Hiking in Florida is very different than hiking in most of the United States. Hikers who come here from the Appalachians, Rockies, and Cascades quickly discover that their preconceived notions about Florida hiking are turned upside down. Just because Florida doesn’t have mountains, don’t expect your hike to be a walk in the park.
In addition to the information here that is specific to hiking the Florida Trail, you can learn more about hiking safety under Safety First!, a series of articles from our magazine, the Florida Trail Footprint. In addition to hiker safety, these articles cover general outdoor and trail maintenance safety issues and are written by various members of the Florida Trail Association trail staff.
Many parts of the Florida Trail can experience sudden flooding after heavy rains. If there is danger of flooding within a segment, it is indicated in the text. Always check ahead regarding river levels along the Kissimmee, Econ, Suwannee, Aucilla, Sopchoppy, and Blackwater Rivers and Econfina and Juniper Creeks. If you find the trail has disappeared under floodwaters, use your best judgment as to whether to continue your hike. Don’t attempt hiking during flood stage along the Suwannee River. In addition to river valleys, swamps become more treacherous after heavy rains or in a wet year. Check with the rangers at Oasis Ranger Station before hiking in Big Cypress National Preserve, and with the USFS regards how deep the water is in Bradwell Bay.
While the Florida Trail is well blazed in most places, it’s still not as heavily used as the Appalachian Trail. The footpath may not be apparent if you lose the blazes—plant life grows up quickly and obscures it; a mower is of greater use to Florida Trail maintainers than a Pulaski. If you become lost, don’t panic. Try to backtrack and find the last blaze. Quite frequently, you may be walking lost in thought down a forest road and the trail veers off the road into the forest.
If you have a map and compass, you may be able to figure out your relative position and head in the direction of a road. Always carry spare food and a signaling device (a mirror or whistle). Hike with a buddy whenever possible, and leave your itinerary with the folks at home or someone you can trust to come looking for you if you don’t call in. If you need to initiate a search for a fellow hiker, contact the county sheriff for that particular segment (phone numbers are provided on our maps). If the missing person returns, be sure to call off the search.
Heat and Sunburn
In an environment where temperatures are frequently in the 90s, and long stretches of trail may provide no shade or little water, heat exhaustion is a major concern. It’s one of the reasons (along with summer rains and insect populations) that most Florida hikers only hit the trail between October and April.
Even in these months, temperatures can soar, and if you’re not hydrated, heat exhaustion will set in. Listen to the feedback from your body. If you can’t quench your thirst (or you don’t feel thirsty) and you feel lightheaded, nauseous, or chilled despite the heat, you’re in the throes of heat exhaustion. Stop hiking immediately. Rest in the shade, if any is available. Drink water. Soak a bandana with water and cover your head with it. Watersources are pointed out on all Florida Trail maps, but keep in mind that some non-potable sources may only be available seasonally.
To avoid sunburn, prevention is the key. Wear a hat, preferably a wide-brimmed one, and loose lightweight clothing that covers your arms and legs. If your arms or legs are bare, slather on the sunscreen. Wear a wet bandana around your neck or over your head to keep yourself cool. On hot days, always hit the trail at daybreak and try to be done hiking before noon. And don’t let yourself become dehydrated. Carry extra water if you need to, but do whatever it takes to keep hydrated!
Florida is divided into hunting zones, with hunt dates progressing south to north. Hunts include many different categories for weapon or type of game. There are few days without some sort of hunting allowed. The cool winter months are the most active hunting seasons; the only truly problematic hunting season for hikers is the general gun season, colloquially known as “deer season,” which usually falls between November and January. Be aware of the hunting status in the area you are hiking! Hunting seasons can be looked up on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
Many trails and campsites are shared by hikers and hunters, through both private and state lands. The Florida Trail crosses private lands owned by some landowners who lease hunting rights to individuals and hunt clubs; they may exclude non-hunters from their property during these seasons. This practice is most common during general(modern) gun season. If you hike during general gun season:
- Wear blaze orange. The minimum requirement is 500 square inches (approximately 2 feet square; about the size of a vest) worn as an outer garment above the waist and may include a head covering. Blaze-orange mesh vests are available through the Florida DOT headquarters (these are no heavier than a handkerchief) or can be bought in any Florida department or sporting goods store.
- Camp at designated campsites only.
- Avoid dawn and dusk hikes, or anytime when visibility is poor.
- Respect the hunt. Do not disturb or disrupt hunters.
Yes, even in Florida, hypothermia happens. It’s possible to hike the Florida Trail in February and wake to frost on the tent and water bottles frozen, in Big Cypress Swamp as well as Eglin Air Force Base.
