Travel and Leisure

Lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area? – Survival Tips

 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota is a beautiful destination for hikers and campers. With over a million acres of wilderness, it’s no surprise that getting lost in this vast expanse can happen to even the most experienced hikers. However, with the proper knowledge and skills, you can increase your chances of survival and return to civilization. In this post, we’ll provide essential survival tips to help you stay safe and return to safety if you ever find yourself lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Plan and Prepare for Your Trip

The best way to avoid getting lost is to plan and prepare for your trip before you go. This means having a map of the area you’ll be exploring, a compass, and the knowledge of how to use them. You should also carry a survival kit with essential items such as a first aid kit, a knife, a water filter, a fire starter, and a whistle. Additionally, it would be best to let someone know your itinerary and expected return time.

Retrace Your Steps and Determine Your Location

If you get lost, you should stay calm and retrace your steps until you are last sure of your location. As you hike, look for recognizable landmarks or terrain features to help you reorient yourself. If you cannot find any, then it’s time to move on to the next step. Assuming you have a map and compass, determine your location and plan a route to get back on track. If you are unsure of your exact location, try to locate a high point, such as a hilltop, to get a better view of the surrounding area. This will help you identify any significant landmarks or terrain features that can help you determine your location.

Conserve Your Resources and Build a Shelter

It’s essential to conserve your energy and resources. First, find a safe resting place, preferably near a water source. Water is necessary for survival, and you should prioritize finding a source of clean drinking water. This can be a stream, a pond, or even rainwater you collect in a container. Next, assuming you have a survival kit, use the resources to make a shelter to protect you from the elements. If you don’t have a survival kit, look for natural materials such as tree branches or rocks to create a makeshift shelter. Staying dry and warm is essential, especially when temperatures drop significantly at night.

Signal for Help and Stay Positive

If you have the means, build a fire to keep warm and signal for help. A fire can also be used to purify water or cook any food you may have. If you cannot build a fire, use a whistle or other signaling device to attract attention. It’s important to stay put and not wander off searching for help. This can lead to exhaustion and further disorientation. Stay in one place and make yourself visible to any search parties looking for you. This means using bright clothing or reflective material to catch the attention of rescuers. Lastly, keep a positive attitude and focus on finding a way out. Don’t give up hope, as rescue is always possible.

US Forest Service, the Canadian RCMP Stations

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) spans across the United States and Canada, with various US Ranger Stations and Canadian RCMP stations in and around the area assisting visitors.

In the United States, the US Forest Service manages the BWCAW, and visitors can contact several ranger stations for help or information. Some ranger stations near the BWCAW include the Kawishiwi Ranger Station, Gunflint Ranger Station, and the Tofte Ranger Station. These ranger stations provide maps, permits, and other information about the area, as well as assistance during emergencies or situations.

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) operates several detachments near the BWCAW. These detachments assist visitors, including search and rescue operations and emergency response services. Some RCMP detachments near the BWCAW include the division in Atikokan, Ontario, and the Thunder Bay, Ontario party.

Visitors to the BWCAW are encouraged to stop by these ranger stations or RCMP detachments to obtain information about the area and to report any incidents or emergencies that may occur during their visit. However, it’s important to note that while these stations are available for assistance, visitors should still be prepared and take necessary precautions when venturing into the wilderness, such as carrying appropriate gear, staying on designated trails, and practicing Leave No Trace principles.


If you’re lost for an extended period, avoiding dehydration is essential. Drink any urine or dew that may have been collected on leaves or grass. While it may not be pleasant, it can help to sustain you until you are rescued. In addition, you should also avoid eating wild plants or berries unless you are sure they are safe to eat. Ingesting the wrong plant or berry can make you sick or worse, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Have a Cell Phone? – It May Work!

If you have a phone with you, it’s also worth trying to call for help if you have a signal. Even if the call doesn’t go through, it may still be able to provide your location to emergency services. Additionally, you may be able to use GPS to get to your site or use a tracking app that can send your location to rescuers. However, it’s important not to rely solely on technology and still to carry a map and compass as a backup.

Watch the Weather

Another important consideration is the weather. The weather can change quickly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and extreme weather conditions can be dangerous for lost people. Therefore, ensure you’re prepared for weather conditions and watch for signs of hypothermia or frostbite, such as shivering, confusion, or disorientation.

Stay Positive

It’s also worth mentioning that being lost in the wilderness can be a traumatic experience, and taking care of your mental health is essential. For example, staying positive and hopeful can help you focus on finding a way out. Meditating, breathing deeply, or practicing other relaxation techniques can help you stay calm and centered.

More BWCA Tips

Here are two more tips, even if you are not lost.

Bear Bags – Avoiding Bears and Guarding Your Food

If you’re camping or hiking in bear country, it’s essential to take precautions to avoid attracting bears and other wildlife to your food. One effective method is to use bear bags to store your food.

Bear bags are essentially containers suspended high up in a tree, away from the reach of bears and other wildlife.

