Safe and Smart Wilderness Travel

Be Prepared

Whether this is your first visit or you are a seasoned visitor, an important and enjoyable first step is gathering knowledge of the region, and the specific area you’ll visit.

Life Jackets: Always wear a life jacket – it won’t work unless you wear it.  Minnesota state law requires all watercraft, including canoes, to have one wearable U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device (PFD) on board and readily accessible for each person in the watercraft.  If you capsize, stay with your canoe – it won’t sink!

Mandatory Child Life Jacket Wear Law:  Minnesota law requires a life jacket to be worn by children less than 10 years old when aboard any watercraft while underway.  For more on Minnesota state law, see

Camp Stoves and Firewood: Campfires are allowed only within the steel fire grates at designated campsites or as specifically approved on your wilderness permit.  Fire restrictions limiting open campfires may be put into effect.  Be sure you have a camp stove with you.  Additionally, camp stoves heat up more quickly, have less impact than a campfire, and come in handy during rainy weather.  Even after forest fires, you may see an ample supply of burned wood near your site.  Collect firewood away from campsites to prevent enlarging and defacing the area.  Check with MN State firewood restrictions about bringing firewood across the state line.

Map and Compass: Bring a map and compass and know how to use them.  Current detailed maps are essential to finding your way through the wilderness.  Keep your map handy.  There are no directional signs in wilderness.  If you get lost, don’t panic.  Sit down, relax, and think.  Chances are that you will figure out your location in a few minutes.  If you plan to use a Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigating, be sure you also bring a map and compass as a backup in case your GPS fails.

First Aid and Emergencies: Each permitted group should carry a well-stocked first aid kit and have group members that know how to provide first aid.  Please note that the campsite number is painted on the latrine of most campsites.  Also note the location of the lake, campsite, trail or portage on a map to help emergency people locate any seriously injured party. Document the extent of the injury and a basic physical description of the injured person.  Send all of this information with visitors able to exit the BWCAW for help.  Do not rely on a cell phone.  Having a cell phone cannot substitute for knowing how to handle an emergency in wilderness.  Many areas of the BWCAW lack cell phone coverage.  In the event of serious injury or illness, the standard SOS call is a series of three signals of any kind, either audible or visible.  For summoning help from an aircraft in an emergency, signal them by paddling in small circles or waving a brightly colored cloth tied to the canoe paddle.

Water Purification: Giardia lamblia is a water parasite that can cause life-threatening intestinal illness.  All drinking water should be treated by using a purifier with a filter specifically designed to remove Giardia lamblia, a chemical treatment specifically designed to kill Giardia lamblia, or by first boiling the water – bring to a full boil for at least 3 to 5 minutes, then let stand and cool enough to drink.

Wilderness Hazards

Wilderness travel offers great personal freedom, but also requires self-reliance and good judgment.  There are risks associated with wilderness travel.  You will be on your own; help will not be close at hand.  By using common sense and thinking about potential hazards before you begin, you can greatly increase your chances for a safe canoe trip.  The following are just a few of the hazards to be aware of while traveling in the wilderness.

Weather: Weather can change suddenly.  Canoeing close to shore will lessen the chance of being caught by these sudden changes on open water.  Get off the water if a storm threatens – lightening, wind, and rain may occur.

Rapids: Portages are there for a reason – use them!  Generally, rapids in the BWCAW are not safe to “run”.  Running water has a great deal of power and can be very deceptive.  Areas above and below waterfalls may look safer than they actually are.  Powerful currents can trap swimmers under the water, or sweep them to dangerous waterfalls.  Fast moving water can also push swimmers and boats into obstacles like rocks and logs.  Rapids are dangerous, even while wearing a life jacket. Swim only in calm water far from rapids and falls.  Although some risk is inherent in wilderness travel, risky behaviors cost lives in the BWCAW.

Hypothermia: A low body temperature can be serious, even fatal.  Early warning signs are uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, bluish tinge to lips, lack of coordination, and poor concentration.  To prevent hypothermia, layer clothing and get adequate food and water.  To treat hypothermia, seek shelter from the wind, replace any wet clothing, and share body heat if necessary.  Give warm fluids if the person is conscious and have them rest until thoroughly warmed. 

Dehydration: The body becomes dehydrated when more fluids are lost than replaced.  Drink plenty of water.  Signs of dehydration include headache, cold and flu symptoms, and infrequent urination. 

Camping with Bears

Keep a clean campsite.  Never eat or store food in your tent.  Take all precautions to discourage bears from visiting your site, including hanging your food pack or using a bear-resistant container, as well as garbage and anything that has a strong or sweet odor (soap, toothpaste, etc.).  Some bears overcome their fear of humans and approach campsites looking for food. This includes island sites since bears are good swimmers.  If you do encounter a bear, most will be scared off if you make noise (shout, bang pots, or throw fist sized rocks at the bear, etc.).  A very persistent bear may be discouraged by spraying Capsicum (pepper spray) into its eyes.  In the rare instance that a bear refuses to leave or becomes aggressive, you may want to move to another site.

For more information, you may visit the U.S. Forest Service website: