The Florida Trail challenges footwear like no other trail:
Because the FT is unfinished there remains about 300 miles of roadwalking, as well as uncounted miles of paved bicycle path (maybe 75 miles by our rough estimation). Shoes must be able to endure those miles without the soles wearing thin and yet remain comfortable.
Prolonged Submergence Under Water
During the 40+ miles through Big Cypress Swamp, as well as many shorter swamp tromps, your footwear will be submerged in water for hours at a time. This is bad for leather. It can also weaken or dissolve adhesives in the shoe/ boot, causing splitting and separation, especially at the sole.
Walking in mud can suck the sole right off a shoe or boot. When we hiked the eight miles from Loop Road to Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress Swamp, we found two different boot soles on the trail. The mud had pulled the soles clean off and the hikers must not have noticed. A week later the mud claimed one of our soles (we packed them all out).
tough soles for roadwalks
glues don't dissolve in water
Would Be Nice
Quick Drying & Breathable
In Florida’s heat, humidity, and wet conditions, your foot needs to breath. Moisture trapped in shoes will cause blisters and fungus. Since you will also walk through standing water more frequently than any other trail, you want a shoe that water pours from the moment you step onto dry land and then dries quickly as you walk. This disqualifies leather, which dries extremely slowly and traps a lot of heat.
Sandy Hills & Beach Walking
The last two or three days of the FT thru-hike are on the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast. Even inland, much of Florida's soil is what we call sugar sand — essentially beach sand deposited thousands of years ago. If you've been to the beach you know how your feet can twist, sink, and slide in the sand. The weight of your pack means your feet will sink, twist, and slide even more. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this disqualifies boots because they will make you unbalanced in the sugar sand. Imagine wearing inflexible ski boots to the beach — you'd topple over pretty quickly.
Lots of Cushioning
As on all thru-hikes, you do not want a minimalist shoe with little cushion. Minimalist shoes are not intended for continuous use day in and day out. Thru-hikers need as much cushion as possible.
Midweight Leather Boots
While nice for Appalachian Trail hikers, traditional mid-weight leather boots provide no benefits and a lot of drawbacks on the FT. Not only are they already heavy, but the all-leather boot becomes even more heavy when wet, the leather never dries, and it traps heat - a recipe for blisters and fungus. Plus, they are lousy in soft sand and painful on long roadwalks. There is simply no justification for them.
We field tested the Keen Verdi II Mid pictured to the right to see if lightweight boots were suitable on the FT and they failed miserably. While lightweight boots may have large mesh panels on the sides, too much of the boots are still leather, making them unbearably hot and wet. Make no mistake, these are not high-top trail runners. They are leather boots and hence have no place on the FT.
Regular Running Shoes & Racing Flats
Regular running shoes are not durable enough for off-road use and will quickly tear, split, and fall apart. Additionally, the soles are not made from materials strong enough to support the extra weight of your pack combined with prolonged daily use and as a result quickly compress until you feel every stick and acorn
underfoot. The soles of ultra-light "racing flats" are usually soft foam, which compresses even faster and quickly develops holes.
Some trail runners are advertised as having adhesive or "gripping" rubber soles, so that your foot doesn't slip on rocks or log bridges, et cetera. This is unnecessary on the Florida Trail where there are neither rocks nor ascents and descents. These "adhesive" soles are just soft rubber and hence wear out very quickly on asphalt and concrete. Since there is so much roadwalking, adhesive soles should be avoided.
Avoid any and all shoes with Gore-Tex liners or other forms of waterproofing like durable waterproof repellent (DWR) finishes. This may be counter-intuitive. After all, you’re walking through water, right? Yes, but this is deep water. Up to your knees at least. It will go over the tops of your shoes and fill up the shoe. Waterproofing traps that water inside the shoe and prevents it from drying. Even out of the swamp and on dry land, waterproofing will trap your sweat, regardless of how "breathable" it supposedly is. When checking out a shoe, look for "GTX" or "WP" in the name and avoid them. These stand for Gore-Tex and Waterproof.
The SealSkinz pictured to the right may seem like a great idea — they're tall and can be paired with a nylon dress sock to wick moisture away. This could work well if the problem was continuous
drizzle like on the AT, or snow like on the PCT, but on the FT waterproof socks create the same problems as waterproof shoes. Water goes over the tops of the socks and fills them. The waterproof
liner then traps that water and prevents it from drying. They are also super warm and after making your feet sweat they trap that sweat.
