Photo: Made For More Productions/Shuttrstock

Swamp Walking Is the Unconventional Adventure to Try This Year

Outdoor Hiking
by Matthew Meltzer Mar 15, 2024

Generally, the response I get when telling people I’m going on a swamp walk is one word: “Nope.”

Visions of alligators, mosquitoes, and that unforgettable leech scene from Stand by Me generally prevent people from exploring the elegant ecosystems of swamps around the world, but swamps get unfairly bad rap. They’re always preceded by words like “inhospitable” and “treacherous.” But in fact, they’re some of the most peaceful, idyllic settings in the world. And when you experience them in the right way, you can find in a swamp a connection with nature you won’t find in most other natural environments.

swamp walking - pretty Louisiana swamp

Spoiler: swamps can be absolutely beautiful. Photo: David A Litman/Shutterstock

That’s why swamp walking is such a meaningful experience. In a nutshell, swamp walking is when you put on pants, tighten your shoes, and literally immerse yourself in the murky, life-filled waters of a swamp. Few other outdoor adventures connect you as closely to your surroundings as swamp walking, allowing you to feel the cooling rush of blackwater on your body while smelling the mossy air and hearing breezes rustle through cypress trees.

Swamp walking mixes overcoming your fear of the unknown with the joy of establishing a deep connection with nature, and will give you a new appreciation for a world you once assumed you’d never want to see. Here’s what to know about the growing pastime.

What is swamp walking?

Swamp walking is exactly what it sounds like: walking through a swamp. But unlike short jaunts into wetlands along carefully constructed boardwalks, during a swamp walk, you’re literally immersed in your surroundings. You’ll hike along “trails” that may be under waist-deep (or deeper) water, giving you a taste of what Indigenous people and settlers experienced when traversing through the majestic wetlands hundreds of years ago.

Part of the fun of a swamp walk is that you can explore wherever piques your interest, because you’re not confined to a boardwalk or marked trail. So once you’re on a swamp walk, the entire landscape is yours. Think of it like backcountry hiking, just under a couple of feet of water.

“You can go off trail here,” says park ranger Lisa Andrews, the Outreach and Education Coordinator and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. “You can go any place that’s calling your name. If you see a cypress dome or pineland that looks interesting, go check it out.”

Where to try swamp walking

The biggest and most organized place to go swamp walking in the US is the Big Cypress National Preserve abutting Everglades National Park in South Florida. It’s about half an hour from Naples and Marco Island, and 90 minutes to two hours from Miami. Between October and March, park rangers offer guided swamp walks from the visitors center, sharing information about the terrain and wildlife during the walks. Visitors are welcome to go on their own swamp walks the rest of the year, and private tours for groups are available during the off-season.

Louisiana also has a handful of parks and preserves where you can go swamp walking, though guided tours aren’t quite as organized. About half an hour from New Orleans is Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, a smaller, tupelo-cypress swamp popular with hikers. You can also get down and dirty in the swamps at the Honey Island Swamp, about 45 minutes northeast of New Orleans near the town of Slidell. Most of the guided tours are on kayaks, but if you park just outside the swamp, you’re free to explore on your own.

Other states like New Jersey and Mississippi also have swamps set aside as nature preserves. Most of the hikes are along boardwalks and won’t give you the same experience, but if off-trail hiking is allowed, you can explore there as well. You’ll also find plenty of wetland parks around the US that have options for off-trail exploration, but make sure you know where you are and aren’t allowed to venture, as many wetlands have areas that are off-limits to the public to preserve wildlife habitats.

What you can expect to see on a swamp walk

an egret seen on a swamp walk

Great egret (Ardea alba) posing on a stump in Lake Martin swamp. Photo: Paul S. Wolf/Shutterstock

Like any hike, what you see during a swamp walk depends on a lot of factors, from the time of year to the weather and the local conditions. During rainier seasons, expect to see lots of birds like pelicans, herons, and ibis in Florida, interspersed with rare spoonbills. In Louisiana, you might come across a barred owl hooting from a tree, as well as warblers, vireos, wrens, and cardinals. You’ll also be surrounded by canopies of cypress trees, and in Louisiana, you’ll see Spanish moss dripping from their branches.

Of course, you may also encounter an alligator or two, which Andrews says is an exceptional event and something to be excited about, rather than afraid of.

Beyond the wildlife and beautiful trees, the most impressive thing is the water itself. While it may appear black from a distance, when you step into the swamp, you’ll realize much of it is completely clear, like you’d find while swimming in the Med or snorkeling around Caribbean islands.

“One of the most magical parts is the water,” says Andrews of swamp walking. “It’s the lifeblood of the whole place, and seeing how clear it is, and being able to see all those aquatic plants and things underneath the water is pretty magical.”

