Smith River Alternative Float Trips In Montana

Alternatives To The Smith River 

Didn’t draw a Smith River trip this year? Perhaps a low snowpack curtailed the float season and now you’re wondering what to do? While there is no other experience quite like the Smith River here in Montana, there are fortunately plenty of other float trips that can be stretched into several days, or even longer. 

Montana is a land of rivers, as any good fisherman or river rat knows. Our rivers are known around the world for their beauty, their incredible fishing, and the abundant recreational opportunities they provide. While the Smith River might be one of the most widely known around the country for its coveted float permits, boat camps, and stunning canyon, it isn’t the only overnight trip in the state. 

If you’re interested in the Smith River, you should check out our Complete Guide To The Smith River blog.

Overnight Float Trip Basics

What exactly is an overnight float trip? In a nutshell, any trip that lasts at least one night and is supported by a raft or watercraft used to haul you and your gear is an overnight float trip. The definition is as loose as it needs to be, and there are no hard and fast rules. Places like the Smith River and other notable whitewater-centric floats in Idaho and Utah have established launch dates, campsites, and permitting processes. 

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But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. You can make it as easy as tossing a camp chair and a sleeping bag in the raft and sleeping on the shore of an island on a long day, or as involved as an epic week-long journey. Part of the fun is the flexibility. 

Any river trip can be an overnight, provided you have a legal place to camp. If the float is only a few miles long, you can still camp out on a public island or a fishing access campsite. You can make it as complicated and intense as you want, or as easy going and relaxed as possible. You can be entirely supported out of your rafts and carry everything you need, or have your vehicle shuttled every day to a new fishing access campsite and keep all your camping gear there. 

How To Plan An Overnight Float Trip  

Planning an overnight float trip in Montana can be as simple or as complex as you want. Want to simply start late and camp out on an island one night? Easy. Want to make a grand and epic trip that you’ll remember forever? That’s doable too. 

The most popular rivers for overnight float trips are Montana’s larger bodies of water – the Yellowstone River, Madison River, Missouri River, and Big Hole River. Choosing which one depends on what you’re trying to do most during the trip. Planning to just pleasure float, or fish hard? Chasing a specific hatch like the Salmonflies, or just trying to get the family out of the house for a weekend? We cover some different options on these rivers below. 

Time of year plays a big factor on most of our rivers. Summer is the most comfortable time to plan an overnight float trip with the best weather and amenable fishing conditions. However, in late summer you can run into fire restrictions, hoot owl hours for fishing, and low water. Go too early in the spring and you’ll have runoff with muddy water and dangerous flows on our freestone (un-dammed) rivers. Fall and winter can be fun, but for the purposes of this blog post we’ll assume it’s summer time. 

For hardcore fishermen, one of the best excuses to get out for an overnight float trip is chasing a specific hatch. This could be BWOs or Skwalas in the spring, PMDs early summer, Salmonflies in July, or hoppers in late summer into fall. Extending your time on the water will up your chances of having one of those epic days when the stars align and the bugs are THICK. Not sure when would be best? Give us a call and we can help you sort it out.

One of the most frequently asked questions about an overnight float trip is where can you camp? Many islands on Montana’s waterways are privately owned, so it’s imperative to double check land ownership before coming ashore and setting up camp. Online tools such as OnXmaps are a great help here. 

Fortunately, many of the FWP (Fish, Wildlife, and Parks) fishing access sites in Montana have campgrounds. The bulk of these are first come, first served and many of them are really nice. Tucked in the cottonwood trees with the sound of the river in the background is not a bad place to spend a night. With some careful planning, you can often utilize these for your overnights, but be forewarned that popular sites do fill up quickly on summer weekends. 

There are other private campgrounds along the river that can be utilized, and we definitely recommend calling ahead to reserve a spot if that’s what you’re planning to do. Campgrounds, especially along rivers and especially on weekends, have a tendency to fill up QUICKLY during the season. 

We highly recommend doing the advanced planning and research to know where you’re going to camp on an overnight float trip. There’s nothing worse than getting to a destination after a long day on the water and it’s full, or for whatever reason you can’t camp there. Plan ahead, have some options, and go into the trip with a flexible mindset in case plan A doesn’t work out. Making sure you are camping on public land or a designated campsite is important, and with some work on the front end, it is easy to figure out.

Another key thing to figure out is shuttles. All our major rivers have shuttle services available, and would be happy to move your car to wherever you need it. While you can self shuttle on these rivers, and try to hitch a ride back to the launch point to get a car, we would encourage you to just book a shuttle and call that good. It’s worth every penny, we promise. 

