Health and Safety
Wind, Water, and Sun
High altitude, a semi-arid climate, lots of sunshine, and summer thunderstorms can affect your health and safety when visiting the Black Hills. First and foremost, always use sunscreen and wear sunglasses. The high altitudes of the Central and Northern Hills combined with the sunshine can cause sunburn in a fairly short period of time.
Second, carry water. Hikers, bikers, and others who spend extended periods outdoors need to worry about both dehydration and hyperthermia. There is no water available on most hiking trails and where there are streams or lakes, it’s not safe to drink the water due to mining chemicals, farm and ranch fertilizers, and pesticides. Hyperthermia (overheating) can occur with too much exposure to the sun and can be a medical emergency.
Symptoms can include red skin, dizziness, and vomiting. Severe cases may result in confused or even hostile behavior. Mild cases can be treated by getting out of the sun and drinking water. In more severe cases, remove restrictive clothing and splash cool water on the victim. Immersion in cool water, if there are streams or lakes nearby, will also help. Immersion in very cold water is not recommended. The best course of action is prevention. Stay hydrated, monitor your temperature, and rest in the shade frequently on days of high heat.
Conversely, hypothermia (overcooling) can also be a problem in the hills, though it’s not as common as overheating. Evenings in the hills, especially in the higher elevations, can be relatively cool. If you are out hiking and are caught in a late-afternoon thunderstorm, wet clothing and cool temperatures can bring on hypothermia. Be prepared and carry a windbreaker or light poncho with you when hiking. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, and cold pale skin.
Older adults, infants, young children, and people who are very lean are at particular risk. If you suspect hypothermia, remove wet clothing and cover up with something warm and dry. Make sure to stay out of the wind and cover the victim’s head to maintain body heat. Do not give a victim alcoholic drinks or attempt to massage them into warmth. Hypothermia, like hyperthermia, can be a medical emergency.
Ankle injuries are the most common injuries sustained in the Badlands. The soils are eroding constantly and can cause sliding. Wear good footgear with strong ankle support if you expect to engage in any backcountry hiking. Be especially careful not to get too close to the edges of buttes and spires. In places, the soil is very loose and you can find yourself sliding off the side of a cliff.
Insects and Animals
The West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes and there have been several case of the virus diagnosed in the Black Hills. Mosquitoes are found near standing water, and are most active in the morning and at dusk; use insect repellent if planning to hike in marshy areas, or if you are camping near water.
Another disease-carrying pest commonly found in both the Black Hills and the Badlands is the wood tick. Ticks in South Dakota can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Colorado tick fever. With ticks, the best defense is to be watchful. Repel ticks by tucking your pants into your socks when outdoors in the spring and spray clothing and exposed skin with a tick repellent. Tuck clothing into hiking boots. Wear light colors so that any ticks that may land are easily visible. It takes several hours of feeding before a tick will transmit disease, so check frequently for ticks when you are outdoors. To remove ticks, use tweezers and pull slowly and steadily up and away from your skin. Matches do not encourage ticks to back out, contrary to common mythology. Ticks are most common in the early spring. Remember that ticks like pets too, so if you are traveling with pets, give them a good going-over and remove any ticks you find. Some folks will use tick collars or powders on pets and this works well.
There are few toxic creatures in the Black Hills. The prairie rattlesnake is a local resident, however. Keep an eye on where you are putting your feet and hands when hiking and scrambling through rock formations. Rattlesnakes are not aggressive and are as loathe to see you as you are to see them. If you hear any rattling or hissing, back off and head in a different direction. If bitten by a rattlesnake, seek medical attention immediately. In the interim, try to stay calm and minimize physical activity to slow the venom’s circulation throughout the body. Do not try to remove the venom with cutting or suction, as both actions could be more dangerous than the bite itself.
The Western black widow spider is one of South Dakota’s few venomous arachnids. It is uncommon for people to be bitten by the spider. The bite of this spider can cause a wide variety of reactions depending on the age and condition of the person bitten. Symptoms include sharp pain at the time of the bite, which may be followed by muscle cramps, weakness, and tremor. In severe cases, nausea, vomiting, fainting, dizziness, and chest pain may result. Bites are rarely fatal, though they can be dangerous to elderly people and to children. The decision to seek emergency care should be made early. If the person who was bitten by a black widow spider has more than minor pain or has whole-body symptoms, seek care at a hospital emergency room.
Problems with predatory animals are near nonexistent in the hills. Mountain lions and coyotes are present, but both are very shy of humans. There are no records of either attacking a human in the state. Bison, on the other hand, tend to attract trouble. Bison are free-roaming in Custer State Park, Wind Cave, and Badlands National Park. This majestic animal enthralls visitors, who have a tendency to get too close to them in their quest for better photos. But, as bulky as they are, they are remarkably quick and agile. Keep your distance. An aggravated bison can accelerate quickly and reach speeds up to 45 miles per hour. You cannot outrun them. Be especially wary during the rut season, which overlaps tourist season, occurring from late July through September.
- Central Hills:
Rapid City Regional Hospital
353 Fairmont Blvd., Rapid City
- Southern Hills:
Custer Regional Hospital
1039 Montgomery St., Custer
- Fall River Hospital
209 N. 16th St., Hot Springs
- Pine Ridge Hospital
E. U.S. 18, Pine Ridge
- Northern Hills:
Lead–Deadwood Regional Hospital
61 Charles St., Deadwood
- Spearfish Regional Hospital
1440 N. Main St., Spearfish
- Sturgis Regional Hospital
949 Harmon St., Sturgis
Crime rates are low in South Dakota, but keep safety in mind when traveling and follow standard safety procedures. Don’t leave valuable items in hotel rooms or in clear sight on the seat of your car. Women and others traveling alone should exercise the same caution that they would on a downtown street in any city. Be alert.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition