Hiking vs. Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is rightly famous for its backcountry paddling adventures, but it’s also home to a variety of rugged hiking trails like the Border Route Trail, Kekekabic Trail, PowWow Trail, Sioux-Hustler Trail, and more. The 300+ mile Superior Hiking Trail to the east usually receives all of Minnesota’s hiking glory. However, it’s not located in a designated wilderness so therefore it’s considered frontcountry. If solitude is what you seek, you’ll find more of it in the BW. Perhaps you couldn’t snag a BW paddling permit this summer, you’re looking for a change of pace from canoeing, or you simply love a good adventure, here are 11 ways a hiking trip differs from a canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters:

Hikers use fancy skinny backpacks and canoers use basic broad backpacks (also known as portage packs).

When hiking, we use slender 50 to 60 liter backpacks with comfy shoulder and back padding, hip belts, and several functional pockets. Portage packs are 60 to 80 liters and no-frills, consisting of two straps and a big nylon pouch that is often wider than the carriers’ profile.

Canoe-campers can take more gear.

Hikers have to carry everything on their backs while traveling and are limited to 30 to 50 pounds of gear, whereas canoes act as large luggage shuttles and while paddling, your body is unencumbered. That being said, bringing extra gear like foldable tables and chairs (I see it all the time!) on canoe trips sounds nice until you have to carry everything across a steep portage!

Fishing is possible but less convenient on hiking trips.

Canoeing, of course, requires water so fishing comes naturally. But hiking trails will often take you away from water and stashing a pole and tackle is much easier to do in a canoe.

Permits don’t need to be made months in advance for hiking trips in the BW.

Overnight paddling permits become available at the end of January and usually within two hours, the most popular entry points are completely booked out for June, July, and August. On the other hand, as long as you have a little flexibility with your entry date, you can usually snag a last-minute overnight hiking permit for most entry points.

Hiking trips are usually more wild and remote.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell where the hiking trail is and you may feel like you’re trapped in a time loop walking past the same trees for three straight days. You will also see considerably fewer people while hiking the Kekekabic Trail versus paddling Kekekabic Lake. The downside to the remoteness of hiking trails is that there are fewer campsites along the way and in an emergency, it can be more complicated to exit the wilderness quickly or find help.

Hikers usually need different water purification systems and more water bottles.

It’s quite simple to replenish water on Boundary Waters canoe trips since you’re traveling on pristine lakes with relatively high water quality. You also set up camp along the shorelines, so you can fill up as needed and also have time to wait for your big gravity filter to purify your water.

Finding potable water while hiking can be a bit tricky since the trails and campsites aren’t always near lakes. Oftentimes you have to refill your water bottles in small streams, where drought (like in the summer of 2021), sediment, and beavers can present problems. We take extra water bottles to fill up when we find good water sources in case the next stream is compromised. We like to use pump filters (Katadyn Hiker Microfilter) while hiking and bringing an extra filter is also wise.

Canoe trips travel faster.

Our advanced hiking trips may cover 8 to 10 miles per day in the BW. The trails are maintained by a crew of volunteers who do the best they can but path conditions vary widely and fallen trees, dense vegetation, and frequent elevation changes are typical on BW hiking trails.

Portages, wind, and current may slow you down (or speed you up!) on a canoe trip, but typically our advanced canoe trips can cover 15 to 25+ miles per day. Exceptions exist, of course.

Canoeing makes you feel like a swan while hiking makes you feel like a pack mule.

I do enjoy hiking but after several BW canoe trips, hiking can feel like you’re just on one long portage and at times, I yearn for my precious 1972 Grumman canoe. Aside from days spent battling major headwinds (which, when talked about afterward over the glow of the campfire transform from being miserable to brave endeavors), canoeing is graceful. To me, it’s more enjoyable canoeing in the rain– barring lightning– than hiking in it. Add in a slight tailwind and occasionally casting a wacky worm into a few secluded bays, and those are the days I dream of during the doldrums of winter. There is a reason the famous Ely author and environmental advocate Sigurd Olson wrote so much about his love of canoeing, saying that:

There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace.

Being a good hiker will take you more places.

In the U.S., wilderness canoe-camping is mostly limited to the north woods of Minnesota. Sure, there are perhaps a few other viable options and numerous opportunities in Canada, but overall there are way more accessible hiking trails and destinations if you’re traveling around the world. Ok, water covers 71% of the earth, but good luck getting your canoe on a plane. If I’m going to Nepal or Iceland, rest assured I’ll be hiking and not canoe-camping.

Everyone must work on hiking trips.

Canoeing is more family-friendly because it makes it possible to travel with little kids and novices. Paddling and reading the water takes skill, but you can still sort of move along and put on some miles even if you have terrible technique. Hiking is less forgiving. If you remove most of the heavy items from your six-year-olds hiking pack, they will still struggle. While hiking, there are no tailwinds or water currents to help make up for your poor technique or four-foot-tall child.

Blisters are public enemy number one while hiking.

The infamous hiking boots versus hiking shoes debate often overshadows what’s truly important for your feet on hiking trips. That is, you must bring extra blister treatments like Moleskin; take off your shoes and socks often– think hourly, at least for the first few miles– to check for hotspots and treat them immediately; wear comfortable and worn-in shoes/boots; and bring a variety of socks (liner, wool, nylon) to experiment with to find out what works best for you.

Constantly wet feet are a given and blisters are possible on canoe trips, but they are nowhere near as common as on hiking trips.

Keep these differences in mind while planning your next BWCAW backpacking adventure and have a great trip!

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments section!

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