Back Country Cast Iron Steak: What You Need to Know

There is something about devouring a steak in the backcountry that makes it taste so much better. Maybe it’s the starvation, hmmmm. Here is what you need to nail it on your backcountry dinner.

Backcountry cooking doesn’t have to be all freeze-dried mush. It can be delicious, satisfying and primitive. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about eating a steak in the backcountry that makes it taste so much better. Maybe it’s the starvation… hmmm.


Here’s what you’ll need to nail it on a BWCA camp steak dinner:

  • Camp Stove & Fuel
  • Cast Iron Pan
  • Cleaning Brush & Paper Towels
  • Steak
  • Coconut Oil (easiest oil to carry in)
  • Instant Mashed Potato Packet
  • Water, filtered/treated

Camp Stove & Fuel

We prepare our steaks using a propane fueled camp stove. With the cast irons being so heavy, I like to use a low sitting stove. It’s less likely to tip over. That’s why we use my parent’s Colman camp stove when they are along. We also have a single burner that sits atop the fuel tank, a smaller cast iron would be required if using that style. The two burner also works well for preparing the steaks and the potatoes at the same time.

Cast Iron can also be used over a fire. If using this method, there are three things to keep in mind. First, cooking over a fire does not allow for even cooking. Second, it’s the hot coals that’s important, not the flame. Last, the soot is annoying to clean off of the pan and blackens everything it touches. Bonus number four, we usually have a fire ban while camping in the later summer months anyway. This year it has already started in June with the fire bans.

Cast Iron

It is important to bring a well seasoned cast iron pan. Don’t pack a brand new one, it’ll cause a sticky and frustrating mess. Test out your pan on your camp stove prior to your trip to ensure it fits on the burner and that your steak size will fit in the pan.

Steak Cuts & Prep

This meal can vary greatly in cost. We acquire high quality steaks from our local butcher for this trip, but that isn’t necessary. Good steaks can be purchased on sale at the grocery store too. Our favorite is Ribeye beef steaks for the BWCA. These are tender and flavorful, and cooking on the cast iron always adds a little something. We also recently prepared a filet mignon, yum!

A Word on Bones: Bring your favorite cut of beef, but a word of caution; avoid bone-in steaks. They’ll fry up just fine and be delicious, but the bone takes up space in a small pan, and when disposed of, it can poke a hole in the trash bag that must be packed out. Bones cannot be buried in the BWCA. It’s less fuss with boneless cuts, even if you’re sacrificing a bit of flavor.

Seasoning: Season your steaks ahead of time. Doing so will eliminate a step out in the woods, allow the steak to soak in the flavor, and remove unnecessary items to pack in (like seasoning and marinades). We prefer a dry rub, but you can us a marinade as well. Keep in mind that you have to pack everything out. A bag of marinade is bound to cause a mess.

Freezing: Once the steaks are properly seasoned, wrap them in freezer paper and freeze them completely solid. Having them completely frozen will allow them to last longer. Steaks that have been thoroughly frozen will assist in keeping the cooler cold.

Transport: A good quality cooler will be needed for transporting these scrumptious chunks of cow into canoe country. I do not mean a large hard sized igloo or yeti. No way, that’s going to be horrendous and hazardous to hang from a tree. Use a soft sided, well insulated cooler that will fit in the food bag. Place the steaks in a one gallon Ziplock freezer bag to keep the meat juices from contaminating anything else in the cooler.

Thawing & Flexibility: We don’t have specific days set for our meals. Flexibility is key. When we eat our steaks is greatly dependent on two things; how long it takes to thaw and how the fish are biting. Last year, we caught fish for our second dinner and waited on eating our carried in protein. The temperature was also much cooler than usual, so the steaks stayed frozen until the last night of our trip. If you’re needing to cook steak sooner, take them out and warm them in the sun on a rock. Don’t leave them unattended! A bear can absolutely smell them and would love an easy treat.

Instant Mashed Potatoes?

Okay, so this isn’t the freshest option, but it’s the easiest for potatoes. You can bring whole potatoes out there with you. You’ll need to wrap them in foil and place in the coals or on the fire grate. Fresh potatoes take a long time to cook, instant is quick, easy, and light to carry. They can be ready quickly, making it easy to time it with the steaks.

Idahoan Instant Potatoes makes a variety of different flavors. We like the loaded or sour cream and chive. Whatever the flavor you choose, be sure there is no milk required. Most suggest putting a little butter in, we use coconut oil out in the woods. Dairy spoils easily.

Cooking the Steak

Level Camp Stove: Place the camp stove on a level surface. This could be a fire grate, flat rock or even a picnic table for really luxurious campsites. It’s important to keep that stove level for safe camp cooking.

Prep the Cast Iron: Light the burner and place the cast iron over the flame. You’ll have to play with your settings as each camp stove is different. Find a good medium high setting for searing.

Grease it up: Add a chunk of coconut oil to the cast iron to keep the pan non-stick. Be sure that the entire base of the pan is coated.

Sear the Steak: Once the oil is headed in the pan, place the steaks in the pan, sear one side for 5-7 minutes depending on cut thickness and stove strength. Using your tongs, flip the steak over and repeat on the opposite side.

Potatoes: To time the potatoes right, start heating the water after the steaks are flipped, if using a dual burner. Follow the instructions on the package. Only used water that has been treated or filtered.

