Daily life involves following a basic set of precautions to ensure longevity, but a visit to Yellowstone comes with its own set of safety rules. Always be aware of the dangers described below, and know what to do in hazardous situations. It could mean the difference between a memorable vacation and one you would rather forget!
One of Yellowstone’s greatest attractions is its diverse wildlife. However, wildlife is inherently unpredictable, and all species are capable of causing serious harm to visitors. Buffalo may appear to possess a relaxed, slow-moving nature, but they are actually very aggressive. Every year, tourists approach bison too closely, and as a result, severe injuries occur. Other large animals, such as elk, moose, deer, and bears, also pose a threat to your safety, and animals with their young in tow can be especially hostile. Never approach wildlife, and remember that park regulations prohibit advancing within 100 yards of bears and 25 yards of all other wildlife. For the safety of everyone, take wildlife photos from the protection of your vehicle.
Park visitors rarely spot rattlesnakes, but the poisonous snake does reside in Yellowstone’s northwestern corner near Gardiner, Montana. Reaching up to four feet long with a rattle on their tale, rattlesnakes bear brown skin with dark splotches. Most rattlesnakes will retreat unless threatened, but a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated quickly and properly. Visitors should be especially careful near rocky areas, as snakes frequently sun themselves on rocky ledges. If you hear a rattle, stop and slowly move in the opposite direction of the sound. If you are bitten, immobilize the area, and immediately seek medical attention. All rattlesnake sightings should be reported to the nearest ranger station.
Other snakes in the park include the rubber boa, the valley garter, and the wandering garter. All of these snakes, which generally never exceed three feet long, are the most likely snakes to be seen in Yellowstone. They are all harmless.
Ticks and tick-borne illnesses are rarely reported in Yellowstone, but visitors should still be aware of ticks, the diseases they carry, and protection methods. Ticks carry and transmit Lyme disease, which can create severe problems when the disease is advanced. To protect yourself from ticks, spray an insect repellent containing DEET directly onto your clothes. Wear light-colored clothes so as to easily spot ticks, and frequently check for ticks on your clothing, skin, and scalp. Remember that ticks’ primary habitats are grassy areas situated at 4,000 to 6,500 feet above sea level. Although ticks are most commonly found between March and mid-July, a few do linger into fall. Practice precaution in all seasons.
Thermal Pools and Geysers
Every year, a few reports stream in about careless or foolhardy Yellowstone tourists tragically burned in the park’s thermal pools. Do not join the ranks of these headlines! Yellowstone’s thermal pools and streams are extremely hot and are generally acidic or alkaline. The park’s thermal features also often contain microscopic organisms capable of causing infections or even death.
To avoid an untimely fate, always stay on the park’s boardwalks and trails. Never attempt to step on the ground surrounding these pools as the crust is generally thin and may break, plunging you into a pool of boiling water. Due to the park’s high elevations, frost is a common occurrence year-round. Use extreme caution during frosty conditions as the wooden boardwalks become slippery.
Sun Exposure and Illness
Due to the park’s high elevations, Yellowstone visitors are more susceptible to high levels of ultraviolet rays, which may in turn lead to heat-related illnesses. Visitors should take every precaution to avoid over-exposure to the sun, no matter the season, and should be careful on summit hikes and near water bodies where rays are especially intense. Protect your eyes with sunglasses, and wear sunscreen and hats at all times. Those pursuing highly active activities, such as hiking, paddling, or bicycling, should use caution to avoid dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Stop for regular water breaks, and carry salted snacks and liquids to help replace electrolytes lost through perspiration.
Hypothermia, the lowering of the body’s core temperature to a degree causing illness or death, is most frequently associated with winter weather. However, hypothermia can strike even when temperatures are well above freezing, and users of Yellowstone’s backcountry are prime hypothermic candidates. Wind chill is a critical cause of hypothermia, and those with small bodies (especially children) are more susceptible to the condition.
Mild hypothermia symptoms include shivering, apathy, coordination loss, and general complaints of coldness. In severe cases, hypothermia creates slurred speech, irrepressible shivering, mental difficulties, and a body temperature low enough to trigger permanent damage or death. Children, who may not express their physical ailments as concretely as adults, may suddenly become cranky or fatigued. Adults should immediately check for other signs of hypothermia in such cases.
To protect against hypothermia, Yellowstone visitors and backcountry users should carry extra clothing, including socks, gloves, and hats that prevent heat loss from the body’s extremities. Even when the weather appears warm and sunny, pack extra clothing; Yellowstone’s weather can change on a moment’s notice. For the best results, dress in layers, and always put on rain gear before it starts raining or snowing. If possible, avoid hiking in wet conditions altogether, and avoid prolonged exposure to wind. Visitors using Yellowstone’s backcountry should also pack along plenty of warm liquids and high-carbohydrate/high-sugar foods that the body can easily process into heat.