If we focus solely on the issue of moisture, whether from standing water on the trail, thunderstorms, or sweat, one solution seems to be to abandon shoes altogether for a pair of super comfortable sandals like Tevas or Chacos. We love our sandals but think they are a poor choice for thru-hiking because they have no ankle or arch support, do not protect your feet from debris, nor do they protect against venomous snakes, insects, and poisonous plants.
When we look at the criteria outlined above, the logical choice for footwear on the FT is a trail runner— an off-road running shoe, in other words. But there are an overwhelming number of trail runner options out there — hundreds and hundreds from dozens of brands, so how do we narrow the field?
Just about every trail runner sold at an outfitter now comes with a disqualifying Gore-Tex liner, some other waterproof membrane, or a DWR finish, which narrows the field considerably. When we narrow the field even more by removing those with "adhesive" soles and minimalist designs, we find that actually very few trail runners meet our criteria. Here are our field-tested top pics:
New Balance All-Terrain 481
We have taken two pairs of the New Balance 481 on two different thru-hikes and were never disappointed. The shoes do have a small amount of leather, but most of it is mesh and synthetics and
there is no Gore-Tex liner or other waterproofing. It drains quickly after stepping out of water and dries almost completely after a few hours. It's also incredibly comfortable and light despite
tough soles that hardly wear down at all.
What we especially like about it is the price: between $45 and $65 depending on where you go. It's also available anywhere — Shoe Carnival, Famous Footwear, Shoe Show, and even JCPenny. That's important, since shoes really should be tried on in-store to get the right fit, and not everyone lives close to an outfitter, especially in Florida.
New Balance calls their line of trail runners "All Terrain" and maybe because normal shoe stores stock them, they're under appreciated by hikers and outfitters. REI doesn't carry them, for example. Not every New Balance All Terrain shoe is equal, however, as some are minimalist designs poorly suited for thru-hiking like the "fresh foam" and "Minimus" varieties. Also avoid the 910v2, which has a Gore-Tex liner. If shopping around, one simple way to separate the good from the bad is whether they have round or flat laces. The best models for thru-hiking come with round laces: the 481 and its apparent successor, the 510.
Like most large companies, New Balance seems driven by the marketing rather than design department, and every year or so it ditches their existing line for "new" models with new names. The changes are superficial of course. While still in stores, the 481 is no longer on the New Balance website and seems to have been replaced with the fundamentally identical 510. It's frustrating to keep track of and annoying when you want to replace your favorite shoes that have finally worn out with the same model.
Salomon trail runners are a thru-hiker favorite on the PCT, easily spotted because of their bright multi-colored designs. The company founded in 1947 makes high-quality hiking and mountaineering boots and they took that hiking boot knowledge and applied it to running shoes. The results are high-quality, long-lasting, comfortable trail-runners that can endure an entire PCT thru-hike, and we think they are great for the Florida Trail too.
Salomon has a wide variety of models to sort through, but the three best suited to thru-hiking are the XR Mission (pictured above, women's), the XA Comp 7, and the XA Pro 3D. A favorite feature are their distinct single-pull Kevlar laces that are basically indestructible.
Each model comes in a waterproof variety with Gore-Tex liners (GTX in the shoe's name) or "ClimaShield" waterproof liners (WP in the shoe's name). Be sure to get the non-waterproof type. Also, avoid the Speedcross model, which has soles designed for extra traction with "adhesive" rubber and knobby "lugs," both of which are unnecessary and wear down too quickly.
In 1997 Adidas bought Salomon and has since plundered some of Salomon's designs for use under its own name. Adidas makes a line of trail runners called "Terrex" with three models: the Swift R (pictured to the right), AX2, and Fast X. The Swift R is a Salomon clone, complete with the distinct single-pull Kevlar laces. The AX2 and Fast X are more conventional trail runners. None of the models comes with waterproofing or Gore-Tex, which is great.
Retail prices range from $90 for the AX2 to $135 for the Fast X, which makes them slightly cheaper or on par with their Salomon cousins. Considering that, if it's a choice between Adidas and Salomon, we pick the Salomons. If you are looking to save money however, the New Balance 481s are a better choice.
We want to argue first that camp shoes are a necessity on the FT. Ultralighters claim that if you wear a super comfortable pair of sneakers you don't need camp shoes. While that is certainly true on the PCT, it makes no sense on the Florida Trail, where your sneakers will regularly be soaking wet, filthy with swamp slime, or covered in mud.
