Best beginner’s tips for enjoying Montana’s nature

  • Published
  • By Drew Schlieder
  • Malmstrom Outdoor Recreation Center

Great Falls, Montana, nothing to do. Really? Well then, just get out.


Montana and many of the northwest regional states, and Alaska, are some of the last truly wild frontiers we have in the United States.


While Great Falls is not a mecca for its cultural scene and restaurants, the state of Montana is sometimes referred to as the North American serengetti if you’re interested in seeing the real big beasts.


Don’t forget the Rockies, our state parks, our national wilderness areas and our incredible national parks of Glacier and Yellowstone.


For spring, summer and fall seasons, in just a few hours drive, there are countless lakes, campgrounds, hikes, mountain bike trails, animal reserves and endless adventure opportunities.


Get excited and take advantage! There is always something to do in Montana. But also know what you’re doing.


Basic tips if you’ve not spent much time outside

Getting outside in a place like Montana is wild, there is no doubt about it. So you must be prepared.


The Malmstrom Outdoor Recreation Center has plenty of practice at watching outdoor newbies, so we have lessons learned and we have prepared some basic tips.


First, leave no trace – it’s adaptable to any activity – and it means to plan ahead and prepare, travel, camp and leave no evidence that any person has been there.


Leave a place better than you found it. This means picking up all garbage, foodstuff, cigarette butts and any other type of refuse that doesn’t belong, even if you didn’t create it.


Know where and when you can have a fire and make sure it’s put out properly before you depart! Wildfires are some of Montana’s worst tragedies that can be avoided.


Also, plan to know your water sources. If on river trips, I recommend bringing water. Always filter water from smaller water sources, unless you are 100 percent sure it’s a ground spring. You can always boil water, too. Your best bet to avoid catching water-borne bugs is to always filter.


Know that in Montana, people on private lands can cause problems for landowners and landowners can sometimes cause problems for you. Know where you’re going to be recreating and if it’s public or private land.


It’s your responsibility to know what the rules and regulations are on the land you’re going to be using.


Burea of Land Management lands are usually free. Pull off anywhere to camp and hike.


Of course, make sure you have a good atlas that features topographic maps of the entire state with roads, trailhead markings, trails and recreational opportunities. Make sure your vehicle is suited to travel Montana’s roads, as many are gravel and sometimes require high clearance four-wheel drive only.


There are lots of books on different adventures for Montana. Get books specific to your state and acitivity: paddling, rock climbing, hiking with dogs, et cetera. These books also usually let you know parking, water, amenities, fees and how to get there.


National parks are strict with land use rules. They do not allow pets. They require a use fee. Although, active-military members can get in free if they show their military IDs at the entrance.


For people wanting to get into the backcountry of Glacier, there is a lottery. Permits are required for routes there. You can take your chances of walking into a ranger station the day of your trip, or you can get a permit online before going.


Camping in U.S. wilderness areas are easy. Start at the trailhead, and sign the registry if there is one. Make sure you have your topo map and compass as a backup to electronic navigation and leave a plan with someone in town. Usually groups larger than 12 to15 people are not allowed to go at once.



We’re in their environment – it’s not the other way around. They are more often scared of us than we are of them.


If going to less populated areas in Montana during the early season, remember that bears are waking up. Always carry bear spray, which you can rent at Outdoor Recreation.


You are more likely to stop a bear with bear spray than using a pistol. If you want to carry a weapon, you won’t be stopping a bear with a pistol. Use bear spray first.


Hiking alone is a big thing, and it’s better to go with a group. A strong foot stomp to let bears know you’re around is the best way to avoid a bear encounter. Maybe wear a bell. Do your own bear research.


Also, don’t get between any babies and their mothers. Young ones are hidden by their parents who are getting food, but people think they are abandoned. Most often they are not, so don’t take them from where they are, especially young deer, elk, rabbits, et cetera.


Know that if you’re fishing, Montana requires a license for anywhere in the state. Fishing limits and regulations vary depending on the body of water.


In the early season, worry about ticks. Ticks are in the lowlands right now. Women should bind long hair up. Everyone should check themselves prior to getting in their vehicles and again when they get home – look specifically near hairlines.


Practice the basics every time

Again, leave no trace. In fact, if you’re on your way out and see someone else’s trash, pick it up.


Safety is first.

It's important to carry extra medication with you if you take it and it's necessary.


Learn about lightning: when it strikes and where. Always plan on rain or inclement weather. Hypothermia happens quickly. Educate yourself on water crossings. Occasionally they look easy, but they’re not.


According to the American Hiking Society, always have the 10 essentials: 

  • appropriate footwear (know your terrain)
  • map and compass/GPS
  • extra water and a way to purify it
  • extra food
  • rain gear and extra clothing
  • safety items to include being able to make fire, have light and alert others with a whistle
  • a first aid kit
  • a knife or multi-purpose tool
  • sunscreen and sunglasses
  • a daypack/backpack

Don’t be scared to get started

For some it’s easy just to head out on the road and into the woods or mountains to camp out under the stars.


But once a few bug bites are suffered, a rattler scurries off the trail and you have a moose sighting, you may be ready for more advanced adventure.


Most of all, have fun. Unplug. Go listen to coyotes and owls when the sun goes down and then make your coffee and watch the sun come up in your own little slice of wilderness.


For more information, hours, rental gear, adventure ideas or packaged trips with Malmstrom Outdoor Recreation, contact the office at 406-731-3263.