Introduction to Camping: Wilderness Camping
“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” -Excerpt from The Wilderness Act of 1964
Wilderness camping is what camping is meant to be all about. You’re powered by the work of your own body; your luxuries are limited to what you’re able to carry yourself; you’re away from the hustle and bustle of society and large crowds; you rely on your own resourcefulness to get past bumps in your journey. This type of camping takes a bit more prep work – planning a route, planning your meals, packing the right equipment, and making sure you have a plan in case something goes wrong. Often, wilderness camping takes you out of cell service range, which can be a curse and a blessing all at one time. That inability to connect with the world at the touch of a button can give you a true “unplugged” vacation, allowing you to reach a whole new level of relaxation. At the same time, you need to be aware that if something did go wrong, you may not easily be able to get help. So planning for this type of trip is key to your success. That being said, this is in no way a comprehensive guide. If you’re new to wilderness camping, do some serious research about any trip you plan on taking. Think of this as a jumping off point.
If you want to try wilderness camping, but find the whole idea rather terrifying, you could consider going with a group, a guided tour, or on a private trip with an outfitter. This is a great way to get all the wilderness feels while learning from someone with experience in wilderness camping. If you want to do it all on your own, then I’d recommend reading up a bit and starting somewhere that’s not actually that remote – like a state park – before working your way up to a true wilderness area. Minnesota State Parks offer a variety of “remote camping” sites that you can hike, bike, canoe, or kayak to. These are often just a couple of miles from the main park area, offering a great way to ease yourself into wilderness camping. They’re also a great weekend getaway in a time crunch! Once you’re ready, the state has a wide variety of true wilderness camping options available. However, depending on where you go, the fees, permits, and reservation requirements are all different, so make sure you check it out ahead of time! Preparation and equipment for your trip may vary, depending on where you want to go. But there are a few notable changes from what we discussed in our car camping blog:
You have to carry all of your items. Did I already mention that? Good. I cannot reinforce it enough. After a few 10+ days trips, I’ve really learned to cut back on all things that even hint of luxury – especially on a backpacking trip. It may not seem like an object weighing just a few ounces makes a difference, but it all adds up. Consider the importance of each item carefully.
This is where the fancy and somewhat expensive lightweight camping gear comes into play. Remember, you may be able to borrow or rent equipment! I’d also recommend bringing some biodegradable soap and a clothesline. It doesn’t matter how long my trip is, I typically pack one of everything (with the exception of socks/underwear, where I boost it to 2-3 pairs). I’ve learned to love wilderness laundry as part of the routine campsite chores.
Food is heavy. If your hiking or canoeing/portaging, the last thing you want is a bunch of super heavy food to carry. Keep in mind there is no great way to keep things cool. If you’re canoeing, you could bring a cooler, but they’re heavy and a pain in the butt to have on a portage. You can make or purchase dehydrated foods and powders. Anything that you can remove the water from and then add it back in later is a great option. There are tons of recipes online to do it yourself, or companies that have done it for you. Last year we came across Trailtopia Adventure Foods and I couldn’t sing them higher praise. We feasted in the Boundary Waters on these delicious meals made by a small business in our very own Rochester, Minnesota.
Speaking of water… most wilderness sites will not have easy access to water. You have a variety of choices to purify your water – iodine tablets, pump filters, gravity filters, life straws, or the good ol’ fashioned boil (for 2 minutes, at a rolling boil). No one wants giardia while camping. If you can, it’s always better to get your water from the middle of a stream or lake, or away from the edges which collect debris, sediment, and sometimes bacteria.
Many wilderness camping spots do not offer bear proof food lockers, as many of our state parks do. That means unless you want your foodpack to become a bear’s midnight snack, you better believe you’re hanging that pack from a tree at night. A quick internet search will lead you to thousands of people who think their bear hangs are the best, so get some instructions from one of them. Though I must admit, there are few things more satisfying than a successful bear hang!
Don’t forget the toilet paper! Lots of wilderness camping sites will have vault toilets (a toilet over a hole in the ground) and it’s a BYOTP kind of a deal. You should also bring a small trowel in case you need to go on the go between campsites. Make sure to dig a hole and bury any human waste 3 inches down at least 150 feet away from water.
