Hiking the Florida Trail is unlike hiking any of the other National Scenic Trails in the United States. Our hiking season is October to April, with optimal long-distance backpacking best in January, February, and March. Hiking south to north is best, to move in step with the change of season and with the expiration of general gun season (deer hunting season) on public lands.
Starting at the southern terminus means, however, that most Florida Trail thru-hikers start off with the toughest piece of the trail first: the Big Cypress Swamp. Fortunately, if you start the first week of January, you may have some company on this tough stretch. For the past six years or so, there has been a Florida Trail Kickoff to see off incoming hikers into the swamp. The 2017 FT Kickoff is a very low-key, private affair; join the Florida Trail Class of 2017 Facebook group to get all the details.
For many years, there has also been an annual reunion of Florida Trail long distance hikers, called Billy Goat Day in honor of the one and only Billy Goat, held on his birthday, January 28. This is a great place to talk to hikers who’ve completed the trail (including Billy Goat) and those actively working on their thru and section hikes. For 2017, it will be held at Lake Mills Park in Chuluota; details to be posted in early January.
Most hikers take 60 to 90 days to complete the trail. You have several options as you hike, and you can “choose one” to still count as a thru-hike: east or west around Lake Okeechobee, east or west around Central Florida, and west to the terminus at Fort Pickens or north to the Alabama border to connect to the Eastern Continental Trail. The official southern terminus of the Florida Trail is at Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve. The official northern terminus is at Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Here’s a high-speed walk through of what you’ll see along the Florida Trail, south to north
If you’re planning a thru-hike, there are some important facts you need to know.
1) Florida’s weather is unpredictable in winter. It can be 83 degrees today and 43 degrees tomorrow. You need to pack prepared for a full range of weather. It’s unlikely it will snow during your hike, but you can certainly experience freezing temperatures, especially in the Panhandle. Don’t leave that puffy jacket behind because this is Florida! Bring a sleeping bag that can handle 20F or below. Learn more about hiking in Florida.
2) Florida is wet. All the time. Even when we have droughts that dry up water sources, humidity is still heavy in the air. Quick-drying clothing is a must. Expect damp cold when it is cold. You will find it necessary, most days, to pack up a wet tent in the morning and stake it out to dry when you have a chance to take a break in the sunshine. You will also want to use hiking shoes or boots that ARE NOT waterproof, since water will get trapped in your boots and make a mess of your feet.
3) Florida is sandy. The underlying ground in Florida is, for the most part, made of sand. Most of the state was beneath the sea at one point or another. Sand gets in your shoes and roughs up your soles. Make sure you use socks that can handle heavy abrasion. Low-cut gaiters are a good investment to keep sand out of your shoes. We like Dirty Girl gaiters.
4) Florida has bugs. A lot of them. Mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers can be a problem year-round, although we like winter for hiking since we often have a freeze or two that knocks them out for a while. Invest in a good insect repellent and carry it with you. Consider treating your clothing with permetherin in advance of your hike for added protection; depending on where you are in Florida, mosquitoes can carry some real nasty tropical diseases, including Zika.
5) Florida is sunny. Expect a lot of exposure to the sun while hiking the Florida Trail. There are long stretches with no shade, particularly between the north end of the Big Cypress Swamp and Orlando. In South Florida, the trail follows water management dikes; in Central Florida, you walk through a lot of open prairies with only the occasional oak hammock for shade. Wear a hat, bring sunglasses, and use sunscreen. Consider long sleeves and long pants for sun protection. Shorts may seem great for hiking, but you’ll tear your legs up on briers in sections that aren’t heavily maintained.
6) Florida has roadwalks. There are 300 miles of roadwalks along the Florida Trail. Many of the roadwalks are on quiet back roads. A few of them are along dangerous state and U.S. highways. Roadwalks – and the occasional use of paved bike paths in urban areas – can be very tough on your feet, especially combined with the dampness and the sand that you’ll find everywhere.
7) Some permits are required. You MUST arrange certain permits in advance. These are not optional. There are three stretches of trail where a permit is absolutely, positively, required and you can and will be escorted off the trail if you are caught without one: for crossing the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation (private tribal land), for camping on St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (federal land), and for crossing/camping Eglin Air Force Base (military base). There are other permits that can be arranged as you hike along. Learn more about permits here.
8) You MUST join the Florida Trail Association. This is not optional for thru-hikers. The Florida Trail still crosses some stretches of private land where the corridor is negotiated between the Florida Trail Association and private landowners. Join here.
9) It’s smart to carry maps. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, you can’t just follow the blazes – which, by the way, are orange along the length of the Florida Trail. You can buy an excellent set of maps from the Florida Trail Association.
10) It’s smart to do your logistical planning in advance. We have a comprehensive guidebook, The Florida Trail Guide, which can help you with that. It’s patterned after The AT Guide in format, replacing elevation profiles (irrelevant here) with rough maps. It includes lots of town maps, suggested zero day stops, all resupply stops, information how to get to and from the termini, where to buy fuel, and more. We also have an interactive version of the guidebook, The Florida Trail Guide App, which provides a GPS-enabled view of the trail and offline maps.
Those are the BIG questions asked about thru-hiking the Florida Trail. We spend about 15 pages in our guidebook covering other essentials like “how and where to filter water” and “how to get to and from the termini.” Yes, you will see alligators and snakes (see our info on Hiking in Florida for details on how to cope with that). Yes, there are parts of the trail that are excessively dry, just as there are parts that are quite wet. As you dig into the details we present for each of the trail sections along the Florida Trail, check the bottom of each section page for our tips on how to cope with things like keeping your water filter clean and avoiding poisonous tropical plants (hint: both are important to know when hiking the Big Cypress section).
The Florida Trail Association has a thru-hiker packet available for download. This includes a list of trail angels along the Florida Trail. Remember, the Florida Trail is half the length of the Appalachian Trail and crosses two time zones. While there are a lot of volunteers, including ones listed in our guidebook, the trail community is nowhere near as robust as for the Appalachian Trail.
You can also download a current data book from the FTA website, and browse through their trail alerts, called Notices to Hikers, there as well. When you complete your hike, be sure to download the End-to-End Application, fill it out, and send it in to the Florida Trail Association, and they will issue a certificate and patch for your accomplishment.
In between editions of Florida Trail Guide, which we produce every other year, we post known updates to the trail route and to services on our website. You can sign up for our mailing list to get those trail updates in your inbox monthly. For hikers on the trail between January and April, we have a separate mailing list for alerts that we send out as soon as we find out about them. Also see the sidebar of this page for Facebook groups you can join.
Dig through the following pages on our website for more planning information.
Learn a bit more about suggested gear, hiking with dogs, and other recommendations that are relevant to day hikers and section hikers as well as thru-hikers on the Florida Trail. Also includes recommended trail journals, blogs, and YouTube channels to learn how other thru-hikers tackled the Florida Trail.
See the big list of people who’ve completed an end-to-end hike of the Florida Trail, both section hikers and thru-hikers, as well as statistics for the oldest, youngest, and more. Some have done the entire trail more than once. There’s one fellow who has completed it five times!
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.
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.