Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Regulations and Special Primitive Management Area (PMA) Regulations

BWCA Regulations

These are the basics.  For more complete details as well as up to date fee information, check out the U.S. Forest Service Reservations web page. See farther down the page for regulations for Primitive Management Areas.

The following are enforceable Forest Service regulations (maximum penalty of $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail).  In other words, follow the rules to keep from getting in deep doo-doo.

Travel Permits
You must enter the BWCAW at the entry point and on the entry date shown on your permit.  You may not re-enter on a different date using the same permit.  Permit stubs become invalid when the group leader exits the wilderness.

Group Size
Nine (9) people and four watercraft are the maximum allowed together in the wilderness.  You may not exceed the limit at any time or anywhere (on water, portages or campsites) in the BWCAW.

Toilet Facilities & Water Quality
1) Use latrines at designated campsites.  They are typically a short walk back in the forest.  Latrines are not garbage cans and should be used for the intended purpose only. Personal waste items such as cigarette butts, cotton swabs, or plastic feminine products should always be packed out and should never go into the latrines.

If you're not near a latrine and nature calls, dig a small hole 6 to 8 inches deep at least 150-200 feet or more back from the water's edge. When finished, fill hole and cover with needles and leaves.

Bathe and wash dishes at least 150-200 feet from lakes and streams.  All soaps pollute water including soaps labeled "biodegradable” so don’t use them.

Cans and glass bottles are not allowed.  Containers of fuel, insect repellent, medicines, personal toilet articles, and other items that are not foods or beverages are the only cans and bottles you may keep in their original containers.  Food may be packaged in plastic containers that must be packed out with you.

Food and Fish Remains
Don’t burn your leftover food.  Bears love burnt food.  Pack it out.  Dispose of fish remains by traveling well away from campsites, trails, portages and shorelines.  Placing fish remains on exposed rock will allow gulls and eagles to easily find the fish remains.  Do not throw fish remains in the lake.

Fires are allowed within the steel fire grates at designated campsites or as specifically approved on your visitor's permit.  Bringing a small camp stove may be a better idea because it heats food more quickly, has less impact than a fire, and comes in handy during rainy weather.  Due to the potential fire danger, fire restrictions may be put into effect. Check on current conditions just prior to your trip. You may be required to use a camp stove if there is a campfire restriction.

If you build a fire, burn only small diameter dead wood found lying on the ground. It is illegal to cut live vegetation for any reason.  Collect firewood away from campsites by paddling down the shore and walking into the woods where it is more abundant.  Drown your fire with water any time you are going to be away from your camp or at bedtime. Stir the ashes until they are cold to the touch with a bare hand.

All members of a permit group must camp together.  Camp only at Forest Service designated campsites that have steel fire grates and wilderness latrines.  Make camp early in the day to ensure finding an available campsite.

Special PMA Rules and Regulations

All of the above BWCA rules apply, these are additional:

In order to camp in a PMA, you must be in possession of a secondary permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service. This permit is free as of this writing (October 2020). These can be picked up at their district offices where you pick up your regular BWCAW permit. You can call ahead and reserve dates, but you have to pick up the PMA permit in person.  There is not a lot of competition for these permits.

You are allowed to visit PMA’s during the day without a permit; you are just not allowed to camp there. Taking day trips into PMA’s and camping on regular BWCAW campsites is a good alternative. This allows you to take an empty canoe back into the PMA which makes bushwhacking and navigating the small creeks easier.  Less gear also reduces the amount of impact to the forest, as you don’t have to drag stuff or walk through the same area multiple times.  Single portaging in a PMA is very advantageous.

Leave no trace. Everything must be packed out. Do not burn garbage.

Avoid camping where there are signs that others have set up camps to avoid scarring the area with heavy traffic.  You are required to camp on hard surfaces in a PMA, back into the forest from the lakes edge to avoid visually impacting the landscape from the perspective of the water.  This can sometimes be impractical, but do your best.

Use camp stoves preferably instead of creating a campfire. If you build a campfire keep it very small and use a metal pan to contain it. Using bare dirt and burying the ashes is another method.  Remember, there are no fire grates or latrines in the PMA’s.

Carry out all garbage, even toilet paper. Use bio-bags to securely contain the nasty stuff.  Use of bio-bags is suggested, but not required.  You can also bury.

Here is the brochure handed out by the U.S. Forest Service that explains Primitive Management Areas, the complete regulations, and displays the PMA official boundaries: CLICK HERE TO OPEN PDF (requires Adobe Reader).

PMA #1: Weeny PMA #4: Tick PMA #7: Pitfall PMA #10: Hairy
PMA #2: Canthook PMA #5: Spider PMA #8: Mugwump PMA #11: Weasel
PMA #3: Sundial PMA #6: Drag PMA #9: Humpback PMA #12: Fungus
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