Preparing for a Florida Trail Thru-Hike

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Florida Trail Preparation and Data

Welcome to Hikerlore’s guide to preparing for a Florida Trail thru-hike!  This article will give you the low down on some of the things you need to know before you go.  It will also recommend some other important planning resources.

Please remember that what you pack is determined by your level of comfort and risk tolerance.  It takes time and experience to figure this out, of course.  Our recommendations come from our experience and risk tolerance, which may be different from yours.  We try to pack as light as we can without sacrificing our safety while maintaining a reasonable level of comfort.

If this is your first thru, you will probably take more than you need.  You will learn and shake down your pack as you go.  If you don’t use it, lose it!

Florida Trail 101

Our nation has 11 National Scenic Trails.  The Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST) is one of these.

History

The Florida Trail was envisioned by Jim Kern in the 1960s.  He founded the Florida Trail Association, and with the help of volunteers began building and maintaining the trail, which was officially designated in 1983.  The trail is unfinished and has roughly 300 miles of road walks.

Total length

Nearly 1,400 miles in total length, the average thru-hike is roughly 1,100 miles, depending on the hiker’s route.  The trail is blazed with orange and sometimes with Florida Trail markers.

Start and end points

The Florida Trail’s southern terminus is located in the Big Cypress National Preserve, about 50 miles west of Miami.  The northern terminus is in Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore south of Pensacola in the western panhandle.  Most thru-hikers go northbound (nobo), beginning at the Oasis Visitor Center off of US 41.  There is also an Alabama terminus for those hiking the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT).

Getting there

We are flying into the Miami International Airport.  From there, a trail angel is giving us a ride to the southern terminus.  We are members of the Florida Trail Hikers Facebook group.  We posted a request on that page, and a trail angel responded.  If this doesn’t work for you, I would try Uber.  As a last resort, you could always try to hitchhike or road walk it. (we ended up taking an Uber because our ride fell through. It was about $80)

Choose your route

The hiker can choose to go east or west around Orlando and Lake Okeechobee.  We chose to go west around Okeechobee because it is more rural.  And in central Florida, we plan to go east to avoid the long road walks and campground/motel fees.  In the panhandle, you could choose to go north to the Alabama terminus or west to the northern terminus at Fort Pickens.  We hiked to Fort Pickens.

Closures

These seem to be common due to hurricanes, flooding, hunting, active military missions, and burns.  You can visit the Florida Trail Association for the latest information on closures and reroutes, here.

Permits

There are three to concern yourself with before your departure:

  • Florida Trail Association membership, click here.  Download the Complete Thru Hiker Packet, here.
  • Big Cypress Seminole Reservation “Hold Harmless” form (included in the “Thru Hiker Packet”).
  • Eglin Airforce Base, click here.  Follow the directions at the bottom “how to get an Eglin permit”?

Many other permits and considerations along the hike are outlined for you in your Thru Hiker Packet.  Also, check out Thru-Hike the Florida Trail’s Web site.  This is an excellent planning resource.  Click here.

Hiking Season

We will begin our hike in early January and end in early March.  This allows us to avoid most of the hunting season, and the weather is milder.  Due to hunting restrictions, it is advised that you don’t begin before January and that you’re finished by May. (we began on January 4th and ended on February 26th)

Terrain

While there isn’t much elevation change in Florida, there are other terrain challenges.  There are two swamps to traverse: Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay.  In these areas, you can expect water levels to be even waist deep and will slow your pace to about 1 mph.  Also, you should expect some tiresome treks through thick mud.

There is a substantial amount of road walking on the Florida Trail because it’s unfinished and reroutes seem common for various reasons.  Be prepared to road walk exposed to the sun for long periods of time.

Climate

Be prepared for temperatures ranging from 20 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cold snaps do occur.  Also, Florida is famously humid.  Essentially, you must be ready for anything whether it be freezing temperatures, heat and humidity, as well as rainy conditions.

Potentially Dangerous Wildlife

Florida is home to some potentially dangerous venomous snakes, black bears, alligators, ticks, mosquitoes, panthers, dogs, and cows.  You are required to hang a bear bag or use a canister in all of Florida’s National Forests.  If a black bear is being aggressive, make yourself look big, speak assertively, back up slowly, and avoid eye contact.  Fight back when attacked.

The Florida Panther is extremely rare.  If a panther is being aggressive with you, make yourself look big, don’t run, and fight back if attacked.

Gators

Alligators are numerous but are not as active during the cold months.  Be cautious when approaching bodies of water, especially at dawn and dusk.  If you come across one, give it plenty of space.  Do not get water from culverts where they like to den.  Because of the danger that alligators pose and the challenges of the swamp crossings, bringing a dog on the Florida Trail is highly discouraged.

Use caution and always remain vigilant in your surroundings.  Snakes generally don’t want to bother you, if you stay out of their space.  Leave them alone.  Cottonmouths are not skittish like other species and like wet habitats.  Be very careful and keep your eyes peeled.  If you are bitten by a venomous snake, remain calm, call 911 (if possible), with minimal exertion hike out to the nearest road where you can get to medical assistance.

Ticks and mosquitoes are present.  Use 98% Deet and protective clothing.  Do a tick check daily.  If you are bitten, watch the bite site carefully for a bullseye.  Seek medical attention as soon as possible, if one appears.  A friend told us that the mosquitoes can be so bad around artificial water like canals and ditches that you will want to set up your tent before the sun goes down. (this is no joke. by the canals, the mosquitoes come in droves at sunset).

I have read that the most dangerous “wildlife” you may encounter on the FNST are dogs and cows. (we didn’t have any trouble with cows, but we did with dogs. Also the feral hogs would come around but were easily scared off in our experience).


Potentially Dangerous Plants

As far as plants go, there is poison ivy, sumac, and oak.  Try to avoid touching it with your body, clothes, or gear.  If you get poison ivy, be sure to wash your gear and clothes.  There are also two poisonous trees the poisonwood and manchineel.  Look for an oozing black substance on the bark.

Water

Of course, you should always treat your water.  We will use a bandana to remove any large particles when collecting water, if necessary.  Then, we will use the Sawyer Micro Squeeze Filtration System.  It is unfortunate that. in some areas of the Florida Trail, there are pesticides in the water from agriculture.  There are filters that will remove these, but they’re heavy.  If you don’t have one of these and you’re able to cache water in these high-risk areas, that would be ideal. 

One thing is for sure, pesticides or no, you must stay hydrated. (there ended up being so many volunteer- maintained water caches near the canals that we didn’t have to filter. also, our water filters didn’t work after a few days in the swamp. they were completely clogged, so we used bleach instead for the rest of the trail. this worked great! we’ll never squeeze again).

In the swamps, there are cypress domes and strands where drinking water can be found.  We use Guthook Guides, an app, to help us navigate, resupply, and find water sources.  You will see the location, description, and pictures of domes and strands in this tool, along with dated comments from hikers about the status of the source.  There are good guidebooks and maps available also.  See below, under resources, for more details.

Resupply spots

It is a good idea to have an outline of your planned resupply spots before you head out on a thru-hike.  That way you know if maildrops are necessary and can prepare them for your resupply person back home.  We like to do mostly buys along the trail because you never know what you’ll feel like eating.  Also, plans sometimes change and this allows more fluidity.  Lastly, if you’re using post offices, the hours can be a drag.

We mail ourselves shoes every 500 miles because we know through experience the size and make preferred.  Thus, we use a hybrid resupply method, consisting of buys and maildrops.  Please bear in mind that your feet will likely get bigger on your first thru-hike.  Your feet will swell and widen.  We both increased in shoe size when we did our first long-distance hike on the PCT.

We use a combination of the guidebooks, Web sites, and Guthooks when planning our resupply stops and drops before leaving.  When on the trail, we use Guthooks. (you can see a list of our resupply points in our article “wrapping up the Florida Trail”).

What to Eat?

We’re not dieticians or nutritionists, so we can’t make recommendations.  But here is what we eat: high-calorie foods with a good balance of carbs, proteins, and fats.  We have found low-glycemic foods to be beneficial for endurance exercise.  Also, whenever we get to town we try to eat a lot of fresh produce.

A typical day will start with a “breakfast bomb”.  This consists of muesli, whey, almond flour, peanut butter powder, and milk powder.  Add some water and viola!  A mid-morning snack may be a pro-bar or trail mix.  Lunch usually consists of trail butter and tortillas.  A mid-afternoon snack may be another bar.  Dinner is pasta or beans.  These are a few suggestions.

Stoveless?

You will learn whether or not you like to cook on the trail.  We now have over 4,000 miles of long-distance hiking under our belts, and we have finally decided to go stoveless.  It’s not for everyone.  My advice to you is that if you find yourself eating trail mix instead of cooking dinner, stoveless may be right for you.  We prefer to have a hassle-free approach.  This way we don’t have to carry fuel, a stove, or a pot.  Try it out on a test run before your thru-hike.

