DIY Guide: Planning Your Missouri River Breaks Adventure

Planning a river trip on Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks

Planning a river trip can be daunting, for both experienced “river- goers” and novices alike. However, it really doesn’t need to be! Whether you are new to planning river trips or you have planned them a dozen times, there is a simple step-by-step process that can be applied to most rivers. So, let’s take the guess work out of planning your next adventure on Montana’s iconic Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is one of the united states best multi-day rivers for beginners. That is because there are no rapids, some campsites have vault toilets, shelters, and metal fire rings, there are maps to help you along the way and its wide and shallow. Furthermore, its perfect for families that are wanting to start doing river trips with young kids. That is why you will find a step-by-step guide on how to plan your trip in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

First, we will go over rules, regulations and free maps so that you can know before you go. Secondly, we will will talk about the different sections of the Missouri River, how long it takes to float each section and the seasons of the river. Then we will talk about group dynamics and how to be a leader, Finally we will talk shuttles, food prep, and what to pack.

1. What are the Rules and regulations?

The first thing you need to do is study the river. Usually everything you need to know about the river will be on the managing agency’s website. By going directly to the source, you will save yourself a lot of time. The internet can be inundated with information that is convoluted and is not always helpful. The Upper Missouri River Breaks is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They will have a general description of the river, maps, rules/regulations and so much more! Make sure to take notes! .

  • What is the permit or river use fee?
  • What are the rules and regulations?
  • Who are the authorized outfitters?
  • What resources are available?
  • What are access points?

2. Where to find maps and float guides?

After you have researched the river’s rules and regulations you need to plan your river route. Your next step is to plan your trip’s time frame. To do so you will need to study the maps, water flow and suggested timeline. Below are free online maps provided by the BLM. The most cost-effective way to purchase a hard copy of the map is by visiting the BLM Interpretive Center prior to your trip. We also have them for sale at our storefront.

Free River Maps for the Upper Missouri River!!!! FREE

3. What section of the Missouri River should you do? How many days does it take to float the Missouri?

How much time you take to float the Missouri River Breaks all depends on 4 things: time of year, water craft, personal interest, weather. Doing the river in a canoe vs. a raft will make a huge difference, especially when the current is slow. As anyone can assume spring flows are faster than fall flows. If your group is wanting to spend less time paddling and more time hiking, we always suggest adding an extra day. Watch the weather! If it is going to be windy or rainy, its always nice to have an extra day so that you don’t HAVE TO paddle. It can be nice to just hang out around camp while bad weather passes through.

Here at Missouri River Outfitters, we separate the Upper Missouri River Breaks into 3 sections; Fort Benton to Coal Banks, Coal Banks to Judith Landing, and Judith Landing to James Kipp Recreation Area aka “Kipp” (miles). Furthermore, you can combine section to do the whole National Monument. It is up to you whether or not you want to pick one section at a time or combine the two most popular sections. Next, we talk about each river section by listing how many days we suggest, what makes them unique, points of interest and their pros and cons.

Fort Benton to Coal Banks (41.5 river miles)

2-3 days is plenty of time to paddle from Fort Benton to Coal Banks. This section of river is the least traveled part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks. Also, this section is beautiful with lush riparian habitat, cottonwood shaded campgrounds, amazing bird watching and winding river turns. However, there is a lot of private property and not a lot of hiking opportunities. If groups are on a time crunch, this is the section that is usually removed from the itinerary.

Points of interest

  • June 12, 1805 L&C campground
  • Fort Mackenzie
  • Decision Point
  • Fort Piegan

Coal Banks to Judith Landing ( 47 river miles)

3-4 days is the ideal time frame to enjoy the iconic White Cliff section of the Missouri River. This section of the river is a must see! furthermore. it’s ideal for all ages and abilities, with ample hiking opportunities, rich history, “scenes of visionary enchantment” and easy canoeing. There are both developed and undeveloped campsites that will fit any group size! Camping is spread out and there is plenty of room for everyone. However, this is the most developed and the busiest section of river.

Points of interest

  • Teepee rings
  • Monroe cabin
  • Neat Coulee
  • Eye of the Needle
  • Petroglyphs
  • Hole-in-the-Wall
  • Seven Sisters
  • L&C campsites
  • Steamboat Rock
  • Citadel Rock
  • Arrow Creek

Judith Landing to James Kipp Recreation Area (60 river miles)

4-5 days are an ideal amount of time to spend on the river going from Judith Landing to Kipp. Wildlife becomes more plentiful and it is common to see bighorn sheep. The river opens up into the “Badlands” and everything gets bigger. However, there are no developed campgrounds. Also, the campgrounds that are available are few and far between.

