Thru-Paddle Basics


Every adventure follows the same pattern: someone is inspired and sets a goal, they conduct research, estimate costs, raise funds, assemble their Argonauts, and set sail. Maybe the goal is achieved, maybe not. This website can help you determine your goal, research it, and estimate costs. But with the other steps, (no less crucial), you're on your own.


At a Glance

Total Length:                  1550 miles

Western Terminus          Big Lagoon State Park

Eastern Terminus           Fort Clinch State Park

First thru-paddled           2008-09 by Matt Keene, Mike Ruso, and Dan Dick

total # of thru-paddlers   14 as of Dec 2014

length of thru-paddle      4 to 5 months

thru-paddle season        November - March

cost                                $4650, estimated on-trail expenses


When to Paddle

Thru-paddling season is November to March. Thru-paddles in Florida, particularly the CT, should only be attempted during this five month window. You could potentially thru-paddle at any time of the year—the CT is open year-round and Florida rivers rarely become raging torrents. However, paddling season is considered to be November through March for a number of reasons:

 

Hurricane Season

Technically, hurricane season does not end until November 30th, but late-season hurricanes are rare. I believe it is safe to set out at the beginning of November and started on the 11th. While hurricane season does not begin again until June 1st, by mid-April temperatures are high and thunderstorms are appearing in the afternoon.

 

High Temperatures

Floridians look forward to the onset of fall the way a northerner looks forward to spring. During the summer heat, going to the beach is the only thing you can do outdoors and not be miserable. Backpacking, camping, and extended camping are out of the question. During the odd cool year, moderate temperatures (70s-80s) might appear in October and linger through April but more often, the heat lingers until November and returns by the end of March.

 

Beginning in April, daytime temperatures are regularly above 90 degrees. These temperatures combined with our high humidity means it is difficult for the body to cool down. Hyperthermia & heat stroke are serious dangers.  more

 

Thunderstorms

I cannot emphasize this enough, but lightning is a serious threat. Tampa is the lightning capital of the United States, and second in the world to Rwanda. Central Florida from Tampa to Titusville is called "Lightning Alley" and lightning is the number one cause of weather-related deaths. During the summer, intense storms with lightning appear every afternoon. I have been hiking on the Florida Trail during one of these storms, with lightning striking all around me. It was dangerous, and there was little I could do. While it still rains in the winter, the storms are more mild and infrequent. They are also caused by cold fronts, whose arrival can be predicted and planned around.  more

 

Bugs

Once the heat returns in spring, biting insects like mosquitoes, horse flies, and chiggers appear. Out on the water you won't be bothered, but every time you land to camp or eat lunch you will be attacked mercilessly.  more


Length of a CT Thru-Paddle

It takes about 4-5 months to paddle all 1,550 miles. If you start during the first week of November, you will likely finish sometime in March. Of course, paddlers regularly race kayaks up and down the Florida coast much faster, but a thru-paddle is not a sprint, it's a marathon. If you don't mind doing bigger miles every day, you could maybe shave 2 weeks off this estimate or more, but there are limits to what you can do.

 

You cannot set a goal of 18 miles every day and rigidly adhere to it because coastal campsites and reasonably priced waterfront hotels are limited. Because you are restricted to where you can spend the night, you will often be forced to paddle a shorter or longer day than you might have wanted.

 

The additional factor to consider is your average paddling speed. On a good day, a thru-paddler moves at the same pace as a backpacker: about 3 miles an hour. Sometimes the wind and currents can speed you along, but more likely you will be battling headwinds, cross-currents, et cetera, which slow you down. Eighteen miles at 2.5 mph is 7.2 hours of paddling, while 13 miles is 5.2 hours. Remember that in the winter months the days are shorter, with the sun going down around 5:30. You will need time to eat lunch, make camp, et cetera.

