The 2016 paddling season is in full swing in Minnesota. Gone are the days where Dave and I felt like we had the Wilderness to ourselves. We are regularly seeing canoeists out on the water, trekking across portage trails and occupying campsites. It seems like an appropriate time to review the BWCAW rules to ensure those who visit this special, wild place keep it wild for future generations to see in all its glory. I have no intention to list them all in their entirety. Rather, I offer a few tips and tricks for adhering to several key rules.


The point of the permitting system is to regulate visitor distribution and support solitude. If you are just visiting the BWCAW for a day, all the entry points have stations where you fill out a day-use permit. If you are going to camp in the BWCAW anytime between May 1 and October 1, you need to pay for a permit. Permits can be reserved online and obtained from the Forest Service district offices or at numerous outfitters that are official cooperators.

Group size is limited to nine people and four watercraft. You can only camp at designated campsites, which are marked on most maps, and contain an official fire grate and latrine (which is like an outhouse without the house).



I’m a big advocate for adhering to the leave no trace principles while camping anywhere, whether backcountry or frontcountry. Out here, little bits of trash on a campsite or portage trail, cut tree limbs or peeled birch bark stand out in stark contrast to this gorgeous natural landscape. In our 240+ days out here I am happy to report that finding blatant disregard for leave no trace has been rare. It seems like most visitors to the BWCAW are very respectful of this place.

When I find trash out here, it seems to be little bits of granola bar wrappers or fishing line. To ensure you’re not depositing little bits of trash around – let’s call it micro-trash – I have a few tricks that have helped me.

Dave and I regularly eat snacks and lunch while we’re traveling through the Wilderness. I can keep track of wayward ClifBar wrappers and other micro-trash by depositing it in the same zipper pocket every time. This ensures that little bits won’t fall out of the pocket and then at the end of the day, I don’t have to dig through all my pockets to throw the wrappers in the recycling or trash bag.

If you packed it in, pack it out. This applies to food leftovers too. Burning trash (even paper) is illegal in the state of Minnesota. No one wants to arrive at a campsite with a fire grate that contains little bits of foil and partially burned plastic bits left from campers who decided to burn their cocoa packets. Do not throw any trash into the latrine either. Our trash collection habit involves packing wrappers and other trash that we generate into resealable bags and storing those with our food. We also pack out any trash we find that was left by other campers. I may grumble about someone’s carelessness, but I have such a high regard for this place and I don’t want anyone else to be bummed out by finding someone else’s trash.

Packing your food efficiently in the first place can greatly reduce the amount of trash you end up with as well. For example, anything in cardboard boxes can be repackage into resealable plastic bags. I also recommend repacking any oils into durable containers that seal well – either reusable plastic bottles or Klean Kanteen canisters. Keep in mind that cans and glass bottles are not allowed in the BWCAW.

Get in the habit doing a final search once you have packed up camp or when you are departing a place where you stopped for lunch. This is when you might find a little bit of micro-trash that you hadn’t seen earlier. You may also spot some crucial piece of equipment that had been forgotten.



Let me begin by making it clear that it is unlawful to damage any living plant (cut, peel, or deface a tree or shrub or even pick flowers) in the BWCAW. Also, fires are only allowed in the official U.S. Forest Service fire grates found in each campsite. Depending on the weather, fire restrictions may be in effect, which may limit the times a fire can be had, or ban fires altogether. Plan accordingly and bring a portable gas stove for your cooking needs.

As for gathering firewood, paddle well away from camp. Don’t be tempted to gather any wood along the shoreline. Cut marks along the shore leave a scar for others to see long after your visit. Once you find a good spot, walk out of site of the shoreline. Collect only dead wood that is no longer standing.

Dave and I gathered our fair share of firewood in the wintertime in order to heat our tent. On a summer paddling trip, a large fire in the fire grate every night is certainly not a necessity. Over the years we have used portable white gas stoves to cook our food. Lately we have been using a BioLite to cook. This stove works efficiently and requires a fraction of the wood that cooking over a fire would require. In case you were wondering, BioLites and other stick stoves are not allowed if a burning ban is in effect.

I won’t go so far as to say don’t have a campfire. I understand the appeal of a crackling fire and the enjoyment of staring into the red-hot coals (not to mention the s’more making appeal for kids). But you don’t need a raging fire every night to experience the magic.

I would be remiss in talking about fires if I didn’t mention putting them out at the end of the evening and when you depart camp. Douse it with water and stir the ashes. Make sure it is cold to the touch.



The waterways that we travel on in the BWCAW are remarkable in their purity. We have been known to fill our water bottles when drifting out in the middle. Where else in this country can you do that? Part of ensuring the water quality here involves preventing visitors from contaminating it. Do not wash yourself or your dishes in the lake or stream. Even though you may have brought biodegradable soap, it should never be used directly in any body of water. To preserve water quality, wash at least 150 feet from water sources – even with biodegradable soap. Filtering your waste water through soil allows breakdown by bacteria.

When it comes to bathing, sure Dave and I swim, but we never use soap. If we feel a need to thoroughly clean up, we use Wilderness Wipes or we hang up our Pocket Shower at least 150 feet from the water and use a small amount of Wilderness Wash. The shower can be quite pleasant, because it is a black drybag. So I will fill it and let it soak in the sunlight for a while to warm up.

As for dishes, Dave and I have gotten more and more minimalist over the years. We scrape our own bowls and spoons well, sometimes licking them clean. I scrape out our serving pot thoroughly. We heat water. We wash our dishes with the hot water and a scrubbie and then give them a final hot water rinse. That’s it. No soap, no gobs of food in the wash water.



Leaving no trace out here also applies to noise. The BWCAW sees approximately 250,000 visitors annually. It is where people come to experience peace and solitude. A group shouting between canoes or blaring music in camp can ruin the experience for others. Please be conscious of your tone of voice, and any other sounds you might be making. By keeping your party’s noise level to a minimum, you will not only be showing respect for other visitors, but you will also be more likely to see wildlife.

There are more rules and more details pertaining to the rules that I have mentioned above. I hope that my bits of advice will help as you begin to plan your BWCAW trip. If you are planning your very first BWCAW trip, I recommend that you go with a friend who has been here before or a licensed guide who can offer a breadth of knowledge about not just following the rules, but the history, flora and fauna too. As my trips into the BWCAW stacked up, I have developed a deep respect for this place and all its natural beauty. Keep in mind that the rules and regulations are all related to respect for the landscape and its wild inhabitants – and ensuring that this place will remain in its natural state for future generations. And if that isn’t a good enough motivator in and of itself, perhaps a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail will keep you in line.

— Dave and Amy Freeman have been sending in Dispatches from their #WildernessYear in the Boundary Waters. (Read more about their adventures, including: canoeing through the recent spring Ice-out, Finding Reasons to Rejoice, Holidays in the Boundary Waters, Ice Canoeing, The Freeze Begins, The Slow Way and Canoeing with the Next Generation.)

— Learn more about the mining threat at, and check out the Freemans' educational info at, or follow updates at #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.