Points of interest:

  • Council Island
  • Murray Dugout
  • Hagadone Homestead
  • L & C Campgrounds
  • Old Army Trail
  • Chimney Bend
  • Snake Point Hike
  • Nee Mee Poo trail at Cow Island
  • Nelson Homestead

4. Best time of year to Float the Upper Missouri River Breaks?

We find this question difficult to answer because it all depends on personal preference. However, let’s start by breaking it up into what we believe to be the 5 different floating seasons on the river. Below we have listed the floating seasons by their dates, and advantages and disadvantages.

Early Spring on the Missouri River- May 1st- June 1st

Early Spring- May 1st-June 1st – Early spring can be absolutely stunning in the breaks with low river traffic and beautiful spring conditions. Subsequently, it’s perfect for birders and/or people that like to see everything green and blooming. Advantages to spring include: fast current, low river traffic, you can have low risk fires, clear skies from smoke and harvest dust, and wildlife is active. Some disadvantages to spring include; muddy river banks, cold water for swimming, unpredictable weather, and motor boat traffic.

Spring on the Missouri River- June 1st to July 1st

Spring is ideal for groups that want current to push them along and relatively stable weather. Expect cooler nights around a fire and warmer days paddling on the river. Also, spring can be lush and/or dry depending on the season. Advantages to spring include: good water flow, not too hot and not too cold, clear skis from smoke and harvest dust, active wildlife. Disadvantages to spring include; heavy river traffic, muddy banks, more bugs.

Summer on the Missouri River- July 1st to August 15th

Summer can be busy on the river but usually for a reason. The days are warm and the swimming is good. The water is usually at perfect levels and temperatures for swimming. Expect the weather to be more temperate with longer days for hiking and exploration. Advantages to Summer Season include: water is at a good temperature for swimming, the current is slower than spring, banks are nice and dry, long days give you more time for hiking, weather is stable, motors can only go downriver and cannot make a wake. Disadvantages to Summer Season include; high river traffic, poor stargazing, campfire restrictions can be in place and it can be really hot during the day.

Late summer on the Missouri River- August 15th-September 15th

August 15th– September 15th– Late summer can be stunning with warm days and cooler nights. Also, this is the perfect time of year for people that like to rock hound, explore drainages and hike off the beaten path. Advantages to late summer are as follows: good swimming, dry banks, motorboat traffic is low and downstream only, moderate river traffic, and perfect hiking conditions. Disadvantages to late summer floats are: can get really hot, evening thunder storms, fire restrictions are likely, and slow river current.

Fall on the Missouri River – September 15h-November 1st

Falls weather can be unpredictable but the changing fall colors are in their full splendor. Fall is not crowded at all and one can usually have campsites to oneself. Advantages to fall river trips include; very low river traffic, not buggy, perfect stargazing conditions, and active elk and bighorn on the lower river. Disadvantages to fall river trips include; unexpected weather, nights can get frosty, hunting season (wear orange), motorboat restrictions are lifted, fire restrictions can be in place, slow river current.

5. Did you know having a good river crew is key to a successful river trip?

Now that you know more about the river, it is time to choose who and how many people you want to invite. With that said, choosing your river crew is one of the hardest parts of any river trip, especially if you are the group leader. As a group leader, the most important decision you will make is this one.

When picking people to invite, you should know their commitment level, experience, and involvement. You want to make sure you pick people that will not back out on you at the last minute while also picking people who are willing to be involved in the planning. Experience is not a must have but can be beneficial to the group. It is like “herding cats” Be patient and remember to delegate tasks and communicate. Your group should be involved in food prep, packing plans, and shuttle arrangements. Remember, always assign a group leader that will be the point person for the group.

Missouri River Outfitters crew

6. How to do river shuttles in the Missouri River Breaks?

Now that you know how many people are going to be in your group, it’s time to figure out the shuttle situation. When planning shuttles for your groups, you must ask yourself if you are wanting to do the shuttling yourselves or hire a company to do it for you. Below is a list of distances between river launches and the estimated time commitment. When calculating the time it takes between locations, we go off of how long it takes our staff to drive at 65-70 miles an hour on highway and 25-40 miles an hour on gravel.

Road conditions can change according to weather and construction. Please take that into consideration when making your decision. If you are on a time crunch or don’t want the hassle of wasting a day shuttling, we would suggest hiring shuttles. Due to the stress-free nature of river trips, when doing our own personal trips, we tend to hire shuttles so that we don’t have to worry.

  • Fort Benton to Coal Banks- 73 miles round trip at 1 hour and 30 minutes
  • Fort Benton to Judith Landing- 157.2 Miles round trip at 3 hours and 30 minutes
  • Wood Bottom to Judith Landing- 48.9 miles round trip 2 hours.
  • Coal Banks to Judith Landing- 32.3 miles round trip at 2 hours.
  • Fort Benton to Kipp- 290 Miles round trip at 5 hours and 30 minutes
  • Wood Bottom to Kipp- 310 Miles round trip at 6 hours
  • Coal Banks to Kipp- 363 miles round trip at 7 hours
  • Judith Landing to Kipp- 117 miles round trip 2 hours and 45 minutes

7. How to plan food for river trips?

Everyone handles food prep a little differently. We usually have everyone pick a meal. We then combine and consolidate our meals the night before or sometimes at the put-in. I have also been on trips where everyone fends for themselves. In my experience, doing it this way is not as enjoyable. The easiest option is to hire a food company to do all the food for you. Some outfitters offer this while others do not.

