Once upon a time, two Park Chasers went camping in the Badlands:
“It’s sooooo hot. Why is it sooooo hot?!?” I moaned for the tenth time since we’d crawled in the tent. It had to be close to midnight. The air temperature in our tent had to be stuck near 90°F. That was the lowest temp since the 104°F we saw earlier in the day, when we passed the Badlands National Park entrance sign.
“Just don’t think about it. Just think about falling asleep and you’ll be just fine,” Greg quietly reasoned. I was silent for a few minutes, trying not to think about the sweat dripping off my forehead and how unhelpful his suggestion was. How can you be laying flat and still be sweltering? I kept thinking. That and, Why did we think that was a good idea? Then I heard the crispy grass outside our tent cracking and crunching.
“Is that a snake?!?” I panicked. “I think it’s a snake. Could you check if that’s a snake? What if it’s a snake?!?”
“It’s not a snake. And I’m not going out there. It’s too hot.”
Clearly we hadn’t come prepared for our best night of camping in the Badlands. First timers may not be ready for the heat, expecting their extra downy sleeping bags and s’mores sticks to be up for the job. But camping in the arid weather of Badlands National Park takes some special planning. If you’re expecting (and preparing) for the same trip as the woodsy mountain camping you’re familiar with, Badlands campers can run into serious problems. Today we’re asking the top three questions to help you plan for a starry night success story the next time you’re camping in the Badlands.
Are you ready for camping in the Badlands?
Question One: Do you have a campsite scoped out?
While camping at Badlands National Park can have many challenges, one of the first can be ensuring you have a spot to spend the night. Badlands has 2 organized campgrounds: Cedar Pass campground and Sage Creek Campground.
Cedar Pass Campground is located southwest of the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center. It’s the largest campground with 96 sites, both electric and non-electric. The campground is operated by the Cedar Pass Lodge which does take reservations by phone and online. By far the most popular option among those who are interested in camping in the Badlands, it is highly recommended that you plan ahead to reserve your campsite.
Sage Creek Campground is a primitive campground located off Sage Creek Road in the park’s North Unit. The campground has pit toilets and designated sites with picnic tables, but does not have water or RV hook-up. The sites are available first-come, first-serve using an on-site self-registration. Bison and wildlife frequent the campground since it tends to offer more quiet solitude. And while it may be more rugged camping, it’s also free of charge.
Back country camping is permitted in Badlands National Park, however limited or no water is available in many locations. Backpackers do not require permits at this time, but are strongly encouraged to register and review water sources at a ranger station before departing on an overnight stay in the park.
Question Two: Did you plan for the weather?
Keeping an eye on the forecast is a good idea wherever you camp, but it can be particularly helpful in the Badlands. Temperatures have a hefty swing here depending on the season. Daytime temperatures in the summer reach above 100ºF. Nights can swing the other direction with temperatures dipping into the upper 40’s and low 50’s. Thunderstorms are common in early summer and some can be severe.
Before you depart from home, make sure you’re prepared for the temperatures. If you’re expecting cooler nights, plan for more traditional ‘alpine/woodland’ camping gear, including a well-rated sleeping bag and extra layers for warmth.
If the weather calls for the full-force of the Badlands heat, you’ll also need to plan accordingly. Light fabrics and heat-resistant bedding are the best option. Sleeping without your tent’s rain fly can also help with air circulation. Plus you’ll get a spectacular view of the starry night sky and some of the darkest skygazing in the National Park Service. While it can be a noisy option, some outfitters also sell battery-operated tent fans that can work well, especially if members of your group are at greater risk of heat stroke. Just plan to pack plenty of batteries before you leave home.
Question Three: Did you plan the right meals?
Badlands campers are often caught off guard when it comes to meal preparation. Because of the risk of fire danger, campfires are not permitted in any of the campgrounds. Many campers arrive stocked with hotdogs and s’mores only to find they are not prepared without a campfire to cook on. You can still comfortably use a camp stove or grill in the campground to prepare meals, however standing over a burner can add to the misery if you’re already dealing with excessive heat.
The same caution applies for keeping fresh food cold during a Badlands camping trip. Traditional coolers can struggle to keep food at safe temperatures in sustained heat. Make sure you have plenty of ice, keep your coolers out of the hot sun inside and outside of vehicles, and only open it when needed to keep the cold air inside.
Plan accordingly for the heat and choose easy prep meals. Canned foods don’t require refrigeration and can stay fresh despite the heat. If you are planning to bring perishables like meat or sauces, pack them frozen. They will thaw slower in the cooler and be easier to maintain at food-safe temperatures.
A little extra preparation can go a long way to make camping in the Badlands a memorable adventure!