and enjoying the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In fact, considering all the data we’ve read and heard anecdotally about the Boundary Waters and Quetico only being used by “old men,” we were a little shocked at just how young the average Tuscarora guest is.
If you never visited the Boundary Waters as a child, your 20s are a great time to discover this beloved wilderness area. We think every 20-something should experience wilderness canoe tripping. Here’s our top 10 reasons why young adults, and really anyone contemplating a first-time canoe trip, should take the plunge, er, we mean, paddle.
Paddle your own canoe: You might have felt like an adult in college, but it turns out “real life” is a little more complicated than juggling your class schedule, homework, work study job, and funtivities. Suddenly you’re making decisions about your retirement account and starting to pay back those student loans. What the heck?! Canoe trips bolster self-confidence, improves your mood, and reduces psychological illness. After doing a Boundary Waters canoe trip where you rely solely on your own body and mind to get you and your gear from Point A to Point B, you’ll feel like you can conquer the world.
A vacation you can afford: Canoe trips are one of the most affordable vacations you can take. A completely outfitted 4 day/3 night canoe trip with ultralight Kevlar canoes will cost you less than $500 in northeastern Minnesota’s fabled Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. That means all you need to worry about is your personal clothing and transportation to the outfitters – the food, canoe, paddles, lifejackets, tent, packs, etc., is all included in the ticket price. The price is even lower if you can bum some camping gear off of friends and family. Kevlar canoes rent for less than $50 per day and aluminum canoes rent for even less.
(Check out our personal gear checklist to see what you’ll be responsible for packing. Wondering about the vittles we’ll be packing? Here’s the camping menu.)
Make lifetime memories: Beautiful sunsets. Loons calling across the lake on a moonlight evening. Catching a walleye on your first cast. That time your best friend swamped the canoe reaching for the selfie stick at the portage landing. The memories you make in canoe country will bring a smile for years to come.
You won’t ever be any younger than you are right now: While not necessarily strenuous, canoe trips do demand a certain physical rigor. We hear from so many people who have “aged out” of canoe trips or who have had to cut down on their canoe trip mileage significantly with each passing year, or rather, each passing knee surgery. Don’t pencil that 14-day wilderness canoe adventure you’re dreaming of for some foggy “someday.” Do it now, while your body is strong, tough, and forgiving.
Refresh and restore your creativity: Adulting can be monotonous and mind numbing at times. At the end of the workday, you might find yourself sacked out on the couch watching reruns rather than finishing the novel you swore you’d have done by now or starting your “insert favorite activity here” company. Happily, a study that psychologist Dr. Frank Ferraro of Nebraska Wesleyan University did in the Boundary Waters shows that time in the woods can jumpstart creativity and other cognitive activities. That research is backed up by many other studies, so throw a notepad and sketchbook in your personal pack and prepare to be inspired.
Get cracking on your bucket list: The Boundary Waters consistently does well on travel bucket lists. As America’s most popular wilderness area, the Boundary Waters made it into the first edition of 1000 Places to See Before You Die and Huffington Post named the BWCA the one thing you must do in Minnesota.
Make adventure a habit: A life of adventure doesn’t just happen. You need to consistently make the decision to break out of the 9-5 grind. An annual canoe trip might be just the thing to help shape a life of exploration and discovery. Combined, the Boundary Waters and Quetico covers more than 2 million acres of North American wilderness so you could visit these special places every year for decades and see a new section of the wilderness on each trip.
Challenge yourself: According to happiness expert, Gretchen Rubin, we’re happiest when we exist in a state of growth. Don’t think you can paddle 25 miles and carry your canoe and all the gear and food you need over 20 portages? Prove yourself wrong. You’ll be so happy you did.
Disconnect to connect: If you’re tired of getting together with your friends and just watching everyone poke at their phones around the restaurant table, it might time to head to canoe country. Your cell phone won’t work here and you’ll have time to truly connect and go with the natural flow of life, without being a slave to the “refresh” button. Bonus: too much time in front of blue screens is a known cause of insomnia and studies show that camping can reset your biological clock, so you could sleep better while you’re camping.
Reevaluate priorities: You’ll probably look at life a little differently after a canoe trip. It’s fascinating to see all the items you need to survive a week in the wilderness fit in a couple packs at the bottom of a canoe. Although millennials are notorious for having much less attachment to “stuff” and life’s material trappings than their baby boomer parents, you might find that a canoe trip has you rethinking the things that are truly important in life.
Did/do you canoe trip in your 20s? What would you add to this list?
Greatest read and pics, thanks! I, too, hope to see canoe country reverse the aging process
My very first canoe trip (and camping of any type, if you can believe it!) was in my mid-20s. A group of girlfriends asked me to join them, and I fell in love with the area and the experience! I would second your comment on how youth is definitely an advantage; however, I would still encourage adults of any age to give it a shot. I would also encourage young families to consider canoe trips (you can adjust your trip as needed based upon your children’s ages/abilities) as instilling a love of nature in our youth will foster a lifetime of environmental stewardship. Thank you for the great article!
My first trip as a 22 year old in 1987 was a disaster. Rain, snow, ice and freezing temperatures on an awful Memorial Day Weekend. We only did two days one night of a planned 6 day trip. Undaunted I went back the next year (in August) and had the time of our lives. Tales of that trip are still shared around the campfire as a survival story. I have never stopped going and I am planning 45th trip for Labor Day weekend this Fall. The number one lesson I learned from that trip was that I was ill-prepared equipment wise. Buy, burrow or rent good quality tents, sleeping bags, canoes, boots and rain gear. Use an outfitter (Tuscarora is the best) and soak in all of the knowledge that you can. Learn how to paddle a canoe correctly and efficiently. The Boundary Waters Journal has a web site with past articles filled with information and tripping routes. Above all just go! You will never regret it! Find those waterfalls, climb the cliffs, explore those out of the ways areas, paddle the shore lines you never know what you will find or see.