There won’t be firewood for sale. Brush up on your fire making skills and remember the three D’s of collecting firewood – Dead, Down, and Dry. I like to carry a small baggie of birch bark with me, just in case it’s damp. Unless your dispersed camping, your campsite will likely have a fire ring and grate. Remember to check for fire bans. If Smokey says no, you’ll need to use a camping stove instead of a fire.
Site selection – same rules apply. Just as we discussed in car camping, choose your site carefully. Is it on a slope? Are you where the water collects? Is there a good, flat place for your tent? There won’t be storm shelters here as there would be in campgrounds – so make sure your tent isn’t under any dead/leaning trees or big scary branches. Will your tent be in the sun/shade? Are you a morning riser? If not, I sure hope you’re not at a site that faces east in the middle of summer! You’ll wake when you start to roast.
You’re going to want to make sure you’ve got your safety covered. A first aid kit is an absolute must (whether you buy one or piece it together yourself) as is having someone with some basic first aid skills (at the very least). Know your route and let someone outside of the trip know your route. If possible, have a few “emergency exit” strategies – alternative routes to get out in a shorter amount of time, known locations where cell phones will work, or perhaps you’d even feel more comfortable with a satellite GPS messenger.
If you’re looking to get farther away, but you’re not so sure about carrying your equipment the whole way, maybe start with canoe camping. This is a nice in-between of car camping and backpacking, as you do have to carry your items, but not the whole way. For example, I personally like to bring a small inflatable pillow when I’m canoeing, but wouldn’t ever entertain the idea of carrying a pillow on a hiking trip. Now don’t get me wrong; if you have never canoed/kayaked before, or have very little experience in these types of watercrafts, please do not just jump straight into this! This is the land of 10,000 lakes – there are plenty of opportunities for practice before your adventure. This also means there are plenty of opportunities for this type of camping!
Things to Consider:
Rivers vs. Lakes: Taking a river trip is much different from traveling with your canoe through the lakes. If you’re going to be on the river, you need to examine your route carefully. The MN DNR’s Interactive Water Trails Map can help with that on over 4,500 miles of paddling. Use this tool to check the access points, location of campgrounds or specifically watercraft campsites, where rest areas and/or day use sites are located, and most importantly, where dams, rapids, and other hazardous areas of the rivers are. It’s also more important to check the water levels on a river trip – if they’re too low, you’ll find yourself walking or portaging around parts of the river and if they’re too high, the river will be moving faster. You might find unexpected rapids or rapids that are much larger than what was expected!
Portaging: A trip on the river or on the lakes may include portaging, which requires you to exit your canoe and carry your canoe and all your stuff to the next accessible point of water to continue your travel. DO NOT OVERLOOK THIS WHEN YOU ARE PACKING! I pack far more items of comfort when the route has few or short portages than I do on a route with long, numerous, or difficult portages! Measure out how far you’ll be portaging and don’t be afraid to practice! I once hiked my mile-long dirt driveway to the end and back with a canoe on my head and rocks in my pack just to make sure I’d be able to hack it once we faced the 2+ mile Angleworm Portage in the Boundary Waters.
Kayak vs. Canoe: Kayaks have considerably less room for storing camping equipment than canoes do. Unless you plan on packing extremely light or traveling with canoes in your party, fitting all your gear into a kayak can be very difficult.
Packs: If you’re traveling in a canoe, really any pack will do to hold your belongings, but there are some advantages to canoe packs – they fit a lot of things and are made for the size/shape of canoes, which can make your canoe more stable while paddling. Unless your canoe pack is waterproof, I’d recommend lining it with a plastic bag and/or making sure the things you put into the pack are in waterproof bags. If you’ll be portaging with your canoe, consider if you’ll be carrying a pack and the canoe, and make sure it’s a good fit! I had a hiking pack that came up far too high on my shoulders to allow room for the canoe portage pads. Also – make sure you consider your bear pack situations. If you’re going for a long time, you may want to consider two smaller food packs vs. hauling one giant, heavy, elephant-sized pack into the sky. It’s easier… trust me.
Where to go Canoe Camping in Minnesota:
Find a Canoe-In Site at a State Park – these sites do have fees, may require a reservation, & are not open year round.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area – this is my favorite location. It’s pristine, remote, and many of the smaller lakes don’t allow motorized watercraft. There is something for everyone here – short trips, long trips, hard trips, easy trips, etc. Permits for entry are required, but campsites are on a first-come first-served basis. Tons of information here, and a great trip planning tool here.
