Florida provides a very different hiking experience than everywhere else in the United States, and you need to be prepared for it. You won’t have to worry about elevation gain, but you will have to tangle with humidity, winter weather extremes, tough-on-feet surfaces, and seasonal wading. Here are some key points to get you started with your hike planning.
Before you hike the Florida Trail
If you’ve never hiked in Florida before, read our explanation on how hiking in Florida is very different than in other places around the country. Our hiking season, for instance, is October to April, and the best backpacking is January through March.
Don’t assume because Florida is relatively flat that you will have an easy hike. The Florida Trail is a toughie! Florida is a very wet state with a lot of sand. Many parts of the trail are in floodplains, and a few sections require a good bit of wading. We have alligators, black bears, and panthers to be alert for, as well as thieving raccoons.
If you plan to thru-hike the Florida Trail, keep in mind this is not a social trail like the Appalachian Trail. Less than 250 people have completed the entire trail. Unless you pair up with a hiking partner, much of your hike will be spent in solitude. That’s a plus for many hikers who come here, but not a great idea if you’re thinking that the Florida Trail should be your first long distance hike. Still up for a thru? Jump to this page for more details.
We’ve been helping nurture the trail community here for years, but there are still many Floridians who have no clue that the Florida Trail is in their backyard, including law enforcement. Unlike the AT, hitchhiking is nearly impossible. Residents are uncomfortable with shaggy-haired bearded guys with a backpack because they might be a homeless person. Women have an easier time being accepted, as do couples. Fortunately, many service providers along the way know about the trail and about long distance hikers, and the hikers before you have set the tone for how well you’ll be treated, generally very well. One thing to share with any resident who asks about what you’re doing: our former governor Lawton Chiles once hiked from one end of Florida to the other!
Become a member of the Florida Trail Association (FTA) before you start hiking the Florida Trail. FTA provides the volunteer effort that keeps this statewide trail open. They also produce detailed maps of the trail and a data book. You must be an FTA member to hike through a handful of private lands that the trail crosses, and you should be a member to support the ongoing trail building maintenance efforts of FTA volunteers, now in their 50th year of caretaking this public resource. Get your membership here.
Research other hikers’ experiences. Dig through hiker accounts on TrailJournals.com to have an idea of what to expect, and check out the YouTube channels of Chris Berry (Hiker Slim) and Team Fortis to find out what their hikes were like. Or just watch the top 200 Florida Trail videos on YouTube! Misti “Panther” Little has an excellent writeup on what to think about when planning your hike. We love the video below, produced by 2016 thru-hikers Sunshine and Trail Mix, for showing both the difficulties and joys of hiking the Florida Trail.
If you’re looking for books about the Florida Trail and the hiking experience, check this comprehensive list of all books about the trail, including our own.
Talk to fellow hikers. The Florida Trail Hikers Alliance helps connect hikers through Facebook groups and in person during hiking season at casual hiker gatherings along the trail. Learn more and join a online discussion group.
Choose the right gear. This is a state with outrageous humidity. Tents and clothing don’t dry quickly. Waterproof boots are pointless except for day hiking, since you’ll wade through water deeper than your boots. Choose light and quick drying. Some of our trail-tested, personal recommendations for gear in Florida (links lead to our reviews and/or purchase points) include:
TRAIL SHOES or lightweight hiking boots. Sandra uses New Balance Trail Runners exclusively. John switches back and forth between brands, but likes Hi-Tec, Obos, and Keen as top picks. Here’s John’s take on lightweight shoes for Florida.
SHIRTS. You want fast-drying, wicking, lightweight shirts. Make sure you have at least one in bright orange, since there are portions of the Florida Trail that cross private hunting leases and you MUST wear orange in those sections for your safety, as well as on public lands where hunting is going on. John likes the Columbia Omni-Freeze for hot weather, but it can be chilly in cold weather. FTA sells bright orange technical Ts. Hate orange? Make sure you have a lightweight orange vest in your pack or an orange pack cover for hunting seasons.
GAITERS. NOT for snakes, but to keep debris out of shoes and socks! We use Dirty Girl gaiters because they’re small, lightweight, and all you need. (PS. No need for snake gaiters or a snakebite kit. Most snakes get out of your way. Just stay alert while hiking.)
DURABLE SOCKS. Sand abrades socks badly here. We use Keen Dura-Zone and Smartwool PhDs. The Dura-Zone have already been replaced once under a lifetime warranty after a year of heavy abrasion in Florida sand.
HIKING STICKS. Do you need them in Florida? Yes. Never mind the lack of elevation. You’ll want them for bracing yourself when crossing wet and muddy places, especially the Big Cypress Swamp, but also the western part of St. Marks and the Osceola and Apalachicola National Forests. They’ll help soften the impact on your knees when on roadwalks and levees. And you can use them to scare away unwanted creatures like alligators and snakes in the trail. Yes, we’ve done that! We use adjustable Leki and Komperdell poles, respectively; they do double duty as the tent poles for our Lightheart.
