It’s Finally Time for Dirty Gil to Hike the Florida Trail
Bring me a trail! Not too big, not too small, something nice.
The decision to hike a trail is a combination of the location and the opportunity. The lore and rigor of the Appalachian Trail beckon many. The grand vistas of the Pacific Crest Trail call to many others. The Florida Trail is calling me as a great combination of length, location, weather, and opportunity.
Feeding the Hiking Addiction
Addiction is literally the best word I can think of to describe my love of hiking. I was self-aware of the wanderlust in my heart at the young age of four. I have fed it my entire life by foot, by bike, by car, and by plane.
As a boy scout, a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico one summer instilled amazement that I could look at a map and put my finger where I was now, and another finger where I was a week ago, and be astonished at the distance between the two points. I love nature, but I discovered that my inner voice really just likes seeing my progress over the largest map possible.
The day after I graduated from college, I set out on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I did not finish that year, having to leave the trail in northern Virginia. But I knew what thru-hiking was at that point, and I knew it would forever be a part of my life.
I have section-hiked the Florida Trail for decades, but it has never satisfied my hiker hunger.
Life Gets in the Way
My hiking career has traditionally been as a lasher (Long-Ass-Section-HikER) covering anywhere from 100 – 800 miles per section, typically in the 400-mile range. Three weeks is the most common length for me, as dictated by the schedules of civilized life.
I did eventually end up completing the Appalachian Trail in six large chunks and have covered large swaths of North Carolina multiple on multiple times. But in 2016, my wife and I both quit our jobs to hike the Appalachian Trail together as a couple on a flip-flop. Unfortunately, injury forced her off trail, so I bounced out to the Pacific Crest Trail at the end of May since I was unemployed until October. That one I did end up completing as a thru-hike that year and the hiking fire has only been stoked even stronger.
To satisfy that fire, I have taken to trying to manage a sabbatical of two months every few years to do bump up the L in LASHER. I was able to fit a seven-week hike into my work schedule in 2020, so I jumped over to Springer Mountain to start hiking northward. I did not start until September, and I think it’s the first time I have seen the AT in Georgia with leaves on the trees. It took me a while to realize that every hike I had ever done in Georgia was between January and March. Springer to Rockfish Gap feels like a thru-hike. More of that, please.
Florida in My Front Yard
I am a native Floridian and have spent most of my life just outside of the offices of the Florida Trail Association in Gainesville. I have been a member on and off for decades. Some parts of the trail are great. Some parts are not so great. With most of the year being so miserably hot to do much hiking, I have only managed to get about a quarter of the trail under my belt.
In the eighties and nineties, the trail guide was a set of photocopied printed pages and a data book. They did have printed maps, but they were huge (still are), not updated very frequently, and never seemed to help that much. I don’t think I ever managed a single hike where I was not 100 meters lost at least once per day. The printed guides by Sandra Friend and the recent addition of her data on the FarOut app have made the Florida Trail much easier to hike.
Flat is Flat
Florida is as flat as everyone says it is. You can do big mileage any day you would like to. Even the “hilly” parts are only 40-foot climbs. I have done forty miles on the first day, and regretted it every day after that. The only hikes I have ever quit in the last thirty years have been in Florida from either injury or boredom.
Self-restraint is important on flat and fast ground like Florida just to avoid over-use injuries. On mountainous trails like the AT, the ups and downs help distribute the abuse across larger portions of your body, and the steep terrain slows you down. Since I have experienced the break-in pain of dozens of section hikes, I used to adopt a 17-19-21 rule. Those are the maximum mileages I would ever let myself go for the first three days of a hike. After three days, your body has a loud enough voice to tell you if you are overdoing things or not. You just have to give it a few days to find its voice.
The Challenges of Florida
Around most of the National Scenic Trails, the undesirable land that was available to build trails is land that was too steep or too rocky to settle. This happens to make for ideal hiking locations. In Florida, by the mid-sixties, Florida was already booming and the only land available for building trails that was not already protected was the undesirable scrub or swamp. Less ideal for hiking than a 3000-foot precipice. You have to adjust your definition of beauty if you are expecting an Ansel Adams scene.
Dangerous wildlife is on every trail, but not many others have a high density of alligators, venomous snakes, and toxic trees. Rattlesnakes don’t bother me they are very courteous and gently warn you of their presence and just want you to go away. Water moccasins seem to want to silently hunt you down like you are a wounded mouse.
