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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Pack Light and Go Far by Ron Watson

In 1993, I took my first trip into the BWCA with my wife, 11 year old son, and 9 year old daughter. We went out for four days loaded with five Duluth packs, two Wenonah Sundowner canoes, and two day packs. During our first day out we managed to travel a whopping six miles before we gave up and made a base camp for the rest of the trip.

Eight years and more than a dozen canoe trips later, my son and I set off on a 12 day, 100+ mile trip going from one end of the Quetico to the other. Drawing on the tough lessons we had learned from our previous trips, we brought just two Duluth packs, one day pack and a 40 pound Kevlar canoe. On one memorable day we traveled 23 miles and went across nine portages.

How did we do it? The main reason is that we learned how to pack lightly. We were able to ''single portage'' all of our gear across the portages in one trip. Contrast that with double portaging (over, back, over again) and you can see how we were able to go a lot farther, with a lot less effort.

Along with shortening your travel times, light packing is also better for the wilderness area itself. The less you bring into the park, the less stress you put on portages and campsites. Single portagers put one third fewer miles on heavily used portages, need less firewood (since they're not grilling steaks over a roaring fire), produce less garbage and campsite debris, and cause less damage to campsite trees by hauling heavily loaded food packs into the air out of reach of the bears.

Most importantly, we're here to experience the solitude, unspoiled wilderness, and spectacular fishing. Spending excessive amounts of time on elaborate meal preparations, and hauling pack after pack across long portages, takes away valuable hours from the true enjoyment of this special place.

Next time try to remember that you're going on a ''wilderness'' canoe trip. You're not staying in a resort or a cabin. You need to bring only the necessities and the things that will keep you safe, warm, and comfortable in the elements. Save the luxuries and multi-course meals for when you get home or head up north to the cottage.

Here's how we cut down on the size and weight of our packs:


Dinners: We learned to enjoy ''pot'' food for dinner. I'm talking about any meal that you can make by adding boiling water. I personally don't care for most of the commercial backpacking prepackaged foods. But if you find you like them, case closed. I've found that most of our good pot food dinners come right off the grocery store shelf. The ones we like to take are:

  • Jambalaya
  • Corn Chowder
  • Chicken or Ham and Mashed Potatoes
  • Pasta and Veggies
  • Chili

All of these items require just boiling water and a few minutes of cooking time to prepare. We usually use the Jambalaya, Corn Chowder, and Chili nights as an excuse to have fresh fish... without the hassle, and potentially bear attracting smell, of frying.

Just filet a medium sized walleye, cut the filets into one inch cubes, and drop them into the pot with the pot food for the last five minutes of cook time. We also bring along a long pepperoni stick and put pieces of the pepperoni in the pot with any of our pot dinners.

One word of advice on the pot food servings: Don't overestimate how much you'll need. Once you've made it, you've either got to eat it or properly dispose of it. Almost all of the complaints that I've had from my fellow campers about the menus I plan are about too much pot food at one sitting.

The best thing about pot food dinners is that, since you're not frying anything, it requires very little preparation and clean up time. 15 minutes to prepare, 10 minutes to clean up and you're back on the lake during prime fishing time.

Lunches: Lunches are my favorite meal. I love cheese and we are usually able to keep cheese fresh through most of the trip. We just buy the cheap bricks of cheddar and colby cheeses, leave them in the package, wrap them in a couple of sheets of newspaper, and seal them back up after we use it. One brick of cheese lasts my son and I for two or three days.

We also bring honey and jelly, in plastic squeeze bottles, and lots of salami. One bottle of honey or jelly lasts us for five or six days and we can get three or four lunches for two people out of one large salami stick.

All of our lunch items go great on tortillas. Tortillas are great backpacking food. They pack tightly and if you buy them right before you go on your trip, and seal them up in a Ziplock type plastic bag, they'll stay good for your whole trip. We eat them with every meal. I usually bring four or five tortillas per day per person.

Our breakfasts consist mostly of oatmeal and pancakes as they are essentially one pot meals, too. I have a 10'', Teflon coated pan with a folding handle that works great for pancakes. If you're not camped around fresh blueberries, dried blueberries and raisins work great in your pancakes and oatmeal. We bring along brown sugar to top off the oatmeal and to mix with warm water as syrup for the pancakes.

We also bring along candy bars, breakfast bars, our own version of GORP, and beef or turkey jerky to supplement our breakfasts and lunches. For drinks we prefer Tang or Gatorade for a fruit drink mix, coffee for the mornings, and ''Sheep Dip'' (my favorite brand of scotch) stored in plastic Nalgene bottles for the evenings.

With the exception of the 'Sheep Dip', we bring virtually nothing that already has water in it. Water weighs a lot, takes up space, and in the BWCA you're surrounded by the freshest water in the world. Take advantage of it.

We eat well at every meal and I'm comfortable saying that my food packs take up less than half of the space of most of the food packs going into the BWCA or Quetico.


I guarantee that you'll spend a certain percentage of your trip wet below the waist. Here's one of the most important space saving tips: don't bring cotton pants, underwear, or socks. Cotton takes up extra space, weighs a lot and never, ever dries out. If your jeans weigh 8 ounces dry, they'll weigh a pound for most of the trip because they'll be damp or wet to some degree. As my daughter likes to say, ''cotton is rotten.'' And she's right.

Think synthetic. Get yourself a couple of pairs of nylon, zip-off leg pants that can double as shorts and a swim suit. When you get them wet, they will dry out in no time at all. Capilene underwear will wick the water away from your butt and can be washed out and dried very quickly. The same goes for your socks. Make sure they're made from lightweight wool or a synthetic material that dries quickly and wicks the moisture off of your feet.

