If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my outdoor experiences, it’s that I need relatively few gizmos, gadgets, gear, and clothing to feel happy and at home in the wilderness.
However, here’s the caveat: those few items I need must be good quality, functional, and intentional!
I cannot frequently have my gear breaking or clothing falling to pieces on me out in the Boundary Waters, or any other camping situation for that matter. There’s nothing that can ruin a trip quite like a broken shoe, paddle, or tent, which is why I invest in quality gear that will last a lifetime.
Another word you could use is efficient. It’s important to streamline your essentials. If your Jet Boil can double as your camp mug, kudos! Can your sweatshirt also be used as a pillow? Look for ways to consolidate functionality.
During my last BWCA trip, I forgot to bring my shampoo bar. By day 5, I was realizing what a big difference washing my hair made in my overall happiness. While bringing along something like a shampoo bar may seem extra (kiddos probably don’t care about it), it has a large upside when it comes down to my experience, especially as a gal with long hair.
For you, this could be a camp pillow or a pair of shoes specifically to be worn around the campsite.
Next time you’re out camping, analyze which little tweaks might make your experience better and hone your essentials list to reflect that.
Your essentials will be different than mine but if you’re just getting started or curious about what I deem essential I will break it down into 3 categories: Gear, Hygiene, and Clothing. All of my specific items will be linked for you too!
*Arlo also wanted me to share her BWCA camping essentials in case you’ve got an adventure dog at home. Read to the end to see what’s inside her doggie backpack.
Let’s start with my essential gear!
In my opinion, the most essential piece of gear is a good pack paired with a dry bag to go inside. For overnight trips, I like to pack my personal belongings in my Frost River Vintage Pack and the food/cooking gear in a bigger pack.
All of the personal gear that goes in my Frost River pack first goes into a dry bag. Very important! Here’s my dry bag packing philosophy:
- Stuff sleeping bag at the bottom (Don’t bother with a specific stuff sack for sleeping bags! I spent years doing that and this system is better! It’s what our campers do.)
- Stuff clothing in next
- Put toiletry bag on top of clothes
- Lastly, put rain gear at the very top
- Squeeze all the air out, roll the top down, buckle shut, and put in the backpack!
My second most essential piece of gear is my paddle. At the moment, I’m using the Bending Branches Catalyst. I’ve used a Bending Branches paddle my entire life and would HIGHLY recommend any of their paddles.
Lastly, I always have my maps with me! Navigating is my favorite part about BWCA trips…nerdy, I know. We give all of our campers the chance to navigate during their paddle trips.
Without further ado, here is the rest of my essential gear:
- 3 Season sleeping bag (Plenty of great ones out there. Mine belonged to my mother when she was my age so I’d say North Face knows how to make quality bags!)
- Dry bag
- Sleeping mat
- 3 Season tent (My ultralight backpacking 2 person tent is this one from Big Agnes but I will always and forever love my parent’s indestructible 4-person Eureka, which I may have stolen from them. Our campers still use Eureka tents to this day because of their durability!)
- Water bottle
- Camp utensil (We teach wood carving at Birchwood so our campers often time use spoons they have carved for their own personal use!)
- Pot with a lid that doubles as a pan
- Sierra cup
- Water filtration system
- Pour-over coffee brewer
- Camp boots
- Paddling shoes
- 2 outfits and rain gear (see clothing section)
- Kindle or paperback book
- Knife and/or Leatherman
Packing for personal hygiene is key, in my opinion. Especially for the ladies, feeling fresh and clean can improve your trip tenfold and taking it seriously seems to be underrated.
Here are a few of my tips (these are slightly more for the ladies):
- Bring some sort of lotion or creme that will help soothe burnt/dry skin and also lock in moisture. Nivea Creme is my go-to!
- Shampoo bars are the best creation ever! The one I use from Siena Soap Company makes my hair feel so soft and extra clean (10/10 would recommend). In the BWCA, you need to suds up and rinse off 200ft from the water so be sure to bring a bucket or bowl of water with you. If it’s mid-summer and humid outside, there’s nothing better than washing your hair after several days of paddling and portaging.
- The only “makeup” I wear while camping is a tinted moisturizer with SPF. It kills three birds with one stone – even skin tone, moisturized skin, and protection from the sun!
- If you’re used to shaving, bring a razor! You can use the shampoo bar as shaving gel if need be.
- The travel-sized hairbrush is not to be overlooked! Every night before jumping in the sleeping bag, run the brush through your hair. You’ll be happy you did.
My Specific Essentials:
- Frost River Toiletry bag
- Siena Soap Company Shampoo Bar
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Tinted moisturizer with SPF (great for sensitive skin)
- Small hairbrush
- Face wipes
- Nivea Cream
- Hair oil (lasts forever)
- Face oil (seriously magic!)
When I’m in the BWCA, I typically only pack one full outfit and then a pair of comfy camp clothes that can be used for paddling if I need to. Over the years, I’ve just realized that I never change even if I have a bunch of clothes in my backpack. Is that just me or…?
With that being said, the outfit above is my favorite paddling outfit.
Here are my tips for choosing clothing:
- Pack a pair of shorts if you think you might want them but stick to wearing long breathable pants. Your legs will stay cooler rather than burnt to a crisp and eaten up by mosquitos.
- Same goes for tops! I like to wear a tank top or t-shirt underneath a lightweight long sleeve. This one from Carhartt is the best thing I have in my closet, hands down! I have it in two colors! On my last trip, the temps were in the 80’s without a cloud in sight and this long sleeve saved my skin. If I needed to cool down I would dunk it in the water and put it back on.
- Ah, Chacos…I actually hate my current Chacos because my big fat toe is too big to fit through the toe strap. I need a new pair but that’s beside the point. The point is, Chacos or Tevas are great shoes for canoeing because they dry quickly!
- Wear a hat! Always wear a hat. Or at least have a hat with you.
My Specific Essentials:
- Patagonia baseball cap
- Carhartt long sleeve
- Tank top/t-shirt
- Prana pants (I have these in three colors if that tells you how much I love these pants!)
- Marmot rain jacket and pants
- Clean Lakes T-shirt (so soft!)
- Smartwool or Darn Tough socks (the linked Darn Toughs are my favorite)
Arlo’s Doggo BWCA Essentials
Arlo carries all of her food and gear on portages! She doesn’t need much but she does require a few things aside from food:
- Frost River leash and collar
- Frost River dog bowl (so handy and compact)
- Antler chew toy
- Night lamp for her collar
- A blanket for the canoe and tent. Arlo is learning that the blanket square in the tent is the only place she’s allowed to be unless invited elsewhere.
That’s a wrap on my BWCA essentials!
I like to bring as few items as possible while still bringing the items that enhance my experience. I don’t believe that you have to be totally uncomfortable to be in the wilderness. There’s a balance!
I also believe in buying the best quality gear my budget allows and repairing it when need be rather than buying mediocre quality gear and throwing it away when it breaks.
That’s my two cents on gear. I’d love to hear your two cents! Comment below and share on Facebook so I know what you and your people consider essential when it comes to BWCA camping gear.