Here’s how to use a bear bag:

  1. Choose a location: Find a suitable place to hang your bear bag. Look for a sturdy tree branch at least 12-15 feet above the ground and 6-8 feet away from the tree trunk. Ensure the unit is strong enough to support the weight of your food bag.
  2. Use a bear bag: You can purchase a specially-designed bag, a dry bag, or a stuff sack. Make sure the bag is durable and has a drawstring closure.
  3. Pack your food: Place all your items in the bear bag, including wrappers or containers with food residue. This will prevent any smells from attracting bears.
  4. Hang the bag: Tie a rock or heavy object to one end of the rope and throw it over the branch. Then, tie the other end of the string to the bear bag and hoist it up to the unit. Ensure the bag is 10-12 feet off the ground and 4-5 feet from the tree trunk. You can use a carabiner or knot to secure the rope to the branch.
  5. Store the rope: After hanging the bag, store the rope in a way that prevents bears from accessing it. This could mean tying the rope to the tree trunk, wrapping it around the branch, or using a rope bag.

Always check local regulations and guidelines before using bear bags or other bear-resistant food storage methods. Additionally, practicing good camping hygiene, such as washing dishes and storing garbage away from your campsite, is vital to avoid attracting bears and other wildlife.

Keeping Water Safe To Drink

When camping or hiking in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, it’s essential to have access to clean and safe drinking water. While many natural water sources exist in the wilderness, such as lakes and streams, treating the water before consuming it to avoid waterborne illnesses is essential. Here are some methods to sterilize water within BWCA:

How to Keep Your Water Safe

Boiling Water
Boiling Water


Using boiling water is one of the most effective ways to kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites that may be present in water. Bring water to a rolling boil for at least 1-3 minutes, depending on the altitude. Then, let it cool before drinking.

Water Filters:

Water filters are popular for backpackers and hikers as they are lightweight and easy to use. These filters remove bacteria, protozoa, and some viruses from water, but they may not be effective against all viruses. Choose a water filter with a pore size of 0.2 microns or less to ensure effective filtration.

Water Purification Tablets:

Water purification tablets are convenient and lightweight for backpackers and hikers. They typically use chlorine dioxide or iodine to kill harmful microorganisms in water. However, some people may not like the taste or smell of water treated with purification tablets.

UV Light Sterilization:

UV light sterilization devices use ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms in water. They are easy to use and require no chemicals or batteries, but they can be more expensive than other methods.

Chemical Treatment:

Chlorine bleach or iodine tablets can chemically treat water, killing harmful microorganisms. However, using the correct dosage and waiting the recommended time before drinking the water is essential.

Always filter, boil, or treat any water before consuming it in the BWCA. Additionally, make sure to use a clean container to collect water and avoid contamination from the container.

Avoiding Bears When Canoeing in BWCA

Black Bear

Camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) can be a wonderful and memorable experience, but taking precautions regarding wildlife encounters is essential, especially with bears. Here are some steps to avoid bears when camping in the BWCA:

Store Food Properly:

Bears are attracted to the smell of food, so storing food properly is essential. All food, toiletries, and scented items like sunscreen, soap, and bug spray should be stored in a bear-resistant container or hung from a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet away from the trunk.

Cook Away From Your Tent:

Cooking and eating should be done away from your tent and sleeping area. Bears have an excellent sense of smell and will be attracted to lingering food odors.

Keep a Clean Camp:

Keep your campsite clean and free of food scraps, trash, and litter. Pack out all garbage and dispose of it properly.

Be Alert:

Be aware of your surroundings and watch for signs of bear activity, such as claw marks on trees or overturned rocks. Make noise when hiking, as bears are more likely to avoid humans if they know you’re coming.

Carry Bear Spray:

Carry bear spray with you always and know how to use it. Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent that can stop a bear’s attack in its tracks.

Don’t Approach Bears:

Never approach a bear or try to get close to take a photo. Bears are wild animals and can be unpredictable.

By taking these steps, you can help reduce the risk of a bear encounter while camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Remember that you are visiting the bears’ home, so respecting their space and behaving responsibly is essential.

Final Thoughts About Getting lost in the Boundary Waters 

Getting lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness can be a scary experience. Still, following these essential survival tips can increase your chances of staying safe and returning to civilization. Remember to plan and prepare for your trip, retrace your steps and determine your location, conserve your resources and build a shelter, signal for help, and stay positive.

With more people camping and entering the wilderness, you may be called upon to help a lost hiker. Additionally, be aware of other considerations such as staying hydrated, avoiding unsafe plants and berries, using technology as a backup, being prepared for extreme weather, and taking care of your mental health. With these tips, you can stay safe and enjoy the beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with peace of mind.

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Paul Austin

Paul Austin is a pen name for a writer, sailor, and dad who love history and stories about Michigan's past and issues of today. A snowbird's favorite activity is enjoying a coffee by the pool while your pals up north dig out from the last lake-effect blizzard. Here is an excellent deal for your next trip to the Sunshine state.

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