What You Need to Know About Alligators Before Hiking or Paddling in Florida

They’re big, scaly, and have a massive set of jaws. But as long as they take a few easy precautions, hikers and kayakers can coexist peacefully with gators.

Photo: Troy Harrison / Moment via Getty

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Sadly, you can’t visit Jurassic Park. But if you dream of seeing huge reptiles, you can visit Florida, and that’s a close second. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates there are 1.3 million alligators in the state, spanning all of its 67 counties. Spend enough time hiking or paddling there, and you’re guaranteed to see a few. If you’re not the kind of person who wishes to see a velociraptor in real life, however, that probably sounds like less of a dream and more of a nightmare.

Alligators are certainly intimidating. They’re huge, with mature males averaging about 11 feet long and 500 pounds in weight, have powerful jaws lined with 80 sharp teeth, and swallow their food—fish, snakes, turtles, and small mammals—whole. In theory, they could hurt a human if they wanted to, and on rare occasions, they do. (Ask Jeffrey Heim, who suffered a severe head wound after a gator bit him in Florida’s Myakka River, and later told his story on our Out Alive podcast.) 

The good news? Alligators don’t view humans as food, and attacks are exceedingly rare. According to the FWC, there were 442 unprovoked alligator bite incidents between 1948 and 2021, an average of about six a year. Factor in the sheer number of alligators in Florida, and it’s clear that humans and gators can coexist peacefully. Here’s what hikers and paddlers should know about staying safe around these modern-day dinos.

Swim and Filter Water Carefully

Alligators spend most of their time in and around water, so it won’t surprise anyone to hear that’s where most attacks happen. Don’t venture into lakes, rivers, or swamps outside of designated swimming areas, and only swim during daylight hours. Even if you’re not swimming, use caution while filtering water: At dawn and dusk, when gators are most active, they may mistake silhouetted humans at the water’s edge for prey. Hiking with small kids? Keep a close eye on them and keep them away from the water’s edge.

Alligators in everglades
USA, Florida, Everglades, (Photo: Westend61)

Leave Fido at Home

Alligators rarely prey on humans—we’re just too big to make a good meal. One thing they do regularly prey on, though? Pets. A 2006 paper from the Florida state medical examiner noted that many alligator attacks begin when the animal tries to take a dog or cat, only later turning its attention to the nearby human. If you plan on hiking or camping in gator country, keep your dog leashed and far from the water’s edge. If that’s not possible? Leave them with the sitter.

Don’t Feed the Gators

We should all know by now not to feed wild animals, ever, under any circumstances. But it’s worth saying again: Giving a free lunch to a gator is a very bad idea. Like bears, human-fed alligators learn to associate human beings with food. That isn’t just dangerous for the person doing the feeding, it’s hazardous for the next kayaker to come along and encounter an 11-foot who’s looking for a meal and thinks a human is a good place to get it. Finish your scraps, or follow LNT and pack them out.

Give Gators Space

If you encounter an alligator on the trail, give it space, and lots of it. Start by making noise—stomp your feet, clap your hands—to make it aware of your presence, and give it a chance to leave the area. If it isn’t inclined to move along and you need to pass it, stay at least 20 feet away and circle around the tail end to avoid making it feel trapped. See one in the water? Give it a wide berth and avoid pointing your kayak directly towards it.

American crocodiles
American crocodile (Photo: GriffinGillespie / iStock via Getty)

What About Crocodiles?

South Florida, including the Everglades, is the only place in the world where you can find both alligators and crocodiles. While they’ve come a long way since nearly going extinct in the 1970s, American crocodiles are rarer—much, much rarer— in Florida than gators: State officials estimate that there are roughly 1,500 to 2,000 adults in the wild. Unlike alligators, crocs prefer saltwater, so you’ll mostly find them paddling around the coast. Compared to gators, they have a narrower, v-shaped snout and are usually a lighter green-brown color.

From a hiker and paddler safety standpoint, however, the difference between the two is mostly academic. The FWC’s advice for dealing with both is more or less the same: Give them plenty of space, only swim in posted areas during daylight, and whatever you do, don’t feed them or any of their potential prey animals.

From 2023