Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Florida Trail - Quick Tips
Since Day One on this trail, I've been thinking about how to contextualize my experience, how to make it helpful for other hikers. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the FT, and I want to clear those up. On one hand, it's easy to dismiss the FT out of ignorance as just one big nasty swamp and roadwalk nightmare. And while it has swamps and roadwalks, I think that picture is just flat-out wrong. On the other hand, it's easy for those who actually know the FT well to romanticize it and paint an overly-rosy picture of it.
In this post I'll try to talk honestly about the FT, its pros and cons, and what I thought of it. As usual for these kind of "quick tips" post, this is geared at the experienced hiker who's done a thru-hike or two. There are a million resources out there about the FT, but many of them are aimed at folks who may be newer to the long-distance hiking scene. This one's for veterans of long trails who aren't quite sure if they want to hike the FT or not.
A story, before we begin: About a week into my hike, I was walking along a road when a car rolled up and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver asked me what I was doing and all the usual questions that hikers get. While I was already racing darkness to get to a campsite, I took a few minutes to play trail ambassador. It was a great decision. She asked for a link to my blog, which I provided. She drove away, and that was that.
A few minutes later, she rolled back up. She'd read my blog, she said, and noticed that I went through the Big Cypress Seminole reservation. She confided that she was Seminole, and justifiably proud of her heritage. She presented me with a copy of the tribal newspaper and a patchwork quilted pouch filled with traditional remedies. I was floored - by a mile, one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever recieved. Patchwork quilting has long been associated with the Seminoles, apparently, and it also makes a perfect analogy for what I loved about the Florida Trail: It's a patchwork quilt of America. More on that below.
Should I hike the Florida Trail?
Simply put, yes! The FT is a very different animal from many of the "greatest hits" hiking trails out there - the Triple Crown, the Colorado Trail, the Arizona Trail, the JMT, etc. The FT is a latecomer in a state that has very little public land. The FTA has worked incredibly hard to keep the trail in the woods as much as possible and have frankly succeeded to a degree I couldn't have imagined, given the challenges. The fact that there's "only" something like 300 road miles in an 1100-mile trail, in a state that's been parsed, bought and sold for centuries, is incredible.
That said, there are still at least 300 miles on pavement (probably a bit more, in my opinion). If you're not prepared for that, you're going to hate the Florida Trail. I've found that attitude makes all the difference here - if you're unaware of the challenges that FTA faces in creating a trail in these environs, it's easy to rage against the routing that an undefined "they" chose. On the other hand, if you adopt a grateful attitude that something like this exists at all, it makes the road walks a lot more tolerable.
And that brings me to the #1 reason (aside from the fact that it's a winter thru-hike) to hike the FT: It's a patchwork quilt of America. You pass gated communities and dumpy mobile homes. You go through Indian reservations, national forests, suburban sprawl, an Army Corps building project, swamps, cultivated farmland, and more. The diversity of people you meet along the way is unparalleled on any long trail I've ever hiked. Sure, the FT may be a bit discontinuous. It may feel unprotected. But if you want to see a lot of different sides of America, hike the Florida Trail.
Oh, and it's really beautiful too! The forests on the FT are by far the most interesting ones I've ever seen on any of my long hikes. Anytime you're following a river or body of water, it's roughly equivalent to those "awesome ridgeline" sections of other trails - a time to slow down and revel in the beauty.
Red Tape: Surprisingly little. You must become a Florida Trail Association member, as there are a couple sections on private land that are only open to FTA members. Just do it. And while you're on their website, download the thru-hiker information packet, which gives you an excellent (if somewhat overwhelming) overview of the couple of permits that you need to plan in advance for.
Animals: This is usually a throw-away section on most trail overview, but not on the FT. As someone who's petrified of gators, I can promise you that your gator fears are way overblown. Even the big ole mean gators don't really want anything to do with you, and just slide in the water and swim away when they see you.
You won't see very many snakes. Don't worry about them.
Dogs are actually a somewhat big problem on this trail, particularly in the northern half. By far my scariest animal encounters were all with unleashed dogs on the roadwalks in rural areas. I would not do this trail again without carrying pepper spray, if only for the peace of mind. I hitched a half mile or so past a couple of problem spots where the dogs were mean and numerous. Be prepared, carry pepper spray.
Roadwalks: Most of them were not at all scary. There were a few roadwalks with minimal shoulder and high speed traffic, but for the most part, those sections were short. I do acknowledge though, that those who come from a more purely triple crowny background often felt differently - perhaps it's just something you get more comfortable with over time. Many hikers do selectively hitch some roadwalks, so that's an option too if you're not concerned about connecting footsteps. It's never really necessary to hitch, but can save you some sub-par miles.
