I have what essentially is a "Geo-Kit" for any trip we take as a family in Montana, and you should have one too. It is a great way to add interest to the landscapes you encounter. It's also a great way to spark conversation with your fellow travelers, or drive them nuts, or embarrass them, depending on their acceptable threshold of Geo-nerdiness. A warning though, your trip may take a lot longer when every few miles you want to pull over and look at something, imagine the events of yester-year, or drive up that road in the opposite direction of where you are heading.
Of course the first ingredient in the kit is a good map. There are plenty of atlases out there, and they all have their perks and downfalls, but I have become attached to the Montana Atlas made by Benchmark Maps, out of Medford, Oregon. These are recreation maps that are pretty good in terms of Public Land details, Geographic Coordinates, beautiful hypsometric tint, and being up to date. Also as a bonus, they have Alleged Bigfoot Sightings, which cracks me up. It's also a good idea to have one of the most basic tools for Geographic understanding, a compass.
Primarily though, my kit is made up of books.
This is Montana by Rick and Susie Graetz
This is the finest book on Montana Geography out there. Rick Graetz, who founded "Montana Magazine" in 1970, is probably more knowledgeable about our state than any other living person. Rick is a very popular teacher at the University of Montana, and I was lucky enough to take a few of his classes. Rick and Susie are excellent writers, and have produced an easy but incredibly informative read. The book covers the entire state, incorporating Geography and History, and doesn't short-change the eastern two-thirds of Montana like so many books do. It has general facts about the state as a whole, informs the reader about some great Montanans who have come and gone, and is excellent for use in High School and College level Geography courses. Every Montanan should own this book.
Roadside History of Montana by Don Spritzer
Don Spritzer, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Montana, really knows his stuff. This book is exactly what its title says it is. Breaking Montana up into 6 regions, Roadside History of Montana is a historical tour that follows along Montana's roadways. It contains pictures and obscure facts, as well as a superb bibliography. This is also a must have.
Roadside Geology of Montana by David Alt and Donald W. Hyndman
This book provokes more thought in me than any other while travelling across Montana. Our state's geologic history is complex, and in some cases incredibly old. Following along the roads of Montana and learning about the mountains, plains, and rocks around you or underneath you can really boggle the mind. Geologically we have everything in Montana, including mystery. The authors have included excellent maps to focus your attentions, as well as some really great pictures. This book will open your eyes to the massive timescales that precede all of us. It may also get you to start talking about rocks and dirt to perfect strangers or yourself, which may or may not be a good thing. I highly recommend this book.
Names on the Face of Montana by Roberta Carkeek Cheney
Names on the Face of Montana is a neat little book. It's been around for quite a while. What this book does is explain the origins, meanings, histories and locations of the place names across Montana. Including many that are no longer on the map or the surface of the earth. Did you know that Kremlin, Montana is said to have been named because, "Russian settlers saw the citadel of Moscow in the Mirages that appear on the surrounding prairie"? Or that Clancy, Montana is named after "Judge Clancy", one of the most corrupt and crooked judges to ever sit on the bench, well known for sleeping off his hangovers in the middle of court cases only to wake up and make his decisions without ever hearing the arguments? The toponyms of Montana are fascinating, and you'll be spending so much time looking up the names on road signs as they fly by that you'll never be bored on a trip again. I don't believe this book is published anymore, but there is a similar one on the Montana Historical Society's website. I don't own that one, but if the Montana Historical Society wrote it, you can bet it's good.
I haven't even scratched the tip of the iceberg, and could really go on forever. Depending on your interests there are other great resources out there. Personally I also always bring, Hiking Montana, by Bill and Russ Shneider, as well as Rockhounding Montana, by Montana Hodges and Robert Feldman. Depending on what part of Montana you're travelling through or to, there are numerous regional books that would be worth your time as well. Heading to the Bitterroot? You've got to read legendary forest ranger Bud Moore's, The Lochsa Story. How about the Flathead? Pick up Frank Bird Linderman's, Montana Adventure. Butte? Read Michael Punke's, Fire and Brimstone. What books have added geographic meaning to Montana for you?
The takeaway is that knowing the histories and stories that correspond with the places you see, the people you meet, or the ground you stand on, can enrich your thoughts. You'll never look at that location on the map the same way again. Every corner and locale in Montana has something fascinating about it that you don't know. All you have to do is discover it.