by Savannah Evanoff
Florida has beautiful areas that aren’t the beach.
Many of them are in Northwest Florida as part of the Florida Trail. Mary McKinley, incoming president of the Choctawhatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, wants to make sure everyone knows it.
“It’s really a particularly gorgeous part of Florida …; ” McKinley said. “You have to … hike our hills with our gorgeous white sand-bottom creeks. It’s the easiest backpacking you can do.” With new signage posted in the area, the Choctawhatchee Chapter wants to get the word out.
We asked some local experts for tips that apply to hikers of all levels.
The experts are McKinley, the first woman to thru-hike from Fort Pickens to the Everglades; Sandra Friend, an avid hiker and author of many hiking articles, books and Florida Trail resources; Eva Bailey, an experienced backpacker and member of the Choctawhatchee Chapter; and Steve Duke, vice chairman and membership chairman of the Choctawhatchee Chapter.
1. Make friends.
Don’t go alone your first time hiking, especially when you don’t have to.
The Florida Trail Association has 18 chapters. Each hosts meetings and activities for its region and welcomes new people, McKinley said. To find out more about the Florida Trail Association, visit floridatrail.org.
The Choctawhatchee Chapter covers Okaloosa and Walton counties, and the Western Gate Chapter covers Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Bailey, a Fort Walton Beach resident, said she joined a group after first attending a chapter meeting. Then she did a day hike.
“They were so nice and patient,” Bailey said. “Most of the people in the chapters are like that. They’ll mentor you. They’ll just patiently teach you.”
McKinley, a Niceville resident and Bailey’s mentor, said Bailey is now an experienced backpacker. She recently completed her first 52-mile hike. The Choctawhatchee Chapter offers day hikes and backpacking excursions for beginners, McKinley said.
“We try to offer something for everyone during the course of the year,” McKinley said.
To find Choctawhatchee Chapter events, visit meetup.com/Florida-Trail-Choctawhatchee-Chapter/events/. To find Western Gate Chapter events, visit meetup.com/ftawesterngate/.
2. Don’t skimp on water.
Water. Water. Water.
Experienced hikers know the most important tip for hiking is bringing and drinking enough water, McKinley said.
“You have to get to know yourself and know what your water needs are,” McKinley said. “Never ever skimp on that.”
Duke, a Fort Walton Beach resident, always brings at least 3 liters with him on a hike, no matter how much he has left when he’s done, he said.
Friend, a Titusville resident, carries a water filter with her on day hikes, so she has extra water if she needs it, she said.
“I find when it’s cool out, it’s easy to misjudge,” Friend said. “You think you’re drinking enough water, and you still aren’t.”
If you feel thirsty, it’s already too late, McKinley said.
“A lot of people assume because hiking is walking that it’s not an athletic activity, but it really is and you have to treat it as that,” Friend said.
3. Put your best feet forward.
If you want to be miserable on a hike, wear shoes that are too small, Duke said.
“Every shoe for hikers should be one size larger than you normally wear,” Duke said. “Your feet will swell because of the hiking …; You can get crippled in a hurry.”
Duke is not referring to hiking boots alone. You don’t need boots to hike, McKinley said.
“If you have athletic shoes for whatever it is you already do that fit well, that’s what you want to wear,” McKinley said. “Even on the Appalachian Trail, I used boots the first, maybe, 100 miles and then realized that was not the way to go and never had another blister.”
Friend has worn New Balance trail runners for her past 20 years of hiking, she said. Duke recommends shoe brands such as Brooks or Asics, he said.
“When you add weight to your back, 20 or 30 pounds, … that pressure spreads your feet, too,” McKinley said. “Your feet are incredibly important. Water first, feet second.”
4. Do your research.
Friend strongly recommends doing research before going on a hike.
She has written 33 books, many of which are trail guides, she said. Trail guides and the Florida Trail Association Data Book make excellent hiking resources, she said.
“I firmly believe people need to do their research, either online or in books, to have a clue of where they’re going before they go there …;” Friend said.
Another resource is the Florida Trail cellphone app, The Florida Trail Guide. This is an electronic companion to the book that works without phone service. Most distance hikers use the app as their map, McKinley said.
5. Stay safe.
Wherever you go, tell someone you’re going, Duke said.
“If you’re doing a solo hike, it’s very important to tell someone where you’re going, where you’re going to get out, how long you expect to be in there, how you’re going to get back out,” Duke said. “It’s almost like a pilot filing a flight plan.”
On Bailey’s latest hike, she left her husband a map, she said.
“… I highlighted where I was,” Bailey said. “Then if an emergency came up, he would know where I’m at.”
You should also monitor the weather, Duke said. He once had a leader cancel a group hike because of inclement weather.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘We’re going anyway,'” Duke said. “The three of us went, and within a 100 yards of the trail head, the water was over our shoes and in our shoes. We hiked for 13 1/2 miles with wet feet …; but we had a good time.”