Big Cypress National Preserve is a prime example of natural Florida unfamiliar to most visitors, filled with natural wonders that are also potential hazards at times. There is no guarantee of your safety, yet it need not be dangerous. Whether exploring the backcountry, canoeing in Turner River, observing wildlife, or simply driving on Tamiami Trail, let safety be your constant companion. Regulations are strictly enforced to protect you and the preserve's wonders. Spend a moment reviewing these common safety concerns, so that you will have an enjoyable visit.
Travel Notification and Emergency Contacts
Before entering the backcountry, you need to fill out a backcountry permit. The forms and instructions are located at each trailhead kiosk. Please make sure to sign and date the form. Keep the top copy with you and place the carbon copies in the drop box. It is always a good idea to file an itinerary with family and friends. Let them know where you are planning on traveling and when you will return. It is also a good idea to carry a Personal Locator Beacon, if possible. These can be activated in the event of an emergency.
In case of an emergency, call Preserve Dispatch at 800-788-0511.
To protect yourself from disease, treat water from any natural source before drinking.
The most reliable way to disinfect water is to boil it for three minutes. Otherwise, use a filter rated to remove bacteria and protozoa (1 micron or smaller filter). After filtering, treat the water with two drops of chlorine bleach per quart (liter) of water for 30 minutes in order to kill viruses (which are not removed by filters).
To prevent the spread of Giardia and other water-borne disease organisms, use restroom facilities where available, and wash or sanitize your hands often.
Most visitor injuries and accidental deaths in Big Cypress result from car accidents. While driving is a great way to see the preserve, it can also be dangerous, particularly if you are tired, or are going too fast. Follow posted speed limits, and with the assistance from the RADS system watch for wildlife that may be crossing the road, especially at night.
Remember, you share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians. Florida state law requires a 3-foot buffer between vehicles and bicycles.
Fire danger is always an important safety consideration in Big Cypress. Wood or ground fires are sometimes prohibited in the preserve and you must exercise caution in the use of gas stoves, charcoal grills, and cigarettes. Big Cypress occasionally experiences drought conditions and some restrictions may apply to the use of these heat sources. Check with a park ranger for the latest information about fire safety in the national preserve.
Big Cypress truly is wild country. In fact, many people visit Big Cypress precisely because it is remote and rugged. But remember, as you enjoy the splendor of this great wilderness area, to make safety a priority. By giving forethought to your actions you can have a safe, exciting, and rewarding vacation in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Big Cypress is panther country. While panther attacks are rare, they do occur. Should you encounter an aggressive panther, hold your ground, wave your arms, throw stones, and shout. Never run. Keep groups together and consider hiking elsewhere with young children if you come across a special panther warning sign posted at a trailhead. It is strongly advised to not hike alone.
Exploring this swampy and wild country on foot requires both mental and physical preparation. Trails vary from well maintained to primitive and barely visible. Plan hikes within your ability. Take along a map and compass and know how to use them. Be aware of weather and avoid hiking during inclement weather. If you get caught by a storm, stay low and avoid clearings. Carry a flashlight and a first aid kit. Let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return. Provide them with the National Park Service Dispatch emergency number. If you do not return within eight hours of your anticipated return time, and they are unable to make contact with you they should contact Dispatch and provide your itinerary information. If you get hurt or lost, stay in one place to conserve water and energy. Signal for help; three blasts on a whistle is a well-recognized distress call. In remote areas, a large "X" marked on the ground by any means visible from the air will signify that help is needed. Carry a signal mirror. Remember to obtain a free backcountry use permit before heading out overnight. Hunting is allowed within the Preserve from September through December and in March. Hikers should wear a lightweight, blaze orange vest during hunting seasons.
South Florida receives more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the United States and there are more casualties from lightning strikes than all other natural hazards combined. Thunderstorms are common in the summer months, appearing almost every afternoon like clockwork. In the winter months, storms and lightning are less frequent, but may be as severe. In the event that a storm builds, stay as close to the ground as possible and stay away from tall trees or isolated tall objects. A ditch or shrubby area is the safest place to be.
