Thinking of section hiking, thru-hiking, or weekend backpacking on the Florida Trail? 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.
Do Your Research
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 400 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.
The Florida Trail Hikers Alliance has helped 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. Get your membership here.
Learn who came before you. Take a look at the rosters of hikers who’ve completed the Florida Trail since its inception and see if you know anyone on the lists. A list of hiker stats includes the “firsts” and “bests,” including attempts at the Fastest Known Time and its current record holder.
Research other hikers’ experiences. Dig through hiker accounts on TrailJournals.com to have an idea of what to expect.
Listen to hikers! Follow along with Orange Blaze: A Florida Trail podcast, hosted by Class of 2011 FT thru-hiker Misti “Ridley” Little.
Take a look at YouTube videos from section and thru-hikers tackling the Florida Trail. This is a playlist of the TOP 200 most popular videos about hiking the Florida Trail.
Get the Right Gear
Florida is a state with outrageous humidity and lots of sand and water. 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.
You’ll need to choose light and quick drying items. We’ve spent years trying out gear in these tough conditions. Here is the full list of our trail-tested, personal recommendations for gear in Florida, both for day hiking and backpacking.
Figure Out Logistics
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. There is also an interactive version of our guide by Guthook Guides, an app 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!
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.
Plan Your Permits
Along some portions of the Florida Trail, free camping permits are required and can be obtained online. In other places, you need to arrange and pay for camping in advance. Three of the most critical permits you’ll need include:
1) If you plan to cross the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation during your hike, you must fill out and return this Hold Harmless form to the Seminole Tribe of Florida before you hike there. Be sure to keep a copy of it with you while on foot on the reservation.
2) If you are backpacking across St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, you need to obtain and pay for a camping permit before entering the refuge. Only hikers who are crossing the entire refuge may utilize their campsites. Learn more here.
3) If you are hiking at Eglin Air Force Base – even DAY hiking – it is necessary to obtain an Eglin Recreational Permit before you set foot on the trail. Learn more here.
If you dig into our Florida Trail section details in the sidebar, you’ll find details about these permits and more. Our guidebook and app contain specific information and links to obtain camping permits for each campsite that requires one.
There is also a list of permits and fees roughly organized by mile marker on the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance website.
Know Before You Go
Before you set foot on the Florida Trail, you need to know about trail conditions. The Florida Trail Association maintains an ongoing list of Notices to Hikers keyed to their maps that gives you a heads-up on trail closures and major relocations.
As part of what we do to keep our readers updated, we share what we know about updates to the trail and its services in a list keyed to pages and mileages for the current edition of The Florida Trail Guide. You can find those updates here.
Hiking at Eglin Air Force Base? It’s necessary to check the Public Access Map to ensure that you are allowed to hike the Florida Trail when you plan to. The military provides a three-day forecast of their base closures for training missions, so check it as a last-minute checklist item before you hit the trail at Eglin.
Prime hiking season is also hunting season in Florida. Hunting season dates change annually and differ on every piece of public land the Florida Trail crosses. Our Section details have links to check on hunting dates in each section. Be aware that the fall general gun season – deer hunting – brings more hunters out into the woods and along the trail than any other time of year.
The only portions of the Florida Trail where hunting is prohibited is along the Seashore section, the Cross Florida Greenway, the state parks that the trail crosses, urban bike paths, and a handful of smaller county-managed public lands. Always wear bright orange when hiking during hunting season.
Similarly, you’ll want to check ahead about flooding along the trail. Our Section details include links to water level gauges along major waterways, and our guidebook and app explain what areas are most prone to flooding. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, we didn’t have a major landform to put the trail on top of across the state of Florida. Instead, it ended up in places that were less likely to be developed – and became public watersheds – with water being the key word here.
There is also a list of river and stream gauges roughly organized by mile marker on the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance website.
Register Your Hike
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.
After your hike, you are welcome to apply for a Thousand Miler Certificate from the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance to commemorate your achievement of completing more than 1,000 linear miles of the Florida Trail.