As always, the problem to be solved when choosing clothes for the Florida Trail is the combination of humidity and submergence in water with a wide temperature range from 20-80 degrees. Intense sun presents another complication, as do insects, and of course we want clothes that weigh as little as possible.
Humidity and the occasional swamp tromp means clothes must dry quickly and retain their insulating quality when wet. The wide temperature range also means we need clothes capable of keeping us warm when it’s cold but that don’t cause overheating when it’s warm.
This disqualifies cotton and wool as well as puffy jackets and pants stuffed with insulation.
insulates when wet
warm in the cold
cool in the heat
provides sun protection
Intense sun disqualifies tank tops, shorts, and even short sleeves. Like the cowboys in old westerns, wearing long sleeves is the surest way to prevent sunburn. The ideal FT thru-hike outfit is pictured above: convertible 100% nylon pants, a 100% polyester t-shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.
When shopping for outdoor gear, nothing is more overpriced than clothes. An outfitter may charge $70 for a pair of shorts, $100 for a t-shirt, and $250 for a fleece jacket. Yikes. Their marketing materials usually include scientific-looking graphics touting wicking or fast drying features, but these expensive name-brands aren't any better or lighter than inexpensive versions at generic big-box stores.
So when shopping for (most) clothes, we recommend avoiding outfitters and checking out places like Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, Big 5, and even Target. General athletic/ running/ workout clothes are just as good as "hiking" clothes. If you do shop at an outfitter, ignore the name brands and only look at the in-house brands made by REI or Eastern Mountain Sports.
Big box stores like Dick's and Target never include an item's weight on the tag, however. You still want the lightest possible gear (and clothes can be deceptively heavy) so we recommend buying an inexpensive digital postal scale and taking it with you into the store. You'll look weird, but tell someone you're planning on hiking the Florida Trail and they'll think you're cool.
It is also a good idea to know the weight of that $100 t-shirt or $70 pair of shorts at the outfitter, that way you have a baseline for comparison. We guarantee that you will find lighter alternatives. For example, we have found a long-sleeve Under Armor shirt weighing 3 ounces and a pair of Adidas soccer shorts weighing 2.5 ounces, a savings of 5 ounces each over what was available at an outfitter.
Finally, remember to wait for sales because of fake pricing.
We recommend that you carry two long-sleeve 100% polyester athletic shirts. During long stretches of trail without shade, long sleeves will prevent sunburn. Polyester shirts, regardless of brand, wick moisture away, dry quickly, and continue to insulate when wet. They are warm in the cold and cool in the heat. It’s nice to have two shirts – a damp smelly one to wear while hiking and a dry clean one to wear in camp and at night.
Polyester does not block wind, however. On a cool blustery day the wind can cut right through your shirt and chill you, which is why we also recommend carrying a single button-down 100% nylon shirt. It can be worn alone or over your polyester shirt. Our reasoning is explored below in our discussion of baselayers.
Ultralite hikers prefer soccer shorts over hiking pants. Generally that’s fine but for the Florida Trail we recommend pants over shorts for two main reasons: sunburn and insect bite prevention. Plus, there will be cold days where you want pants, overgrown trail can slash bare skin, and when you take that first step into deep, dark water, it feels safer to do it in pants.
However the main drawback of pants is that they trap heat and moisture around your legs, which is exacerbated by Florida’s humidity and further aggravated by the wind-blocking quality of nylon. Heat, moisture, and friction from the pants lead to heat rashes on legs, thighs, and groin.
As a result, your best choice is the now ubiquitous convertible hiking pant with zip-off legs. If you are experiencing heat rash, then the legs can be zipped off to allow more air flow and cooling.
The absolute lightest jackets on the market are basically shells of non-woven nylon stuffed with insulation. Down jackets like these can weigh as little as 9-6 ounces while still being super warm — but only in dry conditions. While the weight savings are tempting, the humidity issue makes them a poor choice in Florida. The non-woven nylon doesn't breath, is clammy, and the jackets don't insulate effectively when wet.