Cover: If you have a cover for the cast iron, feel free to cover the cast iron to help trap the heat. We don’t have a cover, it’s also extra weight in the pack. If you like your steaks more well done, reduce the heat and cover for longer more thorough cooking.

Devour: Monitor the steaks closely and remove from the cast iron just before they’ve reached your preferred level of doneness. They will continue to cook for a few minutes once they’ve been removed from the heat. Enjoy!

Clean Up: Be sure to clean up the cast iron while it’s still warm. It makes the cast iron easier to clean up and you won’t be wasting any fuel reheating the cast iron.

Clean Up

This is where that cleaning brush and paper towels come in. Cleaning your cast iron right away is important, especially in the backcountry. Cast irons are porous, so you’ll want to clean it while it’s still warm to keep anything from being trapped. Here are the steps taken to clean a cast iron in the BWCA.

  • Dig a hole 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and the shoreline per BWCA Regulations.
  • Pour any grease left in the pan into the hole, do not burry yet.
  • Return pan to camp stove and turn on the burner.
  • Add enough clean water to cover the bottom of the pan (no soap).
  • When the water begins to bubble, use the scrub brush to loosen up any stuck on food.
  • Pour dirty water into the hole previously dug, rinse once more with a small about of clean water.
  • When the pan is clean it’s time to re-season it. Return the pan to the stove once more and allow the water to evaporate off.
  • Once the water has evaporated, remove from heat. Immediatley, take a small amount of coconut oil with a paper towel and oil the pan.
  • Allow to cool completely before storing.

For more on back country dish washing check out How to Wash Dishes in the Backcountry.

6 Hikes in Blue Mounds State Park

Hikes ranging from easy to strenuous, something for every hiking level, both short hikes and long hikes. Rocky outcroppings, vast prairie vistas, cacti and so much more at Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota.

Blue Mounds State Park sits at the south western tip of Minnesota. Offering vast prairies, rocky vistas, dramatic cliffs and unique wildlife viewing, this park is a can’t miss on any south western Minnesota trip. Strap on those hiking shoes and get exploring.

Hiking Club Loop

Distance: Approximately 6.5 miles

Level: Easy

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash.

The Hiking Club trail covers a vast majority of the park and includes the Mound Trail, Eagle Rock, Upper Cliffline, and Mound Creek trails. This trail features views of the bison herd, a stop at the Eagle Rock and Eagle Rock Vista, cliff views from above on the Upper Cliffline and a trek around the viewing pond and Mound Creek. The only downside of this trail is that hikers won’t see the views of the cliffs from below.

Bur Oak Trail

Distance: 3/4 mile (one way)

Level: Strenuous

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash. I would recommend taking only dogs accustomed to rough terrain and are in great hiking condition. Our senior Great Dane is not new to difficult terrain, but she was very tired after a steep section on this hike. You know your hiking companion, use your best judgement.

Bur Oak Trail can be accessed from either the Eagle Rock Vista parking area or the rock climbing parking area. Hikers will traverse the bur oak forest into the steep descent below the cliff line for startling sights of the rocky cliffs. Definitely one of the coolest parts of the hikes available at Blue Mounds.

Upper Cliff Line

Distance: 1.5 miles (One way, can be combined with other trails to form a loop.)

Level: Easy

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash.

Great for jaw dropping and knee weakening views atop Blue Mounds’ cliffs and historic quarry site. Venture (carefully) to edge of the cliff to see the drop to the historic quarry below. This hike is amazing, hikers are sandwiched between two different landscapes. On one side, vast prairie with a cool breeze. On the other side, a rocky outcropping with a sheer drop. The great thing about this trail is that it offers these amazing views and features while remaining an easily traversed trail with a flat, well maintained trail.

Mound Trail

Distance: 1.5 Miles (One way, can be combined with other trail to form a loop.)

Level: Easy

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash.

A long trail bordering the edge of the bison range, the turf is grass that is well maintained. This trail can be combined with the Upper Cliffline trail to make a loop. It leads from the parking area passed the park office to the Eagle Rock Vista, passing Eagle Rock and another viewing area for the bison.

Lower Cliff Line

Distance: 1 mile (One way)

Level: Easy

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash.

This shorter trail features distant views of the cliff line. It is a simple mowed grass trail that can be combined with the Upper Cliffline trail for a longer hike with a larger variety of scenery. This trail can also meet up with the paved bike path which offers spurs to the rock climbing areas and historic quarry.

Nature Trail

Distance: 1/4 mile, out and back

Level: Easy

Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash.

Located near the nature play area this short hike is a great spot for a moment of peace, bird watching, and catching a glimpse of the creek traveling through the park. The bench at the end of this trail looks like the perfect place to settle down with a good book, if one is not hiking with kids of course.

Our Trail Adventure

We started our day off at the bison viewing deck. Early in the morning the bison were immediately in front of the gate and deck. The mothers and their babies were so sweet together.

Next, we started our attempt at the hiking trail beginning at the Mound Trail next to the Bison Range. After a quarter of a mile, Killian needed to poop. Such is the way when hiking with a 3 year old. We turned around to used the vaulted toilet at the trail head.

Instead of continuing on the Mound Trail, we explored the Nature Trail instead, a good call. Killian was able to toss some pebbles into the river, his favorite! We also sauntered over to the bridge that crosses Mound Creek.

After some free time at the Nature Play Area, we loaded into the car to drive to Eagle Rock Vista. From there we explored and climbed Eagle Rock and admired the cacti, prairie grasses, and butterflies.

