I wasn’t at all happy about that alligator blocking the trail. Swamp to the left of us, swamp to the right.
There was no other way to get back to the trailhead. And you absolutely don’t want to get within twenty feet of an alligator.
We tried banging our hiking sticks on the ground, which usually works. It hissed. We yelled and stomped our feet.
We tossed some sticks towards it. Finally, it hissed again and plopped into the water, and we walked by quickly.
When you explore the outdoors anywhere on this planet, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. In Florida, you don’t let your guard down.
Florida is Different
Everyone asks about our alligators, of course. Since we’ve seen alligators in every Southern state from Texas to North Carolina, that isn’t what distinguishes outdoor recreation here from everywhere else.
Where else can you hike in America where it never snows? Okay, it might flurry in the Panhandle in the dead of winter, but it doesn’t stick.
Our hiking season is flip-flopped from the rest of the country, with prime time being October through April and the best backpacking being January-February.
Florida is flatter, wetter, and sandier than most states, too. But don’t assume that means that hiking here is easier than anywhere else you’ve been.
Climate & Weather
Seasonality is a big deal when planning to go outdoors in Florida. Florida has different seasons than the rest of the United States.
This is not somewhere you plan a backpacking trip during your summer vacation. Two words: Heat Index.
Winter is the go-to time for every sort of outdoor recreation in Florida. You can paddle and bike year-round, but it’s miserable when you slow down or stop to take a break. See: insects.
Except in an El Niño year, our winters tend to be sunny, dry, and cool. When El Niño hits, it’s overcast and outrageously, miserably, wet. Otherwise, expect clear skies and sunshine.
The first freeze – and yes, it freezes in Florida, so pack that 20-degree sleeping bag – usually happens in late November and knocks out most of the insect population.
If we’re lucky, the mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers don’t return until April. But it all depends on the weather.
The fact that Florida is “Hurricane Alley” means we keep our guard up during hurricane season, June through late October.
Most of the worst storms have occurred in September and October.
While hurricane season and hiking season are thankfully mostly out of synch, backpackers in Florida can apply their “living out of a pack” skills to the power outages that often follow a hurricane’s visit.
However, hiking season and hunting seasons are firmly in synch. So that’s why you see a lot of Florida hikers with orange as a primary color in our wardrobes.
Fall and early winter are when deer hunters flood into the woods. Spring is when you’ll encounter turkey hunters. Plan your hiking so everyone can enjoy the same public lands. Here’s how.
Florida’s hiking season is also the prime season for hunting in Florida. Be aware of where you’re hiking – many public lands permit hunting – for your personal safety.
Florida has the lowest high point in the USA. But that doesn’t mean our trails are boring. Far from it.
We have an amazing diversity of habitats in Florida, more than 80 distinct ecosystems, despite having only a few hundred feet of elevation change statewide. Some trails showcase a dozen or more ecosystems in a mile or two.
A few inches of elevation change is all it takes to change the habitat around you. Statewide, the botanical diversity is more complex than most states and many countries.
In the Florida Keys, at sea level, there are dense tropical forests of Caribbean plants, some of them poisonous.
In Northwest Florida – the Florida Panhandle – abrupt elevation changes mean Appalachian-style ridges, bluffs, and ravines with mountain laurel co-exist within a few miles of ancient cypress swamps.
Some of Florida’s habitats are perennially dry, like the scrub. It is Florida’s own version of a desert, atop the blinding white sands of ancient oceanfront dunes.
Some habitats – including prairies, pine flatwoods, and hydric hammocks – retain water for a while after a rain, as it slowly percolates back into the ground.
Others habitats are always or often wet. Like floodplain forests and bayheads, mud flats, and coastal estuaries. Florida has a rich diversity and complexity of marshes, including the world’s only Everglades.
Habitats & Plants
Florida’s botanical bounty means a million shades of green. Here are photos and descriptions to help you identify plants, shrubs, grasses, mosses, and trees in Florida.
Water defines our state. We have over 12,000 miles of rivers, which means lots of great paddling. We have more than 600 named springs, and thousands more that remain nameless.
Florida is also home to one of America’s largest lakes, Lake Okeechobee. While it’s not a great paddling destination due to its size and alligator population, you can walk or bike 119 miles around it on a trail.
If you you truly want to get into Florida’s wild places, expect to get your feet wet now and again. Especially along the Florida Trail, one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in America.