Swamps: On one hand, the dismissal of the FT as one big swamp walk just isn't true. On the other hand, the claim that the FT only has two swamps - Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay - is just as preposterous. Sure, those might be the only swamps, but they're conveniently leaving out the numerous bogs, wetlands, and marshes!
I think my feet got wet on at least half the days I spent on trail. That's definitely more than on most other trails, but it wasn't every day. And often there was just one swampy section in the course of a day. As long as you're prepared for this reality and know how to take care of your feet, you'll be fine.
Happy Feet: This trail is tough on shoes and the contents therein. Stress fractures are a real possibility when you're striding the exact same way tens of thousands of times a day on flat, even, often paved surfaces. Replace your shoes before you think you need to, and realize that although your muscles and cardio can do 3 mph indefinitely, the rest of your body can't. Take it easy, take breaks, and do reasonably sized days until you get hardened up.
Community: There were supposedly several dozen hikers out there this year (NOBO starting after the New Year), but I saw very few of them. There are so many different town options that hikers just don't congregate in the same places, particularly if you're not spending a ton of time in town.
As previously mentioned, right now is the golden age of trail angeling along the FT. I hesitate to shout out any specific individuals here as I don't want them to get overrun with requests, but you'll find them if you keep your ear to the ground. More likely, they'll find you somehow!
Maps: The map situation on this trail is really quite rotten. FTA publishes a map set and guidebook, and markets them in a "thru-hiker bundle", which I duly bought. They are absolutely terrible. While the mapset is professionally produced, it's way too zoomed out to be of any practical value for on-the-ground navigation, the trail itself is drawn as an annoyingly thick line which obscures nearby details, it uses the terrible USGS "National Map" as a base, which makes it hard to distinguish roads from contour lines, and its numbering system that corresponds to the data book is weird and confusing. I had a resupply snafu result in losing all my maps for the second half of the trail, and I suffered not at all. If there were an actual good map set in existence, I would have loved to use it, but there just isn't.
Moreover, the FT is 100% flat, making it tough to navigate by map in a largely featureless landscape. If you get off the trail away from a river, road, or other obvious landform, your chances of finding the trail again via map are really quite small.
For these reasons, I'm going to recommend something I'd never advocate in any other circumstance or for any other trail: you're fine with just the Guthook app. It's mostly a follow-the-blazes affair, but especially when the trail interfaces with roads or more urban sections, you do want something detailed to zero in on your location, and Guthook does that for you. I'm not a huge fan of Guthook-reliance, but there really isn't a better practical choice on this particular trail.
Resupply: Resupply is actually a bit complicated on the FT, but because there are too many options, rather than too few. I made a big resupply chart beforehand and it proved mostly useless, as different re-routes and just looking at the map in detail brought me past a whole bunch of places where I could resupply, above and beyond what "the literature" had stated.
For those who prefer to buy as they go (most repeat-offender hikers, in my experience), I would send only one box - to River Ranch at mi ~230ish. Aside from that, you can do the entire rest of the trail either 1) without maildrops or 2) without getting in a car. River Ranch was my only box. I only got in a car once to resupply, a cheap Uber into Palatka. I'm also not picky and can resupply from a gas station, which I did several times.
There's a long "dry" stretch in northern Florida where you resupply almost exclusively out of Dollar General. If it's been a couple years since you've done a long hike, fear not: DG really stepped up its game and offers basically all the usual hiker staples.
There's an almost infinite number of gas stations and convenience stores on the route. For this reason, I'd suggest not making a resupply plan ahead of time and just planning ahead one or two stops. Several times, sections of the trail would be closed/re-routed, and those re-routes would go near a place I could stop and get a hot dog or even resupply.
Campsites: This trail has some truly awesome camping. Everything's flat and there's not a single rock in the entire state. The soil is almost always easy to get stakes into, and holds well. With the long nights of a winter thru-hike, it makes sense to pay a little more attention to campsite selection than it would in the middle of summer. I had many of the best campsites of my life in the FT.
There are designated campsites irregularly spaced along most of the route. You're generally not obligated to stay at them, but they're often quite lovely. These campsites often have designated fire rings and picnic tables. Though I didn't stay at a ton of these sites, the picnic tables make for a nice place to have lunch.
Camping on the roadwalks is quite rotten, illegal, or non-existent. With a little planning you can generally avoid camping on a roadwalk, but sometimes you're gonna have to hone your stealth game. Again, for the experienced thru-hiker, this probably won't be anything new.
Water: It's almost always abundant, but very frequently marginal. It's swamp water, after all It's always tannic and very rarely appealing. Filter or treat it, obviously. There are also plenty of "town" sources that you can tank up at, as well as the occasional water cache.