Mountain bike touring in the Rockies - a British perspective

If you're British, a problem of going on holiday to the States is that most of the time everything seems comfortingly familiar - the people speak more or less the same language etc - but occasionally things happen to make you realise that you are a foreigner in a foreign land. While this is part of the attraction of travelling abroad, it's nice to be prepared for the differences you might encounter. This account is of the strangenesses I found during a trip to Montana in summer 1997.

My partner Paul (who is American but has lived in England for 17 years) and I joined a party of Americans to ride the first part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. This route has been mapped by Adventure Cycling Association and roughly follows the path of the Continental Divide, the watershed for the States. Our tour is already well-documented on the web - you can find background, the route, and at least two trip reports from Paul and Judy. We had a wonderful time and I would recommend the ride to anyone with touring experience and a reasonable level of fitness.


My main camping experience has been of campsites in Britain plus a few in France. This didn't prepare me for camping at forest campsites in Montana. The sites were just areas in the forest that you were allowed to camp in, sometimes for a small fee, sometimes for free. The facilities varied. The most basic had nothing but a pit toilet (though these always had plenty of toilet paper) with a river or lake nearby for water. Others had running water and garbage bins as well.

Water from the lake had to be filtered before use to avoid catching anything nasty from the water. We all took turns at the usually (except when the pump clogged up) soothing task of filling water containers for drinking, cooking, washing up and filling camelbacks and water bottles. The water was extremely cold, particularly in the north. The first night we camped by a river and I decided to get in with my cycling clothes on (including socks but not shoes). I lay back in the water and felt my heart stopping with the cold. I couldn't bring myself to turn over and wet the other side so struggled out with my clothes dragging me down and my socks slipping on the stones on the riverbed. The following night we camped by a lake. More sensible this time, I put on my bathing costume and sandals. The lake was fed by snowmelt but wasn't as cold as the river. Still it took an effort to wade out and immerse myself. Unfortunately I pushed out further than I expected and found myself out of my depth when I tried to stand up again. It was definitely exhilarating.

In bear country - mostly the beginning of the trip - there were no garbage bins and all garbage had to be carried out, unless we found someone with a car prepared to take it for us (see the trip reports for tales of Carl's success in organising this). Overnight everything smelly, toiletries as well as food, had to be hung out of reach of bears. Someone had brought a book about how to behave in bear country (Bear Aware - Hiking and Camping in Bear Country by Bill Schneider) and most of us read this and trembled in our tents at any strange noises. On the second night we saw a grizzly bear with two cubs on the hillside a couple of miles away so the danger seemed real enough.

Washing up was more of a chore than usual because of the necessity of using filtered water and then having to sieve the washing up water so as not to leave food particles behind. These had to be carried out with the rest of the garbage to avoid attracting wildlife to the site and also prevent wild animals becoming dependent on humans for their food.

On a couple of occasions we camped in areas with no facilities at all. We had a couple of trowels between us and took it in turns to grab one and wander off to a secluded spot, ideally well away from the tents and more than 100 yards from the river.

In some towns we stayed in similar campsites with few facilities, and went elsewhere to find showers and launderettes, sometimes in the same place. On a few occasions, though, we stayed at KOAs (Kampsites of America, pronounced kay-way). The original KOAs catered for migrants heading west in the 1930s and they are still fairly downmarket but practical places to stay. They have showers and laundry rooms and often swimming pools and hot tubs. Several of us made good use of the hot tubs to soak tired muscles.


The scenery was wonderful - lots of mountains, snow-capped and otherwise, forests, rivers and lakes. There was a thriving insect population. Sometimes this took the form of flocks of butterflies that accompanied us along the road and was quite charming. Most of the time, however, the insects were of a biting variety - mosquitoes and tiny black flies whose bites made huge red lumps all over my body. We spent evenings covered up to try to avoid getting bitten and several of us wore nets over our heads, though this made eating difficult.

The most exciting wildlife sighting was definitely the grizzly bear mentioned above. Someone saw a moose one night and another of the group nearly ran into an elk on the road but I didn't see either of these big mammals. We did spot what was probably an American eagle flying over Seeley Lake but it was too far away to be very interesting. There were lots of chipmunks all along the route and I found these novel enough. On a section of road near Butte, there were dozens of prairie dogs running back and forth across the road. They would dash halfway across, stop and stand up to look around, dash to the other side of the road, stop and look around again, and when they saw us coming they'd disappear down a hole. I thought they were incredibly funny and cute having only ever seen them in a wildlife park before, but the Americans in the party were very blasé about them.

