Reward Comes With a Risk

The lure of the great outdoors is rewarded by the Badlands of North Dakota. A family hike, or a challenging solo hike is more rewarding than we can explain here. Ya gotta do it yourself and you will see.

cattle on the gravel road and cowboys on horses

Finally, a few stragglers were rounded up and brought in with the rest of the herd.

However, along with the wide open spaces and majestic scenery is the potential to catch you off guard.

There’s a reason cowboys out here are self-reliant and well-prepared for any eventuality. Your individuality is what you will depend on.  Go as far or as fast, as long or as short as you want. It’s up to  you. 

Like the cowboys of the Badlands, you need to prepare yourself before you explore the badlands on your next adventure.

It can be a dangerous place if you’re not aware of what can happen.

Prepare Thyself

When you’re serious about visiting the North Dakota Badlands, don’t make these mistakes:


#1 Mistake: Not enough water

Beautiful Badlands ND focuses much of its photo gallery on Bison. Here, a Bison herd drinks, young bison calf drinks from the Little Missouri River.

Just because bison drink the water does not mean it is safe for you to drink. Bring your own.

Water is critical.  Without it, your muscles will not work, your lungs will not work and your heart will work much harder than is healthy.  You will notice the effects of low water when you get a headache.  It’s not the sun as much as it is your body is drying out.  

That’s why it’s smart to carry more water than you’d normally drink. An infinite selection of easy-to-carry water containers are available at stores such as Walmart or dollar stores. Find one to strap to your belt, or tuck in a large pocket.  Our day packs, hiking vests and cargo pants have large pockets where we carry water.

We recommend 16 ounces of water for every hour you anticipate exploring nature.


#2 Mistake: Not enough time

Your normal walking speed around town is much faster than going through the Badlands.

The sun was fully set behind us when we caught the last available light of the orange moon.

  It’s slow going. Estimate 45 minutes per mile.

Trail markers along Forest Service Trails, the Maah Daah Hey and at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park will tell you how long is a trail.  Remember, double it — out and back. 45 minutes a mile on easy terrain.  So a round trip hike of two miles will take about 90 minutes.

The best times of day to get in to the Badlands interior are morning and evening.  If you go too long in the morning, you’ll get into some very hot conditions that are more than uncomfortable. If you go too long in the evening, it will be dark when you return to your starting point.


#3 Mistake: Expecting cell phone coverage

Cell phone companies all have different coverage areas. So, before you go, check to see what coverage your carrier provides in the low population areas of the Badlands. But that’s only part of the issue.

The rugged terrain will block any cell phone connections.  In that case, you will have to hike to the tallest hill you can see, and hope for a good signal there.  No guarantees.

Even GPS can be sketchy in some places.  So, don’t expect to rely on your cell phone for anything but photos.


#4 Mistake: Expecting Metro Streets

We’ve seen complaints from out-of-towners about the roads in the Badlands. 

Bennett Creek Road

The road wanders down in a valley. Sometimes it can be slippery or rutted, so be careful.

Know this: typical metropolitan road signs may or may not be posted — and that includes street names.

Do not expect:

  • street lights at intersections
  • shoulders on the roads
  • space to meet another vehicle
  • available parking spaces along the road
  • consistent surface conditions.



Even roads marked on the map are far less than most vehicles can safely travel.


#5 Mistake: Running out of gas

You’re in a territory of self-sufficiency.  Families in the Badlands do not depend on the local convenience stores to get gas when their fuel gauge says they are low. Even small towns may not have available fuel.

They plan ahead, and they have tanks of fuel at home. As a traveler, make sure you start out with a full tank, and watch the level. 

So, before you enter the region, fill up your tank.


#6 Mistake: Going when it is wet or muddy

muddy hillside

On the way down, we avoided muddy cuts in the hillside.

This can be more dangerous than you may expect.  We got in trouble when wet trails were nearly impassable. A 2-hour hike ended up being 5 hours. Because of the soil, normal greasy conditions  are actually more like snot.  Well-lubricated.  You won’t be able to easily get up a inclinde. That dry creek bed may be quicksand, or some that are normally dry could be deep and swift. 

The good news is the badlands surface dries relatively quickly.  A day later and much of the surface will be less “snotty.” 


#7 Mistake: Ignoring weather forecastsStorm Moving West, Highway 1804 West of Garrison, North Dakota August 25, 2019

While we’re on the topic of weather conditions.  Know before you go.  Start checking the forecast in advance, at least a day or two. It’s a snapshot of what is expected. So, keep checking the snapshot about every four hours to see trends. It’s much more helpful to see how weather is expected to evolve rather than just see it forecast at one point in time.  


We like to use NOAA as a consistent standard — also known as the National Weather Service.  It’s online and cell phone app can zero in on exactly where you want to be .

Two of our favorite functions of the NOAA weather app are the Hourly Weather Forecast and the National Digital Forecast Database.