Next, it was onto the Cliffline parking area where we tackled a portion of the Bur Oak Trail, a short section of the Upper Cliffline and returned to the vehicle via a steep descent passed the rock climbing area to the paved bike path.

Our goofy array of hiking exploration actually gave us some of the best views in the park without pushing our junior hikers and senior dog too hard in the July heat and Canadian fire smoke. We had a great view of the historic quarry, witnessed rock climbers at their work, experienced some of the parks most rugged trails and peaceful prairie. In total ,we hiked about 3 miles and were able to experience the most inspiring views in the park.

Make the most of your hike in Blue Mounds. Keep in mind that not every hike needs to an A to B kind of hike. Sometimes a little jaunt here and short excursion there is the best way to keep junior hikers interested, stay flexible.

Tips for Hiking Blue Mounds

  • Bring plenty of water (for your hiking dog too).
  • Wear proper footwear and dress for the weather.
  • Use sunscreen, much of the trails do not offer shade.
  • Stay on trails, cacti are present and can poke through clothing and thin footwear.
  • Carry a map, little cell service is available
  • The Tasty Drive-In located in Luverne, just 6 miles south of the park, has a number of delicious treats. They even have a butterscotch milkshake, yum!
  • Bonus Park: Split Rock Creek State Park

6 Day Trip Things to do at Split Rock Creek State Park, MN

A quiet, simple park with peace and nature at it’s heart. Add Split Rock Creek to your Southern Minnesota Bucket List. Split Rock Creek State Park offers a tranquil hike to a historic bridge and dam, picturesque lake views, a fishing nook and more.

A simple park with little treasures strewn about, a great place to spend a few hours or a relaxing afternoon. Knowing that this was not a large park, we planned just a few hours here during our excursion to Blue Mounds and Pipestone National Monument.

Quick Review: 5/10 While this park is pretty and quiet, it does lack in number of drawing features. A great place for simplicity and peace, though. This park does redeem a point in my book for the lack of bugs! No bug spray was used, yay!

1. Beach

We found this beach to be on the shallow side, a great place for little adventurers to cool off and play in the sand. The buoys were set fairly close to shore, the deepest point inside the buoy line being at my 11 year-olds knee. Despite it’s shallow depth, the kids were excited to get their suits on and play in the sand.

Bonus: There is a wash station for those sandy feet.

2. Fish

Bring your fishing gear, there are perch, crappies, sunfish, bullheads, and catfish in these waters. We were able to land several crappies, a perch, and a pumpkinseed off of the fishing pier and on the small peninsula near the swimming beach.

Seasonally, this park offers a fish cleaning station for campers to use.

3. Paddle

Canoe and kayak rentals are available on a first come, first serve basis at the park office. Or bring your own and put in at the boat launch.

4. Hike

While this park doesn’t have a long hiking system (only 4.5 miles), the hikes here are simple and pleasant. The trails are well maintained and easy for all levels of hikers. In those short miles, there is plenty to see and aquatic wildlife to spot.

Distance: 4.5 mile loop covers entire park, can be shortened with other turn offs and parking areas.

Level: Easy

Time to Go: Summer, spring or fall. No groomed ski trails in the winter, snowshoers welcome.

Dog Friendly: Yes, leashed pets welcome.

Fees: $7 day pass or $35 yearly State Parks Pass.

5. Historic Bridge & Dam

On the southern edge of the park, a historic bridge and dam wait for hikers to explore. The dam was dry at the time of our visit. Still a very cool place to check out. Hikers are able to walk across the dam over a concrete bridge and walk along Split Rock Creek to the historic bridge.

6. Wildlife Spotting

The parks quiet qualities are likely an attributing factor in the wildlife viewing. We were able to spot several birds out on the water, butterflies, rabbits and a number of turtles. The turtles didn’t seem to be too disturbed by our presence, even while fishing.

Hiking Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

This short hike brings visitors to the highest point in Wind Cave National Park and a historic fire tower. A great hike for all ages in this unique South Dakota National Park.

Rankin Ridge is a spectacular spot to get an overlook at Wind Cave National Park. Being the highest point in the park, you can get a look for miles around. Even to Badlands National Park, on a good day.

Distance: 1 mile

Level: Easy, with some stairs.

Time to Go: Open year-round, summer is easiest, rock steps may be slippery or snow covered in winter months. Check trail conditions.

Dog Friendly: No, but there are two trails near the visitor’s center that are dog friendly. Prairie Vista Trail & Elk Mountain Campground Trail.

Fees: No entrance pass

Trail Head & Parking

From the visitor’s center, head north towards the campground, but stay right at the fork. You’ll come to a “T” in the road, go left. Then, take the first right onto Hwy 87. The road is winding and beautiful. There will be signs for Rankin Ridge, it’s on the right. RV’s and trailers are not allowed in the small parking area, but there is a pull off area by the turn toward Rankin Ridge trail head.

The Trail head is quite obvious with a sign, map, and the usual trail warnings.

Clockwise with Stairs

We chose to hike this trail clockwise and I’m glad we did. This trail makes more sense, based on the terrain, to hike it clockwise. So start out heading north on the left most trail.

Though this is considered an easy trail, there are a fair number of stone steps. They could be slick when wet, take care if it’s raining. The steps are also a main reason to hike this trail clockwise. There are no steps descending from the peak on the other side of the trail. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather climb steps than descend. Especially if they’re wet or I am carrying a child on my back.

