Sandra Friend and John Keatley spend their lives hiking, camping, backpacking and exploring the outdoors from their vintage VW camper. Their mission: To connect the public with the great outdoors by way of their books, blogs and articles.
Sandra launched floridahikes.com to provide hikers (and potential hikers) with information she couldn’t fit into her guidebooks, including the “Hiker’s Guide to the Sunshine State” (available in bookstores around Florida and on Amazon.com). In collaboration with Keatley, the award-winning travel writer is wrapping up a self-published guide to the 1,400-mile statewide Florida Trail, the National Scenic Trail in Florida. “We’ve built a strong following online because we hike the trails ourselves and provide detailed information about them,” she says.
This year, the two are coordinating the Big O Hike — where, coincidentally, they first met seven years ago — for the first time as volunteers for the Florida Trail Association. “It’s most definitely a bonding experience for participants,” Friend says. “The trek involves nine days of hiking around Lake Okeechobee during Thanksgiving week, with base camps at commercial campgrounds. This is the 22nd year for the event, which draws more than 200 people for the kickoff and 50 or more walking the entire 109 miles around the lake.”
Choose your path: “Meetup (social networking website) is by far the best place to find group hikes, especially ones with a social component. You can find this information coordinated under floridahikes.com/meetup-groups-for-hikers,” says Friend. “Many local chapters of the Florida Trail Association announce their activities on Meetup, and they are also an excellent place to find guided hikes: floridatrail.org.”
When to go: Florida’s prime hiking season is October through April. The bugs aren’t so bad; temperatures are cooler; and there’s not much rain. “We’re flip-flopped from the rest of the country in this aspect,” she says. “February is always the best month for backpacking, with the coolest temperatures.”
Newbies: Floridahikes.com has more than 1,500 pages of information on Florida’s trails, along with gear lists, reviews and tips on how to hike Florida. The planning section of the website provides background on Florida-specific concerns for hikers as well as general information about hiking and backpacking. There’s also a forum to ask questions and share advice.
The nine-day trek runs around Lake Okeechobee. This year, departure is 9 a.m. Nov. 23 — you can walk just a portion of it on day one, which is known as doing the “wimp walk” — or join for any part of the event, since no rules apply. Two campgrounds along the way serve as base camps, but again, if you can’t handle rooming with Mother Nature, you’re free to stay in a motel. All the details and information are available online via the downloadable 20th Anniversary Official Big O Hike Guide at floridahikes.com.