I remember my first days in the California desert on the PCT. I felt helpless as I could not identify 90% of the fauna I was seeing. it was all brand-new to me. The fauna in Florida may be all-new to others who have not been exposed to it for years. Let’s just say if you are not sure what it is, don’t touch it, and please don’t eat it. In the winter months, the only fruiting edibles are probably citrus, but unless it’s a planted grove it’s probably wild and sour. Blackberries and other edibles are all over, just not in the Winter. They are just there waiting to shred your clothes or skin. Blackberries love to feast on inflatable pads.
And despite Florida having an abundance of surface water, it’s not very appealing to want to drink. If not trying to figure out if agricultural runoff is going to poison you, you might be wondering if an alligator is just beneath the water waiting to get you. Tanic-stained water looks nice in the river, but not so appealing once it’s in your water bottle, looking like sewage effluent. And pond water tastes and smells like bass poop. Long water carries are for the desert, not for Florida, right?
The Joys of Florida
Have you noticed that the daylight in January is a bit short? I noticed that on my September – October AT hike. Daylight would always run out far before my legs were ready to stop. I am not a fan of finding a campsite in the dark, so the Sun was trimming down my daily mileage.
I also noticed the same thing on my PCT hike – by September the days were getting shorter so fast, that it seemed like my daily mileage was going down half a mile per day.
Luckily, the Winter solstice has already passed, so I will use the short days as part of my regulating mechanism and eagerly look forward to progressively longer days. A week into the hike, I am sure I will be begging for longer days. I will just have to cozy up to the headlamp if I want to feed that need.
I have decided to go Northbound, so I am using the swamp wading of the Big Cypress National Preserve as another regulating mechanism to start out slowly. Wading through water can be very tiring, but I hope the slower pace and different body mechanics will distribute that additional effort over more of my body.
While many miles of the Florida Trail are still on road walks or through swampy, muddy, or otherwise unimpressive scenery, there are still some great gems. The beaches of the panhandle give a class-A beach vibe. The many remote preserves around Eglin, Juniper, Tosohatchee, and Econlockhatchee are a true rendition of original Florida as it was when the native population were the stewards of the land. Crossing Interstate 75 in the Everglades has a totally different vibe than crossing under Cajon pass in the California desert.
The last two months of preparation for this hike have triggered some gear changes from the normal AT or PCT setup. I am switching up quite a bit of the base gear.
I prefer hammocks because I sleep better, but am switching to the tent for this trip (mainly for reduced weight). My tent needs a trekking pole to pitch (Zpack Solo Plex), but I don’t want the poles for Florida so I recently bought a dedicated carbon fiber pole for it.
A closed cell pad is my preferred sleeping arrangement, but am switching to a super thin closed 1/8″ pad (for thorn protection) in combination with a torso-length Therm-a-rest Uberlite (to compensate for a back injury).
My normal three-season 40-degree down bag will be in the pack. It will not be enough for probably a dozen nights, so I will compensate with additional layers worn.
I will be switching the ULA for a smaller Gossamer Gear pack, too. My only concern there is being consumed by my own back sweat. Did you know that the Central Florida East option sweeps a mere 15 miles from the Zpacks offices? Must… resist… Arc Air….
More camera gear is likely to make it into my pack this year, too. I still have not nailed down the exact gear list yet, but camera gear is a prominent part of the post-base weight for this year. Camera gear could end up outweighing my big three for this hike.
On the AT I loved using an alcohol stove, which I changed to isobutane on the PCT because of the fire regulations. I want to use the isobutane, but it seems to be in short supply right now, so I think I am going back to alcohol for this trip just for logistical reasons. January is not a month for me to go stoveless.
Oh, and the coconut. I am hiking in full uniform for this hike. Gilligan drinks from coconuts, dirty or not.
Ready to Roll
While hiking through Massachusetts on the AT a few years back, I encountered a hiker who was hiking the Eastern Continental Trail. He had started in Key West and passed through the entire Florida Trail already. I asked him what he thought of the Florida Trail, and he gave me the best description I have ever heard. “The Florida Trail is like a necklace with beautiful pearls held together with ugly twine.”
I have seen some pearls and plenty of twine already. But I am hoping that after I complete the hike and pin my necklace to the map on the wall I will still think my homemade necklace is the most beautiful in the world.
Follow me over the next two months as I make the Florida Trail one of my trail experiences.
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