The wildest section of the Florida Trail, unlike any other hike in the world, is the 30 mile stretch at its southernmost tip that crosses the heart of the Big Cypress Swamp.
It’s Florida’s roughest, wettest, weirdest backpacking trip, best tackled with friends. Along this 30 mile stretch of the Florida Trail in the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve, immersing in the swamp is the point of the hike. Sandra tackled it as the final stretch of her multi-year 1,110-mile section hike of the Florida Trail, end-to-end.
You can choose not to hike in such a wet place, of course. There are plenty of drier options. But our wildest areas in Florida are mainly that way because they are wet. Particularly at the tip of the Florida peninsula.
As a Florida hiker, you have to be aware of what is going on with water across the state. Did a hurricane drop a lot of water this fall? Is it unseasonably wet this winter, instead of dry?
Play it safe and check ahead on water levels before you drive to a specific location to hike. If our rivers are flooding, many trails may be inaccessible or dangerous to hike.
If rivers are flooding while outside temperatures are also dropping, it’s a recipe for hypothermia.
Before you head outdoors in Florida, you need to understand our wildlife.
It was disturbing that the rather large alligator we described at the beginning of this page wasn’t afraid of humans. And that was the problem. Normally, alligators won’t sit there and hiss. They’re scared of us.
We’re much taller. We look threatening. They quickly slip into the water when they hear you approach, just like most snakes will get out of your way before you even see them.
But if someone feeds an alligator, its walnut-sized brain associates humans with food, and it can’t tell a foot from a hamburger bun. Game over.
We weren’t the only ones along that levee, and after we left, the alligator took that position once again, blocking all the other hikers and cyclists from passing through.
It might have been fed. It might have been extremely territorial. But the likelihood that someone could get hurt by getting too close to it was very high.
When we returned to the car, I called 866-FWC-GATOR to inform Florida Fish & Wildlife that there was an aggressive alligator along a heavily-used trail.
It’s rare that an alligator stands its ground. But just recently, we were hiking at a wetlands park in the Orlando area when a very large alligator came striding around a sharp curve towards us.
We stopped. It saw us, laid down, and kept quiet. That’s normal alligator behavior for alligators that have encountered humans but want nothing from them. It just wanted to use the trail.
Since the option was there for us to backtrack, we did. Once we were out of its field of vision, it started walking again, heading up the trail to its destination. We heard the big splash as it plopped into the pond.
Should you be afraid of alligators? No. But you should respect them and give them a good bit of distance – 20 feet as a minimum – as you explore Florida’s outdoors.
Tips from Florida Fish & Wildlife on how best to manage encounters with Florida black bears, which are becoming more common in certain parts of Florida.
Coral snake or king snake? Their coloration is similar so it’s tough to tell, but remember the rhyme, “red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” Don’t pick snakes up!
Because they are so small, insects don’t receive the proportion of concern and respect that panthers and bears do. You are far more likely to encounter a biting insect in Florida than have any mammal walk up to you.
Know which insects to be concerned about and how to deal with them if you are bitten.
Beyond what is outlined above, these are additional safety considerations you need to think about if you are new to Florida or new to hiking.
Hiking solo? Here are suggestions how to watch after your own personal safety when you walk in the woods or on urban trails alone
Plan a Florida Hike
These are additional basics for hike planning that are very specific to Florida. We encourage you to read all of these articles before you head outside, especially if you are new to our state and thinking about backpacking.
How to hike in Florida – the basics of what you need to know for hiking in Florida, whether you’re day hiking or backpacking.
The Ten Essentials and More: a checklist for items to bring when day hiking and backpacking in Florida, to plan for the differences you’ll encounter in Florida’s unique conditions
Details on how to obtain passes and permits for Florida’s public lands, including Florida State Parks, State Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, National Federal Lands, and Eglin Air Force Base.
Folks who don’t live in Florida assume that we’re warm and sunny all the time. Not so. Winter days can be cold and damp. Your best defense: pile on those layers!
This question keeps popping up: what are the best hiking boots? John explains how, through trial by trail, he figured out what works for him. His advice? Keep trying.
Can you go lightweight on your feet when hiking? John explains his trial and error with lightweight options and preferences for when to wear lightweight shoes and sandals
What does a hiker need to spend a week, or a month, or three months on the trail? Here are trail-tested suggestions for backpacking in Florida for trips of a week or more
Planning a backpacking trip? One thing to consider – very carefully – is what things weight vs. their importance to you, especially on a trip of more than a week.