On the Florida Trail your best choice is a simple fleece jacket. Fleece absorbs very little if any ambient moisture from the air, continues to insulate even when drenched from sweat or rain, and dries quickly. Sometimes swinging it around your head is all that's needed to dry it. Plus fleece is still lightweight and much cheaper than the puffy jackets. You can find good ones around $30-50. Full-zip models are recommended over half-zip and pull-overs.
Mornings and evenings can be quite cold on the FT — not cold enough for an extra layer under your pants but definitely too cold for a single shirt. So are conventional baselayers a good choice to stay warm while hiking?
First, let's ask ourselves what exactly the difference is between a shirt marketed as a baselayer versus a regular wicking athletic shirt. The baselayer costs more, for one. It's also supposed to be tight/ form fitting to minimize air movement and thus maximize warmth. Not a good idea in humid Florida, where baselayers trap sweat like a sponge and hold it against your skin (especially if they're wool). That's not supposed to happen of course, but instead of wicking away, your outer shirt plus the humidity prevent sweat from going anywhere.
Wearing a fleece jacket is another option to stay warm, but even a thin jacket is usually too warm to hike in and you quickly end up drenched in sweat.
After much trial and error, we've concluded the best solution is to wear a button-down nylon shirt over your normal polyester hiking shirt. If you start to feel too warm or sweat-soaked, it can be unbuttoned and the sleeves rolled up. Nylon absorbs far less water than other materials and dries so quickly that even in humid Florida the material remains fairly dry.
What About When Sleeping?
As we discuss on the sleeping bags page, the wide range of temperatures on the FT have led us to recommend a 20-32 degree bag combined with a silk liner. Some people are particularly sensitive to
cold however, especially women and folks over sixty. If you know your comfort level and are worried about being too cold at night, then wool or polypropylene baselayers (top and bottom) are a
As we discuss on the health problems page, heat rash can be a painful problem. The key is prevention, and while applying Gold Bond to your thighs helps, so too does wearing underwear made from polyester or some other synthetic material.
Within hiking circles cotton is maligned for exacerbating hypothermia, but nevertheless many hikers still wear cotton underwear. Usually this is not a problem, and on another trail we might even encourage it since synthetics tend to smell bad and thru-hikers go weeks without laundry. However, since cotton dries so slowly and Florida is so humid, cotton underwear traps moisture (and subsequently heat) and that causes painful rashes.
It's a good idea to carry a fleece beanie and fleece gloves. Like shirts and jackets, these are usually way overpriced at an outfitter. As long as they are 100% fleece, simple inexpensive gloves and beanies from Target or Wal-Mart are sufficient.
The subtropical sun is intense, even in winter, and there will be long stretches on the FT with little shade. The Florida Trail is not a long green tunnel like the AT, so a pair of sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB rays is important.
Polarized lenses are nice, but more expensive. Plus, if you plan to take lots of photographs or use your phone often, polarized lenses make it impossible to read LCD screens. You have to take the glasses off to see the screen, so it's best to avoid polarization.
No item of clothing is more overpriced than sunglasses, which can cost as much as $400 at an outfitter. This is especially ridiculous considering how often sunglasses break or get lost. We recommend getting sunglasses at the dollar store or otherwise not spending more than $5 on a pair.
As we discuss on the hunting page, hunting is allowed on some public lands but not others in ways that can be confusing. You can enter and exit hunting areas throughout the day or week and never know it. Consequently, we strongly encourage thru-hikers to play it safe, assume hunters are in the woods wherever they are hiking, and wear blaze orange every day. Hunters will thank you.
You can find 100% polyester blaze-orange baseball hats for about $5 at hardware stores or WalMart. A better choice for sun protection would be the RedHead Outback hat from Bass Pro Shops.