How to Rent a Car That Will Keep You Alive in Montana

Jo Piazza, Managing Editor, 12/10/14


While visiting Montana, you will most likely be spending quite a bit of time in the car. (Jo Piazza)

During my recent trip to Bozeman, Montana at the end of November I learned just how much time Montanans spend behind the wheel. Everything that you want to do is sprawled all across the vast landscape of the most isolated state in the lower 48.

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When my friends told me they wanted to take me to the most delicious steak house in all of America (Land of Magic) that was just “right outside of town,” we drove for over an hour.

And the conditions are far from typical. Sure Montana has wonderfully maintained highways. It also has plenty of dirt roads. And in the winter, which lasts about nine months of the year, all of the roads are covered in ice or snow or something variation of the two.

The state has one of the highest highway and road death rates in the country. Driving the three hours in between Missoula and Bozeman one morning we saw no fewer than six pretty serious accidents along the side of the highway.

Just a regular day on the road up to Big Sky. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The state’s endlessly variable climatic conditions all but require a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive rental cars year round, and high demand in the peak seasons can make this a very expensive proposition. It is not unusual for rental car franchises to charge over $300 per day for 4 wheel drive vehicles, and even more for those that try to reserve less than a month in advance. Getting stuck with a last minute 2 wheel drive economy car will likely hinder the quality of your Montana experience simply because you will not be able to get to any of the good places that are off-the-beaten path—and sometimes even to the ones on the beaten path.

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You’ll want to look beyond the in-airport franchises for better deals and better rental cars. Independent car rental agency owners are locals who know what cars function well in Montana conditions. Independents are also much more likely to care about the quality of your experience, provide a superior level of service, and might just tell you about that “secret” spot that will turn a good Montana trip into an epic experience.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have met Will Casella ofPhasmid Adventure Rentals during my trip to Big Sky country. Will was hands down the most accommodating car rental owner I have ever met. When my plane from Seattle was delayed until well after midnight, Will left my rental car in the guest parking lot, unlocked, with the keys in the console (it’s Montana, apparently people don’t steal cars). He texted me a picture of the car and where it was parked.

Hertz has never sent me a text like this. (Jo Piazza)

When I had to delay my flight out due to a work commitment and leave freakishly early in the morning the next day, Will let me do the same thing and just shoot him a text when I was leaving.  No one knows the importance of renting the right car like Will and so I decided to pick his brain about what all of us non-Montanans need to know about getting the right vehicle to maximize our vacation experience.

Yahoo Travel: What does a Montana rental car need to come with?

Will Casella: Environmental conditions change extremely quickly in Montana and the lack of cell phone coverage combined with the vast distances can create difficulties. With this in mind, AWD or FWD cars are highly recommended. It snows every month of the year in Montana. Even worse than the snow are the gravel roads in the summer. In many areas we have a very high clay content in the soil and when it rains the roads turn to what we call “Gumbo,” a sticky, slippery, mess that renders two-wheel-drive cars useless. If you are intending on getting off the pavement at all, whether it is to hike, fish, or just explore the right car is imperative.

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Yahoo Travel: Is it true that bigger is better in Montana?

Will Casella: In Montana, bigger cars really are better. If you get in an accident out here it is typically with a very large mammal or a very large pick-up truck. Hitting a 700lb elk in an economy-sized car isn’t going to go well for the car (or its occupants). Second, comfort. You will be spending a lot of time in the car, having the space to spread out your maps, snacks, and luggage is going to make your trip much more enjoyable.

Yahoo Travel: Besides AWD and 4WD, what extras do I want in my rental car.

Will Casella: From November through April you will probably want a vehicle with heated seats. Don’t bother renting a GPS. You won’t always get a signal.  Save your money and buy a DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer. This highly detailed book of maps reveals camping areas, public land access points, recreation areas, and all Montana roads. It is a required tool to find the special spots that only the locals know about.

Yahoo Travel: How is it different driving in Montana?

Will Casella: Driving in Montana is typically easy; roads are well maintained and parking spots are really big. However, there are some things that take some time to adjust to, namely the distances. Everything is seemingly a 1-2 hour drive away, at 75mph. Once your brain adjusts to the fact that the journey is pivotal to the experience, each bend in the road will reveal something more beautiful than the last. Before you know it, you will be enjoying the road-trip experience versus just trying to get from point A to point B. Slow down and stop at the small towns and the vistas along the way and Montana will reveal a sublime beauty most struggle to comprehend.