I had worried about dogs before going but they turned out not to be a problem. Most pickup trucks had one or more large dogs in the back which often barked as they went past. However, we were chased by only one dog (which I think was just being friendly) and I never felt threatened by any of them. As Paul points out, most pickup trucks also carried a rifle and it's likely that any dog causing a nuisance wouldn't survive very long.

We had also worried about the effects of altitude on our riding and as we struggled to the top of the first Divide crossing, I was convinced that I was suffering from lack of oxygen. A disadvantage of having a doctor along is that he was able to tell us that we were still much too low for the altitude to be affecting us, so it must just be general unfitness.


When we were camping in the forest away from town, we had to carry food and cook. We took turns to prepare the evening meal, usually two or more people sharing the planning and preparation. The cook(s) would do the shopping (using group funds) and we'd all share carrying it. We ended up with tasty and substantial meals. For an ideal recipe, the ingredients have to be non-perishable, need little cooking (nobody wants to wait longer than necessary to eat), and be as light as possible. It's good to have some fresh ingredients. I resolved to work on creating some recipes using these parameters for next time since my effort last year involved too many heavy tins.

We also had communal breakfast consisting of individual packets of instant oats with various different flavours, augmented by "breakfast helpers" - sprinklings of nuts and dried fruit. I haven't been able to find instant oats in this country but will carry on looking as they're ideal for camping and hostelling trips.

We each carried our own lunch for days when we couldn't buy anything on the road. Paul and my staple lunch on these occasions was stale bagels, a can of spray-on cheese (which doesn't need refrigerated), snack bars and apples. One day I packed the spray-on cheese badly, and it discharged itself over my pannier. Even after cleaning most of the cheese off, the pannier had to go up as a bear bag for a few nights.

When we stayed near or in town, we ate out. While camping at a KOA a couple of miles outside Whitefish, we all decided that we'd rather not cycle back up the steep hill out of the site that evening. So Carl phoned all the restaurants in the neighbourhood to find one who'd deliver. He seemed disappointed that the only place prepared to deliver was a pizza restaurant. However, the pizzas were delicious and very filling.

While staying in towns, we tended to eat at American diners. I discovered a whole range of food that I hadn't come across before and was much more to my taste than burgers and chips (sorry, fries). One local speciality was Jo-Jos, which are left-over baked potatoes, coated in crumbs and deep fried. Not exactly healthy, but pretty amazing. I also ate several delicious steak sandwiches which appeared to be totally unrelated to the British sandwich. Although they did involve bread and meat they also included chips, salad and gravy. At one diner I had my first malted milk shake - delicious.

I also had my first experience of Dairy Queens. These sell ice cream in various guises including "blizzards" which are several ingredients, such as chocolate cookies, blueberries and marshmallows (as well as ice cream of course), processed together. It's impossible to tell from the names of the dishes what they are, so it's a good idea to ask for advice from a native who presumably learned about them at school. Another first was root beer at Arbies. This was probably also a last.


The roads we used were very variable. Some (about 20%) were paved and these were mostly very well maintained with few potholes. Most of the rest were dirt forestry roads. At lower levels and near towns these were fairly smooth, though they often had potholes and loose gravel. Further away from town and higher up the mountains, the surface tended to deteriorate and could be very rough, stony and potholed. After the initial acclimatisation I began to enjoy riding on these roads. Though progress was slower than on paved roads, the lack of traffic, the views, and the clean air were wonderful. The exception was when the road had developed a washboard or corrugated surface that made it feel like the bike, and probably me as well, was about to be shaken apart. We hit several miles of washboard on the last day, between Polaris and Dillon. We kept moving from side to side of the road but there was no escape. That was one time when I was relieved to get back on to the paved road again.

About 5% of the route was on what I would describe as "off-road" - in reality very rough trails and some single-track. This could be fun when the trail wasn't too rough or too steep up or down. Some parts were very difficult though and involved long periods of pushing. One particular trail went downhill through a meadow ending up at what was described on the map as an "extremely steep downhill". This turned out to be a 1 in 3 track, which we had difficulty controlling our bikes while walking down. I was making such slow progress down, tacking back and forth across the scrub, that Paul came back up and took my bike down. We had been warned about this stretch by a couple who had ridden the trail on a tandem the week before. They had lost their thermarests on it and had asked us to look out for them. We saw no sign of them, though I suspect nobody was looking too hard at anything but the two feet immediately in front of them. However, one of our group also lost his thermarest in the same place (from his front rack so you can tell how much he had to concentrate on where he was going).