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Gear For An Overnight River Trip 

Any overnight float trip is made possible by the right gear. Having the correct equipment means you’ll be comfortable, safe, and having the best time you possibly can while you’re on your trip. While the list can vary with your personal preferences, as well as the type of trip you’re planning, here are the basics. 

Obviously, you need something to float in. Unless your trip has rough water or whitewater involved, you can get away with just about anything available. Have a low side skiff that’s perfect for creeping around after picky trout on places like the Missouri River? Bring it. Sit on top kayaks that you use for paddling around the local pond? They’ll work. The old canoe grandpa gave you? Perfect. 

Our preferred watercraft for any overnight trip is a raft. There’s several reasons for this. They’re easy for anyone to row, even beginners. They’re safe. While of course there are inherent risks involved with any activity on water, rafts are a stable and safe platform. They’re load hauling machines. Rafts are easier and safer to load up with all the gear you need for an overnight trip. Their layout and weight distribution is better organized and more comfortable than trying to fill up a hard boat with gear. 

We are proud to offer NRS Slipstream raft packages for rent, learn about them and reserve yours here. These boats are mission built to be incredible fishing machines, and they double as load-hauling workhorses as well. Their design is sleek for easy rowing, and drafts very little water to get sneaky in those tight places (which is also handy during low water conditions). The rigid floor makes for an excellent platform to stand on, as well as making packing a breeze. 

These boats come fully equipped with a fishing frame, oars, a bear-proof cooler, a dry box, life jackets, and a first aid kit. Each rental is ready to rock, inflated on a trailer. Simply pick it up and go. If you don’t own a raft, this is a great option. If you’re traveling from out of state, we can put together a package with a raft rental and a vehicle rental to get you where you need to go. Check out our full fleet of adventure vehicles here.

Have questions about our rental gear? Reach out! We want to hear from you. 

While each trip is different and not every one of them is going to be focused on fishing, we believe that having the right tool for a dedicated hardcore fishing trip is better than trying to fish out of a pleasure raft. Many of these trips can be tailored around hatches, fishing seasons, or pursuing that one true “fish of a lifetime” and the right boat can make a world of difference. 

Once you have your vessel figured out, it’s time to start packing. The next major item is shelter. You can make this as complicated as you’d like, or keep it light and easy. Packing shelter entirely depends on the conditions and weather of your trip. If you’re going during the shoulder seasons, a large canvas wall tent and stove might be the ticket. Watching snow fall is a lot more fun when you’re warm and comfy sitting around a roaring stove in your shirt sleeves. This setup does take a lot of room and weight, but is worth it when the conditions demand.

A tarp is a must on river trips. Not only will it shield you from any inclement weather in camp, but it can provide needed shade in campsites devoid of trees. A tarp doesn’t take up much space, and is just one of those items that should always be in your kit. Bring along a length of rope to guy out the tarp as needed as well. You’d be surprised how handy rope can be on a river trip.

Backpacking tents work very well for overnight float trips, as they work great, are lightweight, and easy to stash in the raft during the day. You might be tempted to just bring a tarp and sleep under the stars. The mosquitoes would be delighted to hear that. If you’re after a more airy sleep system, a mesh tent might be the best option. 

If you’re tight on space or just don’t want to bother with bringing tents, there is another option. Plan a trip where each night ends at a fishing access site and have your vehicle shuttled there. If you’re in one of our camper equipped vehicles you can simply secure your raft for the night, move the truck to an open campsite, pop the top and sleep like a king. 

Speaking of sleep systems, if you bring a down sleeping bag be ABSOLUTELY SURE to pack it in a 100% waterproof stuff sack. Things on a river trip have a way of getting wet and a wet down bag is basically useless. A waterproof stuff sack packed in a waterproof duffel is a great way to keep things dry. You should make efforts to keep your synthetic bag dry as well, but it’s more important with down. 

Packing clothing and personal items also depends on the weather. Remember that no matter the season, you are still in Montana and things can change in a heartbeat. For any overnight trip, it’s advisable to have your bases covered with something that’s comfortable and cool for hot weather, something to keep you warm in the morning and night, and something to keep you dry when the inevitable afternoon storm blows in. It doesn’t matter if it’s 85 in the afternoon, Montana mornings and evenings are still going to be a bit chilly. 

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Food is a key factor on these float trips. You definitely want to be well fed and comfortable – being hungry in a boat is not good. Some of these trips might see you floating through towns, such as Livingston on the Yellowstone River. In that case, you could park the boat, walk into town and grab a cold beer and a meal, but for most of the trips you’ll be self supported. Plus, with a raft to carry your gear you can pack some really good food. 