The steps are not difficult, take your time and watch your step. Our two year old was able to tackle them just fine and he loved every bit of this hike.


Don’t rush on this trail. It’s only a mile long, so take your time and appreciate the views along the way. The best views, in my opinion, were not at the highest point, but along the stairway leading up to it. There is so much to see, don’t speed through this one.

Fire Tower

The historic Fire Tower sits at the highest point in the park. On a clear day, hikers can see all the way to the Badlands National Park. On the day of our hike, there was just a little too much haze for us to see that far, but the view was still vast.

The Fire Tower is really neat and a great place to have a snack and water break. Unfortunately, the tower is closed to visitors. A bummer, we’ve climbed a few towers on our explorations and were disappointed to find that this was not possible here at Wind Cave. It was still a great place to see, though.

Lightning Warning: Watch the weather forecast and be aware of surroundings. This is the highest point in the park, meaning the most at risk for lightning strikes. Plan around thunderstorms and change plans to avoid being caught in a light storm on this trail.

Smooth Descent

After taking in the views and having a snack at the height of this trail. The rest is smooth sailing! The way down is a breeze. This trail is very well maintained with a gravel slope that leads back to the parking area. Great for little explorers to find their footing.

Bison Beds and Droppings

Watch for animal sign as you make your way back to the parking area. The presence of animals was much more prevalent on this side of the trail, making the descent just as exciting as the climb up.

Looking closely in the grass, it was evident that bison had bedded down in the area and, of course, our toddler found poop. Leave it to the boy to always find poop.

Wildlife Warning: Keep your distance from wildlife. Yes, it’s so cool to see them in their natural habitat. This is their home, we are guests and they don’t like to be disturbed. The NPS recommends keeping at least 25 yards away from wildlife, but strongly suggests farther from bison. Don’t pet the fluffy cows, they are dangerous!!

Open Hike

This park does allow “open hiking.” This means that hikers are not confined to stay on designated trails. Hikers are welcome to hike off trail and explore the park at their own risk. Be aware of surroundings, weather, and animals at all times. Be sure to bring a map, plenty of water, and know that there is likely no cell service.

Check out 5 Things to do at Wind Cave National Park for other ideas on exploring this unique national park.

5 Things to do at Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park isn’t just cave tours and bats. Check out this adventure packed park and add this family friendly park to your South Dakota Bucket List.

Our most recent trek to the west brought us to Wind Cave National Park. We’ve been into cave tours lately, so this was a great place to explore, but it’s not just cave tours that brings visitors to this unique park in South Dakota; the hikes and wildlife are amazing, too!

1. Hiking

Wind Cave has over 30 miles of hiking trails available to visitors. If that’s not enough for you, it is also an open hike park. This means that hikers can explore off trail. If choosing to participate in this type of exploration, bring enough water, a map and keep an eye on surroundings, especially the roaming wildlife.

I highly recommend Hiking Rankin Ridge. We hiked this trail while waiting for our designated cave tour time. It’s only 1 mile, but it’s packed with views, both at the highest point in the park and all along the way. At the peak of this hike, there is a historic fire tower. Unfortunately, climbing it is not allowed. It’s cool to see nonetheless.

Be sure to stop along the drive to different hiking locations for a look around. The pull off areas have a lot to be explored. The kids really enjoyed climbing about on some of the rocks and getting a look around. Not to mention the scent in these secluded areas, the trees smell so refreshing!

2. Stop at the Visitor’s Center

The Visitor’s Center is chalk full of educational and interactive displays. The kids had fun exploring and learning about the park’s animals and environment. The gifts shop had several neat items and a junior ranger booklet.

There is a Tipi on display in front of the building, so fun for the kids to check out!

3. Garden of Eden Cave Tour

One cannot visit Wind Cave and not do a cave tour. That’s just silly! There are 6 tour options at Wind Cave ranging from easy to strenuous. Check out the descriptions on the NPS website to make sure you select the appropriate tour for your party. During the summer months, reservations are highly recommended. I can see why, we already had our tickets purchased and still needed to wait in a line to check in. There are park rangers available for questions on where to meet for your tour and they are quite helpful and friendly.

We chose the Garden of Eden tour as it is the least strenuous tour available, aside from the accessibility tour. We were traveling with a two year old, so simple is better. This tour did not disappoint! We were able to see multiple formations like cave popcorn, boxworm and flowstone. Sandy even got some cave goo on her, she found that to be quite neat! There are 150 stairs on this tour, not too bad when considering the fact that we were so far underground. This was a great tour option for kids, we saw a lot in a shorter amount of time.

The tour starts with a ride on an elevator taking visitors deep underground, then winds along a concrete path. The stairs have hand rails and the steps are lined with yellow paint. The tour guide made her way back and forth to change the lighting in the cave as we went along. She was very informative and had a few jokes, too. It was a very enjoyable tour.

4. Learn about the Black Footed Ferret

We had a very informative park ranger at the Visitor Center gift shop explain the importance of the black footed ferret to us while Sandy was purchasing a black footed ferret Wind Cave National Park sticker. The park ranger spoke with passion and explained the efforts of bringing this important piece back to the ecosystem puzzle.

The park was able to reintroduce a small population of 8 ferrets back into the ecosystem in 2007. The population has grown and maintains at about 40 ferrets. We weren’t able to spot any on our excursions, but it’s worth a shot. They are adorable!

