2023 Portage North Pack Out

About the Event

In 2020, much was made about the impact that a mid-pandemic surge in interest in outdoor recreation had on the BWCAW. Campsites were showing signs of high use, there were habituated bear problems in busy areas, and it was difficult at times to find permits and campsites due to traffic. Though permits were reduced last year as a result, the BWCAW is still the busiest wilderness area in the United States. The impacts are overt and, as the 1992 permit video eloquently states, “we need to be careful that we do not love it to death.” Going into this 2023 BWCAW season, as a business directly tied to the use of the BWCAW, we want to be a tangible part of helping our customers leave the BWCAW better than they found it. We are launching the first Portage North Pack-Out this summer, an initiative to inspire more of us to pack garbage out of the BWCAW with us. As a wilderness guide, I taught campers the importance of sweeping a campsite, bringing every piece of trash out that we brought in. I also stressed that, as important as it is to care for our own messes, it’s equally important to pick up after others. We all have a responsibility towards the future of this place and picking up trash is a tangible action towards caring for an area that means so much to us.

How to Participate

For Pack-Out 2023, we understand that being good stewards of the BWCAW goes beyond “pack it in, pack it out.” Limiting our own impacts should be a given. In my trips to the BWCAW though, I have seen the effects of other group’s ignorance, negligence, or, worse yet, maleficence towards this public natural space. For our initiative this season, we are encouraging you, our customers and fellow enthusiasts, to not only be responsible for your impacts, but the traces that other people leave too. As much as this is a public space, we are also communally responsible for its well-being. This summer, whether you’re a group coming up for your annual trip or a camp sending out a hundred trips, we want to encourage you to pick up trash you find while on trail in the BWCAW. You can be part of the Portage North Pack-Out by following four simple steps.

  1. Pick up trash that you did not personally bring into the BWCAW. This can be food waste, leftover fishing gear, or any manmade object which doesn’t fall under the artifacts rule that you can carry out with you.
  2. Pack the litter out and snap a picture at the end of the trip with the garbage you collected.
  3. Post the picture on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #pnpackout23 and tag our social media accounts. If you do not have a social media account, send us your photos at [email protected]
  4. We share your picture on our social and website and you become eligible for a free patch commemorating your efforts this season. Stop by our store in Ely to pick it up or pay shipping and handling to receive your patch in the mail. Your efforts will also contribute to future loyalty points in our customer loyalty program.

Remember, caring for the BWCAW is not just up to our customers. Share this page with anyone you know who is going into the BWCAW this summer. Anyone going on a Boundary Waters trip is welcome to participate!


All Pack-Out participants must abide by USFS BWCAW rules. This includes having proper permits for overnight travel or for day trips. It’s also important to remember that not all BWCA trash is recent. Any manmade item older than 50 years must be left in place under artifact status as part of telling the complicated human history of this landscape. Again, the goal of this program is to not only minimize our own impacts, but to actually leave this place more pristine than when we arrived. Packing out trash from along portages, in the water, in trees, or in campsites is one step towards this goal. When exiting the BWCA, make sure all waste is properly disposed of. Many outfitters and ranger stations have garbage and recycling so the litter that you packed out doesn’t just end up in some other environment later!

Tips and Tricks

Part of participating in this program is helping people see and recognize garbage in the wilderness and helping motivate them to pack that litter out with them. As many people remember, 2020 was a tough year for parts of the wilderness. I personally remember a few trips that my pack, even after eating the food, came out of the wilderness noticeably heavier than when I went in, and that shouldn’t happen! Picking up any litter we see is how we contribute to a better future. I have heard a number of people though say that they don’t see much trash in the BWCAW. It’s true, the BWCAW has far less garbage than a neighborhood park or a roadside ditch. That’s great! Picking up the litter which remains though takes training the eye to spot things which don’t belong. Here are some tips for finding trash to pack out with you.

  • Sweep Campsites: The most important step to prevent forgetting gear and leaving trash behind is sweeping a campsite before you leave. This means walking around high use areas such as tent pads, the camp kitchen, and the biff. I’m constantly amazed how many tent stakes, food wrappers, and bags of new TP get left behind! As you sweep for your own gear, look around for other trash items. Food wrappers, twisties, aluminum foil, and paracord are all common. Stir the firepit with a stick and, when cool, pick out garbage from the ashes. It’s amazing how many people still try burning aluminum foil and fishing line! Also, check the trees around campsites. Plenty of people leave bear ropes stuck up in trees because of using a bad weight or because they managed to tie it off to a tree. A long, straight pole (remember, only use a tree which is dead and down) is a very useful tool for retrieving ropes from trees. And, better yet, ropes are repurposeable, not just litter!
  • Watch the Shoreline: The trees of many entry point lakes can be decorated like Christmas with lost lures and fishing line. Fishing line is a major hazard to wildlife who can become entangled when they swim or fly into it or when animals like song birds use it for nesting material. It also can cause major damage internally for wildlife which swallow it. It is one of the most common pieces of waste in the BWCAW. Look for it in trees as you paddle, near the landing or under benches in a campsite, or along rocks at the shoreline.
  • Eyes on Your Feet: Of course, everyone should enjoy the magnificent scenery of the BWCAW during their trip, but during the portages, many people are keeping an eye on their feet to prevent tripping. This is also a great way to find garbage along the portages. Candy wrappers and fishing line are common. Also look for microtrash such as fabric scraps, zipper pulls, twisties, and small pieces of plastic and metal. The forest around portage landings becomes a common area for ditching unwanted trash.
  • Pack it out Securely: A great deal of BWCAW trash, especially along portages, is not intentional. Many of us stick a granola bar wrapper or extra fishing line in our life-jackets and forget about it. It then falls out of a slightly open pocket somewhere along the trail. When packing out trash, keep a secure bag in the pack. Throughout the day, add the trash from your pocket to the larger garbage bag so that it doesn’t fall out and back into the environment.
  • Make a Game Out of It: Looking for traces of other people can be discouraging. Very little is more frustrating to me than going to a campsite and seeing the axe marks in the trees, names carved, bark peeled, live trees cut down, garbage spread around, or still-hot coals in the grate. To avoid becoming frustrated with the litter, make a game out of it! Don’t lose site of the beauty and serenity of the BWCAW, of course, but make a game with your group. Especially if kids are involved, have a contest for the person who finds the most trash, or set a goal to fill a gallon bag along the way. This makes the experience less annoying and more fun!

Learn more about the BWCAW at the Superior National Forest Website


  1. Tom Mings on May 9, 2023 at 6:01 pm

    Maybe some notes about fire pits and things that might be found in them that shouldn’t be lthere … and how best handled as some stuff may be less good after ignition I expect. Notes about what not to burn as you and USFS deem appropriate. Anything worth saying about some relatively long-lived organic waste like pistachio and sunflower seeds or is that too deep a dive?

  2. Bill Maurer on August 9, 2023 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks for sending me two patches!
    I’ve got mine sewn to my cooking utensil pack where it will be a constant reminder to all to pack out any trash we have or find.
    I’ll be swinging by your store to do a little shopping next time I’m up in Ely.

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