Voyageurs National Park – our only National Park in Minnesota! If you’re canoeing, be aware! House boats and other motorized watercraft are very popular in the park. You’ll need a watercraft to access the campsites in this park, which you now have to reserve in advance.
Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway – This 200+ mile stretch of river offers fabulous paddling, fishing, and camping among its wild and scenic beauty! A free annual camping permit is required for the river, but no reservations. State parks along the way will require reservations and a fee.
Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge – This stretch of the river stretches from Wabasha, MN all the way to Illinois, through the heart of the driftless region. You can camp along the river for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Campsites are not necessarily marked, though some sites have refuge signs. See regulations for more details.
Minnesota State Water Trails– This website highlights a few popular trips on Minnesota’s State Water Trails. Camping permits, reservation requirements, and fees may vary based on location. Or, plan your own route using the MN DNR’s Interactive Water Trails Map.
My 1st SHT 9-day hiking trip @ 16. Hooked ever since!
This is for those with a true spirit of adventure – who want to live in the wilderness with only what they can carry on their backs. Minnesota can be a great place to start as a backpacker. Our grasslands can ease you into backpacking with a flat route through the prairie lands before you test yourself on the more rugged terrain of the North Shore. Even though those trails may go up and down, our elevation gains are fairly small, making Minnesota a great practice state before bigger and badder trips out west or out east! Again, if you’re still not quite comfortable, look into hiring a guide or going with a group!
Things to Consider:
Alright, last warning. I’m serious. YOU CARRY EVERYTHING. There are few things I won’t do to shave a few pounds off my pack, including cutting a toothbrush in half – no joke. Lightweight everything is a must! If you’re using the same heavy tent you use for car camping on an extended backpacking trip, you’re doing it all wrong. Again, if you don’t want to purchase equipment, look into renting from outfitters. By switching to lightweight trekking equipment, you can save a lot of pounds between your tent, pack, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and cook set.
Water. While canoers don’t have a problem finding water (I’d hope), hikers aren’t always so lucky. Make sure to study your map – note any rivers, creeks, lakes, or other waterways en-route. If it’s been dry and the water comes from a small, intermittent source, make sure you have a back-up plan for acquiring/carrying water. This usually isn’t too much of a problem in Minnesota, but it can be, and it certainly is in other areas of the country.
View from the North Shore
A pack for your back. Unlike canoeing where you may rarely be carrying your pack, picking a hiking pack is an extremely important step. There are a HUGE variety of packs out there, so go into a store or an outfitter and find one that is right for your body and your trip. Depending on where you are going, how far you are going, if you’ll need to resupply along the way, and if you’re going solo or in a group, your pack can weigh vastly different amounts. REI offers a few different articles on backpacks, check them out here or here.
Protect your feet, they’re going to carry you the whole way. A great fitting shoe is a necessity on a packing trip. Personally, I prefer a lighter sneaker for hiking, but many prefer the support of a heavier hiking boot for an extended trip. Whatever you prefer, the shoe NEEDS to be broken in. DO NOT go buy a new pair of hiking boots and wear them for the first time on the trail during your trip. I promise you will regret it. Again, REI’s guide to buying hiking shoes gives you a lot to think about.
Where to Go Backpacking in Minnesota:
Find a Backpack-In Site at a State Park: If you’ve never backpacked before, starting out in a state park isn’t a bad idea. Many of our parks have short-distance hikes with a campsite along the way for an overnight stay. There are fees and you will need a reservation. The Glacial Lakes State Park backcountry camping is quite popular.
Superior National Forest – This region is home to many hiking trails, including the more rigorous Superior Hiking Trail, The Border Route Trail, and hiking trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Most of these trails are fairly rugged and remote, and may not be a great choice for beginners! There are numerous types of sites with various fees – check them out here.
Save weight! Pack + sleeping pad = lounge chair in the SNF!
Chippewa National Forest – This forest is located in the heart of the state and is home to 298 miles of trail! The gentle topography of the landscape offers some easy hikes in some very remote areas!
North Country Trail – This trail spans seven states and crosses right through Minnesota. It doubles up with the Superior Hiking Trail & Border Route Trail and passes through both the Superior & Chippewa National Forests. The “lesser known” regions of the trail offer much easier, flatter hiking trips than those in the Superior National Forest. In addition, their proximity to small towns and amenities makes it a great beginner trail, even though the relatively poor signage in parts may test your navigation skills!
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