5. Observe the Wildlife

Wind Cave reintroduced a number of species that now call this park home. During the westward expansion, many of this animals were hunted out. Now they are roaming free on in this land that was their ancestors home. Check out animals like elk, pronghorn and the big one, bison. Prairie dog towns are settled alongside the road, with a great viewing area. We stopped with the kids and got out to observe the little fellas. They barked at us, it was so cute! We stayed on the walking path and backed off so we didn’t disturb them any further.

Predators: There are a couple of predators in the park. Most prominently, the coyote. They hunt the prairie dogs and are the most amongst the predators. The other predators are of the kitty variety. Mountain lions and bobcats are present in the park, but it is very unlikely to see one.

DON’T PET THE FLUFFY COWS: Keep your distance from the bison. They may look docile, lumbering, and slow. Don’t be fooled, they can and will run faster than you. 2000 pound of angry bison is not something to mess with. Keep your distance and respect them in their home. You are the guest.

7 Fun Hiking Games to Keep Kids Engaged on the Trail

Keeping kids engaged on the hiking trail can be a challenging task. Check out these games for trail entertainment with junior hikers.

The idea of hiking with junior hikers is sometimes more fun than actually hiking with junior hikers. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy watching my kids take in the outside world and explore. Hiking is awesome and a great activity for them, but those longer hikes can become difficult when the moods swing.

With the help of my junior hikers, Sandy (11) and Killian (3), we’ve come up with some activities and games to play while hiking. Sandy is so creative, it’s great!

1. Pooh Sticks

This game came from a childhood show ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ Pooh Sticks is played on a bridge over flowing water. Each player finds a short stick and stands on the bridge facing the upriver side. On the count of three, each player drops their stick into the water. Then rushes over to the other side of the bridge to watch them pass under. The stick to reach the other side of the bridge first wins.

This is great fun and is a great way to encourage kids to keep going until the next bridge. That is, if your hike passes a bridge. Killian gets very excited when we find a bridge now, the best hikes are hikes over rivers.

Red Light/Green Light

This was Sandy’s doing, she actually thought of it to keep Killian from running ahead. She noticed me becoming frustrated when he was running too far ahead in an area known for bears. After getting his attention, she explained the game and they had a great time. Great big sister!

One person is the traffic light. They call out ‘green light’ for the hikers to go and ‘red light’ for hikers to stop. It’s a great game to keep junior hikers from going too far ahead in an area with large predators, snakes, rivers, or winding trail where they could wander out of sight.

Freeze Hike

Much like ‘Red Light, Green Light,’ this game is also a stop and go game. But when the caller yells, “Freeze,” the other hikers must hold perfectly still. It’s great fun to see the goofy positions the kids wind up in and see if they can hold it until the caller lets them go again. Take it a step further and move their limbs around while they are frozen!

Freeze hiking is a fun time but it’s also helpful in keeping kids close and teaching them to stop when you need them to.

Scavenger Hunt or Hiking Bingo

Scavenger hunts are awesome! It really gets the kids engaged in their environment and really looking at the habitat around them. They wind up finding things that they wouldn’t normally have noticed. It works for the adults too. When I’m helping my little hiker find things on his list, I find myself noticing more on his level rather than just seeing the big woods.

A great thing about a scavenger hunt is that it can be customized for seasons, events, and environments. So, if you’re going out on a scavenger hunt in the summer, add flowers and frogs. For fall, add different colored leaves and acorns.

I Spy

A classic game that can be played anywhere. Teaching kids how to articulate what they are seeing and an interesting way to see how they view the world. We have a running joke when we play this game, we come up with many different ways to describe a tree. It derived from the Disney movie Brother Bear. Two moose are playing I Spy while riding a mammoth and all they are seeing is trees. It’s pretty funny when they say, “I spy…. a vertical log?” That one always gets a chuckle, even they know it’s coming.


On trails that are relatively smooth, a good race can keep your little hiker on the move. Especially those compitetive kids, it can also teach good sportsmanship. We are working on that with our 3 year old right now. We follow each race, win or lose, with a “Good Game!” or “Good Race!” It’s a work in progress. Killian does like a good race and it will motivate him to get to the finish line, which might be the next bench or better yet, the next bridge for a game of Pooh Sticks.

We like to use incentives with our races too, sometimes a bridge but mostly food. We keep those snack at the ready and a race to the next bench is a good time to break out the trail snack for kids.

Color Hunt

Great for spring and fall, when the colors are blooming and changing. Just like the scavenger hunt, but with color in mind. So the object isn’t too specific, just the color of it. Perfect for those junior hikers learning their colors. This activity can help them discover all of the colors in their environment. This versatile activity can be played just about anywhere, not just on a hike.

How to Wash Dishes in the Backcountry of the BWCA

Washing dishes anywhere is a chore, but it doesn’t have to be a miserable chore. Get a system down and make dishwashing in the backcountry a snap.

Even the wilderness can’t save us from having to do the dishes. Washing dishes in the backcountry doesn’t have to be terrible, though. Once you have bug spray and a good system down it’s pretty slick.

Regulations & Disposal

For such a freeing place, the BWCA sure does have a lot of regulations! These regulations keep one of the world’s most pristine wilderness areas just that; pristine! So, please respect the rules and keep our beloved BWCA clean.

