Badlands National Park Safety: Right Gear & Knowledge for Tackling Rugged Badlands Trip

by Jon D. B.

Prepare for the ultimate trip to the “Land of Stone and Light,” Badlands National Park, with crucial gear, weather, and wildlife safety.

Ready for colorful, otherworldly terrain and vast fossil beds in the most rugged of national parks? Badlands’ 244,000 acres house and protect an expanse of wild South Dakota territory. Within, bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets roam the prairies while adventurers scramble some of the most fascinating geological structures on the planet.

Each facet of Badlands National Park, however, warrants the utmost caution and safety preparation. And according to park officials, there’s one mistake made constantly by visitors that can save you a world of hurt.

Close-Toed Footwear is Imperative for Badlands National Park Safety

As park staff will ask, Please wear closed-toes shoes or boots everywhere in the park.

Open-toed footwear may be comfortable, but have you seen the Badlands?

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA, on June 17, 2020. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This is not a place for sandals or open-toed footwear of any kind. In fact, the most common park injuries result from falls, mostly due to inappropriate footwear.

Closed-toed shoes or boots are essential for hiking and exploring the badlands environment not only for sturdy waking, but “Closed-toed shoes prevent injuries from cactus spines, found throughout the park, or an accidental step on a prairie rattlesnake,” the park cites.

Sharp, rugged, and unstable rocks are a staple of the badlands. Always watch for cracks and be aware of your surroundings.

Recreate Responsibly: The Right Gear to Beat the Heat

Summer is the busy season for the majority of national parks. But in Badlands, summer is not only busy, but exceptionally hot and dry. With temperatures often exceeding 100° Fahrenheit, preparation with the right gear for your NPS visit is imperative and can save your life.

Also, familiarize yourself with the signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and sunstroke here. To help combat them all, Badlands National Park recommends you bring the following gear for your own safety:

  • Container(s) capable of providing 1 gallon of water per day for each individual
  • Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher
  • Long sleeves and pants
  • Wide-brimmed hat

The following graphic from Arches National Park also does a great job of breaking down the basic gear needed for a visit to any hot, dry national park:

And Remember: Never Rely on Your Cell Phone in Badlands

Park staff will be the first to tell you that cell phones will not work in most areas of Badlands National Park. But any ranger from any NPS across the nation will reiterate the same thing regardless: Never rely on your cellphone as a source of navigation, communication, lighting, or anything else.

If you become lost or disoriented, knowing how to use topographic maps, compasses, and GPS units – especially while exploring the park’s remote backcountry – is crucial. A cellphone’s limited service – and eventual battery depletion -makes it an incapable tool.

Always Check the Weather Beforehand & Know Your Storm Safety

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA, on June 17, 2020. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Badlands National Park is known for both temperature and weather extremes in every season. Weather conditions may change abruptly, at any time, in any location of the park.

Before exploring, always check the local weather forecast at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center upon arrival. The following tips will also help you should unpredictable weather strike:

  • Dress in layers so you’re adaptable to the weather
  • Keep in mind that lightning can strike well in advance of a storm
  • In the event of a storm, seek shelter and avoid trees, high places, and dry washes that fill quickly with water
  • Badlands buttes (made of clay) are very slippery when wet

Badlands weather can be tricky from your vehicle, too, and there are a lot of gravel roads in the park.

  • Keep in mind that gravel roads can be slippery in wet or dry conditions
  • Reduce your speed by 5 to 10 miles per hour below the posted speed limit when unpaved roads are wet
  • Watch for traffic ahead of you
  • Do not drive down the middle of the road; oncoming drivers may not be able to see you

If you are not used to gravel roads, please do not attempt them in Badlands National Park for the first time. The park is true to its name and very rugged.

Wildlife Safety in Badlands National Park: Watch & Listen for Prairie Rattlesnakes

Young Prairie Rattlesnake, a common species in Badlands. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As you’ve probably noticed so far, a certain rattlesnake pops up often in Badlands National Park safety advice. This is because the prairie rattlesnake (above) is abundant within the park and surrounding ecosystem.

Like all rattlesnakes, the species is venomous and bites can result in severe illness/injury or death. To help minimize your chance of an encounter, Badlands officials offer the following:

  • Prairie rattlesnakes typically hide during the day but seek shade under boardwalks, stairs, and tall grasses
  • Do not place your hands and feet in areas you cannot see, such as crevices and overhangs
  • Listen for their warning rattle and back away from their location slowly
  • At night, rattlesnakes warm themselves on paved roads

If you or a companion is bitten by a rattlesnake, the USDA’s breakdown of what to do and not do lists imperative knowledge. Know before you go.

Always Respect All Wildlife: Keep Your Distance

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the Badlands, you’re almost guaranteed to see bighorn sheep. Although typically shy and unaggressive, the species can be unpredictable just like any other aspect of nature. Never rely on “typical” behavior cited for animals. Instead, always give wildlife room and respect to live their lives unimpeded by human influence. The same is crucial when viewing the North American bison that also roam the park.

Wildlife is wild, plain and simple. Our role as stewards of the National Park System is to Leave No Trace. But we’re also to ensure our own safety at all times.

To do so, Badlands National Park safety regulations require visitors to keep a 100-foot distance from park wildlife, especially bison, at all times. Bison can top 30 miles per hour running. You’ll never outpace one, so be sure to give them that room and respect.

Happy trails, Outsiders!