There’s something Pac-Man-esque about floating through the saw grass–lined sloughs and mangrove stands of South Florida. Like the classic arcade game, the Everglades are filled with mazes and monsters to challenge even the most seasoned paddlers. But if you can navigate the tides and the uncompromisingly flat terrain, avoid alligators and insects, and keep your GPS in good working order, you’ll be rewarded with a truly unique wetland adventure.
“Entire books have been written on paddling the Everglades,” says Charles Wright, naturalist, angler, and lead guide at the eco-minded Everglades Area Tours in Everglades City, Florida. Wright is happy to share his own tips, but first points to A Paddler's Guide to Everglades National Park, by Johnny Malloy (“He does a good job documenting routes, campsites, et cetera,” says the lifelong outdoorsman), and the latest version of theEverglades National Park Wilderness Planner.
The latter contains administrative housekeeping (overnight camping permits are $10, plus $2 per person per day), as well as sound advice for Everglades newbies (avoid summer trips, which tend to be hot and buggy; first-timers should try a one- or two-night trip on the marked Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail, home to two backcountry chickee-hut sites).
Wright breaks down his own sage advice by category:
- Permits. “You can only get a backcountry permit in person, 24 hours in advance of your trip,” he says, adding that you should plan a couple of backup routes in case your preferred campsite is taken. You can obtain a permit at the Flamingo Visitor Center, at the southern tip of the state, or at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City.
- Water. “Fresh water is life in the Everglades, but you will be paddling in salt water,” he advises. “There are no accessible fresh-water sources, so plan for one gallon per person per day. On extended trips, transporting water is a major consideration.”
- Tides. Get to know ’em, he suggests, adding that water flow in passes and tidal rivers can reach speeds of three knots.
- Weather. “The waters are shallow and, though mostly protected, can be very choppy when the wind picks up,” he cautions. “And the sun and the cold must be considered. Both can do real damage to your body.”
- Navigation. “Florida is one giant pancake. Even to experienced paddlers and navigators, this area is deceptive,” he says. “Know how to use your charts and compass—and you must trust them.”