Backpackers may camp anywhere in the park that is at least one-half mile from any road or trail and not visible from park roads. Because only the Castle Trail strays far from the main road, most backpackers set out cross country on routes of their own. When doing so, topographic maps are strongly recommended, if not essential. In the North Unit, the 64,250 acre Sage Creek Wilderness is ideal for backpackers. Leave your car at the primitive campground, and follow Sage Creek into the wilderness.
Elsewhere, the Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units, in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, provide variations on badlands topography. Largely undeveloped, these areas of the park contain rough and isolated landscapes. Unimproved roads provide access deep into the Stronghold Unit.
What are the best times to experience the Badlands backcountry? Perhaps spring and fall, when days are pleasant and nights are cool. The months of April and May are often rainy, although storms are possible year round, so always carry rain gear and extra clothing. Fall is generally cool and clear, but don't be caught unprepared for an early blizzard.
In summer, temperatures exceeding 100 F can pose serious health hazards. Avoid heat sickness by drinking water (at least one gallon or more a day), and staying out of the sun at midday. Be alert for symptoms of heat exhaustion or stroke - cramps (especially in legs and abdomen), weakness, nausea, and dizziness. Serious cases require immediate medical attention, as they can be fatal. Hot summer weather is often interrupted by severe thunderstorms, complete with large hail and lightning. If caught in a sudden storm, look for shelter from high winds. Avoid ridges, exposed areas, and isolated trees where lightning may strike.
Only the hardiest hikers attempt backpacking trips in winter. Weather is unpredictable at best. Although days can be sunny, with temperatures comfortably above 30 F, sudden blizzards occasionally send the mercury plunging well below zero. Combined with strong winds, severe winter temperatures make backcountry survival difficult for those unprepared. Hypothermia (chilling of the body's core) is a very real threat. Staying warm, dry, and out of the wind is the best way to prevent problems. Winter backpackers should speak with a ranger at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center before setting out.
Please share our commitment to preserving the backcountry for others to enjoy by practicing minimum impact camping. Pack out all your trash and bury human wastes. NO OPEN FIRES ARE PERMITTED! Fire danger in the Badlands remains high year round, so use a backpacking stove at all times.
All water found in the backcountry is naturally contaminated with dissolved minerals and very fine sediment. Boiling water, treating it with chemicals, or using filters does not make it fit to drink. Consequently, assume that no water in the Badlands is potable; an adequate supply must be packed in. Carry at least a gallon per person per day in the summer.
Dogs and other pets are allowed only in developed areas such as campgrounds, parking areas and along roads and must be kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet in length at all times. They are not allowed in public buildings. This policy has been instituted to provide a greater degree of protection to park resources. It is against the law to disturb animals in all national parks; doing so can be dangerous. When hiking in the Sage Creek area be alert for bison, which may charge if approached. Bison gorings can kill. Don't pitch your tent on or near the bison trails crisscrossing the wilderness area or you may have some unwelcome visitors in the middle of the night. Watch for snakes. Although only one species of snake in the park, the prairie rattlesnake, is poisonous, all may bite if sufficiently disturbed. Digging and/or moving fossils or artifacts from their locations in the ground is prohibited by Federal law. The matter is taken very seriously in our Park. Offenders are prosecuted. Fines range from $50.00 to $250,000 and in severe cases offenders have been jailed .
The park has no formal system of backcountry permits or reservations, but we urge all backpackers to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Rangers on duty can help you plan an enjoyable and successful trip, offering assistance with directions, safety tips, maps, and information sheets.
Because few people use the Badlands backcountry, help may not be close at hand for those who experience problems. Let friends or relatives know when you depart and when you expect to return. Those who travel with a cellular phone will find it difficult if not impossible to get a phone connection out of most of Badlands' backcountry.