Camp cooking is an art form, and if you don’t already have the gear and experience it can often be easier and better to pre-cook everything and just reheat in camp. Soups and chili are always good options, and just require a few minutes in a pot on the stove to be ready to eat. Frozen meals that are vacuum sealed and placed in a pot of hot water are nice, and you can’t go wrong with the classics of hot dogs on a stick, roasted over the fire. 

Making meals ahead of time and freezing them can be nice, as that can act like ice in your cooler for a few days. Packing your cooler properly will ensure that everything stays cold, and you might even have some ice left at the end of the trip. Place the items you’ll reach for most on top, and pack it well to make sure there are no large gaps. A wadded up towel or t-shirt can work great to fill those gaps and hold the cold better. Pre chill your cooler for a day before packing it to help it stay cold. 

Since you’ll be spending a decent amount of time in camp, be sure to pack some games and entertainment. A frisbee and a pack of cards can go a long way, especially with kids along. A good book and a hammock by the river is a excellent use of time too. These trips are a great way to decompress and truly relax from the craziness of modern life. 

Packing firewood is a good idea as well. You can’t always count on your campsite having wood available. However – BE ABSOLUTELY SURE that you are containing your campfire in a fire pit or ring and always follow fire restrictions. When you’re done with the campfire, always make sure that it is dead out.  

The Great Rivers Of Montana 

Montana is blessed with some of the most incredible rivers in the country. We have such a variety of water, from big, gentle rivers to small, tight fast streams. You could float and fish a new piece of water every day and not run out for decades. It can be overwhelming to consider! Below are a few of our favorites. Not seeing a river or stretch of water you have questions on? Let us know! We’re happy to discuss some options for you.

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Yellowstone River Overnight Float Trip

As the longest freestone, un-dammed river in the Lower 48, the Yellowstone River is of course high on the list of anglers and floaters from around the world. From its headwaters deep within Yellowstone National Park it holds incredible views, great fishing, and fabled waters along its length. The bulk of the fly fishing traffic and most of the floating traffic is centralized from the town of Gardiner on the northern end of Yellowstone Park downstream to Big Timber, a stretch of water that covers many types of fishable water. 

There are many different floats available on the Yellowstone River, from day trips to quick overnights to longer, week-long trips. Keep in mind that none of this is remote – it’s not the Smith River. You will be floating through people’s backyards, alongside river mansions, and development through Paradise Valley. The highway is never that far away, and you will hear some road noise. However – you’ll still find peace and quiet and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better view on any river. 

The most popular stretches of the Yellowstone River are generally broken up into sections. Above Yankee Jim Canyon gives you access to some good water below the town of Gardner, but there isn’t much for camping here. Yankee Jim has some technical rapids that can be require more care and attention on the oars than anywhere else on the river. 

Carbella Bridge and boat ramp are immediately below the canyon and is a great spot to start your Paradise Valley float. There are boat ramps and access points every few miles all the way down the valley, giving you lots of choices to mix up your float days. While there are some islands that are publicly accessible, most are privately owned and do not allow camping. Be sure to check your map and/or app carefully. Most of the access points in Paradise Valley have camping, but being first come first serve it fills up quickly. 

Below Livingston, the number of fish gets smaller, but the overall size of fish gets larger. This is a great stretch of river later in the year, as the ag fields lining the river hold many, many hoppers. Boat traffic thins out here as well, as do the number of boat ramps and access points. You can keep going down the Yellowstone River all the way to its confluence with the Missouri River if you wished, but the prime trout water begins to run out around the town of Big Timber. 

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Madison River Overnight Float Trip 

The Madison River also flows from the depths of Yellowstone National Park, but heads west toward Hebgen Lake, through a narrow mountain pass, and down through the Madison Valley. The Madison River is incredibly well known in fly fishing circles, and for good reason. The fact that most of the river is a tailwater means it has consistent flows much of the year, and is home to some of the most famous and prolific hatches in the state. 

Overnight float trips on the Madison River are somewhat limited, as the only camping you’ll find available is at fishing access sites. As these are first come, first served, you run the risk of not securing a site on busy weekends. With some forethought and planning this can be resolved pretty easily. 

The river has many fishing accesses that allow overnight camping, and hopscotching your way down the river enjoying the scenery and fishing is a great way to spend a couple days. Lyon’s Bridge is a great starting point, and the many ramps below that to town generally offer camping. It’s entirely possible to take 2-3 days or more to work your way down the Madison Valley and carefully fish this incredible river. 

