Everglades National Park backcountry

Don checks his GPS in the backcountry of Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is loaded with backcountry. Although the Park is located squarely in south Florida, the state's most populated area, within the Park boundaries lies some of the wildest country east of the Mississippi. Keep in mind, Everglades National Park encompasses some 2,354 square miles, making it this nation's third largest national park.

Wilderness Waterway

Perhaps one of the most widely known backcountry treks is the Wilderness Waterway , a 99-mile marked water route from Everglades City to Flamingo. Of course, the trip can go from Flamingo to Everglades City too. I prefer this way because at the end of the trip, you arrive in Everglades City, where there's a choice of accommodations. If you arrive late, dirty, and tired in Flamingo, there's no place to stay other than the cold-shower campground. At times like this, a hot shower, dinner at a nice restaurant, and a comfortable room are well worth the price.

No matter which way you run it, however, the Wilderness Waterway runs through the heart of the great mangrove wilderness. Along the way, you encounter not only winds and tides, but waters large and small, from great Whitewater Bay to small, narrow passageways that prevent larger boats--over 18 feet--and those with high windshields from getting through. A guidebook that has been around for decades (I used it in the 1970's) is A Guide to the Wilderness Waterway of the Everglades National Park, by William G. Truesdell.

If you're paddling the route, allow at least a week, some say 8 to 10 days. Some motorboats can make the entire trip (one-way) in a day. One-day round trips, as I recall, are not recommended.

Other Canoe Trails

In addition to the Wilderness Waterway, there are also smaller canoe trails in the Flamingo area.
And from the Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City, there are also some trips

Make Your Own Trail

If you're like me, you may decide to make your own trail. That's one of the beauties of this place. The mangrove wilderness is a complex maze of waterways. With chart, compass, and GPS in hand, just set out into the wilderness to explore what you want to see.

You'll need to plan your trip somewhat, though, because you must have a backcountry permit from the Park Service if you plan to stay out overnight. You can't reserve campsites ahead of your trip; you have to select them when you show up. That means you must be flexible. If a campsite you want is not available, you'll need to come up with an alternate route. In winter, you may encounter a problem reserving a place. In summer, if you're willing to put up with voracious mosquitoes, you'll probably have almost the whole backcountry to yourself.

Another idea--if I understand this correctly, you can sleep in your boat anywhere in the water areas of the Park. Check with the Park Service for specifics.

Be Prepared in the Backcountry

Know how to navigate

The islands and channels of Everglades backcountry present a complex navigational challenge. With the proper knowledge and preparation, it's not hard to find your way. With zero-to-poor navigation skills, however, it's a good bet you'll get lost. So, be able to read a marine chart and relate it to a reliable compass. Also, be comfortable with your GPS.

In my experience, if you have a working GPS and you know how to use it, you just about can't get lost. But don't rely on the GPS alone. A good navigator never relies on a single source of information. Know how to use your chart and compass, too. Actually, I find it a lot of fun and very satisfying to navigate my way through this place with only map and compass. It's like a game for me. I only pull out the GPS every now and then to verify my position or to see how far it is to my next destination.

Carry proper nautical charts, preferably waterproof. Order them from www.waterproofcharts.com. The regular paper charts disintegrate with use. I'd hate to be stuck in some obscure Everglades waterway with a handful of wet paper that used to be a chart.

Strong winds and tides may affect your ability to get to where you want to go, especially if you're paddling. For canoers and kayakers, especially, pick up a tide chart at the Ranger Station before you leave so you can plan your trip to take maximum advantage of rising and falling tides. The Park Service says to figure on paddling no more than 8 to 12 miles a day.

A good guidebook is valuable. For me, there's nothing better than Johnny Malloy's book, A Paddlers Guide to Everglades National Park. Seems like this guy has paddled about every square inch of the backcountry. What he has to say is worth your while.

Backcountry Communications

To me, part of being prepared is providing myself with the ability to communicate with the outside world in case of an emergency. With today's technology, you can venture to virtually any spot on earth and still be able to call for help when you need to.

Imagine being way in the backcountry, you've just stumbled over a vine, fallen to the ground, cracked four ribs, punctured a lung, and are having increasing difficulty with your breathing. How'd you like to be able to call for help?

Fortunately, satellite phones and emergency beacons have made isolation of wilderness travelers a relic of days gone by. Normally, in the backcountry, I like to carry a sat phone, usually an Iridium because it gives me dependable coverage. Unlike cell phones, sat phones don't depend on a land-based tower being within three to five miles; they only have to "see" the right satellite to be able to complete a call. In my experience, the Iridium can just about always do that. To protect the sat phone from the sand and saltwater, I carry it in a watertight Pelican case. The sat phone not only makes by backcountry trips safer, but also more enjoyable because I have a larger margin for error.

A satellite phone provides an extra margin of safety

A personal locator beacon (PLB) is also a good choice. Sometimes called a PBIRB (short for personal EPIRB) it's about the size of a TV remote. When you get in trouble, you just set it off, its 406 MHz signal hits a satellite, and within twenty minutes or so, the authorities will know WHO you are (it's registered to you), and WHERE you are to within about 100 meters or so.

A VHF marine radio is always good to have, although coverage may be spotty. With a decent antenna on your boat, you might be able to hit Flamingo. Even with a hand-held marine radio, you might be able to hit another boat that's within about five miles of you. It's not certain, but it's still good to have.

All this said, communications or no communications, you must still go into the wilds prepared. Plan on fending for yourself for days if necessary. In bad weather, for example, rescuers may not be able to get to you until the weather lets up.

While the ability to communicate with the rest of the world is no guarantee of safety, if the technology to do so is available, you can bet your last box of Bisquick I'm going to use it. We are living in the age of personal communications. The days of isolated wilderness travelers are fast coming to a close.

Carry all equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard

Also, all boaters--including canoeists and kayakers--should always carry all equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard--personal flotation devices (PFDs), flares or other visual distress signals, sound producing devices, and proper lights are a must. Fire extinguishers are required for any craft 26 feet or more, and for many under 26 feet, depending on how they're built and what kind of motor they have. Remember, when you head out into Everglades backcountry, you're entering an expansive, wild, and unforgiving territory. Be prepared.

Different Types of Backcountry Campsites

There are three different types of backcountry campsites: ground sites, chickees, and beach sites.

GROUND SITES The Everglades is a watery world. Precious little backcountry land exists for campsites, but some ground sites are available. Cane Patch, deep in the back country, is one of them. My good friend, Don, and I spent a couple of days here once on a search for a passageway to the Shark River slough. It got down to 35 degrees this night. "Record cold," they said. Morning coffee was just the thing to take the chill off.

Cane Patch campsite, deep in the backcountry of Everglades National Park

CHICKEES To solve the problem of scarce land, the Park Service has erected what they call chickees--wooden sleeping platforms with portable toilets.

Shark River chickee

BEACH SITES Cape Sable boasts miles of beautiful beaches. (If it weren't for the Park, I'm convinced there'd be a four-lane to the Cape, and this great wilderness would be loaded with high-rise hotels.) The Park Service allows beach camping just about anywhere along the beach. Just build your campfire below the high tide line.

Camping on a Cape Sable beach

Check Out These Backcountry Trips

The Gulf Coast Ranger station is your gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands. Read about this trip to remote Tiger Key Leaving from Flamingo, you may wish to circumnavigate wild and beautiful Cape Sable.