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Everything changes when you have kids. Things that you’d do in your 20’s without a second thought now become complicated. Remote wilderness experiences bring on a completely different list of complexity.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time! The BWCA with Kids can be a lot of fun and provide memories your kids will have for the rest of their lives.
What is the BWCA? The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA for short) is a mixture of forests, lakes, and streams along the Northern Minnesota border. Once you cross over to Canada, it’s called Quetico.
On each lake, there are campsites and portages to travel around. People from all over the country come to visit this remote wilderness for an epic canoe trip. Visitors range from teens to adults. Just because you don’t see kids up there as much, doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time up there with them.
When to Take Your Kids to the BWCA?
Taking my kids to the BWCA was always a dream of mine. I love it up there more than anything else. The wilderness is amazing.
I have been counting down the time when they would be able to handle a full-blown boundary waters canoe trip. For me, that was when my youngest was 6.
There were some criteria your kids should meet to have an enjoyable time in the BWCA with Kids.
Need to be able to hike short distances
To get between lakes, travelers portage their gear and canoe. A portage is measured in rods. Each rod is 16ft, about the length of a canoe. They range anywhere from 5 rods to 350 rods.
Most average out to about 100-150. The trails are well-traveled and sometimes have obstacles like trees and large rocks.
If your kids still need to be carried, I would not bring them. Otherwise, you’ll have one parent carry all the gear themselves.
Good by themselves for short times
They don’t need to be by themselves for long. Enough so when you are carrying a canoe on your shoulders, they can walk on the trail without fear.
Often, you’ll need to double back to get any gear left on the trail. You don’t want to worry about them left alone at the end of the portage.
There are some other factors, like being able to carry gear that makes things easier. They are all suggestions for a better trip.
I’ve seen people bring young kids and babies up there. While there is no reason you can’t, it makes the trip a lot more challenging.
Pre Trip Activities for the BWCA with Kids
Let Them Help Plan the Trip
What type of trip do they want?
There are two types of trips you can make with kids. Do you want to find a campsite and base camp? Or do you want to travel across remote sections of the wilderness? Both can be very fun.
There are many canoe routes to try out. Go over the route with them on a map and let them have input on what you do. With many entry points, there are different options available.
My kids wanted to spend more time on the water and decided to forgo the route that included a waterfall. We entered Sagnaga Lake early morning, camped, traveled south to Alpine Lake for a night.
Then back south through Seagull Lake for our final night. It included three small portages, a 15 rod, 100 rods, and a 150-rod portage.
Motorized Boat Traffic
Larger entry points, like Seagull Lake and Sagnaga Lake both, allow boat traffic. 20 years ago, this wasn’t that big of a deal. Today I’m seeing the effect. The BWCA limits where boats can travel and how fast they can go.
They also have a cap on the number of boat permits issued a day. Staying on a lake with motorized traffic can make canoeing a little more challenging, especially when boats have a wake.
This is scary for kids. They also add to noise pollution.
I saw more garbage and ax marks on trees on these sites. I also noticed more kids on these lakes as they didn’t need to portage with younger children.
These factors could have been from boaters, or from canoes that didn’t want to go in past the first site.
Have your kids help make the meals. This way they know exactly what went into the food and can help in any alterations. It can be a lot of fun having them pour things into each bag.
The great thing about YouTube is there are tons of people that show what it’s like up there. Watch some videos about the BWCA so your kids know what to expect. You should also show them the Forest Service Videos on the rules and regulations.
The biggest shock for my kids was the potty situation. Each campsite has a latrine down each path. It’s nothing more than a latrine in the middle of the woods.
It can be a little scary and gross for kids. Depending on their age, they might be more comfortable having a grown-up watch their backs.
The best part about being in the BWCA is realizing how little you really need. One of the most common practices is over-packing.
Each person needs two sets of clothing, a Dry and Wet set, both quick dry. 1 extra pair of shoes, a sleeping bag and pad, tent or hammock & raincoat.
You’ll also need Food, Water filter, Toilet Paper, Small Trowel, Stove, Matches or lighter, towel.
Because we were traveling with kids, we also allowed them to bring 1 stuffed animal from home. They doubled as pillows for them at night.
We had each kid learn to stuff their sleeping bag in a compression sack and gather their clothing they’d like to use. Before packing your clothing, consider giving it a permeation soak to repel bugs.
We wanted to have as few bags as possible. Our Sleeping Bags were going to take up most of the space in the Duluth Pack. We opted to make DIY Ultralight Sleeping bags for the trip to reduce weight and space.
