Overlanding in southwest Montana.
If you’ve been out and about around Bozeman recently, you may have noticed Toyota Tacomas and vintage Land Cruisers with snorkels running up the driver’s windshield, heavy-duty bumpers and winches, oversized tires, and rooftop tents. The machines I’m talking about aren’t your standard jacked-up, country-boy pickups. This is the vehicle of a new breed of off-road enthusiast, a new paradigm for adventure-travel in the New West.
Once an oddity, the Four Wheel Camper (FWC), built in California and a hallmark of the lightweight truck-camper world, now has a dealer in the Gallatin Valley. Though the price tag for an FWC can run over $30,000, they’re becoming ubiquitous. And Big Sky RV, a business built upon the iconic American pastime of conventional RVing, now has an entire segment of its business devoted to “overlanding,” even going so far as to import crazy-capable trailers. Go Fast Campers are now made here in Bozeman, and I have a friend who’s secretly designing a unique overlanding truck camper that will either be his ruination or vindication.
And this phenomenon is not limited to Toyota 4x4s anymore. Ever since I attended the region’s first overlanding expo in Livingston last summer, myriad variations of overlanding vehicles have appeared, with rooftop tents adorning everything from minivans to Mini-Coopers. (I have yet to see one on a Lamborghini, but this is Boz Angeles, so you never know.) Known officially as the Big Sky Overlanding Rally, the event took place in Sacajawea Park, drawing a moderate crowd of locals, people from neighboring states, and, true to the definition of overlanding, a handful of individuals from around the globe. There were vendors, guest speakers, and professionally taught seminars addressing a wide range of off-road driving and overlanding skills, from getting unstuck to gourmet camp-cooking.
So what is overlanding, exactly? Simply put: it’s like floating a river in a well-equipped raft set up to not only run whitewater but also to camp with some degree of luxury—but floating across the land instead of water. And like rafters, overlanders enjoy getting out to remote and scenic locations in order to eat and drink well with good friends and others who share their passion. In overlanding, you reach camp via roads and trails that often demand a high degree of off-road driving skill, similar to rowing a raft through technical and dangerous rapids.
All of this raises the question: where can you overland around southwest Montana? The good news is, most of Montana is unpaved. Head any direction away from the state’s major highways and you may soon find yourself on an overlanding adventure. There are plenty of primitive camping areas out there—use ’em! Forest Service roads legally accessible to vehicles often traverse entire mountain ranges and you can use these backcountry routes to move from town to town, making your way through the state via dirt. And Bozeman does, in fact, have a local overlanding club. Known as 406 Cruisers, the group is Toyota-centric, but welcomes owners of other brands. Membership is affordable and provides you with discounts at many local businesses around town. There are monthly group meetings and several overlanding trips throughout the summer.
For the more adventurous, try taking a multi-day overlanding trip out to central Montana, through the Castles, the Little Belts, or the Snowys. You’ll find thousands of miles of dirt roads, some which will call out your skills. There are ferry crossings, river crossings, refuges, and public land teeming with wildlife. For something truly epic, try making your way via bumpy back road to the American Prairie Reserve, through the Missouri Breaks National Monument.