How to Plan Your First Kayak Trip – Lessons from the Everglades

Jennifer Pharr Davis is a record-breaking thru hiker, entrepreneur, mother, public speaker and published author. Needless to say, she knows a thing or two about pushing through new and uncomfortable experiences. Or so she thought!

Jennifer Pharr Davis is a record-breaking thru hiker, entrepreneur, mother, public speaker and published author. Needless to say, she knows a thing or two about pushing through new and uncomfortable experiences. Or so she thought! Read on to find out what she and her family experienced on a recent kayaking trip in the Everglades and tips for how they will plan their next kayak trip to Everglades NP differently.


My family and I went on a three day / two night paddle in Everglades National Park last year. I wish I could say it was life changing. In a way, I guess it was. In that my husband may never convince me to go on another paddle for the rest of my life. I’m kidding. I think. 

We learned a lot. A lot that can be applied to future trips and a lot worth sharing with other paddle newbies like ourselves. So in an effort to let our pain and suffering not go to waste, I will share a thing or two with you here. 

But first, some context. We are adventurers. We have spent a LOT of time in national parks. Our kids are young (9 and 5) but I would say they’re tougher than most. My husband grew up taking weeklong river trips with his family as a teen. And we get on the water a half dozen times or so every summer. 

We did our homework. We talked to a friend who convinced us this would be a good idea. He’s someone we trust. Well, used to trust. I’m kidding. I think. But he had done these trips for years with his sons. They’re big into fishing and they come down from New Hampshire every January. We came down from North Carolina in April. There were big differences between his experience and ours. Here are a few of them.

We didn’t rent the best possible gear and I wish we had. We had serviceable boats. Nothing fancy but also not cheap. I wish we’d played more toward our strengths and spent the extra $100 a day for kayaks we could pedal instead of paddle. Our boats were heavy and so were our paddles. Apparently there are carbon ones that are light as a feather. Ours were not. I will say Astral gave us some primo PFDs. For that we were very grateful, and very comfortable. It was pretty much the only piece of equipment we had that the other boaters around us were like, “ooh, good choice.” 

Speaking of other boaters, we saw very few. Like, two. That’s a sign right there that you’re probably doing something you shouldn’t be doing. Or at least at a time you shouldn’t be doing it. We picked their brains to see what we were doing wrong. They mentioned our boats and paddles were heavier and not as streamlined as their sea kayaks were, but other than that they said we were doing the right things, just up against some challenging circumstances. 

Challenging, you say? What challenges? Well, for starters there was nowhere to park our boats. I mean, we’d have 6-7 miles a day to paddle and the only place to take a leak, put on sunscreen, or make a PB&J without floating away was to wedge yourself up into some mangrove roots. We managed to find a beach or two here and there, and when I say beach, they were, like 30 x 10 foot swaths of crap sand or oyster shells. They were better than nothing, there just weren’t many of them. And that made for long paddles without a break. Which again, if we’d had the pedals instead of the paddles, we could have handled easier. Our kids were troopers, but they weren’t much help so it was just my husband and me doing the heavy lifting. Rest time was at a premium and I wish there’d been more of it. 

When we did make land, we had one glorious night on a beach all to ourselves, except for thousands of fiddler crabs my husband fell in love with. The other night, we shared the island with the couple who introduced us to the carbon fiber paddles. We also shared it with a family of raccoons who literally licked the dew off our overturned kayaks and rain flies on our tents because it was the only freshwater they’d have all day. Poor little guys. It hadn’t rained in a while, the rangers told us, so the raccoons were really thirsty. But they were far from our worst campsite guests. Those would be the thousands (tens of thousands?) of no see ums whose bite was shockingly painful for the size of the insect. They made us all miserable both at night and the next morning, and there was no breeze to keep them at bay or to cool us off and make us more comfortable laying on top of our sleeping bags.

Mercifully, the last morning was smooth sailing back to Everglades City where we rewarded ourselves with local grouper, alligator bites and the best Corona with lime I’ve ever tasted. 

So what were our takeaways? And what will we do differently next time? I will say, we didn’t have such a flat out miserable experience that we’ll never go again. But… 

  1. We might not go to a place where we’re fighting the wind nonstop. We knew when the tides were going out and coming in and it didn’t seem to matter. We were always up against it. Or at least it felt that way. The wind was strong off the Gulf of Mexico and that made for some choppy waters. 
  2. Next time, we’ll start with a nice, smooth flowing river. Maybe the Buffalo in Arkansas or the French Broad closer to home. The current is your friend. So is the bank, both when you need a pee break or when there’s a storm.
  3. If you insist on an open water paddle, it might make sense to wait until everyone in your boat/family can contribute to the positive forward motion required. What I mean is, don’t go with young kids unless you can get where you need to go by yourself with an additional 150 pounds of children, gear, food and water, and a boat.
  4. I also think, in a broad sense, I would consider “what are our potential bugaboos and how can we mitigate them?” In this case, the challenges were heavy boats and paddles, the tide, the wind, bugs, kids who couldn’t help much, and the fear of being whisked out to sea. That’s a lot. But everything on that list can be fixed under the right circumstances.

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