On a couple of days in the first week some of us chickened out of going on the forest route and took the paved road for some or all of the day. It was comforting to know that this was a possibility, and, having seen pictures of one of the bits I missed, I was glad that I hadn't attempted to go that way on that day.


We took mountain bikes with very knobbly Panracer Smoke/Dart tyres. I found these tyres very comforting on the roughest sections of the trail. They were very stable and even when I ploughed into a deep puddle of gravel, the bike just ground to a halt rather than slipping sideways. However another of the group, an experienced mountain biker, managed fine with relatively narrow slicks. He was the only one of us who didn't have any punctures. Everybody else had at least a couple and Paul must have had about twenty along with many broken spokes. We eventually realised Paul's were being caused by a badly-built wheel but this didn't help until after we got home and he built himself a new one.

Several people had fenders which could have been useful if it had rained more. It doesn't fit with my image of a mountain bike though so I'll just live with the brown stripe up my back.

After a few days of being bounced around on rutted roads, I envied the people with suspension forks. Almost as soon as I got home, I had some put on to my bike and found they make a huge difference to riding comfort, even when just riding around on our not-too-smooth city roads.

Another modification I made after the trip was to install V-brakes. Some of the downhill stretches were miles long and on several occasions I had to stop to rest my wrists which were aching from the effort of holding on the brakes (OK I realise you're not supposed to brake but I'm a wimp about fast accelerations). V-brakes require so much less effort to apply that I've found I go downhill faster than before knowing that I'll be able to stop more easily.

It seems to be a feature of mountain biking that you fall off frequently. Several of the group ended up with road rash. After years of not falling off my bike. I came off twice. The first time I misjudged the line of a rut and slid down into it. I squealed as the bike toppled gently to one side (prevented from going too far by the bulging panniers) which made the others turn round to see what had happened, caused Paul and Al to collide, and Al to fall off too. My second tumble was more serious. We were on one of the long downhills on a gravel road to Elkhorn Hot Springs. It was pouring with rain and I was starting to be very cold but we were too close to our destination for it to be worth stopping and putting more clothes on. The road had a rubber strip across it, presumably to stop the surface being washed away. Usually the strips were soft and flattened out so you could just roll over them. However this was a new strip and still very stiff. When I hit it, it stopped the bike and I went flying. I had a jacket on so avoided the worst grazing but I landed on my knees and bruised them fairly badly. It didn't stop me riding the next day, but I was glad the ride wasn't too hard and that it was the final day.

We were all well-laden, carrying front and rear panniers, bar bags, and various stuff piled up on the rear rack. Because of the rough roads, things tended to be very shaken about. At the first crossing of the Great Divide, I discovered that the lens cover and some essential bits had fallen off the front of my camera when I'd stopped on the trail to take picture. Fortunately, one of the others stopped at the same point a bit later, spotted the bits of plastic, realised they might be important to somebody and picked them up. It was a great relief to get my camera working again.

Another day, I carelessly left a zip undone, and my front light and some yellow Oakley lenses fell out. Again, somebody coming along later noticed them, picked them up and returned them to me. Both these incidents were especially lucky because I was normally at the back of the group and it was unusual for there to be anybody behind me at all.


Several of the group had mascots. These are all described in Judy's trip report. Judy's mascot, Rufus, is world-famous from references in the mailing list (well-worth subscribing to if you ever cycle tour). Rufus has his own home page and my mascot, Frog, was a little jealous so this short biography is an attempt to pacify him. Frog has resisted attempts to rename him though many people have suggested more interesting names. He is sometimes affectionately called "Froggie".

I spotted Frog in a toyshop window in Thurso at the end of our first Land's End to John O' Groats trip in 1993. He's a brightly painted foam rubber frog with a huge grin. Since my last name is "French" he seemed like an obvious companion for me. Since I got him he has ridden on the back (usually) or front of my bike on almost all trips. This is a picture of him riding on top of my racpack at the beginning of our 1996 Land's End to John O' Groats trip

Over the years he became very faded and has had a couple of nasty accidents. On one occasion on the Montana trip, he slipped round and became wedged between the back rack and tyre, resulting in loss of a part of his eye and some ratty looking tears. I've just finished giving him a respray so he's bright green and pink again instead of faded brown. However, I fear this cosmetic job won't last very long and he may eventually have to be replaced by a newer model.