Other Hikers

Not many people thru-hike the Florida Trail.  Expect to be alone.  Also, we’ve read that not many Floridians know about the trail either.

Hitchhiking

We were told on multiple occasions that hitchhiking in Florida would be impossible and dangerous. We were able to hitchhike multiple times without any major issues. Keep in mind we always hitch together, we use a sign made from our groundsheet, and we try to hitch in a good location (good visibility, easy for people to pull over). Our sign says “hikers to trail” and “hikers to town”.

Blogging

Many people find the idea of blogging appealing.  The truth is that blogging on the trail is difficult.  You’re often exhausted from your day’s exertions and just want to go to sleep at the end of your day.  I find it helpful to keep notes on my phone for each day: the miles, what happened, the weather, etc.

When you get the opportunity to write on your nero or zero, you’ll have a reference to guide you.  It can be rewarding to share your story with others and possibly help and inspire them.  It does take a lot of extra work when you’re already really tired.  It’s also nice to know that, in the future, you will always be able to revisit your blog to remember your adventures.

Training

You should definitely train for your thru-hike.  For your aerobic training, hike with your backpack on 5 or 6 days a week beginning at least 8 weeks prior to your departure.  You should also have a regular resistance training routine.  In addition, develop a stretch routine to practice after your walks.  Carry this stretch routine over into your thru-hike.  If you need help with this, please visit our fit hiker page, here.

Gear

Base Weight

This is the weight of all your gear save water and food.  We aim to be around 10 pounds.  You could certainly go lighter.  We are carrying some camera gear and a few luxury items, which makes us a bit heavier than an ultra-light hiker would be.  Still, this is a respectable base weight.

The Big Three:

Of course, you’ll need the big three.

Sleep System: quilt or bag, mat, bag liner (optional), pillow (optional).

Shelter: Tent, tarp (hope you like bugs), or hammock, repair kit.

Backpack & pack liner.

Clothes

Here is some of the clothing you might bring rain gear, cold-weather gear, wool sleeping clothes & sleep socks, 1 pair hiking pants and/or shorts, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 short-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, buff, darn-tough hiking socks, gaiters, bright orange bandana (for filtering and visibility), and trail runners.

Food System

You may choose to go stoveless as we did.  In that case, you’ll need a cold-soak receptacle (like a Talenti jar), and a spoon.

To comply with regulations, you must hang a bag or have a canister in all Florida Trail National Forests.  Therefore, you’ll be needing a food-storage bag with hang line or a bear vault. Here is a link to our LiteAF bear bag review and PCT hang video.

If you like to cook, take a backpacking stove, pot, and lighter.

Filtration System

To maximize your chances of staying healthy on the trail, bring a water filter.  You’ll also need a water bottle for your filtered water, maybe a bandana or coffee filter for removing pieces of debris, a heavy-duty ziplock bag or other receptacles for scooping, and possibly water bags for storage.

Navigation

The FTA has maps for sale, please see below under resources.  We use the Atlas Guides Guthook App.  There is also a data book and a guidebook available, also listed under resources below.

First Aid

This depends on your level of comfortability.  All we bring is NSAIDs, anti-diarrheal, cortisone cream, tweezers, body glide, and leuko-tape.

Miscellaneous

There are some items that you may want to bring, including an external battery, adapter, & cord, trek poles, phone (can be used for navigation, taking photos, journaling, reading, watching, calling, etc.), bug net, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, chapstick, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pocket knife, fingernail clippers, and wet wipes.

Test Run

If you’re new to all this, take your gear and yourself on a backpacking test run.  Get used to using all your gear before you head out.  This will also allow you to evaluate whether or not backpacking is as fun as you imagine it to be.

Our Gear List

Resources

Maps

Florida Trail Association

Apps

Guthook Guides

Books

Databook

The Florida Trail Guide

Web Sites

Florida Trail Association

Florida Trail Hikes

Thru-Hike the Florida Trail

Podcasts

Orange Blaze

Blogs

Trail Journals

Dirty Bowl

The Hiking Life

Social Media

Florida Trail Hikers Alliance

Summary

Thank you for reading. We hope this will help with your FT planning process. If you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to us in the comments. Happy trails! For more posts on the FNST including our post-Florida-thru-hike article “Wrapping up the Florida Trail”, click here.

Other FNST Articles:


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