Why Plan Your Summer BWCA Trip in January?

Snow is falling and lakes are freezing; there are so many winter activities to cram in after the holiday season! So why would you want to start thinking about your trip that’s a good 5 to 9 months away? There is plenty of time to get that set up… Right? Nope! In recent years the Boundary Waters has seen an increase in visitors. It’s bitter sweet really. I am so glad that folks are discovering this amazing wilderness. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to plan a trip with much flexibility. Learn from my mistakes and plan that trip now!

My Mistakes

So, my mistake brings us all the way back to last March… well, more like last January. Scott and I went on a trip to Vegas to celebrate our 10th anniversary, we agreed to start planning our BWCA trip when we returned. This Vegas trip already set us back in the planning process, I don’t know why I felt it necessary to wait on planning. That was silly. Scott and I decided to ask my folks to accompany our family of 4 on our summer BWCA trip. After all, they are the reason I love the BWCA so much, it only seemed fitting to invite them along to enjoy it with their grandchildren.

Growing up my dad has always been the “group leader.” I have taken on this role for my family of four now. I had no problem planning out the trips for my family or our couples trips. However, when it came time to plan the route for a trip with my dad, the pressure was suddenly on. I don’t know what happened! Decision making suddenly seemed impossible. I was on the phone with him constantly to discuss possibilities. By the time I had narrowed it down, it was March! Many of the entry points were booked up for the dates that we had available. Uh-oh.

Registration time

Registration for the summer season opens on the last Wednesday of January at 9:00am. This is for reservations between May 1st and September 30th. My goal this year is to have our lakes and routes for all of our trips ready to reserve on that Wednesday in January, not March. After the excitement of the holidays is over, it’s time to get cracking on those plans. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov. Get on it!

Permits are required to enter the Boundary Waters all year round. Between May 1st and September 30th, you can obtain a permit from an issuing station as a walk-in. The odds of that happening are pretty slim these days. It’s in your best interest to make a reservation ahead of time. Between October 1st and April 30th, a self-issued permit can be obtained at the entry point itself. There are little kiosks at the entry points, no fees or reservations during this time.

Alternate Plans

Back up plans are essential when coordinating a BWCA trip. Each time I delve into the world of wilderness planning, I am in awe at the expanse of possibilities out there. A backup plan can either be different entry dates or different locations. You really need to find which aspect you can compromise on.

Flexible Dates: It is understandable that flexibility in dates isn’t always realistic. Work, kid activities and family functions are sometimes set in stone. But flexibility when planning a wilderness trip can really make those plans fall into place. Some entry points only allow an entry every other day, such as entry point #9 Little Indian Sioux River South. If you are unable to make it on the day allowing entry, you’ll need to look elsewhere. We are not always flexible on dates, that’s for sure. But that means you’ll need to be flexible in other ways.

We had our weekend dates set, the days were not movable. Scott had to get them approved for work and during the busy season time off was limited. Thankfully my folks are quite flexible with enough notice. This really caused problems for us with entry dates, I waited too long to reserve our preferred entry location. Larch Creek was already taken and we couldn’t move our dates to an available time slot! So that brings us to the next element of back up plans.

Back-up Entry Points: Whether you have flexible dates or not you’ll want to have back-up entry points at the ready when making your reservations. Try to have 3 solid plans that start at 3 different entry points, check them in order of preference. You might just get lucky and reserve the location you’re after.

Again, this is something that we ran into problems with while planning our trips for last summer. I waited too long and missed out on the lake we wanted, oops. Really my daughter, Sandy, and I wanted to go to a new lake anyway as we had been on Larch before, so this worked in our favor. Thankfully we had a back-up plan. Unfortunately, our back-up plan was reserved, and our other back-up plan, and our other back-up plan… you can see where I am going with this.

Different Angle: If you are dead set on a certain destination or goal but you find that the entry point that you were wishing to use is taken for your available dates, look at it from a different angle. What I mean is; there are so many different routes in the BWCA you can likely find a way to get there from a alternate entry point. You may have to travel a little farther or conquer more strenuous obstacles, but you may just find a way to get there. Example: Lets say you were wishing to camp on Swan Lake by way of entry point #43 Bower Trout, but there is only 1 permit issued per day and it’s taken. An alternate plan could be to look at entry point #41 Brule Lake where there are 7 permits issued daily. This gives more opportunity to snag a reservation and still get to Swan with a different route through Vernon Lake.

Alternate Permit Holder: When you are applying for your reservation, be sure to have an alternate permit holder/group leader on your reservation. This is a safety net to ensure that your trip goes on even if you yourself do not go on the trip. Life happens, things come up. But if you have an alternate listed on your permit, the rest of your party can still go on an adventure so long as the alternate is accompanying them. The alternate must be assigned at the time the reservation is made, you cannot add them after it has been secured.

Loop Hole? This might sound silly to say, but you know someone has done it or there wouldn’t be a rule regarding this issue; a person cannot reserve multiple entry points per day, one permit per day per permit holder. Super clear. The National Forest Service can cancel overlapping permits as well. Those canceled reservations will be made available for others to reserve. I’m glad that they have the ability to do so, it will keep reservation hogs to a minimum. Please don’t try to reserve multiple locations or dates in an attempt to save you own behind on planning. It can really foil another campers plans if you’ve tried to reserve multiple dates/entry points. The rule applies to alternate permit holder as well. So making multiple reservations under different names doesn’t work either. This is not a “loop hole,” please don’t attempt this.

When All Else Fails

After you have exhausted all of your potential plans go to the recreation.gov site and make a list of all available entry points for the dates you’re hoping for. Once you’ve completed your list, you can start checking out these entry points on BWCA.com. This is my favorite site to get information for upcoming trips and new areas. I use it every time I start planning.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to your best options, again, get your spot reserved as soon as possible. We did the same process and had one entry point picked out, it was available one day and gone the next. Don’t stall!

Things to remember

  • Reservations open the last Wednesday in January
  • Flexible dates are helpful
  • Have 3 plans with 3 separate entry points
  • Have an alternate permit holder at the time of reservation
  • One permit per day per permit holder

I have learned my lesson on procrastinating and being ill-prepared when attempting to make a BWCA reservation. The trip we wound up going on was a success and we got to explore somewhere new. We reserved entry point #36 Hog Creek and had a wonderful little adventure on Perent Lake. You can check out that adventure here.

If you love the wilderness, no matter where you choose/settle on going to in the BWCA, you’re going to love it. Even if you find your planning process to be a pain, it’ll be all the sweeter when you get there.

Know your plan, your back-up plan, and your back-up back-up plan. Happy adventuring!

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