I also made a few quick compression sacks for the sleeping bags.
I also threw in hammocks to relax in. They were amazing. I won’t travel without them again.
We packed light with 1 Duluth pack, 1 kevlar canoe, and two smaller day packs containing food and quick-grab items.
The outfitter was shocked at how little we had for four people. That’s when I looked at two other people getting ready to leave bringing a Duluth pack a piece.
Having a pair of good hammock straps makes all the difference in the world. We love the pair we picked up from Amazon. They’ve been going strong for 3 years now with no wear. Click here for the current price.
How’d it worked?
The portage plan was to have each kid take the smaller bags along with paddles. It all fell apart during the second portage when the weight became too much for them.
The other issue was the backpack my 6-year-old had was the adult size and kept slipping off his shoulders. We quickly regrouped, having my older child take it for him, and I took her backpack on a second trip.
It all worked out. My kids rose to the occasion and didn’t give up. For that, I couldn’t be prouder of them.
In The BWCA with Kids
Stay the first night at an Outfitter
The BWCA has tons of outfitters available no matter your entry point. If you are driving over 4 hours to get to the wilderness, chances are you don’t want to jump right into the canoe.
Your kids will be antsy too. That’s why staying at an outfitter is great. We stayed at Seagull Outfitter in one of their bunkhouses.
We were able to get everything packed correctly and ready to leave before most people woke up. The water was still glassy.
The other great thing about the outfitters is that they drop your rented canoe in the water for you. This was a big stress we had to start. They also do traditional outfitting if you need gear.
Cooking up in the BWCA is done by the stove or over a campfire. Since you don’t bring in your own wood, you’ll collect fallen sticks away from camp.
The kids loved getting to explore the wilderness and gained so much confidence. While they were still too small to start the fire and cook in the pit, they could gather water and help filter it.
Speaking of cooking, many often will bring their rod and reel up with them and fish the crystal clear waters. I didn’t want to deal with the clean-up while camping so we left our stuff at home.
Teach them to Navigate
When you get to some smaller lakes, consider giving the map to your kid to let them navigate to your next destination. In the BWCA was where I learned how to get around.
I became confident in my map reading skills. It’s here where I taught my daughter as well. We left her in charge of getting us to the next portage.
With some supervision and learning to look for landmarks, she was able to successfully guide us around.
Before getting to the portage, review the plan with everyone. What is your child going to be responsible for? Sometimes it’s just getting out of the canoe, but if they can carry something, anything helps.
The one bag kids would be responsible for, Food and one large and small paddle. The other kid grabbed the other set. Both would stay together on the trail and go ahead.
Once it was at the end of the trail, they would double back to us and assist with anything else. One of the biggest things the kids got out of the trip was teamwork.
Everything had to be carried and they did it together. When the bag was too heavy, the other one helped. It was a puzzle.
Things don’t always go as planned
Weather changes, campsite are occupied, and sometimes stuff happens out of your control. You have to roll with it. Our three-day trip was planned for four and almost became a two-day trip.
The weather was so nice on day two, we decided to travel all the way to Seagull Lake and spend an extra day there.
We got on Seagull Lake around 2:30 and went from campsite to campsite, zig-zagging around trying to find anything that was open. A nice group of campers invited us to stay with them since they knew we were having trouble. But it would put us over the 9 people per group limit.
When we reached the last campsite on the north side of the lake we were ready to give up. We were so frustrated and exhausted we decided to head back to the outfitter.
A slight navigation error had us canoeing along Three Mile Island. There we found plenty of great campsites. We all woke up the next morning with a thunderstorm off in the distance.
We decided to pack it up. There was no point in sitting around being miserable.
What would I do differently?
I had such an amazing boundary waters trip with the kids. I got everything out of it that I wanted. The only thing I’d do differently next time is to plan a trip deeper into the BWCA even with kids.
While we were at end of the Gunflint Trail, it has become so popular it was impossible to get campsites on the adjacent lakes.
You need to get to camp before lunchtime, something I’ve never encountered before. The one great thing about the BWCA going at the end of August was there were no bugs. I didn’t pull out the bug spray once.
If you like reading about fun canoe trips, a few books you should check out is Hudson Bay Bound Review Fueling your Paddling Wanderlust or This Tender Land | The events behind the book. Both are great books to get out itching to get on the water some more.
Also, make sure to spend some time in Grand Marais while you are there. It’s an amazing weekend town.