BearVaults on a canoe trip.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Planning a Family Trip (with little kids, too!)

Traveling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area can be a most amazing experience, but if you really want to level up your experience enjoy it with little ones!  Nephews, grandchildren, cousins, friends and of course your own children will cherish memories of these adventures thanks to those who are willing (or dare!) to take them.  Per the website; the BWCAW contains 1175 lakes varying in size from 10 to 10,000 acres, more than 1200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and over 2000 designated campsites. 

The BWCAW contains the largest contiguous areas of uncut forest remaining in the eastern United States.  With these amazing stats- yes, you could plan some very bold, epic adventures through that natural space.  Conversely, this article is not about that.  This is about how you can plan a successful trip with a family and create a wanderlust for adventure that will carry on for generations in other people, not necessarily yourself.

A whole family posed at a canoe camp with a BV500.

Grandpa Urban enjoying special moments with the grand kiddos

First things first, do your research and search for best entry points for beginners and/or children.  Then, mark your calendars for the last week of January, every year.  Why is this date important?  The site opens up reservations for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the upcoming season!  There is no need for panic, but since the covid shutdown, and an increased interest in outdoor activities- even the BWCA (one of the most quiet places on earth) is not immune from the increased influx of visitors.  

So you’ve made your reservation, you’ve invited Mom, Dad maybe your cousins and some neighbors?  The more the merrier!  The BWCA allows up to 3 watercraft per group with a maximum of 9 people per site.  This doesn’t mean you can’t plan larger groups but if you do, you’ll need to disperse a bit and respect the quiet nature of this unique wilderness.  In fact, just last June of 2023 the BWCA was awarded “Quiet Park Status” by the Quiet Parks International Organization, a status which only a select few parks in the USA has achieved.

Kids and a stuffed animal moose on a canoe.

Stuffed animals are a great toy your children can pack along for the adventure

Now, we’ll assume your planning and packing went well and you are ready to launch!  The great thing about canoeing is you can afford to carry a lot more gear.  You can leave the ultra-lightweight weenie’ism principles at the thru-hike trailheads and enjoy this experience with a heavier load.  Allow the young ones to bring games, toys (I prefer those geared towards the outdoors but any barbie will do).  And leave the screens at home.  There is no law saying children can’t play video games in the BWCA but we’re sure there should be!  A personal tip from us is; to allow the packing of many stuffed animals.  These are great toys as they pack tight, light and even float if accidentally dropped in the water.  They can be left in the tent and slept on and won’t damage other gear when packed tightly.  Also, there are a number of great campsite games for groups of people of all ages to bring along.

I like to recommend creating a list of desirable campsites and making a plan ahead of time based on the research you’ve done.  Unlike backpacking, you’ll typically have a little more choice in the BWCA, but sites do sometimes fill up and there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to how that happens i.e. day of week, time of day.  There will always be a place to camp, but the amount of time paddling and traveling can vary greatly, so having a plan and an idea of what to expect will alleviate some stress you might accumulate at the launch site.  As with any adventure, don’t make the goal of finding the campsite your primary focus- have fun along the way!

Kids playing on a canoe trip.

Balance safety with freedom, finding an island campsite can provide security with young explorers.

The rest of your trip will include your typical camp adventures with much less walking and more upper-body work than normal.  Be prepared physically and mentally for a variety of challenges and rewards.  If you really want to surprise your fellow campers with a skill make sure you are up to date on your fishing license and skills.  Catching a walleye and having a fresh shore-lunch in northern Minnesota is something you want to experience if you can.  Again, there are numerous outfitters scattered throughout the entry points of the entire wilderness.  Each one will be happy to give you all the information you are looking for when it comes to weather, bugs, and any other conditions you might be curious about.

The BWCA is all about the “Leave No Trace” principles.  Instilling this knowledge in young people is so important in our opinion.  As a family, we know generations beyond us will look forward to enjoying the BWCA and a large part of making that experience great for future generations is to follow the principles of LNT:  Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire Impacts, Respect Wildlife, Be Considerate of Others.

There is so much more we could share about the BWCA but every experience is unique and a large part of that is self-discovery during a new process.  Our family hopes you can take some time out of your own goals and aspirations to share and give the gift of adventure to the young people in your lives.  We often read and hear about the amazing solo accomplishments adventurers achieve.  Those are equally amazing to those small (and big) adventures shared with young people.  After all, children are the future and true stakeholders of the special places we love.

A kid sits on a BearVault on the edge of a lake.

You got this!  Now go get out there!

Author Profile

The Urban Family

Hi! We are a couple of teachers who are raising their family with a lot of vitamin (N)ature. Living in Minnesota, we value the outdoors and teach our kids to embrace the activities of every season. Whether it is catching frogs, tackling new mountain bike trails, kayaking to a secret fishing spot, or being the first to cross country ski on freshly groomed trails, we believe that there is no better way to learn and grow than through having outdoor adventures as a family.

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