These are our trail-tested, personal recommendations for gear for backpacking in Florida. John’s first backpacking trip here was in 1971, and Sandra’s was in 2000. We’ve tinkered with what we carry every since.
Florida is a state with outrageous humidity and a lot of water and sand, something you’ll learn quickly when you are backpacking here.
Tents and clothing don’t dry quickly. Waterproof boots are pointless except for day hiking in dry habitats, since you’ll wade through water deeper than your boots.
Add in the realities of putting big miles on your feet and knees over decades of hiking and backpacking, and that means choosing your gear carefully.
After Sandra recovered from surgery for a torn meniscus, we made a visit to our neighbors at Zpacks and changed out Sandra’s base items with gently used gear from their bargain bin.
That brought her base weight for backpack + sleeping bag + tent to under four pounds. Crossing Big Cypress, her pack weight minus water – including 3 days of food inside a bear canister – was 11 pounds.
Through trial and error over many years, we’ve found the following pieces of gear to be indispensable for hiking in Florida, especially for backpacking on the Florida Trail.
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Hiking Clothes for the Florida Trail
Shoes or Boots
Sandra uses New Balance Trail Runners exclusively, as other brands either pinch her toebox or arch.
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.
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, and are about to be sent back a second time for replacement. But they do hold up well!
It’s not a piece of clothing, but for the Florida Trail, it’s a layer you need to add between your feet and your socks. We can’t thank our Crestview trail angels Kelly and Sean enough for turning us on to it!
This miracle padding is easier on your feet than duct tape or moleskin. We couldn’t find Leukotape P in stores but it is available through Amazon.
Put a strip of it across anywhere on your foot where you normally get a hot spot, and leave it on there until it comes off on its own. Miraculously, it prevents blisters.
As any long distance hiker on the Florida Trail can tell you, blisters are the #1 problem for hikers here because of all the sand and water.
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.)
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 or safety green vest in your pack or an orange pack cover for hunting seasons.
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 Gear for the Florida Trail
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 both used Osprey packs for years. They transfer weight well and have plenty of compartments but are hefty empty.
However, for the 2017 hiking season, we outfitted Sandra with the lightest possible gear we could find from Zpacks, which is based right here in Florida less than an hour’s drive from our home.
Her Zpacks Arc Blast stands up to Florida heat and humidity and weights only 21 ounces. She added a couple of pockets and a multi-pack to it, bringing it up to 26 ounces empty.
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 and Zpacks tents.
Both our Lightheart Solo and our Lightheart Duo have seen us through months of long distance hiking. We are very happy with being able to stake it out and let the breeze flow through.
Shaving some weigh when Sandra goes solo, her newest tent of choice is a Zpacks Altaplex.
It sets up with one hiking pole and a bunch of stakes and guyouts. It weighs under 18 ounces. It has since been discontinued, but their new Plexamid is similar.
While we aren’t hammock hangers, camping hammocks are a popular choice in Florida because of our humidity.
However, through the Seminole and Okeechobee sections of South Florida, places to hang are almost non-existent because of so few trees along the levees. No matter what tent you have, it will be damp in the morning.
Your sleeping bag will also get damp from humidity, so you want it to dry quickly. We prefer synthetics for that reason.
We have Big Agnes (including a double!), Sierra Flex, and Feathered Friends in our gear closet.
In her gear upgrades to go lightweight, Sandra picked up a Zpacks Classic Sleeping Bag 20-degree that weighs under 19 ounces.
It’s important to note that a 40-degree bag isn’t warm enough for Florida, although many hikers arrive here with that assumption. It gets cold here in the winter, and can drop to freezing at times, especially up in the Panhandle.
Florida’s cold is always 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.
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.
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.
When we are sharing weight, we regularly use 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.
We like JetBoil as a kitchen system for ease of use and have used it for nearly a thousand miles of backpacking. It works well when we can share weight.
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.
Bear Bag or Canister
Protecting your food from critters is essential on parts of the Florida Trail, and required while backpacking in any of our National Forests.
While we used Sea to Summit dry bags on the Appalachian Trail and hung them on the cables and in the trees as bear bags, Florida is a different story.
Here, there are many places you’ll camp along the Florida Trail where there simply isn’t an easy place to hang one, starting with all of South Florida.
Sandra prefers using a bear canister because it’s simpler to manage. She’s been carrying a BV450 BearVault for the past decade, and has never had an issue with it.