Considering a hiking trip in Florida? Here are some of the precautions you need to take when planning your outing. Our weather, wildlife, and outdoor conditions are a bit different ……a little more on the wild side than most states. Yes, we’ve got alligators and hurricanes to add to the mix. Play it smart and safe: plan ahead!
Tent camping (backpacking or car camping) in Florida is best enjoyed between October and March, when the muggy nights with high temperatures yield to a cool evening chill. Wildfires spark easily in Florida, so please refrain from building a campfire unless a fire ring is available—use a camp stove for cooking. Be sure to pack out all waste materials from your campsite. Where privies are available, use them; otherwise, dig a hole at least 400 feet from any campsite or water source. When camping in a primitive campsite, particularly an undeveloped site, follow Leave No Trace ethics. Leave the site as pristine as when you entered it. Eliminate any signs of a campfire unless there is an established fire ring. To protect your food supply, use a bear bag in bear territory, not just to foil the bears, but to outwit the wily raccoons that congregate near established campsites. Don’t camp on the banks of a stream, lake, or pond—alligators do roam at night.
Heat and Dehydration
When hiking in Florida, it is very easy to become dehydrated without realizing it. The warm temperatures and sunshine will sometimes prompt you to drink, but not often enough. Dehydration and long exposure to the sun can lead to heat exhaustion, which starts with nausea, chills, and dizziness, and can lead to deadly heatstroke. If you feel any of these symptoms, stop hiking. Drink as much fluid as possible. Rest a while before attempting any further exertion. Always carry enough water for your hike. I carry a minimum of one liter per four miles, and twice that when temperatures are over 80° F.
Florida’s prime hiking season is also the state’s prime hunting season, which can lead to conflicts on certain state lands, such as Wildlife Management Areas, Water Management District lands, state preserves, and state forests. During deer season, wear a lightweight blaze orange vest when hiking these lands. Hunting is not permitted in county parks, state parks, or state recreation areas. Backpackers should be aware that certain lands are closed to overnight camping during general gun season; some trails are entirely closed to hiking during the gun season, due to the perceived risk to hikers. For full details on hunting dates and restrictions in specific state lands, check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website.
Proper Clothing and Equipment
Always carry rain gear! Storm clouds come up suddenly and unexpectedly, and can easily put a damper on your hike if you’re not prepared. Find a jacket that will fold down small enough to attach to a fanny pack or will fit inside your daypack. If you are hiking more than a couple of miles, carry some sort of small pack. At a minimum, your pack should contain water, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a compass, and emergency food. To beat the heat, a sturdy fanny pack with water-bottle holsters is a good choice. A hat is essential to keep your head cool.
Because Florida’s terrain is often sandy or wet, your footwear need not be the rugged mountain climbing gear you see at most outfitters. Avoid heavy leather boots and “waterproof” lined boots—your feet will sweat, and to minimize blisters, you need your feet to breathe. Look for a lightweight hiking shoe, a trail running shoe, or even comfortable running shoes. Some Florida hikers use sports sandals with socks. When your shoes get waterlogged, you want them to be able to dry.
Wear two layers of socks—a good hiking sock on the outside, and a thin polypropylene or silk/nylon sock on the inside. Instead of rubbing against your skin, the socks will rub against each other. Avoid cotton socks. When they get damp, they abrade your feet. If you do feel a hot spot or a blister coming on, treat it immediately. Cover it with a piece of moleskin (found in the foot care section of most drugstores) and apply a small piece of duct tape over the moleskin to keep it water- and sweat-proof.
When hiking under the bright Florida sun, use a high-strength sports sunblock lotion and wear a hat for the protection of your face. Depending on the habitats you’ll be hiking through, you may want sunglasses as well.
Use common sense when leaving your vehicle at a trailhead. Don’t leave valuables in plain sight, and lock the vehicle. If a permit was required to enter the land or to hike the trail, be sure the permit is showing inside the front windshield.
Florida’s trails run the gamut on water supplies—either they have plenty of it, or they have none. Because of drainage from citrus groves and cattle pastures into rivers and creeks, you cannot trust water sources to be pristine, with the exception of free-flowing artesian wells and springs along the trail. Even these can have an unpleasant taste due to a high sulfur or salt content, and would require filtering. Not all water sources can be easily reached. A flatwoods pond, for instance, may require some slogging through muck before you reach water. I suggest you carry your own supply whenever day hiking. Always use a water filter or chemical treatment such as iodine before drinking “wild” water. Do not drink the water in mine reclamation areas.
While the average hiker wouldn’t stray outside in a hurricane, the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms in the summertime doesn’t always keep a person off the trail. But darkening skies are no laughing matter. Violent thunderstorms can spawn fierce wind gusts and occasionally, tornadoes. Central Florida is known as the lightning capital of the world. If you are caught out in the open during a storm, attempt to reach cover as quickly as possible.