PaddleCamping on Minnesota Public Lands

    It's difficult to remember how many lakes there are Minnesota, but it's a lot. Rivers too. There was a time where the outdoor travelers' allegiance was owed to the water on the map. It is the original transportation network. It's a neat perspective to reprioritize water over land while you evaluate your surrounding geography. 

It's also particularly valuable in the pursuit of camping opportunities. Accessing the landscape via water unlocks an endless bounty of camping experiences offered only on the banks and shores of Minnesota's waterways. From national park and wilderness area only accessible by boat, to chains of lakes with isolated islands to the shorelines of state water trails, including the craggy coast of the Great Lake Superior.

 

These camping trips can be multi-day long distance expeditions to the most remote areas in the state. They can also be an overnight paddle in a state park, state forest or water trail; an out and back down river or across the lake scoot to a remote, private and possibly free campsite on the water's edge. They require an extra collection of equipment and skillset, but gain access to more camping than by car, foot and bike combined. This is the quintessential Minnesotan outdoor pursuit, most characteristic of the land of more than 10,000 lakes. 

The final seven ways to camp on Minnesota's public lands are landed on the crest of a wave or the drag of a current. 

17
stateparks.png
nationalparks.png
18
19
21
nationalforests.png
20
stateforests.png
bwcawild.png
22
watertrails.png
23
stateforests.png
nationalforests.png

&

$28    Fee Sites   $16

Standard Amenities

Primitive Amenities

Free Sites

No Amenities 

Here are some maps of paddle camping opportunities on Minnesota's public lands. 

Click the upper left corner icon to open the legend and toggle layers from four different styles of paddle camping, including #14 in the state parks, #15 in Voyageur's National Park, #17 in the state forests and #18 in the Superior & Chippewa national forests. 

Most of these GPS coordinates are approximate. 

When scouting dispersed camping opportunities, determine the boundaries of state forest and national forest land with the DNR's Recreation Compass

Use this link for a mobile friendly format. 

17. Paddle Camping in Minnesota State Parks
 

11 Parks 18 sites $15-23 100% reservable

11 of our state parks offer a cumulative 18 paddle-in campsites on lakes, rivers and creeks, large and small. Bringing your boat into the developed infrastructure of a state park then putting in nearby water is a more comfortable first step into the world of paddle camping. A lot of these sites allow you a secondary approach on foot via trail back to the trailhead, landing or car campground where you've parked all the rest of your gear, in case something has been forgotten or the boating doesn't go quite the way you expected. 

 

These primitive sites include cleared area with tent pad, fire ring, picnic table and vault toilet. Water must generally be acquired from a natural source and treated accordingly. ​These are often more remote and secluded than other sites in the state park system, however some are also accessible by hiking trail. These sites have a fee, being closer to more developed campgrounds and are able to be reserved. The reservation fee is $7 and a vehicle entrance pass is required to enter, park or launch your boat within state park boundaries. 

18. Paddle Camping in Voyageurs National Park
 

344 Sq. Miles 150+ sites $16-24 100% reservable

This is Minnesota's only national park. These 220 thousand acres at the bottom edge of the northern boreal forest are over 40% surface water. It's a destination for paddlers, fishers and houseboaters, by design. There are several roadway approaches to the border of the park, but the area itself, including the entirety of the Kabetogama Peninsula is accessed and traversed by watercraft. Boats of various kinds can be rented from the park if you do not bring your own. 

All 150+ campsites in Voyageurs National Park are accessible by boat only. There are several classifications of sites. Day-use only sites are for temporary landings and are well marked that no camping is allowed. 

 

Front country tent campsites are spacious shoreline spots with primitive amenities. They include tent pads, bear proof food lockers, picnic table, fire ring with a cooking grate and vault toilet nearby. These sites must be reserved. The fee to reserve is $10. You can stay up to 14 consecutive days in one site. Depending on the size of the group and campsite, nightly rates range; $16/night for small site (9 people max) with no tent pads, $20/night for small site with 2 tent pads, $24 for large (18 people max) campsite and $35 (30 people max) for a group site. 