You don't want to change into clean clothes in camp only to put your feet into wet filthy shoes. If it is cold, you want to be able to wear dry socks. If you need to leave the tent to pee in the middle of the night, you want to get back into the tent without having to clean your feet. On a zero day in town you don't want to leave you motel room to eat out in wet muddy shoes.
What then is the ideal camp shoe on the FT? First, you must be able to shake it dry, otherwise the whole point of the shoe is defeated. It must also be ultra-light so you don't mind carrying it. It shouldn't cause blisters if worn for a long time, nor fall apart after a few weeks. And since you often use them late at night, they should be easy to take on and off.
won't cause blisters
will last the entire trip
easy to take on and off
Would Be Nice
Teva/ Chaco sandals
rubber flip flops
100% Foam Flip Flops are the Ultralight Choice
Obviously flip flops are light, but finding a quality pair is harder than it looks. A flimsy pair from the dollar store will fall apart in three weeks, plus the rubber/ plastic straps cause blisters or abrasions. More hefty rubber flip flops last longer but they are as heavy as Crocs and still have blister-inducing rubber straps.
The best flip flops look like the O'Neils pictured to the right. They have soles made from 100% foam, which are super light, and wide flat foam straps that won't cause blisters. Our O'Neil sandals weigh just 5 ounces for the pair — that's 2.5 ounces each. Nothing else is as light or comfortable.
This is an example of ultra-light gear that is not marketed as ultra-light and would never be found in an REI or even a Sports Authority. The "new" models come out every year with new names. Take a postal scale to places like Ross or Marshalls and you'll find last year's colors/ designs for super cheap (under $10).
Key feature to look for:
Key features to avoid:
Ditch the Tevas and Crocs
In the 1990s every AT thru-hiker carried a pair of Teva sandals (or an equivalent like Chacos), but they weigh as much or more than a pair of sneakers.
In the 2000s Crocs took over as the dominant camp shoe since they were lighter than Tevas and their foam didn't absorbed water, so they could be shaken dry. Except for their bulkiness, they seemed like the ultimate camp shoe. However, put a pair of Crocs (or a knock-off brand) on a postal scale. Average men's sizes weigh around a pound. They are not the ultra-light shoe everyone assumes they are, and are weirdly expensive on top of that.
Some hikers have told us they use water socks, aka pool shoes. Since these are slipper-like, they are certainly easy to take on and off. They dry with a shake, last a long time, and are satisfyingly cheap (under $10) but have a major drawback: weight. They usually have heavy rubber soles and weigh as much or more than Crocs.
Racing flats have been proposed by some hikers as camp shoes. These sneakers have foam soles and mesh bodies that make them ultra-light running shoes, but even the lightest pair still weighs over a pound — great for runners but disappointing as a camp shoe.
The socks you wear are just as important as your shoes. Even the greatest, best-fitting shoes will give you blisters without socks. And just like shoes, you should never bring untested socks on a long hike. Try out your socks at home first to make sure they're comfortable.
As we discuss on the foot care page, the oldest blister prevention trick in the book is to wear a pair of 100% nylon men's dress socks under a pair of thin merino wool socks. Paired together, this sock combination makes friction take place between the two socks and not between your foot and the sock, preventing blisters. The inner nylon sock also wicks moisture away from your foot very efficiently while the wool sock keeps your foot warm.
The two-sock trick does not work with two pairs of nylon socks or two pairs of wool socks, or if the nylon sock is worn on the outside. It only works if a nylon sock is worn against the foot with the wool sock over it.
Even when walking through standing water, gaiters provide benefits and are an essential piece of gear on the FT. Without gaiters, mud, leaves, twigs, et cetera get into your shoes and cause friction against your feet. Equally as important, they prevent your shoe laces from getting coated in mud, making them easier to untie at the end of the day.
On the AT and PCT, thru-hikers have embraced gaiters made from Lycra. They are ultra-light, stretchy, and pull on like socks. Examples include LevaGaiter by Simblissity, Montbell's StretchGaiters, and the brightly colored and uniquely patterned Dirty Girl Gaiters.
These are not good choices for the Florida Trail, however. At the end of many days on the FT, your feet will be covered in mud. It's nice to have a pair of gaiters that pull apart. With this traditional design you wrap the gaiter around your ankle and secure it with Velcro or snaps to put it on. This keeps mud from getting on the inside of the gaiter, in your shoe laces, and on your socks.
Would Be Nice
On the other hand, Lycra gaiters pull on and off like socks, and it's harder to keep your laces and socks free of mud.
For that reason we recommend simple, 100% nylon varieties with Velcro closures like these Rocky Mountain Low gaiters from Outdoor Research.