BWCA regulations require campers to dispose of dishwater at least 200 feet from any water sources including rivers, creeks, and lakes. It must also be disposed of 200 feet from campsites, latrines, and walking paths such as hiking trails and portages. Keeping dishwater disposal distant from these areas will help reduce the encounters with curious critters and cause the water to be filtered through the ground before entering the aquatic system.

Dish soap & Sponge

Go easy on the soap quantity, a little bit goes a long way. Biodegradable or not, less is more. We use regular dawn dish soap. A couple drops of soap gets us through an entire meal’s worth of dishes, no problem.


Growing up, our family would always bring a dish cloth. I remember scrubbing noodles off the bottom of the pot with my nails because the cloth wasn’t efficient. Now we bring a sponge with a scrubby side that we have cut into thirds to make it smaller. It’s small, wrings out most of it’s water, packs well and is easy to hang up on the clothes line. In general, I’m not a fan of sponges, but it works best for camping purposes.

Regular drying/tea towels will work just fine. We have discovered, however, that using a quick drying micro fiber towel is the most efficient way to get dishes and towels dried quickly. This is important for those who don’t base camp and are on the move during a route. It’s a real pain to have a towel hanging off of a bag to dry while you’re portaging and canoeing.


Heating water isn’t necessary for dish washing in the BWCA, but it is nice. Heating up a small pot of water on your gas stove can make for more pleasant washing, it’s up to you whether you want to use the fuel on that or not.

We prefer to wash with water right from the lake, nothing fancy. We wash back into the woods, away from trails and water. In the past, we have used a tub but I’ve gone lighter in recent years and simply use our largest cooking pot, which is actually quite small. It gets the job done, though and doesn’t take up any extra space in our packs.

Rinse water can be hauled in a collapsible bucket or another pot. Again, we use water right from the lake. There are some that fold down to fit in the palm of your hand. Camp gear has come so far!

Clothes Line

You’ll likely already have a clothes line ready to roll for bathing suits and wet clothes. If not, a simple stretch of paracord and some clothes pins is all you need.

Root of the Issue

Bring a collapsible shovel with a serrated edge for cutting through the excessive amount of roots in the ground. I’m not kidding, we tried to pack light one year and brought a tiny trowel with a smooth edge. It did not go well. My following birthday, my husband gifted me a collapsible shovel with a serrated edge. It’s pretty awesome. The hole doesn’t need to be large or deep. Just enough to pour a little water in. We are trying to reduce impact, not litter the forest with holes.

Fewer Dishes, Less Washing

Try reducing the amount of dishes you need to wash by making a few of them dual purpose. For example; drink your coffee/hot cocoa first in the morning and follow it by making oatmeal in the same mug. Always have your breakfast after your beverage, otherwise bits of breakfast will be littering your morning brew.

The System

After cooking your delicious meal and feasting, it’s time for the dirty work. Dish duty should be a shared task. If you have a small group, everyone gets a job. For larger groups take turns with different meals. For the most time efficient dish wash, 3 people is optimal. One to wash, one to rinse and dry, and one to dig the hole. On our most recent excursion, we had a 4th job; watching the kids, this took the most effort.

We have a pretty slick system for dish washing in the back country. The key to not being devoured by mosquitoes is to work fast and well together.

  1. Spray with bug spray, very important.
  2. Heat water while gathering dishes, soap, sponge, towels, rinse water, and shovel.
  3. Find dish washing location.
  4. One person starts on a hole (200 feet from trails, latrine, camp, water and portages).
  5. Soap up the dish water and lay out one dish cloth.
  6. Wash each dish with the sponge and toss into rinse bucket.
  7. Each dish can be rinsed and placed on the drying towel.
  8. Depending on how fast your washer is, dishes should be dried as they are rinsed or after they are all washed.
  9. Wash the pot last and hand off to the hole digger. The pot should be dumped in the hole, then rinsed out with the rinse water. The remaining rinse water can be disposed of in the hole. Bury the dish water.
  10. Dry and stack the dishes. Keep the dishes off the ground so they don’t collect debris.
  11. Hang the towels and sponge to dry, pack away your clean dishes. Done!

Your camping crew will learn what works best for your situation. We’ve learned through trial and error and things have gotten better as we’ve grown more experienced and camp tools have evolved over time.

Big Bog Walk at Lake Bemidji State Park

Adventure through a unique ecosystem along a boardwalk wonderland hidden in a northern Minnesota state park. A hike on this trail gives visitors a view of a seldom seen environment.

In the northern reaches of Minnesota, on the historic Lake Bemidji, sits Lake Bemidji State Park. Inside this park, there is a trail that leads through a mystical swamp that is home to so many plants found in Northern Minnesota.

Distance: 2.5 miles, out and back

Level: Easy

Time to go: Open year-round, spring and summer are best for flowers

Dog Friendly: Yes, tight passing areas on the boardwalk

Fees: Daily ($7)/Seasonal MN State Park Pass ($35)


Lake Bemidji SP is on the northern side of Lake Bemidji. There are clear signs to the park and a great big sign on the right side of the State Park Road NE that greets visitors. After getting to the State Park, grab a map and head to the left of the visitors center. There is clear signage throughout the park. The Parking area is immediately after the campground.

Trailhead & Road Crossing

The trail head is shared with two other trails. There will also be signs for the old logging road. These trail will all split off later. There are also spurs that lead off of this trail. To get to the Bog Trail, hikers must keep to the main trail until after the road crossing. The trail travels across the Birchmont Beach Road. At the time of our visit, this road was torn up and under construction.

