Nicknames like “Brushy Bert” or “RoboCrip” might seem unusual to the untrained ear, but they have special meaning. They’re just a few of the dozens of long-distance hikers who are currently traveling the Florida National Scenic Trail, commonly referred to as the FNST, Florida Trail, or simply “the Trail”.
Although anyone can use the Florida Trail year-round, the busiest season for long-distance hiking is January – March.
To commemorate the start of the season, the non-profit alliance, “FT thruHIKE” hosts a free 3-day Kickoff event near the southern terminus in the first week of January. At this gathering of hikers, hot meals are cooked by volunteers while stories of other long-distance journeys are shared. They might also find a buddy or group to hike with for a portion or entire length of their 1,100-1,200 hike.
“We host the Kickoff to make it easier for hikers to meet in-person and share useful information,” said Ari Hirschman, a volunteer Kickoff organizer for the past five years. “We also provide safety tips, trail condition updates and other info to help prepare them for the challenging journey.”
The 1,584-mile FNST lies between its southern terminus in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the northern terminus at the Gulf Islands National Seashore in the panhandle. The Trail splits into two paths at separate locations: around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee and around the City of Orlando. Thru-hikers who traverse the entire trail will choose the eastern or western route.
Around Lake Okeechobee, the east-west decision for northbound (“NOBO”) hikers is made at John Stretch Park in Palm Beach County. Hikers will have crossed the swamps in Big Cypress, a portion of the Seminole Reservation, and the levees of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) for 94 miles before reaching rural Clewiston.
The FNST is one of 11 national scenic trails, all managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). In Florida, there is a partnership for maintenance of the Trail between the USFS and the non-profit Florida Trail Association (FTA). The FTA was founded in 1964 and trains volunteers to perform trail maintenance on the FNST. FTA members contributed nearly 30,000 volunteer hours and maintained 1,476 miles of the FNST and other spur trails in 2023.
Volunteers often drive for several hours to help at the annual Kickoff, and many who live near the Trail serve as “Trail Angels” year-round. Trail Angels across the state volunteer their support for occasional re-supply shuttles, local information and sometimes supplemental food & water.
“I was raised in Virginia near the Appalachian Trail,” said Trail Angel Tammy, of Okeechobee. “We’ve helped hikers whenever we can since moving to Florida five year ago. We enjoy hearing stories of their experiences on the Trail.”
Most long-distance hikers have trail nicknames that are given to them by others. They’ll wear them as a badge of honor, but also to increase safety on the Trail. Many hikers post videos of the journey on social media, but only after several days of being on the Trail in order to avoid revealing their real-time locations.
“Thru-hikers are somewhat exposed to security risks along the Trail, especially if hiking alone,” said Kate Adams, FTA Section Leader for Lake Okeechobee West.
“Imagine taking an 1,100-mile journey on-foot to areas you’ve never seen before while carrying on your back all clothing, shelter, food & supplies that you’ll need for the next several weeks contained in only 25-40 lbs.”
Re-supply sources near the Trail such as grocery and restaurants may be rare, sometimes over 50 miles away by car. Resilience and problem-solving skills are essential to completion of the Trail.
“Sleeping outdoors every night and not knowing what tomorrow will bring is exhilarating, but can also feel very vulnerable,” said Adams. “Although there are reasons to communicate with others, hikers typically use their trail names online for privacy and security.”
In addition to RoboCrip and Brushy Bert, a few of the other hikers on the Trail this season include: Gizmo from East Tennessee; Amelia Airheart of Connecticut; Longshot of Saginaw, Michigan; Honeysuckle and Sneaks from Oregon; and Nomad of Norfolk, Virginia. Others from parts unknown include Jiffy Pop, Rabbit Foot, Red Squirrel & Gas Monkey.
Like many long-distance hikers, army veteran “Halfway” of Seattle intends to complete all 11 national scenic trails. He has already finished the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, New England and Ice Age Trails.
