Camping with kids doesn’t have to be hard. Our children have been to the BWCA each year since 2015. As they have aged, they look forward to camping in the Boundary Waters, the slow summer days, and lots of swimming on Seagull Lake. Their dad looks forward to paddling around, fishing from our kayaks or the canoe we rent. People ask us, “how hard is it to take the kids to the Boundary Waters?” and we tell them we don’t think it’s hard at all. Over the years we have learned a couple of things that could help other parents and we thought we’d share them.
When is the best time of year to camp in the BWCA with young kids?
In our experience, the best time of year to take a young family to the BWCA has been the end of July or the beginning of August. The mosquitos aren’t as bad as earlier in the year and the nights are warmer. We did find a mosquito net that we hung with a clothesline between a few trees which helped protect the kids. A tarp on the ground and the netting created a bug-free area the kids called the “living room” to eat breakfast or hide during peak mosquito times. But the last few years we haven’t needed it because the kids are older and can handle the bugs.
That’s dependent on your family, skill level, and goals. At:
- 3 to 6 years old: 3 nights was about the most the kids could do easily.
- 5 to 8 years old they were still having fun on day 4.
- 8 to 11 years old on day five they were not ready to head home. They had just mastered kayak emergency exits and how to get back in the kayaks with different water entry strategies. Truthfully, we adults weren’t ready either.
It’s been fun to watch them grow in their love for the BWCAW camping.
How do I plan a camping trip with kids?
Let’s talk about camping hacks with kids because every parent has a dream about how camping is going to go and these hacks are what made it happen for us:
Hack #1: Ask for help. The biggest camping hack with kids we can give you is to contact Deb and the gang at Seagull Outfitters. The team will help you buy your BWCA permits, rent canoe and camping equipment, and pick your trip dates.
Hack #2: Customize your canoe trip to your family’s needs. Seagull Outfitters can help you plan a customized canoe and camping trip to ensure you have a great trip at your experience level. They can tell you where to go camping with kids on Seagull Lake and Saganaga Lake. They know which spots have shallow sandy beaches that are perfect for little legs and which ones to avoid with high cliffs or steep drop-offs. Let them help you pick a few spots that fit your needs and then you just need a little luck to find one of them that is open. (No, you can’t reserve a camping site.)
Hack #3: Uber to and from your campsite. Not really, but doesn’t that sound relaxing? In our first few years, the outfitters arranged a canoe launch and tow service to take us to our campsite inside the motor area of Seagull Lake. We basically Ubered to our campsite and we’re not ashamed to share that. (Camp smart, not hard.) We arrived at our campsite, unloaded, and set up camp while the kids had a snack. Then we taught the kids about the canoe, sitting in the middle, about its balance, and got to fishing right away. For your first few canoe trips, you don’t have to be hardcore and do it all yourself. It’s supposed to be fun and taking advantage of a BWCA tow service is a simple step to starting your first experience outright. Also, if your first campsite choice has campers in it, you can motor to choice number two without exhausting yourself or the other paddlers.
The best part is they will pick you up too. Schedule a pick-up and be sure that you are ready to go when the duck boat arrives as they are on a tight schedule of pick-ups and drop-offs. Load your stuff and enjoy the ride on your way back to the landing.
Hack #4: Packing camp food can be tricky. Seagull Outfitters has a menu for you to choose your meals from that will make it extremely easy. We also take simple food along that only needs water to make, like instant oatmeal packets, granola bars, trail mix, tuna pouches. Camp-ready meals from Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House are good as well.
Hack #5: Skip the toys. We bought a special camping sleep “buddy” that likes to sleep in the woods (just in case he went missing while we camped). All of the best buddies stayed home to take care of all of the toys while we were gone, like Woody in Toy Story. A new buddy arrived at camp the first day and didn’t leave the sleeping bag. The new buddy also brought an explorers kids kit. The kit included a whistle (that they kept on the entire trip), mini binoculars, compass, magnifying glass, a net, and containers for catching frogs and bugs. The children were so busy being adventurers that they didn’t have time to be bored.
Hack #6: Pack light! Three sets of clothes and one set of jammies are all you really need. Some people like to change every day. We are camping and probably won’t see anyone for the next few days. We don’t want to carry the weight of a suitcase for a 3-4 night canoe trip. Plus, last we check there weren’t any fashion shows scheduled. Let the kids get dirty. Better yet, try to outdo the kids.
We keep one pair of clean clothes for each person in a zip lock or dry bag in the pack to make sure it stays dry. The kids wear the same clothes each day until they are beyond dirty. Have a set of clothes for everyone that stays in the vehicle at the outfitters. Once you return to the outfitters the clean clothes are retrieved from the car and you are offered a hot shower and clean towels. It’s wonderful to clean up before the drive home.
Hack #7: The Catamaran Canoe. If you’re worried about canoeing with kids, this is a great option. It’s also perfect for families with more than three people because it provides space and stability. If you have questions about this canoe, call Seagull Outfitters at 218-388-2216.