Keep in mind that Big Cypress is home to a variety of creatures, including large species such as panthers, alligators and black bears. It is important that we act respectfully and never approach or feed the wildlife. Although they sometimes appear tame, all of the animals in the national preserve are wild, and could pose a threat to your health and safety if you attempt to approach or feed them. Most wildlife will move off the trail when it hears you coming, but in the event that you meet an alligator on the trail, give it a wide berth and do not attempt to move it yourself. To prevent these creatures from becoming habituated to people, store all food, coolers, cooking utensils, and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle, preferably in the trunk of your car. Dispose of garbage properly. Remember to report sightings of bears and panthers to a park ranger.
Tropical heat can kill you. The average high temperature in Florida during the summer months is around 95 degrees. Factoring in humidity, the heat index often soars to over 100 degrees. It is very easy to get overheated, or dehydrated while participating in outdoor activities. Carry plenty of water (at least one gallon per person, per day) and wear a hat, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and sunscreen when hiking. Plan ahead and bring water with you, or stock up at the Oasis Visitor Center or Big Cypress Welcome Center. Though it is not recommended, if you do collect water in the backcountry, be sure to treat it properly to destroy any microscopic organisms. Use caution when hiking during mid-day in summer; travel as wild animals do, in the early morning or late evening hours rather than during the high heat of the mid day. If you can't quench your thirst or become lightheaded and nauseated, you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Find a shaded location and rest, drinking water slowly before the more severe heat stroke can set in.
Finding your way in the backcountry can be difficult, even for experienced outdoor enthusiasts. Familiarize yourself with trails before traveling into the Preserve. A GPS unit and coordinates can save a life, keep the tracking system on at all times if possible. Carry a compass and map, and know how to navigate using these tools.
Several poisonous plants can be found throughout the national preserve and it is important to be familiar with them. Poison ivy is very common, usually found as a creeping vine. Keep the phrase "leaves of three, let it be" in mind when moving through dense vegetation. Poisonwood is also found in the southern portion of the preserve, identified by its shiny, leathery green leaves. Both species can cause red, itchy rashes. Some people may also have a similar reaction to Brazilian pepper, an exotic shrub found commonly throughout Big Cypress. Check with your local pharmacy for products that can be applied before and after contact with either species. Keep these safety tips in mind as you enjoy your experience in Big Cypress National Preserve. Please travel safely in the backcountry.
PROPER ATTIRE & EQUIPMENT
Long sleeves and long pants can help protect you from branches, sawgrass, or other obstacles that may pierce your skin. Closed toed shoes are necessary to protect toes and ankles from roots, caprock or other obstacles along trails. A wide brimmed hat will also help protect against sunburn. Remember that the South Florida sun is intense and sunscreen should be applied frequently. Other important things to carry include a first aid kit, flashlight, whistle, extra food and water, bug spray, warm clothing and matches or a fire starter. Also, check the backcountry kiosk for hunting season dates before entering the trail and remember to wear at least 500 square inches of fluorescent orange as a safety precaution.
Click here for a short video highlighting important items to pack before coming out to the national preserve.
Venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders are active year round. Inspect your shoes and sleeping bags or bedding before use and always carry a flashlight at night. While snake bites are rare, they usually occur below the knee or elbow. None are aggressive, but can strike if provoked. Pay attention to where you walk and place your hands. Consider wearing high boots or protective leggings while hiking. Stay a safe distance from any wildlife. If you are bitten by a snake, it is crucial to exit the backcountry and go to the nearest emergency room.
Keep YOUR national preserve clean! Pack it in; pack it out.
While hiking or camping in the backcountry, where facilities are not available pack out all trash and food scraps. Deposit solid human waste in a hole at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. An even better option is to take it with you.
By doing so, you help prevent others from coming into contact with waste, which is hazardous to health, not to mention unsightly.