If you suspect someone near you is experiencing the initial symptoms of hypothermia, immediately do everything possible to keep the person warm. Replace any wet clothes with dry ones, add more layers, and encourage the individual to drink warm liquids. In extreme cases, build a contained fire to provide additional heat to the victim. To warm suspected hypothermic children, hug the child close to your body, and cover yourselves with a blanket or sleeping bag.
Commonly referred to as “Mountain Sickness,” high-altitude sickness is an unpredictable illness that strikes young and old, fit and unfit. Since most park road elevations range from 5,300 to 8,860 feet (1,615-2,700 meters), Yellowstone visitors accustomed to sea level conditions are particularly susceptible. Caused by decreased oxygen levels in the air, high-altitude sickness results in headaches, muscle weakness and dull pain, nausea/vomiting, fatigue, appetite loss, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath.
To reduce the likelihood of experiencing high-altitude sickness, Yellowstone visitors should begin their park visits at the lowest altitude possible, slowly acclimating to higher elevations. If you or someone you know experiences the symptoms of high-altitude sickness, move to lower ground as quickly as possible, eat only light meals, drink plenty of water and other non-caffeinated/non-alcoholic beverages, and provide your body with plenty of rest.
As an added precaution, the National Park Service recommends that anyone with a history of cardiac or respiratory problems contact their physician prior to arriving in Yellowstone.
Although Yellowstone is noted for its blue skies, the park also occasionally packs along fierce summer afternoon thunderstorms with deadly lightning. Thunderstorms often arrive with little warning, and visitors should seek shelter immediately. If you are caught in a thunderstorm, do not use large boulders, trees, or other exposed large natural items for shelter; these objects are more likely to be struck by lightning due to their size. Never seek shelter in a tent as the metal rods attract electricity. To reduce the risk of electrical shock, stay away from water. Although you should never lie flat on the ground during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down as low as possible.
As in other American wilderness areas, it is never safe to assume that Yellowstone’s water is safe for drinking. If your plans call for backcountry travel in Yellowstone, carry along safe drinking water and the knowledge and materials to secure additional safe water on your trek. Giardia (a parasite) is known to inhabit Yellowstone’s waters, and boiling water for three to six minutes is regarded as the most effective manner to treat infected water. Filtration and chemical tablet treatments are also popular purification methods. Visitors should note that all water, whether it is used for cooking or brushing teeth, must be filtered. To reduce the likelihood of further contaminating water and spreading disease to other Yellowstone users, human waste should be buried at least 200 feet away from water and trails.
Snow, Ice, Rivers, and Waterfalls
Yellowstone visitors, especially backcountry users, are challenged with a variety of terrain and travel conditions. Although summer may signal warm weather in most American regions, Yellowstone’s high country occasionally still reports snow and ice well into late July. Backcountry hikers should use extreme caution while traversing across snow and ice, and river/stream crossings also require extra care. River currents are often stronger than they appear, and children should be closely safeguarded in such situations. Waterfalls, both at major tourist destinations and in Yellowstone’s wilds, deserve special treatment. Rocky ledges and precipitous drop-offs often accompany the beauty of Yellowstone’s waterfalls and create potentially hazardous situations. Stay safely behind guardrails, and always closely supervise children to avoid tragic accidents.
Carry a First-Aid Kit
Whether you are driving the Grand Loop Tour of Yellowstone’s major attractions or undertaking a remote adventure in the park’s backcountry, always pack along a comprehensive first-aid kit. Pre-assembled kits are available from outdoor retailers and even in some grocery and convenience stores. Visitors can also opt to create their own kit. The following are indispensable supplies necessary in composing a homemade kit: first-aid instruction book; adhesive bandages, adhesive tape, gauze pads, butterfly bandages for lacerations, elastic bandages for sprains, and triangle bandages for slings; antibiotic ointment; pain reliever; moleskin for blisters; antiseptic swabs; alcohol cleansing pads; small scissors and tweezers for removing wood slivers and ticks; and an emergency space blanket.
Avoid These Situations
As a final reminder, make your stay as enjoyable as possible, and follow all park regulations. Avoid breaking the following park regulations and common-sense guidelines: speeding, off-road vehicle or bicycle travel, camping violations, improper food storage, unleashed pets, littering, spotlighting animals, boating and fishing violations, removal of both natural and historical objects, and approaching, feeding, or pestering wildlife. The above violations have the potential to destroy an otherwise memorable trip. Ensure that your visits with park rangers are enjoyable, and follow the rules!