 

Backcountry campsites are more primitive and include a hiking trail approach from a boat landing to the campsite. There are 15 of these sites, all on Kabetogama Peninsula. They may include a tent pad or bear pole to hang food, but always include a fire ring and a vault toilet. These can be reserved for a $10 fee. They must be reserved if staying more than one night. You can walk-in and stay one night in any unoccupied or unreserved backcountry campsite. Rates are $16/night.

In all of these campsites water must be treated from a wild source and all trash must be packed out. Take precautions to keep your food and trash away from animals and be prepared to handle emergencies when distant from services. 

 

There is no entrance fee to enter Voyageurs National Park. Permits are required to camp, and are acquired on payment of reservation and nightly rates for sites.

Campsites are free to use in the off season between October 1st and April 30. 

18 

Minnesota is home to two other water based National Park Service unit designations. Both offer incredibly special paddle camping opportunities, along lengths of river which are also included in the Minnesota state water trails system, covered later. These park units include;

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

1 RIVER, 130 miles  78+ sites $FREE 0% reservable

Along the scenic banks and backwaters of this Minnesota-Wisconsin border river are a large inventory of primitive shoreline campsites, furnishing the basic needs of the paddle camper. Expect cleared tent spaces for several tents, a fire ring and a pit toilet. Often a picnic table. Be prepared to treat your own water and pack out all trash. 

 

Administered by the National Park Service - these are free to use, no reservations able or required. The exception is a southern length of river between the St. Croix Falls hydroelectric dam and High Bridge. Here is a series of sandy, wooded river islands available for dispersed camping, with permit. Available for free from the NPS.

A ten page set of detailed St. Croix River maps, including all primitive shoreline campsites is available from the NPS

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

1 river, 72 miles  3 sites $FREE 0% reservable

The National Park Service participates with state and local governments to protect and steward an urban, wild and unique section of America's mightiest river as it approaches and runs through the Twin Cities. The agency's presence and designation draws well deserved attention to the natural recreation opportunity of the river - including the a tiny sample of urban wild island camping, that's worth recognizing.

For those paddling the length of the Mississippi River Water Trail, these primitive campsites on Anoka County's Foster and Cloquet Islands are the last overnight stop for 75 miles until passing through the Twin Cities on to Red Wing. Furnishing the basic needs of the paddle camper, expect cleared tent spaces for several tents, a fire ring, picnic table and a pit toilet. Be prepared to treat your own water and pack out all trash. Free to use, no reservations able or required. 

19. Paddle Camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
 

1,200+ Miles 2000+ sites $16 0% reservable

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the number one visited wilderness area in the United States. This more than a million acre world of wooded rock and glacial waters contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes with over 2000 designated campsites. Enter with a camp gear laden canoe for a weekend or embark on a long distance, multi-day expedition to the most remote areas in the state. 

 

Most of the campsites within the BWCAW were originally built and are maintained by the US Forest Service. These primitive and remote sites are mostly accessible only by non-motorized watercraft and are on the craggy, wooded shorelines of lakes. Amenities are primitive and include cleared tent spaces, a  metal fire grate and pit toilet. Water must be treated from a wild source, food must be kept away from animals and all trash must be packed out. 

Sites are first-come, first served and cannot be reserved. They are free to use but an entry permit is required to enter the wilderness area between May 1 and September 30. There are a limited number of visitors who may enter via 26 different entry points. These permits cost $16 per person, per entry. 

Many of the sites are included in this map, but the best way to trip plan, navigate and dream about the potential of BWCA camping opportunities is by acquiring and studying from your choice of a series of print maps published by W.A Fisher, McKenzie, or Voyageurs maps. Currently maintained, designated campsites are marked on the maps. It is only at these designated sites where you may camp, no other dispersed camping is allowed in a wilderness area.