Stay Right

Immediately after crossing the road, the trail splits in 3. Keep right. There is a large sign with a map to indicate which trail to take. After about half a mile, there will be another right. Again, there is clear signage for these trails. At the beginning of this spur there is a vaulted toilet, a great opportunity to relieve oneself before venturing into the bog. There is no other chance to use a restroom until returning to this spot.

For a longer hike, hikers can take the Old Logging Road Trail or the Pinewood Trail. Then loop back to the spur that contains the boardwalk through the bog. We did the short version with our junior hiker in tow.

Bikes: This is also a bike friendly trail up until the boardwalk. There is a parking area for bikes so cyclist may also enjoy a stroll down the whimsical boardwalk.


Natural paths make perfect hiking terrain, but I do love a good boardwalk. Kids love them, too. The boardwalk is quite impressive with it’s length and durability. We had a great time exploring on the boardwalk.

A few places are available to pass with a dog. The boardwalk juts out making it easy to pass by with dogs and still be courteous to other hikers using the boardwalk. Aside from these few spots to step aside, the passing is quite tight.

Flora & Fauna

Photographers and botanists get your cameras out! The floral life that thrives in this bog is astounding! Not only that, but the park service has labeled it for we non-plant-knowing folks. There are interpretive signs sharing knowledge of the plant life as well as labels on the ground next to the living specimens.

Stay on the Trail: It’s important to note that stepping off of the trail is damaging to the bog and takes a very long time for this ecosystem to recover from the smallest of indents.

Plant life isn’t the only thing to observe on this bog walk. We were surprised to spot several fish swimming about in the waters below the boardwalk. There are turtles, frogs, dragonflies and a number of other critters to observe. Pay attention!

Big Bog Lake

At the boardwalks inevitable end, Big Bog Lake greets hikers with it’s wild serenity. I was amazed at the sight of it. It looked so much like the Boundary Waters Wilderness that I love so dearly. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Perhaps I was imagining a buggy ugly swamp because of the unappealing name of the lake, but I was pleasantly surprised for sure.

Tenting in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

An unforgettable camping adventure awaits in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The bison roaming, the elk bugling, and the star gazing. Absolutely breathtaking.

For an unforgettable, wild experience right in a campground, check out Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Cottonwood Campground. Tent camping in a National Park was on the bucket list, Teddy Roosevelt was the perfect park to start in.


We stayed at the Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit of TRNP. This campground is on the left side of the entrance road, there was a lone bison on a hillside to greet us as we drove in. A wonderful welcome.

Space: The sites are quite close together and do not offer much in the way of privacy. This wasn’t too much of a deterrent for us as we were only at the site for sleeping and much too busy exploring to be in the campground anyhow.

Tent sites

The tent pad was a good size for our medium sized tent. The tent site distances range from being able to touch your vehicle to a short walk down a dirt path, but still within sight of the parking area. These are not remote campsites by any means, but there is still plenty of wildlife to be experienced.

Invest in some good quality tent stakes. We had just upgraded our tent stakes for thicker, more durable stakes. These proved to be no match for North Dakota’s tough soil. We bent just one stake, but were more careful about where and how we drove the rest into the ground.

While the sites are fairly close together, we didn’t get any feelings of being smothered or crowded. Likely due to the open, wild spaces that surround the campground. Tree cover in not in short supply at the campground. Beyond the outskirts of the sites, there is open spaces to see the bison and wild horses that frequent the area.

Wildlife & Nature

The wildlife is abundant in this National Park. Prairie dogs, bison, wild horses, elk, and so much more. Never have I experienced so much wildlife in a single park experience. Not only are these animals roaming the park in great number, but you can also experience their presence right from the campground. Check out these Short Hikes and Overlooks in Theodore Roosevelt NP for more chances to see the wildlife.

Natural Noise Machine: Leave your noise machines at home folks, you have all the nature sounds you need right here in this park. It was amazing. I’ve had many nights sleeping in the BWCA in Minnesota listening to the loons call. This park might have that experience matched. The elk bugling in the late September rut was amazing. The sense of wild that comes from sitting up late at the campfire with the majestic elk calls sounding in the distance the pinnacle of camp experiences.

Starry Nights: Turn out the lights and gaze up at the universe. The stars in this park are brilliant. After the kids went to bed, we sat by the small fire and took in the clear star speckled sky. The peace is infinite… until the kids wake up that is.

Do Not Pet The Fluffy Cows: The bison can and will roam wherever they please. This does include the campground. This is not an invitation to approach them. Don’t do this, they will toss you. Bison have been known to walk right through camp and enjoy the shade this grove has to offer. We didn’t see any bison in camp during our stay, but we did hear shuffling on the ground near our site during the night.

Breathtaking Sunrise: Looking to the east early in the morning gives campers views of the most breathtaking sunrise over North Dakota’s badlands. The crisp September mornings are perfect for enjoying the a cup of camp coffee and a link of breakfast sausage.

Bison Poo

Watch your step, droppings abound! All around the campground there is sign of bison, watch your step. Our 2 year old was all about the poop and let us know when we passed some more. It’s everywhere. So even if you don’t see bison in the campground, you’ll see just how comfortable they are when they roam in the area based on the location of their droppings. From the middle of your campsite to the doorway of the bathroom, watch your step.