The best time to go swamp walking

The optimal time for swamp walking is when swamps are filled with water, but aren’t aggressively hot. That’s typically from about October to mid-April, which is a pleasant time of year in the southeast before the dry season starts. By April, some swamps begin to dry out, leading to fewer birds and less wildlife. August and September are particularly lush and beautiful in most areas of the US where swamps exist, and trees have the thickest foliage and offer the most shade. Weather can be hot and humid in late summer, however, and for as much as the water will cool you down, you’ll still need to carry lots of drinking water and wear sun-protective clothes. Afternoon thunderstorms often roll in during those months as well, so your swamp walk is best done earlier in the morning.

May and June are when rains begin their returns to most swamps, but as Andrews advises, mosquitoes are also the most abundant. That doesn’t mean you won’t find mosquitoes during other months, but when sporadic puddles of standing water fill the swamp, it turns into a breeding ground for the flying annoyances.

Gear and clothing for swamp walking

father and daughter in a swamp in florida

You can wear any long pants for swamp walking, but jeans are generally not recommended as they hold a lot of water and take a long time to dry. Photo: Lisa F. Young/Shuttrstock

Swamp walking isn’t overly technical, since you won’t have elevation gains of more than a few feet. It is wet and muddy, though, and Andrews suggests wearing a pair of old gym or trail shoes you don’t mind ruining, versus traditional hiking boots. The bottom can get muddy, so old sneakers are better than, say, flip flops, or some kind of slide that may get stuck in the mud.

“We tell everyone to wear long pants to protect your legs, and old sneakers work best,” she says. “Big waders don’t work here because if you trip and fall, they fill up with water. And heavy boots also fill up with water and create blisters. Old sneakers that drain quickly are the best thing for your feet.”

You’ll definitely want to wear pants, but it’s more to protect your legs from branches and plants than to protect from bugs or anything in the water. Usually, swamp water isn’t filled with too many small insects or anything that’ll swim up your pant leg, so banish any thoughts along those lines. You can wear jeans (or whatever fabric you want), but remember that fabrics like denim and cotton take a long time to dry. So it’s better to use a pair of hiking or quick-dry athletic pants. Shirts with built-in SPF protection are always good.

Beyond that, insect repellant can help stave off mosquitoes, though the chemicals in it can seep into the water, which isn’t ideal for the fragile ecosystem. Andrews suggests stepping outside to assess the insect situation before slathering yourself in Deet, because during much of the year, you won’t need it. You can also try natural mosquito and bug repellents, neem oil or citronella.

And, of course, you’ll need plenty of water no matter what time of year you walk, as well as a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection.

Do I need a guide?

Like any trek through untamed wilderness, if you’re not overly familiar with the area, swamp walking is best done with a guide. While some parks do have designated swamp walking trails, they’re not marked like traditional trails. And the maze of cypress trees and black water can be disorienting.

“If there’s the opportunity to do it with a guide or a ranger in a park, that might help them kind of dispel some of those fears and help people feel a little more safe,” says Andrews of first-time swamp walkers. “Going with [a guide] your first time makes you see it isn’t scary at all, and maybe you can do this again by yourself. Definitely make sure you know where you’re going. Get some information, maybe from the visitor’s center, and make sure you wear the proper clothing.”

She also advises moving slowly and looking for landmarks as you go to orient yourself if you’re swamp walking without a guide. Better yet, bring a GPS or a compass to help point you in the right direction.

Swamp walking safety and environmental protection

swamp walking - cypress trees in swamp

Tripping over tree roots will be the biggest risk in swamp walking for most people. Photo: Steve Bower/Shutterstock

When walking in a swamp, or any other sensitive environmental area, the most important thing to do is minimize your impact. Pack out anything you pack in, try to use ocean-friendly and chemical-free products on your skin, and carry out any crash you find, even if you didn’t put it there. Always check and double-check that it’s okay to walk where you’re walking, as many swamps and bogs are homes for plants and animals, and may be off-limits to help protect them.

For humans, the biggest danger in the swamp isn’t an alligator or a water moccasin: it’s the cypress knobs and roots sticking out of the ground that can make you trip or snag your legs. Beyond that, Andrews insists swamp walks are no more dangerous than any other wilderness adventure. As long as you respect the terrain and the animals who live there, you should be fine.

“Everything out there is more afraid of us than we are of them. They don’t want to be anywhere around us,” Andrews says. “That includes the alligators as well. They’ll often just try to find a place to go down deep where they feel safe or sit still. They really don’t want anything to do with us in the natural areas. But you know, it’s considered kind of a special moment to be able to see something like that as long as they don’t startle you.”

She says snakes aren’t really an issue either, as her inherent phobia of snakes hasn’t been in issue during her decades in the Everglades.

“If it were that frightening and dangerous out there, I wouldn’t be out there every day for as long as I have been,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be dragging others through the swamp, either.”

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