Five Tips for Hiking the Florida Trail
Since 2018, I have been section hiking the Florida Trail, one of eleven congressionally-designated National Scenic Trails in the United States. At more than 1,300 miles, the FT has been called the “toughest hike you’ve never heard of” for its exceptionally diverse track over the span of the Florida peninsula. The Florida Trail presents hikers with every extreme: wet and dry, hot and cold, remote and urban… and all of the wildlife for which the state is so well known. For all of its challenges, I believe the Florida Trail is one of the most diverse and rewarding of all the NSTs.
FIVE TIPS FOR HIKING THE FLORIDA TRAIL
#1: OVER PREPARE
Perhaps more than any of the National Scenic Trails, the Florida Trail directly challenges a hiker’s will to continue. From waist-high crossings through alligator inhabited swamps to days upon days of thunderstorms and overwhelming humidity, the FT is not for the faint of heart or the unprepared. Hikers on the Florida Trail should be prepared for every weather and safety condition, as trailheads are generally remote with no infrastructure. Before embarking, plan out your resupply and logistics, including an emergency / bug-out plan.
Complicating the hike, the FT is not fully blazed in all sections, especially during road-walks. Even where the trail is blazed, it is possible to become confused. Blazes are often just far enough apart to make you doubt you are still on the Trail. Intermittent trails maintenance and prescribed burns in national forests can also obscure or destroy blazes. Native reddish lichen growing on Florida’s trees can be mistaken for a faded orange blaze, further complicating the wayfinding. Having an up-to-date GPS course as well as a paper-map set will keep you on course.
As an example of this, I always carry a Garmin Inreach GPS / Satellite Rescue Communicator (CLICK FOR MY ONLINE REVIEW) for emergency rescue as well as paper maps of the Florida Trail, which can be ordered online from the Florida Trail Association. The National Forest Service has produced several Florida Trail KMZ files for Google Earth / handheld GPS units, including the Official Florida National Scenic Trail route (KMZ).
Regardless of the season or distance planned, always leave a detailed hiking plan with someone before you depart and have a “bug-out” plan in case conditions on the trail turn for the worse. For up-to-date information on trail closures and notices, please visit the FTA website BEFORE heading out on the trail.
#2: WEAR FULL-LENGTH, BREATHABLE FABRICS
Florida’s reputation as “The Sunshine State” is well-deserved and – unfortunately – there are quite a few sections of the FT where there is no relief from the sun, sometimes for days on end. It’s important to prepare for high-sun exposure by wearing breathable layers that offer a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 to prevent sunburn and slow dehydration symptoms. The best fabrics for the Florida Trail are breathable polyester (sometimes called dry-weave) or lightweight merino wool. While it may sound counter-intuitive, long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants made from breathable, wicking materials will keep you cooler longer and more protected from the sun. Lastly, don’t overlook the value of a highly breathable, wide-brim hat.
In my past hikes on the Florida Trail, my day-to-day preferred clothing has been:
Breathable Long Sleeve Shirts:
Breathable Wide-Brim Hats:
#3: BE WATER AWARE
With the high humidity, heat and sun exposure, water loss through sweat/evaporation is much higher for hikers in Florida. Given the typical suggestion of drinking 1/2 liter of water per hour hiking, those in Florida should consider drinking 3/4L per hour (or more during particularly hot days). Dehydration risk is a real threat to hikers in Florida and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Another crucial area of awareness is knowing the availability of water resupply further ahead on the trail. There are areas where reliable water resupply may be one day away. One example that immediately comes to mind is from Hopkins Prairie to the 88 Store – a 14-mile stretch without reliable water resupply. With the increased need and decreased availability, it is essential to “camel up”, meaning consuming 1L before departing and carrying two or more liters.
Depending on the condition and section, I carry up to 3L of water in a Platypus Big Zip Evo Reservoir, as I find I drink more when it is readily available versus stopping to drink from bottles. Specifically, the Big Zip Evo offers a wider tube for increased flow and the high-mount tube makes it much to refill directly from my Sawyer Squeeze water filter using a quick-connect hose.