We arrived after park hours, so we needed a different solution for firewood. We were able to find firewood for sale at a gas station/convenience store in Medora. It burned well, you never know with purchased firewood. Gathering dead and down wood is allowed in the campground, but nowhere else in the park. It is rather picked over, though.

There is a lack of firepits, but this makes sense as it’s prairie grassland in the surrounding area. A high risk for wildfire. However, there are raised BBQ grills that can accommodate a fire large enough to successfully roast marshmallows for s’mores.


The bathrooms were still open in September, so we did bathrooms available during our stay. The bathrooms are open seasonal, flush toilets close during the winter with vault toilets available year-round. It was a treat to have running water to wash hands, we are accustomed to a more rugged setting so this was a nice.

There are no showers available at this campground. We know this ahead of time but with our cooler weather camping, we weren’t too concerned with becoming too pungent.

There is so much to see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a wonderful park to spend a couple of days exploring


The city of Medora is settled right at the parks entrance. Take time to visit this neat town. Rumor has it that there is a great musical to attend with a pitch fork steak grill. If you’re interested in this event, make sure your visit is between June and early September. The show schedule can help you plan your time to visit.

Little Missouri Saloon & Dining Room: We had dinner a great dinner at this restaurant. I highly recommend the elk burger, that was amazing. Scott ordered the Bison Steak, I snuck a piece and it was amazing. For an appetizer, we had an order of the Steak and Cheese bites. The kids had burgers, even the kids menu items were delicious. All around, this was a fantastic place to stop in after a day of adventuring around the National Park.

Short Hikes & Overlooks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Whether passing through the area or camping for a while, these short hikes and overlooks give visitors a great experience and grand adventure in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is often a single day or two day stop for those passing through to larger, more popular parks, like Glacier or Yellowstone. Yet, there is much to see in this park. See more of the highlights in this park with shorter hikes along the Scenic Drive.

This park is broken up into 3 sections of park. The South Unit, North Unit, and Elk Horn Ranch. The South and North Units feature quite a number of hikes and overlooks. Some are quite long, up to 18 miles. We stuck to some shorter hikes in the interest of keeping our younger hikers happy and seeing more of the park by car. These were great during our stay at TRNP.

South Unit

TRNP’s South Unit is the most visited section of the park. Sitting right off of Interstate 94, it’s a passing through kind of stop for those on their way to more popular destinations like Glacier. For those passing through, these quick hikes a great way to stretch your legs and get a feel for the park without spending too much of your travel time. These stops are also great for those traveling with kids and seeking shorter hikes to please shorter legs. All of these hikes are just off of the scenic drive through the park.

Wind Canyon: Wind Canyon is a measly 2/5 of a mile, however, in that 2/5 of a mile there is much to see in the distant horizon and close up to the trail. We took this hike in the early morning and were able see far down the winding river and across prairie where bison fed on the slowly toughening grasses of fall. Wind Canyon obtained it’s name from the process in which it became a canyon. Most canyons are formed from water erosion, this canyon was actually formed from the wind erosion. The smoothness of the surfaces in the canyon wall are unlike the canyons formed from rivers.

Note: Stop to smell the sage, it’s so fresh and fragrant! I was wondering what we were smelling, then I realized that we were walking through sage brush.

Skyline Vista: A very short hike indeed, just 1/10 of a mile of paved path leads to an overlook of TRNP. The wind atop this ridge can be gusty, but the view is quite neat. This overlook is a great spot to stretch the legs briefly and check out some of the parks views.

Buck Hill: Our kids seemed to have the most fun on this trail. There are so many rock ledges and overhangs for them to explore and jump on. It felt as though we had brought a pair of baby goats along with us. The views stretched far and wide.

Coal Vein Trail: At just over half a mile, this hike is relatively easy with some inclines and rough trail. The coal veins are not burning here anymore, but there is some small remanent of the burn and the nature along this trail is quite neat. There may be bison in the area, be watchful and keep your distance.

North Unit

The North Unit of TRNP is an hour north of the South Unit on Hwy 85. It is about half the size of the Southern Unit but features a more rugged terrain and even more beautiful scenery. The trails in the North Unit are longer but there are a few spots for a short jaunt.

Little Missouri Nature Trail: This short trail is about a 3/4 to 1 mile of river bottom wildlife. The length depends on which route you take. Little MO is located at the Juniper campground. The trail loops down to the riverbed and crosses the Buckhorn Trail. There is information at the trailhead so hikers can learn about the ecosystem as they hike.

Cannonball Concretions: Situated just across the road from Little Missouri Nature Trail, this is actually a wayside exhibit and a Buckhorn Trailhead. This area features cannonball like structures protruding out of the slowly eroding rock. The cannonballs are sediment being held together by minerals that adhere them. We spent so much time here exploring the formations, the kids had a blast. It wasn’t technically a hike, but I think we got more out of this stop than we did from other hikes, it was their favorite stop at the North Unit.

Riverbend Overlook: Riverbend Overlook is absolutely the best overlook in the entire park, including the South Unit. I was in awe at this overlook. It didn’t seem real, the amount of time we spent here was unreal. I would go back to this park just for this view. There is a short hike from the parking area that leads to an open cabinlike gazebo. Be mindful of the edge beyond the gazebo and keep kids in hand.

Oxbow Overlook: This is the end of the Scenic Drive in the North Unit. It’s amazing to step out at of the vehicle and walk to the overlook. The overlook expands beyond the reaches of the park and makes a person feel very small. It’s a grand climax for this beautiful scenic drive.