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Packing the car is particularly important while driving bumpy dirt roads; Photograph by Max Lowe

Montana by Dirt: Ten Tips for a Better Dirt-Road Road Trip

After countless thousands of miles, including multiple loops through the state of Montana driving both four- and two-wheeled vehicles, I have made a ton of mistakes and planning errors when it comes to dirt-road road trips. This list of ten tips is derived from that misery—and hopefully serves to increase your time spent having fun.

There are countless resources online for this kind of travel, but a couple of excellent spots for supplemental information are for all vehicles and for for those on two wheels.

1. Outline the trip from start to finish.

Outlining the trip from start to finish is a great place to start when planning a dirt-road trip. Often times county roads will go out into the middle of nowhere and dead end into private property or even turn into unimproved jeep trails that your vehicle might not be qualified for. It’s pretty discouraging to drive three hours down a rough road only to find out you have to turn around and do it all again. Getting an idea of the feasibility of the route and making sure that there are options is a crucial consideration.

2. Designate time to investigate you route.

Once you get a rough idea of where you want to go, there are likely many different ways to get there. Try a combination of mapping things out on a road atlas and gazetteer, then double check that the roads still exist and that the maps are accurate in Google Maps. Being able to zoom in on Google Maps or Google Earth will give you a rough idea of the terrain on the desired roads and trails as well.

3. Pick the right vehicle for the terrain and season.

Vehicle choice is another crucial consideration when planning out a trip. A lot of the roads we drove for the Montana by Dirt road trip could be done in a standard, city-going sedan, while others required a vehicle with more ground clearance. The weather also plays a big role in what kind of vehicle you can take, as a minivan might make the trip fine during a sunny week in July, but not work with early snowfall on the road in September.

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The Montana by Dirt team drove 400 miles of dirt roads across the state of Montana; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

4. Don’t be afraid to get out and scout the road.

When coming into a river crossing, a steep rocky climb, or even just a slippery hill, don’t neglect the importance of getting out and walking. There might be a rock buried in the river that will take your bumper off or a big boulder just over the hill that could stop you dead in your tracks. Scouting can play a huge role in your success.

5. Play it safe.

How long does it take an ambulance to drive 150 miles of dirt road? The EMTs might not know either. While playing it safe when out in the middle of nowhere is always the best option, sometimes accidents happen. Be sure to take the proper precautions with things like bear spray, food storage to keep bears away, and a well-stocked emergency medical kit to keep everyone in your party safe. And don’t forget that your medical supplies won’t help you if you don’t know how to use them and that bear spray doesn’t work like bug spray.

6. Pack the car efficiently.

Packing efficiently can save you a lot of trouble on a rough road. Having a cargo net to keep your tent from hitting you over the head on a rough bump or just being able to find everything you need in the dark is undoubtedly one of the biggest stress-avoidance techniques. Maintaining a well-packed vehicle is worth the effort.

7. Bring the right gear to stay well rested.

Driving tired can be a serious hazard on a trip, and being well-rested will help out in innumerable ways. Be sure to have the proper camping gear for the elements and the desired level of comfort. If you are going on an overnighter, a bivouac sack might be fine, but if you are going on an expedition, investing in a rooftop tent might not be a bad idea.

8. Pack food that survives a bumpy road trip.

Eating well is probably just as important as sleeping well. And while potato chips and beer might hold you over for a day or two, it will be bad news in the long term. Try to plan out supplies that pack well (canned goods or proper storage containers from things that might be damaged from rough roads), and food that is quick and easy to prepare around a campfire were welcomed on our trip.

9. Don’t rely on your cell phone.

Communication can often be like going back in time on a trip like this, so don’t expect your cell phone carrier to provide five bars and 4g in Ekalaka, Montana. Planning your route on a phone might seem like a good idea in Seattle, but it might not work. Carrying something like a Spot beacon so loved ones can track your progress in addition to being able to alert rescuers in case of an emergency could be a good investment.

10. Limit and protect your portable electronics.

Lastly, documenting the trip can be a real challenge. Keeping camera gear and laptops away from the elements is crucial, and the best approach to that is to really only take what you need. If you can get away with leaving the laptop at home, do it, but if it’s something you need to bring, be sure to have a good case.

For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all the Montana by Dirt posts.

The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.