T-Mobile coverage map of the boundary waters

Cell Phone Coverage in the Boundary Waters (Comparing Top 3 Carriers)

Cell phones have become a staple and lifeline in most day-to-day emergency planning. But there’s a vastly different signal quality in the wilderness is compared to the side of a highway. Many paddlers who relied upon making a call for either an emergency or for their pick-up ride at the end of their trip have been sorely disappointed.

Is there cell service in the Boundary Waters?

Will you have coverage when you enter the wilderness? Don’t count on it, but you may get lucky.

This blog post will aim to give some guidance on where you may find reception and where you definitely will not in the Boundary Waters.

Bottom line: Nothing replaces good pre-trip communication. In addition to checking cell phone coverage for your trip route, make sure you have a group of people who know your Boundary Waters itinerary, especially the date you plan to exit the wilderness. It’s best not to plan on being able to make any phone calls or text messages (unless you’re equipped with satellite-enabled devices) in or near the Boundary Waters, including your entry point. It can be good to have your phone as low priority safety measure because cell coverage is a constantly moving target and you may find a bar or two in unexpected places.

Boundary Waters cell phone coverage

Because of the different carriers and ongoing efforts to improve cell signal up north, coverage is not a static state. I can’t tell you for sure whether you’ll get a signal or not — but below you’ll find some clues as to what you can expect.

I’ve included coverage maps below for three of the bigger providers: Verizon, ATT, and T-Mobile. All three coverage maps are pretty optimistic, if you ask me. They all show perfect coverage up Highway 61 to about Grand Marais. However, in my experience and most of the first-hand reports I’ve heard, reception is spotty on the road north of Two Harbors unless you’re in proximity to a bigger town.

Verizon coverage in the BWCA

I personally use Verizon and have not had coverage in places where others have. Most recently at Sawbill Outfitters – I did not have any coverage. I was able to connect to their wifi to send a text (no pictures) and a very slow Facetime call.

Verizon coverage map of the boundary waters
Verizon coverage map of northern Minnesota on August 12, 2021.

Reports from paddlers with Verizon

  • Coverage at Entry Point 25 / Moose Lake
  • Zero coverage on Gunflint after you are over the hill from Grand Marais.

ATT coverage in the BWCA

ATT coverage map of northern Minnesota on August 12, 2021.

Reports from paddlers with ATT

  • Coverage between Ely and about halfway to Snowbank Road (apparently this has improved due to the construction of a new tower)
  • Grand Portage National Monument park staff have said ATT is the best provider in the Grand Portage area.
  • Reception at the top of Jackfish into Upper Basswood Falls area
  • Reception on North Bay, Sunday Lake, and (sometime) Lake Agnes

T-Mobile coverage in the BWCA

T-Mobile coverage map of northern Minnesota on August 12, 2021.

Reports from paddlers with T-Mobile

  • Good coverage on Bald Eagle to Little Gabbro and up to Lake One

Bottom line: Plan for no coverage

With such spotty reports, it’s best to assume you’ll not have cell phone coverage in or near the BWCA. This can be hard for people – whether you want to plan for an emergency in the wilderness or get notified if there’s an emergency back home.

It is essential that you communicate prior to your trip with someone who will know your route plans as well as the date you are expected to return.

If you feel it is essential to have the ability to call or receive a call while in the Boundary Waters, your only reliable option is a satellite phone. The extra security—especially on extended trips—can be well worth it. You can often rent these from outfitters. Truthfully, when a satellite phone is needed in an emergency—in your group or another’s—it is a godsend. There are scores of stories like this. Just know that even with a satellite phone, it’s not straightforward to find reception, especially in dense tree cover.

Another option—not for phone calls but for location tracking—is a Garmin inReach device. I haven’t used one, but many paddlers consider it essential gear. The inReach device will send waypoints at preselected time intervals, so followers back home can track your whereabouts online. Apparently, there is a way to even exchange messages through the device.

I hope this was helpful input as you plan your trip and especially as you plan for emergency communication while in the Boundary Waters.