The risk increases substantially when you wade through swamps or stream crossings in chilly weather, but can also happen on a warm spring day when temperatures plummet at night and you don’t have a warm sleeping bag with you. Don’t assume just because it’s Florida that a 40°F sleeping bag (or none at all) will be adequate protection. During prime hiking season – the winter months – a 20°F bag should provide reasonable warmth. I’ve carried a 0°F bag and been glad I had it. Be aware of the weather around you; don’t let your gear or clothes get wet on a cold day if you can help it. Carry hand warmers and energy bars in your pack.
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, difficulty thinking, slurred speech, confusion, and sleepiness. If you’re in wet clothes, immediately change to something dry. If you’re with companions (or you notice a companion suffering from any of these symptoms), do whatever’s necessary to bring the victim’s core temperature up, from feeding them hot liquids to diving into a sleeping bag with them.
We’re extraordinarily happy when the first freeze hits each fall and the insects die off for the winter. But a fear of insects and mosquito-borne diseases shouldn’t keep you off the trail. There are several methods of protection available.
Wear protective clothing. A lightweight long-sleeved shirt and pants does wonders in keeping most of your skin protected from insect bites. If you’re headed into an area (like Big Cypress) known for its mosquito population, carry a headnet or mosquito netting. To avoid bug problems when you sit, carry a plastic garbage bag or a chunk of foam as a cushion between yourself and the ground.
Use insect repellent. Some hikers balk at the use of products with DEET, but there are many options available on the market. Always be cautious: it never hurts to spray before your hike. To keep ticks and chiggers off of your clothing, spray your clothing (not your skin) with permethrin, a long-lasting insecticide. Dusting your socks and waistline with sulfur powder (available from a compounding pharmacist, or at some outfitters) will fend off chiggers.
Be alert. What habitats are you hiking through? Mosquitoes breed around standing water. Ticks thrive in deep shade. Spiders like to string their webs at eye-level between trees, so it seems; duck under the ones you can (after all, the spiders are doing their part to catch mosquitoes) and otherwise use your hiking stick to clear the path. Particularly when you are setting up camp, always scour the ground for signs of red ant nests. There are few insect encounters more miserable than being swarmed by red ants, either by putting your foot in a nest or by setting up your tent atop one.
Follow up afterwards. Once you’re off the trail, check yourself for ticks. Remove them carefully with tweezers, making sure to extract the head from your skin. If your legs feel itchy after a hike, you’re suffering from chiggers. Take a 15-minute soak in a hot tub or a hot bath to neutralize these microscopic bugs that attach themselves to your skin to feed.
It is dangerous to assume that just because you are on a trail in the wilds of Florida, you are removed from the two-legged dangers faced in urban areas. The people you may encounter on and near a trail represent the broad mix of society: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The following are some basic recommendations to assist the hiker with personal safety issues when heading out on a trail. They are not all-inclusive but should serve as a guide for a safe and pleasant hiking experience:
1. Hike with a buddy. Hiking with at least one partner reduces the potential for harassment and provides a personal safety net if you are injured.
2. File an itinerary. Always leave information where you are hiking with family and friends. Include phone numbers for local law enforcement and land managers. These numbers are included on the FTA maps.
3. Dress conservatively. Select attire that avoids unwelcome attention.
4. Don’t broadcast your itinerary. Do not discuss trip plans with suspicious strangers, do not reveal the plans of fellow hikers and if hiking alone, claim to be lead of a larger group following behind you.
5. Be sociable but cautious in conversations with strangers. Pay attention to details such as location and their appearance, and behavior. Avoid anyone acting strangely, provocatively, openly hostile or drunk.
6. Avoid all provocation and confrontation. Do not respond to taunts or attempts at intimidation.
7. Camp away from roads and motor vehicles. Areas accessible to motor vehicles pose more danger of harassment. If there is concern, hide your camp or camp as a group with several others.
8. Do not carry firearms. The FTA member code of ethics prohibits firearms when on the trail and it might end up being used against you or fellow hikers.
9. Eliminate opportunities for theft. Never leave your pack unattended. If possible, check it with a local business. Never leave cash or valuables in your car at trailheads
10. Trust your instincts. If confronted by an individual or situation that you just feel is “wrong,” keep moving down the trail until you feel safe once again.
11. Have current trail guides and maps. The more current the information, the better informed the hiker. FTA maps contain the most current information on local law enforcement and land manager contacts in each area.
12. Obey all land manager/owner regulations. Be particularly courteous on private property.
13. Wear safety orange during all hunt seasons. A mesh vest and/or blaze orange pack cover work well in Florida.
In the event that you encounter an untoward incident while hiking the Florida Trail or one of the trails within the Florida Trail System, please do the following:
•Immediately contact the local law enforcement agency, as listed in this guide and on the maps.
•Contact the Florida Trail Association. Help keep us informed so that proper follow up is accomplished. Provide as much detailed information as possible.
In the words of AT and PCT thru-hiker Jim Owen, “There are volumes more that could be said about safety and security, but for me it comes down to this: personal safety is a matter of common sense and mental attitude. Pay attention to your surroundings, to the people around you and to your own feelings. And don’t play with things that bite.”