Remember, the quicker your clothing dries out, the fewer pieces you have to bring. I bring two nylon shirts, two synthetic t-shirts, two pairs of nylon pants, three pairs of socks, three Capilene underpants, a light weight fleece pullover or jacket, a medium weight long underwear top, and two pairs of Gore Tex socks. Having two pairs of Gore-Tex socks guarantees that you will begin and end the day with dry feet. All of that fits in a small nylon stuff sack that doubles as a pillow at night.

Most importantly, don't skimp on your raingear. Like I said, you'll get wet. Get yourself the best waterproof, breathable, lightweight jacket AND pants that you can afford. And wear them a lot. The drier you keep the rest of your clothes, the more comfortable you'll be, and the fewer clothes you'll have to pack.


You can save a lot of room and weight carrying the right kind of sleeping bag. Most of us are canoeing in the summer and even though we're in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario, it won't be snowing on us in June, July or August. So you don't need to bring a sleeping bag guaranteed to keep you warm down to 20 degrees. It won't get that cold. I carry a down bag that will keep me warm to 40 degrees and I've never needed more on my summer trips. My bag will stuff into a nylon sack that's about the size of a 16''softball (yes, I am from the Chicago area).

Don't bring flannel lined, cotton bags or ''four season'' bags. They take up 3 to 4 times as much room as a good summer weight synthetic or down filled bag. Whether you are carrying a synthetic or down bag, make sure that you stuff it in a waterproof stuff sack. A wet sleeping bag is bad ... very, very bad.

(Editor's Note: A synthetic bag will dry out should you accidently get it wet. A down bag will not ... period. Given the choice, a synthetic bag is probably a better bet in a watery environment like the BWCA. If you take your down bag you need to be doubly sure that it won't get wet in your pack or in your tent.

For a mattress, I bring a 3/4 length Thermarest Guide Lite that takes up half the space of a standard Thermarest. I know some of you will balk at not having a full size air mattress between you and the Quetico granite but I've found that it doesn't bother me at all to have my feet sticking off the end of the mattress. And it actually seems to help keep the rest of me from sliding off the mattress in the middle of the night.

Tents are a tough call. I don't know where tentmakers get the people they use to rate the size of their tents, but if you're taller than 5' and weigh more than 100 pounds, four of you won't fit into a ''four man'' nylon tent. If there are four of us on a trip, we bring two ''four man'' tents. You can fit three normal adults into a ''four man'', but no more. Again, make sure you bring the thinnest summer weight nylon tent that you can find. The weight can vary by several pounds.

We don't bring a lot of cooking equipment; two small pots for boiling, a small coffee pot or coffee press, a 10'' pan with a folding handle, a lexan bowl for each person (a bowl works just fine as a plate), a fork and spoon for everyone, one serving spoon and spatula (with folding handles), and one lexan cup for each person. My stove breaks down into an 8'' square stuff sack and two 22 ounce bottles of white gas are plenty for four people on a five day trip. We also bring a couple of collapsible Nalgene water bottles that fit in your jacket pocket when they're not being used.

The rest is pretty standard: two bear ropes, a 9'x12' nylon tarp, parachute cord for the tarp and clotheslines, a folding camp saw, two rolls of toilet paper in zip locks, a small plastic shovel (in the Quetico), bug spray, sun screen, a ''Crazy Creek'' nylon sit-chair (we strap them onto our Duluth pack on the portages), very basic first aid kit, the essential roll of duct tape and one flashlight with fresh batteries. We also like headlamps as they're lightweight and they free up your hands when you're reading in the tent or stumbling around the campsite at night.

We put all of this in two medium-sized Duluth packs and we're ready to head deep into the Quetico to places the heavy packers can never hope to reach. A day pack carries some tackle, our raingear, water bottles, and our pocket cameras.

If you learn how to pack light you'll go farther, thank yourself on every portage, and minimize your impact on our precious wilderness. Why not try it on your next trip! Like my family you just might learn to like it.

Light Packers Checklist


Breakfast Items

  • Instant Oatmeal
  • Pancake Mix
  • Brown Sugar
  • Raisins
  • Dried Blueberries
  • Breakfast Bars
  • Coffee
  • Tang

Lunch Items

  • Tortillas
  • Cheese
  • Jelly
  • Honey
  • Salami
  • Gorp
  • Jerky
  • Candy Bars

Dinner Items

  • Jambalya
  • Chili
  • Corn Chowder
  • Chicken and Mashed Potatoes
  • Pasta and Veggies
  • Tortillas


  • Breathable Rain Jacket w/ Pants
  • Nylon Zip Off Pants
  • Nylon Shirts
  • Caplilene Underwear
  • Synthetic/Wool Socks
  • Lightweight Fleece
  • Goretex Socks
  • One pair of shoes or boots

Cooking Items

  • Two small pots with lids
  • 10'' frying pan with folding handle
  • Folding spatula and serving spoon
  • Lexan bowl, cup, spoon, and fork for each person
  • Backpacking stove and fuel canisters
  • Water bottles and/or collapsible water jug
  • Small bottle of biodegradeable ''soap'' (Dr. Bronner's type)
  • Green pot scrubber


  • Summer Weight Tent
  • Suncreen and Bug Spray
  • Summer Weight Synthetic or Down Sleeping Bags
  • Headlamp
  • Crazy Creek
  • 3/4 Length Thermarest
  • Toilet Paper and small Shovel
  • Folding Saw
  • First Aid Kit
  • Duct Tape
  • Bear Ropes
  • Tarp
  • Garbage Bags
  • Parachute Cord
  • Pocket camera with fresh battery and


--article courtesy of

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