When prepping your food, be space aware. There is not a lot of space in coolers and totes.  Make sure to remove all hefty packaging material so that it doesn’t take up valuable space. Remember that your food and water can serve as your coolant. A great example is to prep and freeze your eggs in a gallon Ziploc instead of bringing full eggs. On the Missouri River you must pack in all your water. Why not freeze some in your cooler?

Questions to ask your group when planning meals:

  1. Are there any dietary needs or food allergies we need to be aware of?
  2. How are we doing meals? For example, are you going to do all meals together, is everyone assigned a certain amount of meals, how are you doing beverages, and is everyone doing their own lunch?
  3. What meals are people making? Make a spreadsheet of meals. By making a spreadsheet, it helps the group not double up, it helps with ingredient list, and also creates a little teaser for the food to come.
  4. How are people packaging their meals? As we stated in our paragraph above, it’s really important to make sure people are food prepping to save time and space when on the river.

8. What to pack for an Upper Missouri River trip?

When packing for our guided trips we have used the same checklist for over a decade. The checklist has grown over the years as we add items and/or alter things. Before each trip, we send out the checklist to our fellow river crew via google sheets or word. We ask that everyone put their name by what they are bringing. Note, it helps to send it to one person at a time.

Having one person pack the kitchen box and cooking essentials can be very helpful. However, there are items that everyone can bring and add to the box such as mugs, plates, and eating utensils. Your kitchen box should have everything you need in relation to meal prep, including the kitchen sink, sponges, bleach, etc.

Personal pack list

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag liner (optional)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow of some sort
  • Tent
  • Head lamp
  • Coffee mug
  • Water bottle
  • Water flav. Or electrolytes  (optional)
  • River shoes (no flip flops)
  • hiking shoes (sturdy ankle support)
  • Camp shoes (comfy shoes for around camp)
  • Hat (will get sun stained)
  • Sunglasses w/ straps
  • Raincoat
  • Rain pants
  • Gloves
  • Beanie
  • Warm sox
  • Neoprene gloves (optional)
  • Neoprene sox (optional)
  • Warm night layers
  • Personal clothing of your choice
  • Sunscreen
  • SPF Chapstick
  • Bug spray
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toiletries
  • Big zip locks (great for packing clothes) for the environmental friendly way please use reusable dry bags.
  • Lifejacket (if you have one)
  • Paddle (if you have one)

Group pack list

  • Boats (Canoe, kayaks, rafts, paddleboards, etc.)
  • Firewood (not much to be found on the river)
  • Water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Stove and fuel
  • Tables
  • Kitchen tent or shade tent
  • Chair per person
  • Toilet system
  • Garbage system
  • Handwashing station
  • Buckets for river water
  • Firepan and blanket
  • Sat phone
  • First aid kit
  • NRS straps (to tie boats down and they are also extremely handy around camp)
  • Camp games

Kitchen box

  • Dish washing basins
  • Cutting board
  • Measuring cups
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Butter knife
  • Spoons
  • Forks
  • Tong
  • Cork screw
  • Spatula
  • Griddle spatula
  • Serving spoons
  • Serving bowls
  • Serrated and un-serrated knife
  • Tin foil
  • Paper towels
  • Hot mitts
  • Drying towels (Great for dishes)
  • Cooking pots and pans
  • Extra zip locks
  • Bleach
  • Lighters
  • Dish soap
  • Hammer
  • Repair kit
  • Tape
  • Rope
  • Trash bags
  • Sponges
  • Clorox wipes

In conclusion, anyone can plan for a river trip! after you are on the water all your cares and worries tend to fade. Furthermore, you will learn that the hardest part about having fun on the river is planning. consequently, if a group doesn’t plan well it can lead to a bad and sometimes dangerous trip. Remember, we all make mistakes. Because we make mistakes, it is important to work together and double check to make sure your group has what it needs. For instance, we do a verbal checkoff when planning for our guided trips. Every guide is responsible for checking each other!

Finally, we hope that this guide will help you plan a fabulous trip for you and your friends in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. Equally important, we love seeing people try new things. We are on the river with our guided trips almost every week! If you have any questions on the river, feel free to talk to our guides and staff. They are always happy to lend a helping hand and give advice. Last but not least, Follow good river etiquette, be courteous of others, share, lend a helping hand, take pictures not things and leave no trace!

If Planning a Trip is still too much work!