New to camping? What you should know

A rainbow rises over a lake.
A rainbow rises over the South Arm of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in July.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2021

Interest in the outdoors continues to climb—camping has significantly increased in popularity over the past few years. That means lots of people spending time outdoors, maybe for the first time.

A recent Reddit thread shared the story of a group of women who set up camp in the Boundary Waters when two other women paddled up and decided to pitch a tent right next to the larger group. The Boundary Waters are a place where folks go to get away. So is it OK if a group comes along and sets up their tent in close quarters? What are the rules or at least the etiquette for this situation? There's a hot debate over the answer to that question.

Clare Shirley from Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte shares what first-timers should know — including her take on a the BWCA etiquette debate.

Below is a transcript of the discussion, edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

A lot of people are spending times out spending a lot of time outdoors, maybe for the first time. So what's the first piece of advice?

We have definitely seen an increased interest. And I think it's no surprise in this in this day and age, there's a lot of stress.

I would say to anybody who is looking to experience the outdoors — whether it's in your own backyard, there in the Twin Cities or up here on the North Shore with us — it's to ask questions, and to reach out, and to educate yourself. There's a wealth of information online.

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But that can be overwhelming too, so if you have an idea about what you might want to try, or a sport or a place you want to go, reaching out to those who work there or live there and asking questions is just a great place to start.

What are some common mistakes first-timers make?

I think there's a common mistake or misconception that what works in one place will be the same somewhere else.

For example, here in Minnesota, we're so lucky, we have many wonderful state parks, we are home to a wonderful national park. There's also wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters. And so each of these places have different rules and regulations or different norms or customs that are appropriate for each. It's important to know what type of area you're visiting, and whether or not the rules that you're familiar with apply, or whether or not there are different ones.

So what did you think of the Boundary Waters story?

There's definitely folks who will enter the Boundary Waters and not understand the rules that are specific to wilderness areas. In my many years of tripping in the Boundary Waters I've never shared a campsite with somebody else.

In my experience, that typically only happens when there's some sort of emergency, you know, like a big storm is blowing up or something and you can't get to another campsite and you sort of have to hunker down with somebody else.

I think that's really indicative of folks who just don't know, and I think very few people are going out there with malicious intent, or are trying to do the wrong thing or don't care. They just don't know.

And that’s where people like me come in. I run a canoe outfitter. I'm located right up on Sawbill Lake, I've grown up here, I'm a third generation outfitter. And there are no stupid questions. We love to help clue people in and bring them into the club. You know, everybody deserves to get to experience our public lands. And so we want to help everybody do that in a way that makes sense. And that helps keep it around for generations to come.

What would you have counseled the women to have done when the other two women paddled up?

I think having those friendly conversations is really helpful. Typically people who are out in the Boundary Waters are happy to be there, right? They're on vacation. And I think a little bit of kindness and generosity goes a long way and just having real conversations with people to say, '“hey, this is this is kind of how things are done here. You know, can we help you can we look at your map, you know, maybe we can game plan with you another campsite to go check out.”

And just clue people in in a friendly way. And generally folks are happy to be to be a part of the club and to learn how to do it the right way.

What are you excited about this summer? How does business look this summer?

Business looks pretty good. They've reduced the permit numbers so there's some fewer people going in. It's pretty steady like past years.

I've got two kiddos of my own so we're really looking forward to getting out there on our own family canoe trip. I love seeing people with their families and kids going in. It's one of my favorite things to do. So if anybody is trying to get their kids out there for the first time give us a call. I've got lots of tips and tricks for kids and canoes.

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