Poison ivy thrives just as well in all zones of Florida as it does in the Appalachian Mountains. Poison oak and poison sumac also grow in Florida’s forests. But have you heard of poisonwood? Or stinging nettle? If not, grab a field guide and brush up on Florida’s toxic plants.
The nastiest species are found in tropical hammocks, but you’ll encounter stinging nettle – with beautiful little white flowers and needle-covered leaves that will make you itch for hours – just about everywhere in Florida. If you are sensitive to poison ivy, the sap of Brazilian pepper, an invasive exotic, may cause a mild skin irritation.
Be aware that most of the Florida Trail is not maintained between May and October, since few people hike during those months. An overgrown trail can be an exercise in wading through nettles and burrs. Consider wearing low gaiters, or do as most experienced Florida hikers do—wear long lightweight pants to protect your legs, even in summer.
Remember how fun it was to play in the mud as a kid? Well, you’ll rediscover that pleasure along some segments of the FT. Expect your hiking speed to decrease dramatically during swamp crossings.
To safely cross a swamp, bring along a stout hiking stick (wood or bamboo work best, as they can be pulled back out of thick mud without harm to the stick) to feel out each step before putting your foot down. Although you’re looking down a lot, watch out for the next blaze so you don’t get lost—it’s far too easy to lose the trail in hydric hammocks, where every tree and every gap between trees looks the same.
Remember that hiking boots built to keep water out will also keep water in when it spills over the top of the shoe. Consider wearing fast-drying nylon pants and bring an extra pair of socks or two.
Florida’s thunderstorms are legendary. In summer, they come in from the coasts like clockwork; in winter, they can arrive overhead suddenly, putting a damper on your hike. Thunderstorms bring a double whammy of dangers – lightning and tornadoes – as well as strong gusts of wind. If the wind whips up and you hear rumbling and crashing in the forest, take cover in a low area, a dry ditch if possible. Protect your head.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lightning accounted for nearby half of all weather-related deaths in Florida for the past four decades. Central Florida, the “Lightning Capital of the United States,” has the highest number of lightning-related fatalities in the country.
What can you do when you’re out on the trail in a thunderstorm? If the time flash and bang is less than 30 seconds, immediately take cover—but don’t stand under a tree or picnic shelter. Look for a ditch or a shrubby area. If your pack contains a metal frame, get it away from you. Hikers in a group should spread apart. Cover your ears with your hands. Crouch down on the balls of your feet to present a low profile; keep as much of your body away from the ground, using your sleeping pad as insulation between you and the ground if possible. If a fellow hiker is struck, seek emergency medical help immediately—eighty percent of lightning strike victims survive the shock.
On the Florida Trail, you will see wildlife, especially when you hike alone. Few trails offer as diverse a range of species you might encounter, from the regal and highly endangered Florida panther to the tiny and likewise endangered Santa Rosa beach mouse. Wildlife actively uses the trail corridor: remember that you are traversing their habitat. Walk softly. Never feed or approach any wild animal, as desensitization to humans may result in harm to a human and will result in an animal’s death.
Yes, we have them, and yes, you’ll see them. But alligators are rarely a threat to humans, unless they’ve been fed and associate you with a food source. Never throw your food scraps into a body of water (pack them out or get a friend to eat the leftovers!) and don’t bring a dog along if you’re hiking into a swampy area. Most alligators move out of your way when they hear you coming. But if an alligator is on the footpath and refuses to move after you’ve made a lot of noise, don’t walk up close to it. Give it a wide berth, circling around its tail end so it doesn’t feel trapped or threatened. Avoid filtering water at dawn or dusk, since the profile of a hiker bent over a canal or stream looks a lot like a deer from an alligator’s perspective.
A subspecies of the Eastern black bear, the full-grown Florida black bear rarely tops 350 pounds, and will quickly move out of your way if it sees or hears you. Bears tend to be most active at dawn and most commonly seen browsing patches of blueberries and blackberries in fruit. There has never been a report of a Florida black bear attacking a human, although bears that have become habituated to human presence will raid garbage cans. Consider “bear bagging” your food in bear country, a highly recommended tactic in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
A subspecies of cougar, the Florida panther has been making a slow but steady comeback in their stronghold in Big Cypress and the Everglades, with sightings of individual cats reported by hikers throughout the state. No panther has caused harm to humans in modern times. If you see one, consider yourself fortunate. If you encounter an injured or dead panther, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (941-353-8442) as quickly as possible with information on the animal’s location and condition.
Florida has four species of poisonous snakes: the cottonmouth, an aggressive snake that prefers swampy areas; the rattlesnake (diamondback, timber, and pygmy), which can be found in upland or swampy areas; the southern copperhead, and the eastern coral snake. Most snake bites occur because someone attempted to handle a snake or got within the snake’s “strike zone.” If you encounter a snake, treat it with respect—give it a wide berth.