Advice to the Novice Hiker/Camper in Florida

Although I've been thinking of putting together this page for a while, what motivated me to actually do it is the desire on the part of some of my friends and students to do some primitive camping in the Central Florida interior. These are people (you may be among them) who have either never gone hiking/camping in the wild before, or are not accustomed to the unique conditions of the Florida Wilderness, specifically, the Ocala National Forest.

DeLeon Springs By comparison with more popular hiking destinations (Appalachian Trail, etc.), it is flat -- which makes hiking easier -- but this is balanced by an often sandy soil -- which makes productive walking more difficult. The flat terrain means little natural running water (except for the occasional spring); in the summer rainy season many areas become swampy and very buggy, not to mention brutally hot and humid. It really can be a jungle. In the winter, however, it can be quite pleasant.


Now for the advice:

Compass When you're on foot in the forest, you are, for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere. Remember that things can sometimes go wrong -- from getting lost overnight in the woods to spraining an ankle or even worse. Not to panic you unnecessarily, but ask yourself: will what you are carrying be sufficient to help you manage a night in the wilderness on your own? It may seem obvious, but there may not be shelter before dark or easy transportation to a hospital. Most of the items below are recommended by most authorities on hiking and backpacking; I add more from experience in hiking/camping the central/northern Florida interior.

In my own thinking, I try to balance the desire to have everything at my fingertips with the probability of what is likely/unlikely to happen -- then choose for light weight, portability, and muliple functionality. One of my favorite aphorisms appears in Ray Jardine's book The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook. Instead of the traditional "It is better to have a piece of gear and not need it, than to need it and not have it" Ray's way is: "If I need it and don't have it, then I don't need it."

St. Francis Interpretive Trail As a tried-and-true fence straddler, I try to find some middle ground here, leaning mostly on my own experience (which is as it should be). So what usually happens to me hiking in Florida, even on day hikes?

So, here's my list of things you should bring to help make your outing a pleasant one. Of course, you should also read up on things like safe firestarting, making camp, wilderness first aid, and other "how to"s, so you'll recognize the wisdom of my list and know how to use the items on it.


Lake Delancey
  1. Map (preferably topographic); and
  2. Compass (preferably a liquid-filled, orienteering compass) -- know how to use them together!
  3. Flashlight (preferably small and waterproof, with an extra bulb in the cap, like a Mini Maglite)
  4. Extra Food (for emergencies -- no-cook sweet things, like hard candy, power bars, and jelly beans. Your body requires more water in digesting salty foods.)
  5. Extra Clothes (especially socks -- packed in a waterproof ziploc freezer bag to keep you dry and if necessary, warm)
  6. Sunglasses (and extra glasses if yours are prescription)
  7. First-Aid Kit: (at least an assortment of band-aids, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream, tylenol, antihistamine, molefoam)
  8. Pocket Knife or Multi-Tool (even the most basic Swiss Army knife has tweezers, which comes in handy for first aid, i.e., tick removal) Hontoon Island
  9. At least 2 ways of starting a fire (Waterproof Matches, Firestarter, Butane lighter -- and a candle)
  10. Clean Water Supply -- and more than one container. If you're going more than a few miles from water, you might want to have a method of filtration, chemical purification (bleach or iodine), or a metal container for boiling.
  11. Whistle (the orange "emergency whistles" often come with a compartment for waterproof matches, a flint firestarter, and even a signal mirror inside the cap). Three toots means you're in serious trouble and are calling for help.
  12. Insect Repellents or Clothing (For Florida, a solution of 15-35% DEET is nearly a must -- preferably not in a cream).
  13. Sunburn Preventatives (sunscreen and chapstick of at least 15 SPF, a floppy hat, and/or bandana --see below).
  14. Rain Poncho (can also be used as an emergency shelter or groundcloth)
  15. Toiletry Kit *: a hand trowel -- for digging dirt, not scooping your poop -- TP/Kleenex, biodegradable soap or hand wash gel to kill the germs.

* How to poop in the woods? Dig a hole six inches in diameter and six inches deep; make your deposit; burn or pack out used paper products; bury the rest and camouflage. Or hold it till you get to a porta-potty, if you dare. The woods are probably cleaner anyway.

St. Francis Interpretive Trail

Other Useful Things

Rather than explain what these are good for, I'll just recommend that you read up or go hiking with me.

Lake Delancey campground

For overnight stays

*NOTE: For the past couple of years, I have been sleeping - very comfortably - in a Clark Jungle Hammock. With a built-in bug net and rain fly, it weighs about 2 lbs. and effectively replaces the tent, sleeping pad, and pillow. This lightens my pack weight by about 4 lbs. 

Hontoon Island, from the top of the tower

Things to enhance the experience

How much is all this going to cost you?

This is a subject not often brought up on hiking/backpacking aficionado pages, yet it's worth consideration. Functional gear can be acquired without gross expenditures of money, but it takes a savvy shopper and the creativity to use items in ways their inventors did not foresee or intend. Much of what follows can be found in your pantry or closet; that should trim the price down. Also, some items can be shared, as long as you stick close to your partner(s). Remember, however, that you get what you pay for, so a splurge on some items might be worth it.

Estimated Costs
Items you probably already own Daypack/fanny pack, Extra Food , Extra Clothes , Water-resistant watch , Sunglasses , Rugged shoes, Hat/cap
Items that can be acquired for under $5 Water bottle, Chapstick, TP/Kleenex, Hand wash gel, Freezer Bags, 2 Cotton bandanas, Reading/writing material, Whistle, Firestarter, Extra flashlight batteries, Sunscreen, Extra tent stakes, Rain Poncho, Map, Insect Repellent, Groom kit
Items that can be acquired for between $5-20 Groundsheet, Repair kit, Hand Trowel, Hammock, Compass, Flashlight, Single-use camera, Field guide(s), Cook kit, Bungie cords/rope, First-Aid Kit.
Items that can be acquired for between $20-50 Pocket Knife or Multi-Tool, Sleeping bag, Binoculars
Items that can be acquired for between $50-100 Self-inflating sleep pad and pillow, Tent, Large backpack
Of course, you can always spend extravagantly, so for those of you who have to have the top of the line, these items can run in excess of $100 Tent, Large backpack, Sleeping bag, Binoculars, Fancied up topo maps.

Final Words

A word on water purity: the Ocala (aka Florida) Trail has well water along the way; most state parks and similar sites also have potable water. If you plan to be really out there, you can drink wild water by filtering it ($50-75), treating it with iodine ($5-10), or boiling it (free except you have to carry around a quart-size metal container and wait for it to cool off before drinking). Do not drink water that comes from a very green still pond. Brown water (from tannic acid) is generally safe, but too much brown may cause temporary stomach upset.

More hiking links? Look here after you look here.

Ken McCoy's Home Page Please address praise, scorn, and other comments concerning the design of this and other personal web pages to Ken McCoy (

Last Update: October 10, 1999