Physical Challenges & Preparation

Just Because It's Flat Doesn't Mean It's Easy

There is very little elevation gain on the Florida Trail. That much is true. That does not mean the FT is a cake walk, however. Experienced hikers from Appalachia and out west tend to assume that the FT is easy because of its elevation profile, but mud and water are tough obstacles. Walking through ankle-deep mud on the FT is like walking uphill in the snow. You have to work hard to lift your foot against the suction of the mud, only to have it sink back down with each step. Preparing for the FT requires recognition of this reality.

Should You Hit the Gym Before the Trip?

Yes. We strongly disagree with the claim (often repeated on blogs and forums) that you don’t need to physically prepare for a thru-hike. Conventional wisdom says the best training for the Trail is the Trail itself. In other words, just take it slow in the first two weeks and you will get strong and adapt to the Trail's physical demands.

That may be true for a few hikers — someone under 25, not overweight, and already active. However people have a way of overestimating their fitness level, and the Trail will quickly correct that misconception.


The Florida Trail thrusts NOBO hikers into the Big Cypress Swamp on day one and the swamp is not to be underestimated. Walking through deep mud and standing water is difficult and slow, even for the strongest hikers. Days are hot and daylight hours are short. If you get tired, you often cannot take a sit-down break, let alone call it a day and make camp, because there is no dry land. Campsites are on small islands a full day's walk from each other.


This tiring trek through the swamp continues for 40 miles without a road crossing. There is no place to bail out. If you decide to quit, you can't. There is no choice except to keep hiking. Even when you leave Big Cypress at I75, you are still ____ miles from Clewiston, the first town on the FT and the first opportunity for an indoor zero day.


For these reasons we recommend that you arrive at the terminus strong, fit, and comfortable carrying your pack.

The Two-Week Switch

Despite training physically for the hike, the first two weeks will be difficult on your body. Even people in great shape do not exercise eight hours a day, every day, for weeks at a time. However, that is what a thru-hike is like: unending exercise.


During the first two weeks the body panics — unsure what is happening, it diverts blood from the digestive and other organs to supply muscles. Consequently, you lose your appetite. After a long hard day of hiking, you find that you just can’t finish your dinner. It feels awful, but you have to force yourself to eat.


Around day fourteen you feel as if a switch has been thrown — suddenly your appetite returns (greater than normal too), and you have more stamina. This has happened to our editors on every thru-hike (and thru-paddle) we've undertaken.


So take it slow the first two weeks and give your body time to adjust to the challenge of the trail. Only hike a few miles the first and second day, then add a few more. And if you can, take a break every twenty minutes — it’s a marathon, not a sprint. This is the best strategy for someone starting a long trek, whether it's their first thru-hike or their fifth.

The Importance of Zero & Nero Days

A zero day is a day where you do zero miles on the trail. A nero is a near-zero, typically a brief couple of easy miles before getting into town.


It is crucial to your health and the overall success of your thru-hike that you take a zero day once a week. Even God rested on the seven day. (Supposedly, we weren't there.) Your body needs a rest and without a regular schedule of zero days, you will flame out and the trip will come to an end.


However, what tends to happen is that zero days become work days. Gear is cleaned and repaired, groceries are bought, laundry is washed, et cetera. Thru-hikers consistently report being more tired at the end of a zero day — from running errands — than they are at the end of a normal hiking day. Our editors prefer to nero into a trail town, get chores done that day, and then zero the next day.


Also, if you have plenty of supplies, you can zero at a campsite. We love to do this — spend a day hanging out in camp, reading, watching the lake or river, exploring the hammock or forest or park where we've camped. These are the most relaxing days.