Montana's extremes -- from burning desert to snow-covered mountains -- can cause health problems for the ill-prepared. If you haven't been to the desert before, the heat, dryness, and intensity of the sun can be difficult to imagine. Bring a hat, strong sunblock, sunglasses with ultraviolet protection, and moisturizing lotion for dry skin. Hikers and others planning to be outdoors should carry water -- at least a gallon per person, per day.
Another potential problem for short-term visitors is elevation. There's less oxygen and lower humidity in the mountains, which rise to over 13,000 feet. If you have heart or respiratory problems, consult your doctor before planning a trip to the mountains. Even if you're in generally good health, you may want to ease into high elevations by changing altitude gradually. Don't fly in from sea level in the morning and plan to hike in the high country of Yellowstone or Glacier that afternoon. Spend a day or two at a lower elevation to let your body adjust.
General Availability of Healthcare --Hospitals with 24-hour emergency rooms can be found in most cities and large towns, as well as Yellowstone National Park, which has three clinics within its borders.
Altitude Sickness -- Because most of us live at or near sea level, the most common health hazard is discomfort as we adjust to Montana and Wyoming's high elevations. Acclimation to high elevation is a process that can take a day or more. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, muscle pain, and lightheadedness. Doctors recommend that, until acclimated, travelers should avoid heavy exertion, consume light meals, and drink lots of liquids, avoiding those with caffeine or alcohol.
Extreme Weather Exposure -- The weather in the Northern Rockies is capricious -- it can snow in July or give you serious sunburn in February. If your wilderness activity takes you to a body of water, have extra clothes available in case you get wet, preferably wool and fleece fabrics, which wick away moisture. Hypothermia occurs when the body can no longer warm itself, and you're especially susceptible if you're wearing wet wool or cotton clothing. Many Western streams, rivers, and lakes are glacier-fed and run high during spring; they can be difficult to negotiate and are extremely cold. Winter backcountry explorers should always be equipped with a shovel, a sectional probe, and an avalanche transceiver, since avalanches are common.
Waterborne Illnesses -- Two waterborne hazards are giardia and campylobacter, with symptoms that wreak havoc on the human digestive system. If you pick up these pesky bugs, they might accompany you on your trip home. Untreated water from lakes and streams should be boiled for at least 5 minutes before consumption or pumped through a fine-mesh water filter specifically designed to remove bacteria.
Wildlife Concerns -- Be especially cautious around wildlife, particularly with children. Bison are not big sheepdogs, and bears are not stuffed animals; they are wild animals that can turn on you suddenly if you get too close. Never -- I repeat, never -- get between a mother bear and her cub. If you're exploring during the summer, carry a can of pepper spray (bear mace), an effective deterrent to bears, available at local sporting goods stores. Also keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and ticks.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Hospitals with emergency rooms tend to be in the major cities in each of the states, with satellite clinics in smaller communities. In the case of a medical emergency, call tel. 911.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Visitors from outside the U.S. should carry generic names of prescription drugs. For U.S. travelers, most reliable healthcare plans provide coverage if you get sick away from home. Foreign visitors may have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later.
While there are many reasons to visit Montana, the two cited most often are visiting historic sites and exploring the magnificent outdoors -- especially the three national parks. However, visiting historic sites and participating in outdoor activities can lead to accidents.
When visiting such historic sites as ghost towns, gold mines, and railroads, remember that they were likely built more than 100 years ago, when safety standards were extremely lax, if they existed at all. Never enter abandoned buildings, mines, or rail cars on your own. When touring historic attractions, use common sense, and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Walkways in mines are often uneven, poorly lit, and sometimes slippery due to seeping groundwater that can stain your clothing with its high iron content. In old buildings, be prepared for steep, narrow stairways, creaky floors, and low ceilings and doorways. Steam trains are wonderful as long as you remember that steam is very hot, oil and grease can ruin your clothing, and, at the very least, soot will make you very dirty.
As you head into the great outdoors, bear in mind that injuries often occur when people fail to follow instructions. Take heed when the experts tell you to stay on established ski trails, hike only in designated areas and carry rain gear, and wear a life jacket when rafting. Mountain weather can be fickle, and many beautiful spots are in remote areas. Be prepared for sudden changes in temperature at any time of year, and watch out for summer afternoon thunderstorms that can leave you drenched and shivering in minutes.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.