#4: MOSQUITOES & TICK PREVENTION
Jokingly called the “state bird of Florida”, the mosquito population along the Florida Trail is no laughing matter. Couple the transmission risk from mosquitoes with the prevalence of tick-borne diseases in the Southeast USA and you have a potentially dangerous situation for unprepared hikers. The most effective deterrent against mosquitos and ticks in Florida is permethrin. While permethrin does nothing to prevent mosquitos or ticks, it does kill them on contact (which is a good thing!)
In my experience, nothing works better in Florida than pre-treating hiking clothes with Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Spray prior to departing for the trail. For exposed skin, lotions outperform spray repellents and Ultrathon Insect Lotion with 34% DEET is among the very best. I have also used Sawyer Picaridin Lotion with good effectiveness, however, it does not seem to be as long-lasting.
Using a canister stove system for cooking? The Thermocell Backpacker Mosquito Repeller uses canister fuel to create a 15-foot mosquito-free radius around you. This system works fairly well in camp and doesn’t have the same odor as citronella candles.
#5: STEER CLEAR OF WILDLIFE
Many hikers on the Florida Trail will have some contact with potentially dangerous wildlife in nearly every section of the trail.
Hikers coming to Florida seem to be most-fixated on alligators so – to be direct – there are alligators in every body of water in the state of Florida. Let that sink in. Alligators tend to be skittish around humans and will head to deep water to avoid contact; however, hikers should exercise great caution when approaching water banks. Never put yourself between an alligator on the shore and the nearest water. While humans are too large to be preyed upon by alligators, there is a very high incident rate of alligator attacks on dogs. Do not take a dog onto the Florida Trail. They will very likely be targeted by alligators when drinking near the shore of any open water.
Six of Florida’s many snake species are venomous: the water moccasin (aka cottonmouth), copperhead, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattler, pigmy rattler, and the coral snake. Thru-hikers should be able to recognize each species.
Of all the National Scenic Trails, the Florida Trail is where you are most likely to come across a North American cougar. The Florida Panther is known to be shy and avoid humans; however, the big cats stalk deer and other small animals that use the footpath as much as hikers.
To the surprise of many people from out-of-state, there are black bears in Florida. The Florida Trail passes through “bear country” in the Big Cypress NP, Kissimmee River watershed, Ocala NF, Osceola NF, St. Marks NWR, Apalachicola NF, and Eglin AFB. Of note, bears do not hibernate in Florida so they are active during all seasons. More recently, several Florida Trail camp areas have been closed due to bear activity. Always be “bear aware” and visit the FTA website for any updates BEFORE heading out on the trail.
Racoons are food-aggressive antagonists along the FT, much like red squirrels on the Appalachian Trail or marmots on the PCT. They will raid any accessible food during nighttime. For this reason, it is recommended to practice bear-bagging in all areas of the FT. (One point about using a “throwing rock”: there aren’t many to be found in Florida, so consider using several heavy carabiners or a water bottle in place of a rock.)
The most dangerous animals you’re likely to come across on the FT are not bears or panthers, but cows. The FT often traverses ranch lands and bulls – in particular – will charge hikers if startled. The best recommendation if coming upon a bull unexpectedly is to maintain eye contact and move laterally away from the bull; if you turn away from a startled bull it will likely charge.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FLORIDA TRAIL
- Layering Ultralight Clothing for Pilgrimage Backpacking
- The Top Hiking GPS Apps for iPhone and Android
- How To Read and Follow Trail Blazes in North America
- PACKING LIST: Backpacking First-Aid Kit
- The Ultimate Backpacking Gear List for Hiking the Florida Trail
- The Best Months to Hike the Florida Trail
- PACKING LIST: First-Aid Kit for Blisters and Foot Care
- Five Tips for Hiking the Florida Trail
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Provided I can do so safely, in 2021 I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.