 

20. Paddle Camping in Minnesota State Forests
 

1 CAMP  11 sites $FREE 0% reservable

The state forest system only maintains one paddle-in camping opportunity. The Hinsdale Island campground includes 11 campsites on Lake Vermilion within the Kabetogama State Forest

Amenities are primitive and include cleared tent space, a fire ring and a picnic table. They are free to use and are first-come first served. They are only accessible by boat. Water must be treated from a wild source, food kept from wild animals and all trash must be packed out. 

21. Paddle Camping in U.S. National Forests in Minnesota
 

2 forests 220+ sites $FREE 0% reservable

The 18th way to camp on Minnesota public lands is by boat in one of our two national forests; 

The Superior National Forest maintains 175+ paddle-in campsites.

The Chippewa National Forest maintains 42 paddle-in campsites.

These designated backcountry paddle campsites are the same style of campsites you may know from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with fewer usage restrictions and greater availability. The amenities of these primitive sites usually include cleared tent spaces, metal fire grates or rock fire rings and a pit toilet. Some Chippewa sites are more primitive and do not include a fire ring or a pit toilet. Water must be treated from a wild source, food kept from wild animals and all trash must be packed out. 

There are no permits required to enter these forest waters. There are no fees. There are no reservations. All sites are first-come, first served. 

The US Geological Survey sells large print national forest maps. This are great resource despite lacking symbology for all of these remote paddle camping opportunities. Buy one and marker it up with the campsites found here on Minnesota Camp Guide. The Chippewa Forest Service provides online a series of dispersed camping maps including these, though they are confusingly mixed in with car and backpack campsites. The maps on this site have you sorted. 

35 rivers, 45k MILES 4000+ sites $0 0% reservable

22. Paddle Camping on Minnesota State Water Trails
 

The Minnesota DNR maintains infrastructure including 4,000+ campsites along 35 different state water trails that total over 45 thousand miles of navigable waterway combined. Paddle camping on and along these predominately river waterways combine wild and remote camping experiences with the more primary pursuit of covering river miles on longer distance paddle trips. There are opportunities for shorter paddles from a launch site to a nearby site overnight, but the intent of traveling a water trail is typically a trip that is point to point, requiring a pickup and shuttle from a place downstream from the original launch.

 

The sites are primitive, offering basic shelter to paddlers. Cleared spaces for tents, a fire ring, picnic table and a pit latrine are to be expected. Nearby natural sources of water must be treated accordingly.

 

No fees or permits are required for most water trail campsites. There are no reservations, sites are first come - first served. The occasional state park campground or site exist along water trails and reservations and fees may apply here.

The best way to trip plan, navigate and dream about the potential Minnesota state water trail camping opportunities is by acquiring and studying the maps published by the MN DNR. These series of maps mark the designated campsites or dispersed camping areas along particular water trails.

 
23. Dispersed Paddle Camping in State and National Forests

7.7M+ AcrES ∞ sites $FREE 0% reservable

Dispersed camping happens in the general forest area, outside of designated sites. You may set up camp anywhere so long as you are not within 150 feet of roads, trails, water bodies or other designated campsites. 

 

There is no infrastructure of any kind. It is your responsibility to safely and responsibly locate a shelter site, treat your own water, keep your food away from animals, dispose of and pack out your waste and leave no evident trace of your visit. 

 

State and national forests in Minnesota provide more than 7.7 million acres of recreation space, much of it lakes and rivers, along any of which you can dispersed camp, free of charge. Avoid harming shoreline soils and vegetation by keeping camp 150 feet from the shoreline. There are so many designated paddle camping sites this way to camp may be a little unnecessary, but if you do so desire you have the opportunity to seek out your own waterborne retreat. 

When scouting dispersed camping opportunities, determine the boundaries of state forest and national forest land with the DNR's Recreation Compass

 MINNESOTA CAMP GUIDE