 

With all that said, let's do some rough math:

If we assume an average of 13 miles per day (which is my preferred pace), and assume you will take a zero day about once every 7 days, then we can do the following math:

1550 miles divided by 13 = 119 days (Nov 7 to March 5)

+ 17 zero days =  136 days (Nov 7 to March 22)

 

Or, if you prefer to go faster:

1550 miles divided by 18 =  86 days (Nov 7 to Jan 31)

+ 12 zero days = 98 days (Nov 7 to Feb 12)


Cost of a CT Thru-Paddle

Decades ago you could thru-hike the Appalachian Trail for a dollar a mile. Today, it is between two to three dollars a mile. Estimating the cost of a thru-paddle is done the same as the cost of a thru-hike, by the mile.

 

For the CT, because you often must spend nights at campgrounds or state parks that charge a fee (rather than camp out on the beach for free) the cost is closer to three dollars a mile. If you plan to paddle all 1,500 miles and do the trip in roughly five months like I did, then I think you shouldn't begin the trip without $4500 in the bank. $5000 would give you a cushion and sense of comfort in case of costly emergencies like buying replacement gear or visiting the emergency roomtwo things I needed to do during my trip.

 

This estimate of $3 per mile is only for on-trip expenses. This figure does not include the initial investment of gear and other supplies. If you do not already have a sea kayak and basic camping gear, this upfront cost could be multiple thousands of dollars.

 

Hotel stays greatly affect on-trip expenses. I can't say for certain how many nights a CT paddler must spend in a hotel. Some paddlers might want to spend more time sleeping indoors and showering, others will not. The temperament and personality of the paddler is the determining factor. I recommend taking a zero day once every 7-10 days. On a five month trip, that's roughly 20 stays in a hotel/motel.


West to East or East to West?

The thru-paddler has to decide whether to begin at the Alabama border and paddle east across the panhandle, or begin at the Georgia border and paddle south down the intra-coastal waterway. I'm not sure there are advantages to doing it one way or the other.


The online state guide goes from west to east, and that is the way I paddled, because of a clockwise motion to currents in the Gulf of Mexico. I thought paddling east along the panhandle and then south along the Gulf coast would save me from batting those currents, but I'm not sure how much that really helped. The wind is your greatest foe.

If you want a coastal paddling trip of a week or more, but don't have the time or inclination to paddle for five months, then you have two excellent options:


Guidebooks

CT Guidebook

A guide, map set, and supplemental materials are available free from the state’s website. You can also buy a bound copy from Amazon.com by clicking on the picture to the right. The information provided is geared for someone paddling the trail in sections, rather than completing the entire trail in a single thru-paddle.

 

There is no other guide to thru-paddling the CT other than this website.

 

The thru-paddler needs to supplement the state guide with the location & hours of grocery stores, libraries, post offices, laundromats, and reasonably priced hotels located within walking distance of the beach.I discuss how to do this on the Planning and Logistics section.

The other important thing you need to add to the state guide are campground maps. Often you will spend the night at state, local, or private campgrounds that have designated tent sites and charge a fee. Since tenting will be by the water but the park office where they take your money is at the entrance road, having a site map in hand allows you to find a tent site, set up, then go pay, rather than wander all over the park confused.


I have compiled these park maps along with the maps of trail towns and have them available for download as PDFs on the Advanced Planning page.

 

When I was preparing for my circumnavigational trip, the biggest task I undertook was the mapping of every waypoint for every stop along the route. It involved finding locations using Google Earth, then copying and pasting the GPS coordinates into a Word document. That document became my “data book,” a quick-reference mileage chart that I laminated and kept in my deck bag. It listed almost 500 sites along the coastline, what services were available (water, groceries, hotel, camping, et cetera), the mileage between each site, and the GPS coordinates. I then pre-programmed my GPS unit with these 500 waypoints.

There is now a data book available from the state. Download the PDF here. I recommend laminating a copy and keeping it in your deck bag.

Download
CT Data Book.pdf
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