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 alone in a variety of lush landscapes that you won’t see on other long distance trails.
Our hiking season is October to April, with optimal long-distance backpacking best in January, February, and March. Hiking south to north is the usual progression of a thru-hiker in order 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. The good news? Once you get through it, nothing else is quiet as tough. Different, but not the challenge that Big Cypress smacks you with right off the bat.
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.
Some thru-hikers complete the Florida Trail as a portion of a much longer hike, the Eastern Continental Trail. Popularized by Sunny “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhardt, this continent-spanning route runs from Key West, Florida to Cap Gaspe, Quebec. If you’re considering such a quest, check out our details about the ECT here.
Here’s a high-speed walk through of what you’ll see along the Florida Trail, south to north, combining our images with those of fellow long distance hikers.
The Trail Community
Since 2014, the nonprofit Florida Trail Hikers Alliance has been working to grow a trail community in Florida. To do so, it has hosted an annual Florida Trail Kickoff to gather thru-hikers together to meet each other and to facilitate rides to the otherwise remote Southern Terminus, which sits halfway between Miami and Naples in the middle of Florida’s biggest swamp.
For many years, there also been an annual reunion of Florida Trail long distance hikers, an event now coordinated by the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance. It’s called called Billy Goat Day – in honor of the one and only Billy Goat, one of America’s top long distance hikers – and is held the last Saturday in January.
This is a great place to talk to hikers who’ve completed the Florida Trail, including Billy Goat, and those actively working on their thru and section hikes. It is usually held somewhere in the Orlando section. Over the past six years, attendance has skyrocketed from a couple of dozen hikers to more than 125. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the biggest hiker feed on the Florida Trail during hiking season.
Much of the effort of the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance is to connect people together – hikers helping hikers – across the state of Florida. Remember, the Florida Trail is half the length of the Appalachian Trail and crosses two time zones. In addition to a very active Facebook group called Florida Trail Hikers, each year the FTHA manages a private group of current year thru and section hikers so they can interact with volunteers statewide who help hikers out by placing water caches, helping with shuttles, and jumping in when an emergency happens.
A side effect of the growth of this “trail angel” community – folks who generally prefer to stay anonymous except to the hikers they’re helping out – is that certain churches along the trail have taken on hiker support as a part of their mission and outreach. With church involvement, local residents are becoming more aware of the trail that runs through their community. While the Florida Trail will never be the Appalachian Trail in terms of volume of thru-hikers – nor could it support it – we are heartened to see the Florida Trail hiker community begin to blossom.
Hiking Florida: The Real Deal
If you’re planning a Florida Trail thru-hike, there are some important facts about Florida that 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 less than 250 miles of roadwalks along the entire Florida Trail. You’ll do more than 175 miles of roadwalks on the average thru-hike. 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. To dispel the rumors about the types of roadwalks you’ll encounter along the Florida Trail – because frankly, not all of them are all that bad – here’s our YouTube playlist of the roadwalks that Sandra wrapped up in January 2019 so she could finally claim an end-to-end hike of the Florida Trail.
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. Read about permits in our Plan Your Hike section.
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 TOP TEN 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).
Since 2003, we’ve been writing guidebooks to the Florida Trail. Our most recent book, The Florida Trail Guide, is a comprehensive collection of everything you need to know about the trail, with detailed data sheets and narrative descriptions. We kicked off this new format in 2013, modeled after The AT Guide – with design help from David “AWOL” Miller – and are now in a third edition, published October 2017.
We post updates to the current edition of our guidebook on our Facebook page for it at The Florida Trail Guide and, cumulatively, on our website under Florida Trail Updates. No matter whether you buy a book or not, you can sign up for our mailing list there to get periodic trail updates in your inbox.
In partnership with Guthook Guides (iPhone) and Atlas Guides (Android), we provide the details behind the Florida National Scenic Trail app within Guthook Guides. This map-based app works offline and in airplane mode when you’re out on the trail. We still recommend carrying detailed water-resistent maps from the Florida Trail Association as a backup.
Let the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance (FTHA) know that you’re planning a thru-hike or working on a section hike of the Florida Trail. This grassroots nonprofit organization is made up of hikers helping hikers throughout the state. Volunteers place water caches along the trail during hiking season, pop up as trail angels for hikers in need, and work with local communities to help them understand that the folks walking through are there to enjoy the outdoors and to learn more about Florida.
At any time, you can apply to join Florida Trail Hikers, a general Florida Trail discussion group on Facebook, but be sure to answer the questions to be approved. By registering with FTHA, you’ll also be able to join the current “Class of” Facebook group to communicate with fellow hikers up and down the trail.
The Florida Trail Association has a thru-hiker packet available for download.
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.
After Your Hike
After your hike, you are welcome to apply for a Thousand Miler Award from the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance to commemorate your achievement of completing more than 1,000 linear miles of the Florida Trail.
When you complete your hike, also 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.