Montana is not a particularly menacing place; however, a few considerations may save the traveler unpleasant experiences.
Grizzly bears are found in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks and in smaller populations in wilderness areas in much of the Rockies. When provoked—and it doesn’t take much to rile them—grizzlies are vicious. Every year, it seems, someone is mauled by a grizzly, with deaths not infrequent. If you are traveling through grizzly country, check with local rangers for bear updates; areas in Glacier are often closed to hikers because of grizzly problems. Make noise as you hike to forewarn nearby bears; small “bear bells” hooked on packs are common noisemakers. Don’t sleep near smelly food, such as bacon; hang food from branches away from tents. If possible, hike in a large group.
Mountain lions are not as aggressive as grizzlies, but as their territory is progressively whittled away, there is more lion-human contact. Mountain lions live in most of the Rocky Mountain region. While human adults are in little danger from mountain lions, small children—especially if unattended—can attract them. Montana newspapers report regularly on mountain lion attacks and sightings of lions stalking people. Again, safety lies in numbers.
Not all threats come from carnivores. Moose are great hulking animals given to spontaneous charges if surprised. Buffalo, either at Yellowstone Park or on private land, can be short-tempered if provoked. These animals are not vicious, but they are territorial and easily surprised. Be careful.
Rattlesnakes are common over the eastern two-thirds of the state. While a rattlesnake bite is rarely fatal these days, it’s no fun either. If you are hiking anywhere in eastern Montana, it is imperative to wear strong boots with high tops. Watch where you step. Be especially careful around rocky promontories: Snakes like to sun themselves on exposed rocks. Rattlesnakes are not aggressive to humans; given their druthers, they will slink away, rattling. If you have never heard a rattlesnake rattle, don’t worry that you might mistake it for something else. It is an instinctive human reaction to leap backward and shriek when you hear the rattle. When angered, however, rattlesnakes will coil and strike. If you are bitten, immobilize the affected area and seek immediate medical attention.
Be suspicious of overly friendly small mammals. Rabies is, as elsewhere, a real problem. If you are hiking in the vicinity of stock animals, especially cattle, it is wise to remember that bulls can be threatened by the presence of humans. Give them a wide berth.
In Montana, you’ll find no unexpected health dangers, and excellent medical attention is readily available. However, in rural parts of the state, doctors and hospitals can be quite far apart, so it’s a good idea to begin your journey in good health and to take no unreasonable risks while traveling the state. The text gives emergency numbers to call should you need medical attention. Note that in many rural areas the 911 number is not in operation.
The greatest risks most travelers will face are related to weather and insect bites. Too much summer sun can lead to sunburn, especially at Montana’s higher altitudes. Wear sunscreen. Heat exhaustion can also be a problem if you’re struggling up a hot hiking trail in full sun. Be sure to drink plenty of water and slow down if you feel yourself overheating.
If you have insect bite allergies, don’t mislead yourself into thinking that Montana’s dry climate might be bug-free; it’s not. An abundance of fierce insects awaits, and mosquito repellent is definitely recommended. Montana mosquitoes do not carry any diseases, but they can be annoying, and an infected bite can be both unsightly and painful.
Ticks pose some slight risk of diseases such as Rocky Mountain fever and Lyme disease. If practical, wear light-colored clothing so you can spot ticks more easily. When you’re hiking through underbrush, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into your shoes or boots. Apply an insect repellent containing DEET. Be sure to check your body for ticks after walking in the woods or grassy meadows—and look everywhere on your skin—especially in patches of body hair (also be sure to check pets for ticks). If you find a tick with its head imbedded, don’t panic. Using tweezers or your fingers, pull gently and steadily on its body until the tick disengages. Do not crush the tick, burn it with a match, douse it in alcohol, or any other home remedy, because these actions can cause the tick to regurgitate bacteria into its bite, increasing your chance of infection.
Under no circumstances should you drink unfiltered or untreated water straight from streams, springs, rivers, or lakes. The microscopic parasite giardia lives in mountain streams and will happily take up residence in your lower intestinal tract. Giardia enters streams through the fecal remains of animals—especially beavers (which gives the condition its common nickname, “beaver fever”)—and is prevalent throughout Montana.
Symptoms of giardia infection include stomach cramps, nausea, a bloated stomach, watery foul-smelling diarrhea, and frequent gas. Giardia can appear several weeks after exposure to the parasite. Symptoms may disappear for a few days and then return, a pattern which may continue. Tinidazole, known as Fasigyn or metronidazole (Flagyl), are the recommended drugs for treatment; both are prescription drugs. Either can be used in a single treatment dose. Antibiotics are not effective as a treatment.
Giardia is a fairly common summer affliction in the region. It has even been known to enter the water supply of entire mountain towns.
Weather extremes are common in Montana. When outdoors in high temperatures, remember to drink plenty of water. Native Montanans often take salt pills to prevent dehydration. Listen for weather forecasts: Sudden storms can blow in, causing rapid changes in temperature and wind conditions. Certain parts of Montana are known for their windiness: Great Falls (“the Windy City”), Livingston , and Cut Bank each deserve their reputation. If you are driving a high-profile vehicle, listen for wind warnings.
Winter cold is the greatest weather concern. Roads can be treacherous if snow-covered, and incremental melting leaves small, invisible patches of ice on the road. If you travel by automobile in Montana in the winter, make sure you have tire chains, and know how to put them on. Make sure you also have blankets or a sleeping bag, plenty of warm clothing, gloves, a shovel, a flashlight (days aren’t long in the winter), and maybe even a paraffin heater. Carrying extra food and water is a good idea. Again, pay attention to weather and road reports, and don’t take chances.