HAT. We love our Tilley Hats, but the bottom line is you need a hat and sunscreen on this trail moreso than in most other places. First, we’re closer to the equator. But there are also many parts of the trail that put you in full sun exposure, like the entire Seminole and Okeechobee sections and a goodly part of the Kissimmee section.
Backpacking the Florida Trail?
BACKPACKS. This is one item that you really need to try out in person to figure out if you’re comfortable with it, since you’ll be living out of it! We have both used Osprey packs for years. They transfer weight well and have plenty of compartments but are hefty empty. A MUCH lighter weight option we’ll be testing soon is the Zpack Arc, made right here in Florida by Zpacks.
TENT. Our Lightheart Duo has seen us through months of backpacking. Camping hammocks are a popular choice in Florida because of our humidity, but through the Seminole and Okeechobee sections, places to hang are almost non-existent because of few trees along the levees.
SLEEPING BAG. It will get damp from humidity, so you want it to dry quickly. We prefer synthetics for that reason. have Big Agnes (including a double!), Sierra Flex, and Feathered Friends in our gear closet. Don’t assume a 40-degree bag is good enough. It gets cold here in the winter, and can drop to freezing at times, especially up in the Panhandle. It’s a damp cold, too, which is miserable if your sleeping bag rating isn’t high enough. Consider a 15 or 20-degree bag for winter hiking here, depending on how you sleep.
SLEEPING PADS. We’ve tried them all, but remain big fans of Thermarest pads, especially the ProLite. The NeoAir is lighter but much, much noiser when you roll over on it.
WATER FILTRATION. Despite all of the beautiful springs and rivers, Florida has a ton of pollutants in its waterways, particularly south of the Ocala National Forest, where agricultural runoff is rampant. A Sawyer Squeeze will work wonders, and it’s made right here in Florida. Their Sawyer Mini is good for day hiking and shorter trips; the Squeeze will go the distance. We’ve also used a Katadyn Hiker Pro with great success. An important consideration with this one when filtering water from swamps, especially Big Cypress: rubberband a coffee filter over the intake to pre-filter out the silt, or you’ll be field stripping the filter frequently. On the Sawyer, make sure you backflush it often.
STOVE. We like JetBoil as a kitchen system for ease of use and have used it for nearly a thousand miles of backpacking. Canisters are available with enough frequency (at Walmart and at outfitters) to keep you supplied the length of the Florida Trail. Lightweight alcohol stoves or pocket rockets are the choice for many long distance hikers here, including the homemade kind.
Bringing a dog? Keep in mind for your dog’s safety and yours that alligators and dogs don’t mix. You don’t want to take your dog into the Big Cypress Swamp south of Interstate 75, through Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park north of Starvation Slough, or along the levees at St. Marks NWR east of the St. Marks River. All have extremely high alligator populations. Dogs are generally welcome on the Florida Trail except in the following places: Seashore section, the beaches of Santa Rosa Island (National Park Service rules) and on the Western Corridor section in Green Swamp West, Perry Oldenburg WEA, and Chinsegut WEA (Fish & Wildlife rules). The best places to backpack with your dog are the Ocala, Suwannee, and Blackwater sections.
Get your logistics worked out in advance. Logistics are crucial on the Florida Trail for backpackers, section hikers, and thru-hikers. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, there is a maze of permits, hunting seasons, and connecting roadwalks you must navigate. You can’t just follow the blazes. There are some sections with no surface water, and other sections with too much water. Our guidebook, The Florida Trail Guide, provides detailed logistics for planning those long hikes. We’ve also produced an app that is an interactive version of the guide with built-in offline mapping. You will want a set of detailed water-resistant paper maps from the Florida Trail Association as well. They don’t require batteries!
More planning resources
Hiking the Florida Trail is unlike hiking any of the other National Scenic Trails in the United States. Tackling a thru hike in Florida means a lot of time hiking alone. Learn the top ten concerns you need to have when planning a thru hike on the Florida Trail, and discover a variety of resources to help you make those plans.
Maildrops aren’t necessary on the Florida Trail but can be helpful. Plan your maildrops with this mile-by-mile chart of where to ship your stuff before you start section hiking or thru-hiking the Florida Trail. Remember to call ahead to confirm post office hours before your arrival, as many smaller and rural post offices have limited weekday and no Saturday hours.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail, the Florida Trail requires numerous permits along the route. The scope of these permits ranges from securing campsites in advance to traversing certain pieces of public and private lands. Most are free, but some have a cost.
Check ahead to make sure the Florida Trail isn’t under water where you’re planning to hike. This page has mile-by-mile Florida Trail water levels monitors, with links to real-time information on water levels from Florida’s water management districts and the U.S. Geological Survey. Most have visual cues like yellow means high water and red means flooding.
A full and cumulative list of all updates to the Florida Trail – including trail relocations, trail closures, changes to services, and changes to protocols for obtaining permits – that we’re compiled as an addendum to our book since the publication of the most recent edition of The Florida Trail Guide.