Ennis Lake separates the Upper and Lower Madison, and the two bodies of water are reasonably different. Bear Trap Canyon is a popular whitewater float, with some quite technical and impressive rapids offering even experienced oarsmen a run for their money. If you don’t feel like messing with that, putting in at Warm Springs puts you in a great spot to have a several day float. The Lower Madison from Warm Springs to Black’s Ford is a very, very popular spot for recreational floaters and tubers and as such can be quite busy on summer weekends. This piece of water tends to warm up more quickly than other rivers in the state, so be sure to check for fishing restrictions from mid July onwards. 

Below Black’s Ford there isn’t much for boat ramps, but Grey Cliff (which is about halfway to the confluence with the Missouri at Three Forks) has a very pleasant camp ground that lets you cut your day in half nicely. There is some scattered public land as well, just make double sure you are on public before pulling over and setting up camp.  

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Upper Missouri River Overnight Float Trip 

The Upper Missouri River forms in Three Forks, with the confluence of the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson Rivers. From there it flows north toward Canyon Ferry Reservoir and Helena. Given a series of impoundments and reservoirs, this stretch of river is challenging to string together an overnight trip. However, below Holter Dam is one of the finest pieces of trout water in the entire country. 

The Missouri River through Craig and the canyon below that is basically a large spring creek. It has one of the highest density of trout in the state and is world renowned for its picky trout, epic hatches, and incredible fishing. If you’re a hard core angler looking for a trout focused trip, this is the place for you. 

The Missouri River from Holter Dam way down to the town of Cascade has the best trout water. Below Cascade the river gets muddier and warmer, and holds less trout. The almost eight miles of river from the dam to Craig winds through a scenic valley, and this is the most popular float on the river. For most of the summer, you’ll find lots of guide boats here, and for a good reason. 

Below Craig for almost 20 miles the river cuts through a deep canyon that almost reminds one of the Smith River at times. Casting to rising trout nestled up against a several hundred foot tall cliff is an experience for sure. Below the Hardy Bridge, the river flows out into the plains, offering some great vistas back at the mountains. 

Not only does the incredible fishing make this a really fun float, but the availability of fishing accesses and campsites lets you stretch this one out as long as you want. The town of Craig is a great stop for a quick bite, some hot flies, and a cold beverage but be sure to stock up on food and drinks as services are limited until Cascade. Be sure to grab a burger at the Deadwood in downtown Cascade before leaving though. 

The Missouri River here is a very easy float to row, even for beginners. Wind might be your biggest challenge, but for rough water you don’t have much to worry about. Just give everyone lots of space, soak it up, and enjoy the float. 

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White Cliffs Of the Missouri River Overnight Float Trip

The White Cliffs of the Missouri River are one of the more well known float trips that aren’t the Smith River. The White Cliffs are part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and are pretty damn stunning. The Breaks are a part of Montana that many people overlook, and definitely shouldn’t. 

The float is leisurely, without any major rapids or rough patches. For a fun family float, this is a great choice. Shuttling vehicles is something that requires a lot of planning, as the float can be made quite long. As a remote float trip, this is about as good as it gets aside from the Smith River. There is no permit required, and the campsites are first come, first serve. This stretch of the river flows through a majority of public land, so wild camping is allowed – but not encouraged. The established campsites have fire pits (always check and follow fire restrictions), pit toilets and some amenities that you won’t find elsewhere. 

Unlike other floats on this list, the White Cliffs are a trip that requires a bit more self sufficiency. Since you won’t have the option to resupply at your vehicle each night like on other trips, packing and pre planning are more important. Like the Smith River, you will have to carry everything you’ll need for the trip as far as camping, floating, cooking, and fun. Rafts are a great option here, unless you’re doing a speed run in a canoe. 

Fishing on this stretch of the Missouri River is unlike most rivers we talk about. The further down the river you go, the less “trouty” it becomes. However… the warmer waters and muddy, slower characteristics of this river are perfect for walleye, bass, catfish, and other warmwater species. These can be a really fun change of pace from trout, and most of them taste pretty good too! 

One more thing to note – this part of the state is rattlesnake country. Be mindful of tall grass and brushy areas when you step ashore, especially with small children and dogs. A quick check around camp is a good idea, and just practice some basic snake safety to be on the safe side. 

Conclusion

Overnight float trips are a great way to expand your riverborn experiences here in Montana, and anywhere. The opportunities are endless. Spending several days on the river with a beautiful backdrop and good weather is about as close to heaven as you can get. 

Our team is here to help you make these incredible experiences come to life. Have questions about different float trips, how to plan them, or what you need? Just ask! We hope to see you on the water this summer.

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