“I frequently stop hikers on the Trail to ask about their experiences,” said Adams. “I’m often surprised by how often hikers have traveled from other states or countries in order to walk the Florida Trail. It can take months of planning, both financially and logistically.”
Brushy Bert is attempting a Yo-Yo of the Trail. Having completed the entire 1,100+ miles NOBO starting in September 2023, he took a short break and immediately turned around to walk the entire Trail again southbound.
“I keep it light and can live on cereal bars for a long time,” said Bert. “I mostly stay to myself on the Trail, but I’ve also benefited from the kindness of others who gave me snacks and or hot food.”
Age is seemingly no barrier to long-distance hiking. There are several hikers on the Trail this season who are well past retirement age. “Mud Dog” of New Orleans attended the Kickoff with the goal of finishing in time to attend his 50-year high school reunion. “DSquare” of New Smyrna Beach has completed the Appalachian Trail twice and will celebrate his 75th birthday on the Florida Trail this year.
“Hiking the Florida Trail is about endurance, not just the warmer weather,” said Adams. “The amazing variety of conditions is what makes the Trail appealing to hikers. It takes a high level of mental stamina and emotional strength to withstand the unpredictable weather, multiple swamp and wetlands crossings, tolerance of snakes, 1000’s of insects, lack of shade and persistent winds in some areas.”
Although some hikers will try to finish quickly and may cover up to 35 miles on certain days, most will hike 10-20 miles daily. Many will complete the entire trail throughout the course of a year by hiking in shorter 50-300 mile sections at various times. Section hikers may have limited time between work and other obligations, but will endure the same conditions with the added challenge of transportation between start and finish points due to the lack of public transit in rural areas.
“We’ve already seen an increase in section hikers this year,” said Adams. “I hope that local governments can examine the possibility of permitted, short-term overnight parking in public parks for next season.”
In addition to Trail Angel shuttles, there may also be anonymous support commonly referred to as “Trail Magic.” These are random, spontaneous encounters with people who offer a ride, food or water when it’s least expected.
“I’ve also seen an encouraging increase in Trail Magic in all three FTA Gateway Communities around Lake Okeechobee,” said Adams. “They include the City of Clewiston, City of Okeechobee and all of Glades County.”
Trail Magic may be something as simple as a water bottle refill or a piece of fresh fruit. Those who live near the Trail in rural areas may install a permanent “hiker box” with water and snacks inside. Trail magic may also appear in the form of a short ride to a nearby store for a re-supply. These shuttles help keep hikers safer by preventing dangerous road walks on busy highways to get to stores.
Joel and Wanda of Okeechobee have served as Trail Angels for 15 years. Their hiker box on the Trail has helped hundreds, and they’ve enjoyed meeting hikers from all over the country.
“There have been several over the years who weren’t prepared for the lack of shade or the colder nights,” said Joel. “We gently advise them on certain topics to help keep them safe and will offer a ride to town to get supplies or better equipment.”
Many hikers have commonly-held misconceptions about Florida such as frequently attacking alligators. Another misconception among first-timers is that the comparatively flat land will make the hike easier than other national trails.
They may also be surprised by the beautiful scenery in the so-called “boring” areas of the Trail such as the agricultural lands around Lake Okeechobee.
“Hikers often comment to me that they didn’t expect to see such beautiful sunrises and sunsets so far inland,” said Adams. “They can’t comprehend the expansive horizon of a 730-square-mile lake until they’re standing next to it.”
Adams recently met a hiker who was reduced to tears during a Lakeport sunrise on the Trail. She told Adams that the cattle and cane backdrop with the intense colors over the expansive lake will be one of her most treasured memories.
“I’ve shed tears over that Florida Trail beauty many, many times,” said Adams.
For more information about the entire FNST and other trails surrounding Lake Okeechobee, including short hosted group walks, contact the Fisheating Creek FTA chapter: FTAGladesHendry@yahoo.com or 863-281-3189.