The camping with kids checklist
Trying to determine what to take camping with kids can be a bit daunting. We started packing with this ultimate canoe and camping packing list for adults and applied many of the same things to the little campers. Kids don’t need much more than what you are already packing. Below are a few things that made camping with kids a bit easier:
- Lifevest and surfing swimsuits We know it’s on the other list but it is number one so we are listing it again. Bring a kid’s life vest that they like. It makes it easier to get them in it and stay in it while swimming, canoeing, or playing near the water. The strap between their legs can rub little legs raw, so we recommend you buy a swimsuit that has board shorts and a surf shirt. If your kid looks like they are ready to bike the Tour de France they are dressed correctly. We recommend this because life vests rub armpits, chins, thighs, etc. raw. Bring salve to treat raw skin. Also, sunblock can sting raw patches of skin and cause lots of tears. We found large waterproof bandages were a good thing to have on hand if chafing occurs to wear under their suits or life vests.
- Water Rules Please make sure you have discussed water rules with your kids before you arrive. We have a rule that the vest is on even if you’re just sitting down by the lake.
- A real sleeping bag. Sleeping bags with cartoon characters typically aren’t warm enough and not waterproof. Check the temperature rating of the sleeping bags for the entire family and look for waterproof sleeping bags.
- Rent a sleeping mat from the outfitter for everyone or buy your own. The sleep mats keep you warm and off the ground a little bit. If it rains you and your sleeping bag have a better chance of staying dry.
- Swim shoes and old tennis shoes are recommended even when swimming because you never know where a fishing hook will show up. We don’t bring sandals because they provide prime access to little feet for those pesky mosquitoes. Instead, we plan one final trip for last year’s gym shoes. We spray the shoes each night with repellent (not the swim shoes or any that goes in the lake) and let them dry overnight so they are ready in the morning.
- Kids waterproof sunblock to prevent burns and sunburn cream with lidocaine just in case.
- Kid headlamps with the strap that goes over the top of their head as well as around their head. You won’t have an upset tot because the lamp falls over their eyes (like we did the first year) and most importantly won’t be blinded over and over by dropped flashlights.
- Crystal light or other powder to flavor the lake water. Some kids don’t care about drinking water from a lake that’s been filtered through a pump. Some youngsters gag. The powders are lightweight and make life easier while ensuring the kids are hydrated. We look for things with electrolytes.
- A water bottle for each family member on the canoe trip. We like Nalgene water bottles because they screw onto the water pump and the kids can fill the bottles themselves.
- Pain reliever. We brought a pain reliever last year as it was our kid’s first year paddling the kayaks and canoe. They had sore muscles like their parents and it alleviated the pain until we got moving each day.
- Mosquito bite stick. Do they work? Meh. Your guess is as good as ours. Do they 100% make your kids think they work? Yup. Each kid gets their own bite stick and it’s tied to their backpack inside the front pouch so it doesn’t get lost.
What to do camping with kids?
Explore! Every part of camping is an adventure so it’s not too hard to accomplish. Teach them how to cook, start the fire, signal with their compass, look through binoculars, make a loon call with their hands, spot turtles, the list goes on.
Last year, camping in Boundary Waters allowed the kids to expel energy from the moment their eyes opened until they crashed each night. The kids lived in their swimsuits and before the first cup of coffee was sipped they were in the lake swimming, fishing, looking for painted turtles and frogs, arguing with the beaver that would slap her tail on the water’s surface, kayaking, or learning to operate a canoe together. They were so busy exploring and being kids and it was wonderful to let them, for lack of a better description, become one with nature.
Each day we would pack a lunch and paddle our kayaks and canoe out into Seagull Lake to fish, find an empty campsite to explore, a path to follow, spy on the wildlife, or find a sandy beach to rest and swim. We’d watch the weather and time our day trips to have us back to camp before dark. Most days the children would paddle two to five miles in the kayaks while my husband and I paddled a canoe with a pack full of emergency gear, snorkel equipment, water, and most importantly: snacks.
By the time dinner dishes were done so were the kids. They would crash and sleep well past their normal wake-up times each day. This left us time to sit by the fire in the morning to read and enjoy a cup of coffee in the quiet of the forest morning. At night we watched the sunset with a cocktail and minded our bobbers on the water. We didn’t expect to have all this time on our hands. We were looking for things to do while the kids slept and spent a lot of time playing cribbage.
What other things do you need to know about camping in the Boundary Waters? The Seagull Outfitters site has a lot of things ready for you. Below are videos, pages, and downloads to help you get started. We highly recommend watching the videos with your kiddos. The videos teach you and your kids about the Leave No Trace principles. You want to teach your kids how to protect the forest and how to leave the forest at the end of the trip.
- The Boundary Waters for First-Timers Guide
- BWCA Training Videos & Documentation from the US Forest Service and Other Sources
- [Video] Visiting the Superior National Forest – BWCAW Part 1
- [Video] Visiting the Superior National Forest – BWCAW Part 2
- [Video] Visiting the Superior National Forest – BWCAW Part 3
- [Video] Leave No Trace Video by Friends Of The BWCAW
- Read the full details of Leave No Trace Principles
- Download the Rules & Regulations
- BWCA Permits and Quetico Permits
- Complete Canoe Outfitting Packages
- Canoe Rentals
- Food and Canoe Packages
- Partial Outfitting
- Menu Choices
- Seagull Canoe Outfitters Policies and Terms
- Online BWCA reservations and inquiry form
- Take our Advice
- Family canoe trips
- Catamaran Canoe