When Richard Smith decided to retire from his job at a software company in 2005, his wife told him she didn't want him hanging around the house. "Basically, she told me to go take a hike," Smith said. "So I did just that." In the years that followed, the 64-year-old Seminole man completed three of the lengthy National Scenic Trails in the United States — the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail — a distance of nearly 8,000 miles and often referred to as the "Triple Crown" of long-distance hiking. "I had never been on a trail before in my life," he confessed. "It was all new to me." So like many backpackers new to the sport, he attended seminars on the subject at a local outdoors store, the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. "You might get 100 people attend an Appalachian Trail clinic," said Smith, who now teaches others how to prepare for life on the trail. "In a good year, maybe 10 will attempt it."
The Appalachian Trail, commonly referred to as "the A.T." in hiking circles, is a 2,175-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine.
This trail, which runs through 14 eastern states, was completed in 1937 and became America's first National Scenic Trail. Before 2009, when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's indiscretions gave "hiking the Appalachian Trail" new meaning, completing this epic journey was the goal of every Boy Scout who ever strapped on a pair of hiking boots.
"The A.T. is one of the most well-traveled trails in the country," Smith said. "In a typical year, 2,200 to 2,600 people start the trail. About half of those actually finish it."
The folks who go all the way are called "thru hikers," and it can take anywhere from five to six months to complete.
"It certainly isn't for everybody," Smith said. "It takes a certain commitment."
Smith had three rules that helped guide him on the A.T. and the longer, and far more difficult, Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,663 miles, from Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada):
"Rule No. 1 is don't do anything that can get you hurt," he said. "Rule No. 2 is don't do anything that can get you hurt, and Rule No. 3 is remember rules No. 1 and No. 2."
Smith, who completed the A.T. in 2005, the Pacific Crest in 2007 and the Continental Divide in 2009, had a couple of close calls over the years. Once he stepped within a foot of a rattlesnake.
"He just rattled away, and I kept walking," he said.
Another time, he found himself about 20 feet from a black bear.
"Fortunately, it was not a grizzly," he said. "But I have learned that if you treat the trail with respect, the trail will respect you."
Smith said the most common mistake first-time hikers make on the A.T. or the shorter, closer-to-home Florida Trail is that they carry too much gear.
"It is something you can't teach — how much stuff you really don't need," he said. "When I started the trail, my pack weighed 47 pounds. A few days later, I had dropped it down to 35 pounds. These days I typically hike with a 30-pound pack."
The lighter your pack, the better off you will be, Smith said.
"If you travel light, you are a happy walker," he said. "If you travel heavy, you are a happy camper."
The Florida Trail
You don't have to hike from Georgia to Maine to get a taste of life on the trail. Florida has its own unspoiled wilderness areas that are best explored on foot. The Florida Trail Association oversees more than 1,500 miles of well-maintained trails throughout the state.
Most of the trails can be found on public property (state parks and forests) but some sections also run through private land. The FTA has negotiated access to these areas for members. Permits may be required. For more information, go to www.floridatrail.org.
Before heading out on an overnight trip, start with some day hikes with a full pack. Remember, you will be carrying everything you need for a night in the woods (food, water, tent and sleeping bag) on your back. Pack light, but be prepared.
Due to overwhelming demand, the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure is planning additional backpacking clinics to get hikers ready for the Appalachian Trail. Smith is expected to speak at some of them. For more information, call (727) 576-4169.