5 Guide Tricks for Finding Great BWCAW (or Quetico) Campsites

Finding a great campsite can be one of the great joys of a canoe trip. Waking up in a stand of majestic pines, enjoying a cool breeze rolling off the lake on a midsummer afternoon, and cooking over a campfire without worrying about bugs can make a campsite that much more memorable.

Occasionally, these sites are discovered by delightful accident. But consistently finding the best campsites often takes a little more work and wilderness savvy. Here are a few subtle guide tricks for finding memorable Boundary Waters campsites.

1. Find a west-facing site

Wind often comes from the west in the BWCAW. In the summer, finding a site with western exposure helps keep camp cool and blow away the mosquitoes. Of course, in early spring and fall when bugs aren’t an issue, just the opposite might hold true if you want to escape the wind in the colder temperatures. 

2. Look for mature pines clear of underbrush

Sites with mature pines and an open forest floor often have fewer bugs. 

While thick underbrush and swampy areas hold bugs, the breezy, open forest floor and lack of favored habitat in some mature pine stands tend to keep the bugs away for much of the day. 

Not to mention that camping in a majestic pine forest carpeted in soft pine needles is one of the joys of canoe country. 

3. Travel early in the day and beat the crowds

Sunrise is often the most peaceful, beautiful time of day in the Boundary Waters. The wind has yet to pick up, the wildlife is undisturbed and active, and many other groups are still asleep. And paddling in the cool of morning is a welcome escape from hot summer afternoons.  

While the BWCAW is still a secluded refuge from civilization, during peak paddling season (late June through mid August) you’ll probably run into plenty of other paddlers, especially near entry points and the more popular lakes. By aiming to reach your destination campsite around lunch or shortly thereafter, you’ll beat most of the crowds and often have the first choice of campsites on your target lake. And it’s a mighty fine feeling to eat lunch at that beautiful five-star campsite while watching other groups paddle by. Arriving early in the day also allows time to relax and enjoy the rest of the afternoon in camp. 

4. Scout ahead of time with online tools

Using the internet to scout campsites and portages might feel like cheating to some. It’s completely understandable if this diminishes the simplicity and delightful unknowns of a BWCAW canoe trip for you. But knowing the lay of the land and reading trip reports from other paddlers can lead to a very enjoyable trip, still full of adventure and curiosity fueled by the hints and descriptions found online. When time in the woods is at a premium (which it is for most folks, myself included), knowing which campsites are favorable can save time and travel. And a great campsite can make a trip that much sweeter. 

Two favorites include paddleplanner.com and bwca.com

5. Look out for widowers!

Be sure to check your site for dead or unhealthy trees or branches hanging over tent pads, especially if in the warm months of summer when thunderstorms are common. Find the “lightning tree” (the tallest in the area) to gauge where lightning strikes pose the most risk, as root systems sprawling away from the tree can carry a lightning strike a long distance. Keep in mind that wind often comes out of the west, though during storms wind direction can be unpredictable. Straight-line winds in the BWCAW are not a joke, and injury or worse from a fallen tree is not worth saving the little bit of extra time it takes to find a site without hazards. 

Finding a campsite with fewer bugs, relief from the weather, and a chance to avoid the crowds can help make a canoe trip that much sweeter.  

While favorite sites are occasionally discovered unexpectedly, following these tips will help you find favorable campsites more consistently on your next trip into canoe country.

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