The Hourly Weather Forecast is a graph displaying what to expect hour by hour for up to 2 days.

The National Digital Forecast Database is a colorized map

National Weather Service Digital Forecast Database

The map responds to clicks to zero in on the precise region where you are headed.

with selections for temperatures, sky cover, rain or snow chances, and wind.


A weather forecasting sites we like to use is The Weather Channel

We also like to use AccuWeather.

#8 Mistake: Assuming bison are tame

It happens every year as in this video. 


At Yellowstone, Custer State Park in South Dakota, or at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Someone wants a selfie with a bison, or they want to at least pet a bison. That is suicide.  Bison are to be viewed at a distance.

Even if you are respecting the distance, they can still spook for any reason and charge you.  

Worst of all is when a herd includes calves.  The entire herd becomes very protective and will not put up with any tourist tomfoolery.


#9 Mistake: Running out of Energy

Are you in good physical condition?  If so, great!  I envy you.  It seems as though it takes all summer to get in to the shape I like for climbing and exploring the steep terrain of the badlands.

Unless you are in top physical condition, you will get tired. Quickly.  If you’re going up and down the hillsides, your thighs are going to get a workout. So, when you reach a shady spot to view the landscape, stop!

About every 20 minutes stop for 5 minutes in a shady spot.  Every hour stop for at least 10 minutes.  

Rest is the best thing to regain your energy. And if you couple a refreshing drink of water with an energy snack such as a sandwich or a granola bar, you’ll last much longer with fewer problems.

What happens if you don’t rest along the way? You will get tired. You’ll know you are running out of energy when you fall more often, twist your ankles, struggle going up an embankment.  If you get in to that condition definitely stop for at least 20 minutes. Drink water. Eat a snack.


#10 Mistake: Forgetting your starting point

If you are following a well-marked trail, it’s easy to reverse your hike and find your way back to the trail head. If, however, you are penetrating deep into the public land in the Badlands, you will do well to frequently turn around and see where you have come from.

Some people enjoy starting on a marked trail, and then at some point, venturing off to a hill top. 

So, memorize landmarks.Turn around often and memorize the landscape so you will recognize it when you are headed back. 

One of the rewards of doing that is to be amazed when you see how far you have journeyed.


#11 Mistake: Dressing for fashion not function

Lightweight hiking vests are good to use. Cheap ones are on the internet from several sources. Good ones can be found at places such as Duluth Trading Post.

This is probably the second biggest mistake people make — they aren’t dressed for the Badlands. (Lack of water is #1). 

Sun, heat, uneven ground, cactus, thorns, wood ticks are all waiting to have their way with you. So, lightweight and light color clothes are important. 

Light weight and loose clothing will keep you cool and protect you from the direct rays of the sun. Light color reflects the sun. And as a bonus, makes it easier to see wood ticks.

Sandals are the worst thing you can wear. They do not protect your feet from cactus and thorns.  They are not stable on uneven ground.  It is best to wear leather boots with good traction soles to help you navigate and terrain and to protect your feet from cactus.

And if you really want to be prepared for that “just in case” moment, this blog will help you prepare for the unexpected.

Use your phone as a camera

Oh and don’t forget your camera to capture outstanding views such as this. Click here.

With all the gear tips we shared here, we can’t let you go without a good camera. Like we said, a phone may not be much good out here, but the camera will be very useful!


Road Trip

Finally, if you are not intending on getting out of your car, but instead take a drive through the Badlands you will also need to be prepared.

The Forest Service Map shows most roads and points of interest.

#1 — Take more than one good road maps. Each map shows different details, so having more than one is helpful. 

#2 — Make sure your car is in good condition and will not overheat or breakdown.

#3 — Avoid scoria roads.  The sharp rocks can puncture tires.

Slippery Scoria on Chimney Butte

Slippery Scoria on Chimney Butte

#4 — Start with a full tank and then, keep an eye on your gas gauge.

#5 — Take plenty of water


Share this with your hiking buddies so they too can be safe in the Badlands.


What is the most important thing to take when hiking?
Water. 16 ounces at least for every hour you will be out on the trail

How much time should I allow to hike the Badlands?
Hiking in the badlands is much slower than a walk in town.  Allow 45 to 60 minutes per mile.

Can I pet the bison?
Sure, if you want a bloody death.  Bison are not tame.  They will kill you, especially if they have young calves in their herd.

What shoes should I wear when I hike the Badlands? Leather stops cactus needles and thorns from poking your feet.  Good soles are needed because the surface can be unstable. It’s best to get footwear that is over your ankles to help strength them from twisting.

Ready for a  road trip?

Coming up next on Beautiful Badlands tips and trips is a back road through the Badlands that runs from Beach to Belle Fourche and on to Deadwood.  It’s gravel, wild and historic. It can be impassable.

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